Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Last Gasp Of Bugatti: The 1952 Type 101

Ettore was dead. 
It was August 26th, 1947. His last words at the Molsheim Estate were, "You must keep the factory going."

Ettore Bugatti, 1932

His son and heir apparent, Jean, was dead. His artistic genius brother Rembrandt had been dead for thirty years. 
All that was left was the name, and the tattered flag of the Gauloises Blue race colors of the House of Bugatti flapping in the dying breeze. Would it be enough?

The Bugatti factory in Molsheim, France was hallowed ground to the automotive racing and design world. Here, in the mid-1930's, Jean had built on his father Ettore's legacy by creating the Atlantic Type 57 coupe, which exemplified the pinnacle of luxury and speed. 


Bugatti Type 57C Atlantic


Then in 1936, in the evening of August 11th, Jean got up from the dinner table, told the family that he'd return in fifteen minutes, went on to the closed-off test track in the Grand Prix-winning Type 57 Tank race car and with a sacrificial yank of the wheel, swerved to avoid a bicyclist and crashed headfirst into a tree.

Jean Bugatti

The crash site, August 11th, 1936

Ettore was inconsolable. He had forbid his children from racing professionally, and now in a cruel twist, the scion of the company was dead at the wheel on an empty track.
The War came. The Nazi's took away his factory. After the War, the French government confiscated it, and it took Ettore until 1947 to win it back through the courts. He returned in May and had to be carried into the estate, depleted and scarred from the effort of legal battles, and he passed away just three months later.

And so it was left to his son Roland (who had been there that hot Summer evening at the test road when Jean was killed) and his long time friend and confidant, Pierre Marco to keep the company going. Marco was a wizard at engineering, but the real magic trick was going to be conjuring the funds needed to keep the dilapidated factory viable.

It was in 1952 that Bugatti finally announced to their clientele and clubs that they were open for business again. Some hefty Government contracts plus the judicial settlement gave them just enough leeway to roll the dice, which they did. They came up with their triple-digit series premiere, Type 101.


From SPORTS CARS, Trend Book 1956



Bugatti Type 101

The Type 101 is an interesting car. It fits right in with the oeuvre of the Jaguar and Aston Martin sedan style of the time,  but it doesn't exceed them, and that's the problem. They even recycled their pre-war Type 57 drive-train which, while ahead of it's time in 1936, wasn't cutting edge progress for 1952. Not even a one-off Virgil Exner coach-body could excite the sophisticates.  

1952 Ghia Exner Bugatti Type 101

And if you are Bugatti, the King of the Luxury Car Makers, you can't just do as well as the others, you have to blow them away, like they did with the Atlantic coupe, or the Bugatti Royale. You will never sell as many Jaguar look-a-likes as Jaguar will sell of their own cars, so you are already beaten.

1952 Aston Martin DB2

Advertisement For The 1952 Jaguar Sedan

The response was overwhelmingly... tepid. They also showed a humdrum sports car concept, and even marshaled their resources for one last race car effort, the Type 251. 



Gifted-designer Giaocchino Colombo created the car with a radical cross-mounted engine that was vulnerable to fuel problems, and it was unveiled at the 1956 French Grand Prix at Reim. It mercifully conked out just a third of the way through the race, thus ending the dream of Bugatti's return to Formula One racing.
The company drew up plans for a new car, the Type 451 which was to be a V12 GT sports car, but it never materialized. The Bugatti factory was sold to Hispano Suiza in 1966.
In an ironic turn of events, a German company, VW, took hold of the rights to the Bugatti name. Germany was the feared rivals of the Bugatti team, with their proud fleet of Silver Arrows, and now they owned the legacy. But fittingly, the resurrected Bugatti became the bench mark of luxury and speed, setting the record for the fastest production car on Earth, as well as the most expensive. 

Just like Ettore would have wanted. 


"Ettore Bugatti n'est plus, mais Bugatti continue", goes the saying around Molsheim, "Ettore Bugatti is no more, but Bugatti continues!"

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