Ettore Bugatti


BY the death of Ettore Bugatti, which was recorded in these columns in October, the motoring world has lost one of its most picturesque, best known and yet most enigmatic personalities. Of his picturesqueness and his fame a great deal has been said and written during Bugatti’s lifetime ; the aspect of his career which since his death most urgently requires attention is perhaps the enigma of his long comparative obscurity.

In this article, which serves as an obituary to one of the greatest automobile engineers of all time, our inimitable contributor introduces some most absorbing controversy.—Ed.

I have seen it stated recently, in usually well-informed quarters, that in 1914 the Bugatti was one of the best known sports cars in this country. It is a statement, however, which very greatly surprises me. I do not know how many Bugatti cars were imported into this country before the first World War, but I should be surprised to find that it in any way approached a sufficient number to make the car in any sense well known to the general run of motorists. Early Bugattis may have been thoroughly appreciated by the cognoscenti, but I doubt whether the marque was any more widely known in 1914 than is, shall we say, the Tatra in 1948.

Now the curious part about this is that while other sturdy individualists without powerful financial backing such as Louis Renault and Louis Delage, to take but two examples, became famous almost overnight, Ettore Bugatti, who had at least as much individuality and genius as either of them, and who started designing, if not himself actually manufacturing, motor cars at the very beginning of the century, should have had to wait for about twenty years before his fame began to equal theirs. And the answer to the riddle presumably is that while Bugatti was early enough in the field, he was not in the field in France ; and that in marked contrast to Renault and Delage, his activities in the field of racing before 1914, as far as his own products were concerned, were sporadic and not markedly successful. After 1919 Bugatti was not only a French motor manufacturer but an outstanding French manufacturer of racing cars ; and it is from this period that I should have dated his fame.

But if it was since 1919 that he reaped the major part of his harvest, it was perhaps before that date that his chief contribution was made to the advancement of motor car design. Just how great that contribution was would not at present appear to be fully established. Early surviving examples of Bugatti’s admitted work show clearly that he was at least one of the earliest designers who was prepared to entrust the single overhead camshaft type of engine to the hands of the public. How far was he responsible for the racing prototypes of this design ?

They consist, notably, of the 120-h.p. Isotta-Fraschini of 1905, the small 4-cylinder 1,200-c.c. voiturette racer of the same marque which appeared in 1908, and the Tipo S.61 Havannah Grand Prix F.I.A.T. of the following year. Now the connection, if any, of Bugatti with these designs remains somewhat ill-defined. Bugatti was a native of Milan and very soon after the turn of the century he was employed as a designer by De Dietrich, which was closely associated with Isotta-Fraschini, also of Milan. Bugatti, therefore, can scarcely have been a stranger to the development of the Isotta ; the question, however, which remains is whether Isotta-Fraschini owed the overhead camshaft design to Bugatti, or whether Bugatti owed what he afterwards developed so successfully to Isotta-Fraschini.

Again, with regard to the Tipo S.61 F.I.A.T., it is clear that, as early as 1901, E E.C. Mathis was connected with De Dietrich, since he drove one of these cars in the touring class of the Paris-Berlin race. It is also clear that, by 1905, Mathis and Bugatti were in partnership, for in that year their 60-h.p. Mathis-Bugatti competed for the Herkomer Trophy. Further, it appears that Mathis was the Strasbourg agent for F.I.A.T., as well as De Dietrich (proof of which may be obtained by consulting the Michelin Guide to Germany of appropriate date), and it has even been suggested that the early Bugatti cars were made, at Mathis’ suggestion, as sort of scaled-down models of the Tipo S.61. If so, was Bugatti copying in miniature his own design or somebody else’s ? And if the latter, what relation, if any, did he bear to the designer of the earlier, and somewhat similar, Isotta-Fraschini engines ? It almost seems that if Bugatti was not the designer of all these single overhead camshaft engines, they must have been created, like the poems of Homer, by another designer of the same name.

The next major step in the design of racing engines was the provision of two overhead camshafts instead of one, but this was a step for which not Bugatti, but Peugeot and the Swiss engineer Henry were responsible. While the engine that enabled Georges Boillot to win the 1912 Grand Prix was being designed, Bugatti was making a very different contribution to the fame of Peugeot, in the shape of the Baby Bugatti, which afterwards became the Baby Peugeot. This had two camshafts all right, but it kept them in the crankcase, and instead of overhead valves, had side valves in a “T” head. Indeed, it is interesting to note that Bugatti himself came late and with apparent reluctance to the dual overhead camshaft engine. The Henry design spread from Peugeot to Sunbeam, Henry himself moved from Peugeot to Ballot, other designers took their cue independently from him, and by the early 1920’s the design was almost universal for racing engines—with the exception of those designed by Bugatti, which continued to use a single camshaft and vertical valves. It is this, therefore, which must be regarded as the typically Bugatti design, and it is interesting to note that advanced as it was at the time of the early admitted-Bugatti products, it was really out of date by the time that the success of the Brescia model finally set the seal on Bugatti’s fame.

Before considering other aspects of Bugatti’s contribution to the design of high-efficiency engines, it is necessary to revert to the entirely different example of his creative genius represented by the Baby Peugeot. The very small engine of simple design is really astonishingly well fitted for the job for which it was intended, and the enigma in this case consists in the question as to why it was not in fact more successful. Mass production, one imagines, would hardly have suited Bugatti’s temperament, but Peugeot, one would have thought, had the resources to occupy the place that was actually filled more notably in France by the 5 C.V. Citroen and in England by the Austin Seven ; and armed with Bugatti’s design, Peugeot had the best part of ten years’ start.

Whatever may have been his views about mass production, Bugatti shared one idiosyncrasy with the late Henry Ford, and that was his aversion to the 6-cylinder engine. As far as I know, no 6-cylinder design ever emanated from Molsheim, any more than it did after the very early days from Detroit. Bugatti, however, did not in consequence remain so long devoted to four cylinders as did the Wizard of Willow Rouge. As early as 1913, in his search for perfect balance, more efficient cooling and the virtual elimination of the flywheel, all highly desirable contributory elements in the efficient attainment of high crankshaft speeds, Bugatti had constructed his first straight-eight engine, with a bore and stroke of 68 by 100 mm. (2,905 c.c.). (The dimensions, it will be noted, are identical with those of the 4-cylinder pre-Brescia model which was called, I believe, Type 22; but at the risk of incurring the combined censure of the whole membership of the Bugatti Owners’ Club, I must confess to a constitutional inability to remember one Bugatti type number from another. Perhaps at a later date the Editor will provide me with a complete table, from number one to wherever we’ve got to, setting out the salient characteristics of each, whereupon I will undertake to preserve it as a memoria technica !) However, to return to the straight-eight of 1918, I do not seek to claim any absolute priority for it in point of time, since it was preceded by the straight-eight C.G.V..of 1902 and the straight-eight Weigel of 1907. But whereas these were in the nature of “sports,” without obvious forebears or legitimate descendants, the 1913 Bugatti engine was the direct ancestor of practically every other straight-eight ever built. This remarkable result came about in this way. Bugatti’s experiments with the 8-litre engine were sufficiently successful that at the beginning of the Kaiser War he produced a design for an aero engine in the shape of a straight-eight with a bore and stroke of 120 by 160 mm. (14,476 c.c.), which was built in France under the direction of M. Henry and in the United States by Duesenberg ; and it was so successful that both the Ballots and the Duesenbergs designed for the 1919 Indianapolis race had straight-eight engines. In a short time it had become the rage ; and it is curious that twenty years later Bugatti was again one of its very few remaining exponents. The design, incidentally, had one marked peculiarity for while the cranks, were arranged on the 4-4 principle, one set was at 90 degrees to the other and the firing order was 1, 5, 2, 6, 3, 7, 4, 8.

By 1914, therefore, Bugatti, blazing a lone trail and still comparatively little known to the general public, had evolved the straight-eight, overhead-camshaft engine which was to render him so famous during the next decade. By the end of it, however, the most successful Grand Prix racing cars, while using his eight cylinders in line, had added to them M. Henry’s two camshafts, and a supercharger. Bugatti, however, took as unkindly to the latter as he did to the former. Its development had been due to the tentative efforts of the Sizaires and Marc Birkigt in France, but its first practical application was left to Mercedes in Germany and Fiat in Italy.

Finally, a word must be said about Bugatti as a stylist. I have recently seen it stated that the beauty of a Brescia Bugatti is practically breath-taking. Personally, I prefer “Black Bess.” Be that as it may, however, few, I think, will deny that the barrel-bodied Bugattis which ran in the French Grand Prix at Strasbourg in 1922 could lay a very serious claim to being regarded as the ugliest. racing cars yet built. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that they might be considered the ugliest racing cars ever built, were it not for the fact that the beetle-backed Bugattis which appeared at Tours the next year were if anything even uglier. And then, to continue the entomological simile, like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, came the first of the “blue Bugs”—the Grand Prix Bugatti of 1924. And the blue Bug, in my opinion, comes at least remarkably close to being not only the most beautiful racing car, but the most beautiful motor car of any sort ever built. When I first saw one, I remember, I disliked the cast aluminium wheels ; once accustomed to them, however, one saw them as the crowning glory of a design that breathed balance in every line. Analysed, one of its most important features seemed to be the position of the radiator, set well back behind the front axle, a fact which is, I am sure, well in the forefront, at the present time, of the best minds in Derby and elsewhere. However, be that as it may, I find that I have only to compare Ettore Bugatti’s designs for racing cars in 1922 and 1923 with those for 1924, to be able to study the details of the most advanced styles for 1948 with something almost akin to hope.