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The Greatest Sports Cars Ever

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Topics:  Bugatti, Ettore Bugatti

The Greatest Sports Cars Ever

Speed Smith
Spring 1952

When lovers of sports cars get together, the conversation usually turns to the question: which is the greatest sports car ever produced? Opinions differ. The Jaguar, the Morgan, the MG-TC, the Duesenberg, the Ferrari, and the Simca all have their fans. But there's very little argument about the greatest SERIES of sports cars ever produced, or who was the greatest sports car DESIGNER in motoring history.

All hands agree that the many Bugattis, over the years, represent an unbroken line of excellent sports cars, and that head and shoulders above all sports car designers stands that incredible Italian, Ettore Bugatti.

Bugatti was the perfect designer—a combination of artist and engineer. Although an Italian, he produced his cars in Alsace-Lorraine which, during his lifetime, was sometimes French an sometimes German. In almost fifty years, he turned out a total of less than ten thousand cars—not even a good day's output by Detroit standards.

The man who produced the world's greatest series of sports cars did not care for motor racing himself—yet his cars were the fastest of their time. In appearance and performance the Bugattis were the essence of modernity—yet he ran his little factory like an old-fashioned cigar-maker. For a motor car manufacturer, he was a poor man—but when it came to turn out a new model, he refused to be concerned with costs. At the height of the depression of the 1930's, Bugatti tooled up for a series of cars which cost $30,000 each!. That is, $30,000 for the chassis—the body cost another $10,000! Most Bugatti models cost—at the time of manufacture—from two to ten thousand dollars. And most of the customers will still swear, that whatever the cost, a "Bug" is worth every penny paid for it.

Now you'd think that a car inspiring this sort of devotion would be silent as the tomb, as restful as a feather bed, quick-starting and easy to manage. And that's where you're wrong. The average "Bug" can best be described as just plain ornery. Many Bugattis refuse to function at all in cold weather. Most "Bugs," far from being smooth-riding, would jar the fillings out of your teeth. They can be heard coming for miles away. Bugatti obviously a man with a withering contempt for women drivers, no "Bug" was designed to be driven by the average woman. In fact, the man who can make himself comfortable while driving a "Bug" can congratulate himself on having retained his youthful willowiness and suppleness of figure. The famous Bugatti clutch is an either all-in or all-out arrangement and most "Bugs" start with a harrowing jerk. Bugatti brakes are almost non-existent. As the master said, "I make cars to go—not to stop!"

Why then, do so many men love their ancient, battered Bugattis? One "Bug"-fancier puts it this way: "Suppose you had a horse that could out-run Equipoise any day in the week? Would you complain if he bit you now and then?

And that's exactly what the Bugatti is—a fussy, high-strung, nervous thoroughbred that can outrun anything on wheels. Most 15-year old Bugattis can cover any distance from one mile to 500 miles faster than any Detroit-produced 1951 model on the market. Doddering, run of the mill "Bugs" can still hit between 130 and 150 m.p.h. and Type 35 can hit 200 without stretching it!

In 1898,17-year-old Ettore Bugatti was excited by the newest idea of the moment—the gasoline driven automobile. He apprenticed himself to a Milan machinist and the next year built his first car—a two-engined tricycle. When the firm to which he was apprenticed abandoned the motor car field, he followed this up with two more designs. The Master was without a studio. But backed by two wealthy Italians, he produced, single-handedly, a car that attained a speed of 40 miles per hour—an excellent speed for that time. He was offered a position with the De Dietrich Manufacturing Company in Alsace, then German territory. Here he spent the rest of his working life. After seven years with two other Alsace firms, he rented a piece of property in Molheim and began to make cars under the famous Bugatti trademark. His son, Roland, still runs that same factory today.

In 1911, fame came to Ettore Bugatti when his tiny four-cylinder,660-pound car won the Grande Prix de France, beating monsters many times its size. From that day on, Bugatti had no trouble selling his automobiles.

During the 1920's and 30's, Bugatti swept all before them at the great European track and road races. Bugattis' victories were largely the result of bucking the the theory that only heavy cars could hold the road—his were light as a feather—and oh, so very fast! It is hard to chronicle the racing successes of the "Bug" for Bugattis have won more road races than any other car ever built. When it comes to speed, Bugattis are designed with such mathematical perfection that they run as if they were a part of the road itself. Their steering apparatus is acknowledged to be the most sensitive ever designed and constructed.

Bugatti never tried for the mass-market, nor was he ever tempted by it. Not that you had to be a millionaire to own a "Bug"—some Bugattis sold, in the United States, for less than $2,000. It was simply that you had to be a very special sort of person to want a "Bug." Bugatti, it can be repeated, was an artist—he sought motorized perfection and was distinctly uninterested in the tastes of run-of-the-mine people.

World War II wrote finis to the production of "Bugs." The Germans had taken over the Bugatti factory. After the liberation it was restored to the owner. For two years, Bugatti filled his drawing board with plans for new models, new ideas and radical departures in automobile design. In the summer of 1947, he was still at his drawing board, for everything had to be perfectly planned before he would go into production. Then one August evening—death came to him, quietly and gently as he sat hunched over his newest designs.

Nobody has been able to carry on his work. The Bugatti factory is still in operation—but it produces not "Bugs" but agricultural implements. It is doubtful that there will ever be a new line of "Bugs"—they are part of automotive history now.


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