Ettore Bugatti was barely out of his 20s when he created his first ‘supercar’, a five-liter, chain-drive road-racer. Seven are known to have been built during 1908-1912, of which Black Bess, above, is the most original of the three survivors. We road-tested it in issue 68.
Best-known of all the pre-war Bugattis is the Type 35, a grand prix car that could be driven on the road. Introduced in 1924 with a 2.0-liter straight eight, it evolved into the 2.3-liter ‘blown’ Type 35B by the time production ended in 1931, superseded by the twin-cam Type 51.
Bugatti made an unsuccessful attempt to take the Type 35 to another level by shoehorning two supercharged straight eights side-by-side in the same chassis and gearing them together. Only one Type 45 was built; the engines gave 250bhp but their weight compromised handling.
One of the few pre-war Bugattis not to sport the traditional horse-shoe radiator, the Type 53 of 1931 was radical in its use of four-wheel drive – the first 4WD race car since the 1903 Spyker. Powered by a blown 4.9-liter straight eight, the Type 53 was fast but complex. Three were built.
In his struggle to counter the might of the German and Italian state-backed race teams, Bugatti produced the Type 54 in 1931-32. It had the big 4.9-liter blown ‘eight’ and was heavy, but 54s finished first and second in the 1933 German GP, driven by Varzi and Czaykowski.
Most handsome of all the pre-war Bugatti roadsters, the Type 55 was an amalgam of Type 54 GP car chassis with Type 51 twin-cam engine and, usually, Jean Bugatti-styled coachwork. With just 38 examples built, it was considerably rarer than its closest rival, the Alfa 8C.
If the Type 55 was the most handsome roadster, the most dramatic of all Bugattis was the Art Deco-style Type 57S and its supercharged sibling, the 57SC. Passing the rear axle through rather than under the chassis helped create a low, sleek look. Forty were made, 1936-38.
Radially spoked wire wheels distinguished Bugatti’s last traditionally styled Grand Prix car, which featured a 3.3-liter blown ‘eight’ that gave 250bhp. Six or seven cars were made during 1933-36; they were quick but marked Bugatti’s last hurrah as a works entry in major races.
The Bugatti revival came in 1991 when entrepreneur Romano Artioli launched the EB110 GT, a Gandini-styled supercar with a four-turbo V12 that gave a top speed of 212mph. The 1992 SS (for Supersport) version, above, was lighter and even faster, at 216mph.
Bugatti went bankrupt in 1995 and was rescued by VW, who saw the value of a ‘halo’ model that would be the fastest road car ever made. The 1001bhp Veyron was launched in 2005 and achieved as much notoriety for its price of €1.3 million as for its 253mph maximum speed.