Éttorre Bugatti (1881–1947)

Éttorre Bugatti is best known as the builder of some of Europe’s most prestigious performance cars, but his interests extended to other forms of engineering, and he succeeded in managing a business of relatively modest size that crossed national frontiers.

He was born in Milan, the elder son of Carlo Bugatti (1846-1940), designer of Art Nouveau furniture and jewellery, and grew up in a highly cultivated milieu. He worked for a time with Prinetti & Stucchi, manufacturers of cycles, tricycles, quadricycles, built the first Bugatti car, the Type 1, in 1898, and in 1900 raced a Prinetti & Stucchi quadricycle in the Targa Rignano, a race for motor vehicles of all types at Padova-Bovolenta. The Prinetti & Stucchi company was reorganised in 1901 when one of its partners Guilio Prinetti (1851-1908) left to become Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, but Bugatti remained, and his second prototype car was shown at the Milan Trade Fair that year. Subsequently Baron de Dietrich invited him to design cars at factory at Neiderbronn in Alsace, then part of the German Empire, and in 1906 Bugatti established a research centre at Illkirch-Graffenstaden in the southern suburbs of Strasburg (also, then, in the German Empire). From 1907 he was production director at the Deutz car factory at Cologne (Köln), but in 1909 returned to Alsace where he established his own company, Automobiles E Bugatti at Molsheim. During the First World War his company manufactured aircraft engines.

In the 1920s and 30s Bugatti had many successes in motor sport, winning the first Monaco Grand Prix in 1929 and securing three successive victories in the Le Mans twenty four hours race in 1937-1939. From 1932-33 Bugatti produced a total of 88 railcars for the French railways which were reckoned to be expensive on fuel, but remained in use until 1958. An example is preserved in the railway museum at Mulhouse. Bugatti’s factories were destroyed by bombing in the Second World War, and after the death of his son in an accident there was no one to take over the company after his death. The brand name was revived in the 1990s for an exclusive range of sports cars, and since 1998 has been owned by Volkswagen.

In all no more than 8000 Bugatti cars were manufactured, but probably a higher proportion survive than those of any other marque, and they are represented in most of Europe’s principal collections of historic vehicles.