Welcome to another edition of the French Deadly Sins. Over the next three days, we will focus on three sports/luxury cars made in France from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s that spelled doom for their makers. First up, going chronologically, let’s take a moment to remember the legendary Bugatti and explore the hallowed marque’s disastrous last model.
Bugatti Type 101: You Only Live Twice
Ettore Bugatti (1881-1947) was something of a character. Born and bred in Milan into an artistic family, he had a remarkable flair for all things mechanical but never had any formal training. By his mid-20s, he was employed by several automakers (Deutz, De Dietrich, Peugeot) to design light cars. He made enough money to establish his own factory in Molsheim, Alsace (then part of the German Empire) in 1910. Bugattis soon began being sought after: they were light, unusually well-made and eminently raceable. The border moved in 1919 and Bugatti, who had spent the war in Paris, became a French automaker. Bugattis were very successful in races throughout the ‘20s and business boomed.
Ettore’s son Jean, born in 1909, displayed a similar innate feel for machines, as well as a truly modern taste in automotive coachwork, which enabled him to create some of the firm’s most beautiful cars. This counterbalanced Ettore’s personal inclination towards late 19th Century styling. Jean Bugatti was essentially brought up on the factory grounds in Molsheim. He knew the whole operation backwards and forwards, from the foundry to the upholstery department, and spoke fluent Alsatian with the workers.
Ettore and Jean Bugatti were resourceful men, who found innovative solutions when faced with adversity. When Bugatti took a bath with the Type 41 “Royale” (only six chassis were made, three sold and none bought by royalty), they found a way to use the surplus engines. The car’s massive 12.7 litre SOHC straight eights were used to propel the highly successful Bugatti railcars (88 built), which kept Ettore busy in Paris.
Jean stayed in Alsace to develop the iconic Type 57 (1934-39), another major hit. Jean tried to modernize the chassis: he managed to impose hydraulic brakes on the Type 57 by 1938, but he was overruled by Ettore on a number of other fronts, especially the live front axle.
The business was not doing too well, though: the railcars, which were all built in Molsheim and Paris, kept Bugatti afloat, but the cars were not making enough money and racing was becoming too expensive. Ettore sought to diversify the marque’s productions, drawing up plans and registering patents to manufacture motorboats, airplanes and many non-automotive devices. Car-wise, the Type 64 was to be the new supercar for 1940. It sported with a 4.4 litre DOHC straight eight, a lightweight duralinox chassis and gullwing doors. Alas, fate decided to strike Bugatti with two consecutive blows in 1939.
On 11 August 1939, Jean Bugatti crashed the Type 57C race car that had just won Le Mans, swerving to avoid a drunk cyclist on the roads near Molsheim. The death of his son and heir severely affected Ettore Bugatti, but bigger events soon took over: France and Germany were at war three weeks later. Molsheim was kind of on the geographical frontline. Ettore moved all he could to Bordeaux, only to be forced to sell the factory to the Germans at half price. The Germans moved everything back and put Hans Trippel in charge of the factory, which churned out torpedoes and amphibious vehicles. Air raids and pillage left virtually nothing of the Molsheim factory by 1945. Ettore Bugatti, being an Italian citizen, was treated as a suspect by the French authorities after 1944. He fought to clear his name, suing the State to get his ruined factory back and eventually won the court case. Unfortunately, he had had a stroke in the meantime and died in August 1947, never having regained consciousness.
At the 1947 Paris Motor Show, a forward-looking Type 73 with Pourtout coachwork was presented. The new 1.5 litre 4-cyl. Bugatti might have been an interesting new beginning, but the brains behind it having passed on, the project was abandoned. The problem was that Bugatti’s bottom line was barely viable. The factory had to be rebuilt, new machine-tools had to be made, new labour had to be recruited and trained, etc. Bugatti executive director Pierre Marco was frankly saying in interviews that Bugatti cars had to wait until the moment was ripe. For now, Bugatti made parts for their pre-war railcars and Type 57s, along with many other subcontracting tasks.
Bugattis were sorely missed by many wealthy American, British and Swiss amateurs. So missed in fact that some even had their old cars re-bodied to fit the post-war fashion. Maybe this explains the 1949 order of six new Type 57 chassis. The order was soon countermanded and the parts disassembled. Bugatti sensed they needed a new model, not the pre-war Type 57. A new Bugatti was beginning to take shape by 1950, though it was rumoured to be a smaller car, perhaps in the 2-litre range.
For reasons unknown (probably a lack of time, money and talent), it was decided to update the old Type 57 rather than launch a completely new car. A first prototype Type 101 (chassis # 101500) was made and bizarrely styled by Louis Lepoix as a large four-door saloon. The car was extensively tested by various Bugatti executives and engineers through to 1951. The motoring press were elated: Bugatti was back!
The big saloon had been preceded by a coupé – spuriously labelled “Type 101,” it was in fact a pre-war chassis with the new car’s body and a Type 101 engine upgrade. This was done in a rush as a matter of expediency, so that the styling could be finalized. In October 1951, Bugatti returned to the Paris Auto Show with the Type 101, including the “faux 101” coupé and a genuine Type 101 convertible (#101501).
Motoring journalists started muting their enthusiasm. The new ‘50s pontoon style, executed by Bugatti’s usual coachbuilder Gangloff, made for a rather dowdy-looking car. Unfortunately, whoever drafted the new car’s shape did not have the artistic sensitivities of the Bugatti clan, nor the quirky daring of Lepoix.
The Type 101’s 3.25 litre DOHC straight eight produced a respectable 150 hp (or 190 hp as the Type 101C with a compressor), with power going to the rear wheels via a Cotal electromagnetic 4-speed gearbox. All the precious Bugatti design cues were still there. Even those that probably should have been chucked away, such as the solid front axle. And never mind that straight eights were beyond passé. It’s all vees these days, don’cha know.
The chassis itself was lowered somewhat compared to a Type 57, but still weighed in at over 1500kg body not included. The traditional steel/aluminum over wood-frame body, still the name of the game in early ’50s France, could add a good metric tonne to that.
The clientele was not exactly responsive. Bugatti had set their sights on making about 50 chassis in 1951-52, but only six were put together. Chassis # 101502 was sold and went to coachbuilder Guilloré, who adapted an old Delahaye design to fit the long chassis, making it the only decent-looking Type 101.
Two Gangloff convertibles were made. The second one (#101503) had a revamped nose, making it a bit less ugly, which was retrofitted to the first convertible and the coupé. Still, the Type 101 was being sold for FF 3.8 million in 1952, an astronomical price. A Packard 400 would be similar in terms of weight and power, but durability- and price-wise, the American car had the edge. A Talbot-Lago T26, a Ferrari or a Bentley could deliver much more for less money. A Jaguar XK120 could run rings around the Type 101 for under a third of the price. Bugatti managed to sell the bodied cars except the saloon and had two chassis left in stock by 1953: four sales in two years. The projected Type 101 saloon was ever made.
Chassis # 101504 was eventually bought by René Bolloré, the new husband of Ettore Bugatti’s young widow. He had it bodied in a peculiar shape, part aerodynamic model, part phallic symbol. An illustration of how difficult it was to clothe a ’30s-style chassis with a ’50s-style body, this 101C was executed by Antem in 1954. By then, the Type 101 was no longer on anyone’s radar and Bugatti had retreated to subcontracting work yet again. But the story was not quite finished yet.
Roland Bugatti, Ettore’s youngest son and a Bugatti company director, was keen on going back to motor racing. So a couple of Type 251 Formula One cars were made in view of tryouts for the 1956 season. It had a 2.5 litre DOHC straight-eight, devised by none other than Gioacchino Colombo, mounted transversally ahead of the rear wheels. The F1 car was a disaster too, beset with handling and engine troubles, and only managed to complete 18 laps before retiring at the 1956 French Grand Prix, its only race.
Bugatti focused on producing aircraft parts after 1956 and despite an occasional murmur, such as these Michelotti projects penned between 1955 and 1958 for a putative 4–cyl. Type 252, the marque was dead. In 1961, a large chunk of the Bugatti estate was broken up. Several family cars, including three Type 41 Royales and several prototypes, went off to various collectors, including the infamous Schlumpf brothers.
One Type 101C chassis (#101506) was still at the factory, as yet untouched. It ended up in the hands of Virgil Exner, who had it shortened by 46cm (18 in.) and bodied by Ghia in 1965. It was an unworthy end to the Molsheim Bugattis, though no worse than what Bugatti had done themselves. The Molsheim factory was absorbed by Hispano-Suiza in 1964 and continues making aircraft landing gears today as part of Safran.
The timing of the Type 101’s launch had been dreadful. In 1951 France, it was relatively easy to get a second-hand big car such as a Delahaye 135 or a Talbot-Lago for a relatively low price. Big French cars depreciated quickly because few people could afford the associated running costs, so there was a glut of recent second-hand cars: production after 1950 sank like a stone for Talbot, Delage, Delahaye, Salmson and, soon after, Hotchkiss. Not to mention foreign competitors, such as Ferrari or Pegaso, whose chassis were far more cutting edge than Molsheim’s.
Bugatti had entered the fray either five years too early or five years too late. Had Molsheim launched a genuinely new car in, say, 1955, the only competition would have been Facel-Vega. Likewise, the Type 101 could have made for a good transition model if it had been launched in 1946-47 with more inspired coachwork. Bugatti had a loyal following throughout the world before the war. It was allowed to evaporate when Bugatti went incommunicado for five years and then introduced a 15-year-old car.
Perhaps Ettore’s plans to aim at a smaller 4-cyl. should have been heeded. What is certainly true is that the Type 101 was a Deadly Sin of pride. Barely updating a 15-year-old design “because Ettore would have wanted it that way” was beyond complacent. The heavy chassis was too expensive, too outdated and too big. Also, whatever it should be, a Bugatti should be beautiful and elegant – something that the “factory” Type 101 certainly was not.
See you tomorrow for the second part of this series, as we wander into the ‘60s and pay a visit to the lovely Facel-Vega.