Bugatti – Where to Now?

As well as designing and making elegant and expensive – but a little out dated – road going sports cars, racing cars and the gigantic but fabulous ‘Royale’ intended for kings and heads of government, Bugatti considered at least three world-record-breaking projects in the 1930s. The intention was to set new records on road, rail and in the air. The plan was for an advanced aircraft, the 100P, a high-speed railcar called the ‘Autorail’ and a 1000hp single seat record car.

Ettore Bugatti, and more particularly his son Jean (also a talented designer), had hoped to get French government funding for the three projects but, having decided to fund the Autorail themselves, the result was just a contract, in August 1938, with the French Air Ministry for building the airplane. Unfortunately, it was thought that the road car was not in tune with French national ‘culture’. Official support was declined and so the car project was abandoned.

The single seat car was to have used three 4.9-liter supercharged Type 50B engines, power was expected to be about 1000hp, the drive from the front mounted engines was taken by a short prop-shaft through a double step up gear set to a rear mounted gearbox integral with the rear axle casing. At the time, 1936, when these two projects (air speed and road speed) were conceived, the target for one-kilometer and one-mile records for cars on a public road was 400 km/h or 250 mph. This 400 km/h target was achieved, famously, by Bernd Rosemeyer driving a 6.0-liter Auto Union on the Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn on 25 October 1937. The 1000 horsepower Bugatti was intended to take these records to 450 km/h!

Last year whilst researching Bugatti Type 59 images using a variety of websites on the Internet, I came across a very poor quality but intriguing image of a drawing that was attributed to Jean Bugatti. It showed side view and plan sketches of a land speed record car that appeared to have three engines within a dramatically streamlined body. I knew nothing about this proposed French competitor to the Auto Union, but I thought it would be interesting to imagine how this remarkable project might have looked.

The Bugatti Trust has some basic information about this proposed record-breaking car. The chassis would have been enormous, the wheelbase was no less than five meters with a track width of 2.3 meters, and weight was estimated as between 1,800 and 2,000 kg.

The Jean Bugatti sketch appears to date from early 1937 and it is thought that it was part of a submission to the French government for funding for the three record-breaking projects. Using the poor quality sketch of the car as a basis for a set of illustrations, I was surprised to discover that a side view of a type 50B engine, when reduced to the same scale as the sketch, fit perfectly into the chassis, as did a set of Type 59 wheels and tires. They fit within the elegant wheel fairings allowing for a steering lock of around 18 degrees.

Bugatti 450km/h single seat speed-record car visions by Peter Stevens

This all suggests that, although the original Jean Bugatti sketch was little more than a ‘back of an envelope’ doodle, Jean had an excellent grasp of the size and proportion of the mechanical elements of Bugatti cars. There are some suggestions that Jean was considering monocoque construction for the chassis, but this would have been contrary to all accepted practice at Molsheim and would have created difficulties in mounting the three engines. The chassis structure of the successful Type 59 Grand Prix cars would have been a much better understood technology in 1938.

By overlaying various elements of the original sketch, a side view concept of how the chassis and engines could have appeared and an illustration of the aerodynamically sophisticated body, it was possible to build up an idea of how this spectacular machine might have looked in the late 1930s. Sadly the government money was not made available to Ettore Bugatti and his highly creative son Jean and we therefore can only imagine how thrilling this 450 km/h Bugatti would have been.

Bugatti 450km/h single seat speed-record car illustration by Peter Stevens

The railcar was more successful. The Bugatti ‘Autorail’ made its debut in 1934 on the Paris-Deauville route, continuing a short distance beyond to the resort town of Cabourg on the English Channel. The 134-mile (214 km) trip took just two hours, though the Bugatti railcar was capable of considerably more speed than this 67 mph (107 km/h) average might suggest.

In early tests between Paris and Chartres, Jean Bugatti was asked to keep it below 90 km/h (56 mph) because of track conditions. On his first test, he went 125 km/h (78 mph). Later, on a stretch of straight track outside Le Mans the Bugatti railcar set a world speed record of 173 km/h (107 mph), later to rise to 196 km/h (122 mph). Bugatti built a total of 86 railcars between 1933 and 1938, which, in regular service, cruised at around 90 mph.

In August of this year, a small group of American enthusiasts successfully flew a replica of the 100P aircraft. The 100P was a truly beautiful machine that incorporated many advanced features. Originally a collaboration between Ettore Bugatti and Belgian engineer Louis de Monge, the original 1937 Bugatti 100P is considered by many to be one of the most technologically advanced airplanes of the era.

The 100P featured cutting-edge aerodynamics with forward swept wings, a zero-drag cooling system, and computer-directed flight controls – all predating the development of the best Allied Fighters of World War II. It was powered by two 4.7-liter, 450 hp, eight-cylinder Bugatti engines derived from those in the type 50B race car; these engines were squeezed into a very narrow fuselage, it was designed to reach speeds approaching 500mph (800 km/h), a feat previously only achieved by aircraft with twice the horsepower.

The 100P was also much more compact than most aircraft of the era, with a wingspan of only 27 feet (12.7 meters) and an overall length of approximately 25 feet (11.8 meters), it weighed just 1,400 kg. In June 1940, Bugatti stopped work on the 100P and hid the plane to prevent its discovery by the German military; it was taken out into the country and hidden in a barn on Bugatti’s Ermeronville Castle estate 30 miles (50 km) northeast of Paris. Although the plane survived the war, it was left in very poor condition, no longer fit for flying. Amazingly the original aircraft still survives; the remains are kept at the Air Venture Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

This leaves us with a great looking, futuristic set of 1930s machines, presenting the question of what Bugatti should now be working on. Logic suggests that if we consider the Veyron to be the end of the line for multi-cylinder, extreme horsepower, extravagant hyper-cars, the future must lie somewhere else. Perhaps a car that expresses ultimate efficiency, lightweight and elegant proportions like the P100?

It appears, however, that we will actually get a production version of the Vision Gran Turismo concept shown at the Frankfurt auto show earlier this year — a wasted opportunity?


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