Is there a more exotic auto marquee than Bugatti? Just the name evokes racing heroics, like Raymond Mays losing a rear wheel at the Shelsley-Walsh Mountain Race in 1924, then skidding to a stop inches from a sheer drop. It brings up images of Art Deco styling, exposed rivets, wooden steering wheels, and supercharged straight-eight engines.
Bugattis, the product of a talented Italian family resident in France, were produced from 1909 to a last gasp in the 1950s. Though the company was revived in modern times, and now produces 200-mph-plus supercars under Volkswagen’s ownership, it’s the classic years—particularly the 1920s and 1930s—that continue to intrigue.
Like Ford and Porsche, Bugatti is a family story, in this case extending through four generations. That legacy, celebrating not only the cars but also the furniture, sculpture and paintings produced by other family members, is the focus of “The Art of Bugatti,” an exhibition at the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, California through March 31.
The patriarch, Carlo, was educated at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and built exquisite, hand-crafted furniture. His designs influenced son Ettore, who built his first car (a tricycle) in 1899, then founded his own car company in 1909. His brother, Rembrandt, a talented sculptor, took his own life during World War I. Another family tragedy was the death of Ettore’s son, brilliant designer Jean Bugatti, testing the Type 57C in 1939. Ettore’s daughter, Lidia, was an artist, and his daughter L’Ebe, wrote the family’s story.
All these family members are represented in the exhibit, as are some fascinating, rarely seen pages from the company’s history. Peter Mullin, an avid collector of French cars and founder of the museum, points to the exhibit's Bugatti 100P as an interesting story. Not another car, this one’s an airplane that never flew. Peter Mullin:
It was created by Bugatti in 1939, just after the war started. It was intended to be a breakthrough in aeronautical engineering that could crash through the 500-mph speed record. The plane was dismantled and hidden when the Germans invaded so the Axis wouldn’t get access to its advanced ideas. By the end of the war, the plane was no longer airworthy, and it never did fly. The original is too fragile to be moved, and resides at the AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Meanwhile, a group of pilots, headed by Scott Wilson, are working to build a flying replica, with almost religious attention to detail. The objective is to resolve an age-old question as to whether Bugatti’s design will fly.
I’m reminded of Howard Hughes’ “Spruce Goose,” which flew once, and Gustave Whitehead’s plane of 1901, which supporters claim flew before the Wright Brothers. There’s a replica of that one (which flew!), but, alas, no photographs of the event. The pilots behind the reborn 100P are confident.
Another fabulous tale: The Bugatti in the lake. Again, Peter Mullin:
It lay on its side 130 feet down on the bottom of Lago Maggiore in Italy for more than 70 years, since 1935. The story goes that “The Lady of the Lake,” a 1925 Type 22 Brescia, was impounded by Swiss customs officials when the gentleman who was driving it to Switzerland couldn’t pay the duty on it. Under Swiss law, it had to be destroyed. The officials meant to lower it down on a 35-foot chain and later retrieve it—a free Bugatti!—but the chain broke and the car fell into really deep water. It was found by divers in 1967, and finally brought up in 2009. The side that was buried in the mud is well preserved—there was even air in the tires—but the other side is a skeleton. We are presenting it untouched; to do otherwise would destroy its soul and patina. A restoration won’t happen on my watch.
There are plenty of other great stories. Visitors will be able to see Mullin’s Type 64, one of three built in a project that was stillborn when Jean Bugatti died. Mullin commissioned a body, complete with dramatic “butterfly doors,” from drawings in the Bugatti archives. In the exhibit, the finished body hangs suspended over the restored chassis—a work of art in itself.
“I drove it and it was great,” Mullin said. “It’s lightweight, easy to drive, and handles like a Type 57.” And speaking of the Type 57, one last story: Mullin owns one of only two ultra-streamlined Type 57SC Atlantics. The only other survivor is owned by Ralph Lauren. The third one reportedly lost a battle with a speeding train. Bugattis are that kind of car, and the stories are endless.
The Mullin Automotive Museum, opened in 2010, is on Emerson Avenue in Oxnard, California (in a building formerly housing the legendary Otis Chandler collection). Read more here. And here's video of the Lago Maggiore Bugatti, brought up in 2009: