Editor: Jaap Horst
Surfing recently, I encountered a past issue of the Bugatti Revue that surveyed readers for the "Best Bugatti Ever". Since I've been an auto enthusiast all of my life and a Bugatti admirer for some years now, I was intrigued. Knowing that all of Ettore Bugatti's automobiles were the epitome of engineering, I hoped that there was some consideration of style, and being a designer, I'd like to have a say.
My experience with Bugattis has been rather minimal, I must admit, but also much appreciative. I've seen only one in real life -- an immaculate Type 35 -- but I feel like they're a part of my life and I feel the better for it. And I enjoy reading everyone else's reverence for this marque.
Naturally, I expected the Type 41 ('Royale') to have come first. It is the most famous and most valuable, and with its variety of body styles, there should be beauty for everyone. But, alas, it did not even make the top 10. And, of course, the EB 110 should not have made the list because it is not a true Bugatti. But it did. Something must be afoot.
But then there's history to consider, and Bugatti has made a lot of history. When a magazine runs a survey early in its life, it is more likely to attract the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable readers. And fortunately, it seems that the majority of the few respondents seemed to actually know something about the subject matter because their favourite is the Type 35.
The Type 35 is a racing Bugatti that has won more races than any other car -- ever. It is often referred to as "The" Bugatti, and I'd hesitate to argue. It was a major milestone in the technology of the day, with its eight spoke lightweight aluminium alloy wheels with built-in brake drums, hollow front axle, fully enveloping body, and slab sided two litre, eight cylinder, sometimes supercharged engine. And though its tyres were not initially up to the task, it eventually won thousands of races. How many other cars were like that?
My personal experience with a Type 35 was sudden and uncelebrated. I was at a classic car show in a country park, and there it was, sitting all alone and wonderfully not roped off. I probably could have sat in it. I told my companions about the significance of this little, seemingly humble automobile, and I wanted to jump up and shout to everyone within a mile of "my discovery". But, that probably would not have been appreciated, so I took my pictures, left my fingerprints and walked on, remembering that at last I had seen (and touched) a real Bugatti. I highly recommend that everyone who likes automobiles attend all such shows in their area of the world. I am very thankful that we have so many here in Canada.
Styling-wise, like most race cars, the body of the Type 35 is minimal. Beginning with its horseshoe grill, probably the most aerodynamic shape of grill, the body simply widens to accommodate driver and mechanic, as it needs to, and tapers to a point. The Bugatti Blue bodywork extends down below the chassis, and below and ahead of the radiator, giving the car a single shape with just the wheels sticking out of the sides. Nothing more is needed and it performs its function well. Regarding style, there is nothing more to say about it.
Performance also factored greatly in the selection of the second Best Bugatti, but now, so did some style. Here, we have a race car turned sports car: the Type 55. To replace the aging Type 43 sports car, Jean took a Type 54 chassis, added the Type 51 double overhead cam motor (which was based on the Type 35 single overhead cam engine), and enhanced the Type 43 body to create the Type 55 sports car. It sounds so simple.
Like the Type 35, the styling begins simply and minimally at the radiator, but after the cockpit, tapers downward rather than inward at the back. This makes it much easier to attach a spare tyre, and also provides a wonderful surface for adding a common Bugatti styling theme: oval splotches of colour in amongst a background of basic black. The Type 55 also has wonderfully swoopy running boards joining the wheel fenders with unbroken curves. Altogether, the Type 55 is a very tight and smart design -- ideal for a sports car.
These splotches of colour, usually in yellow or red, along with the swoopy running boards, are hallmarks of Bugatti style and design on his cars for the street. They've appeared many times on many models over many years. But when it comes to styling, nothing more can be said than for the next car -- the absolute epitome of Bugatti styling.
Yes, I'm referring to the Type 57 Atlantic. Here we have a car where the son of Ettore Bugatti, Jean, saw no limit to car design. After several years of being a major, positive influence to the direction of Bugatti, Jean finally designed a car that looked very different.
Though the Type 57 could be ordered without a body and sent to a buyer's "preferred" coachbuilder, there was no need as the factory offered a choice of four body styles. Three of them were conventional Bugatti body styles seen before, but the last was probably the sportiest shape of automobile up to then and for the next 30 years.
Here, Jean designed a two seater coupe named the 'Atalante'. He followed this with a much lower chassis, calling it the Type 57S, and shortly after added a pointed radiator. Later, he created a lightweight Aérolithe body and called it the 'Atlantic'. Along the way, supercharging gave it the performance to match its looks. And then, Jean worked on a special Type 57 that was referred to as "The Automobile of Monsieur Jean", but this car was first shown publicly in a museum rather than at an auto show.
Jean lost his life in a fatal crash while test driving one of his creations. A war one month after his death finally ended any natural progression to the Bugatti line of automotive sculptures -- the Type 57 was the last of the real Bugattis. After the war, Ettore couldn't quite pick up where he and his son had left off, and died a very short time later. One can't help but wonder what would have come next if things were different. (Heavy sigh.)
The Atlantic occupies 3rd place in this Best Bugatti competition, and the Atalante occupies 5th. Their combined votes would have put them in 1st place, though many voters would probably have preferred them to be considered separately, as they were, even though some might assume that those who voted 'Atalante' really meant 'Atlantic'. However, one is a semi-natural progression of the other, and I will discuss them both together.
The other Type 57 body styles include the 4 door 'Galibier', the 2 door 'Ventoux' (carrying on the beauty of the Types 46 & 50), and the convertible 'Stelvio'. All of these were beautiful and topical for the period, but not exceptional in style like the Atalante and Atlantic, especially when compared to another design of the day, the almost unbelievable Pierce- Arrow Silver Arrow.
With the Atalante, Jean tried to unite the shapes of the bonnet, cabin, boot and wheel fenders without actually blending them together into one shape. Either he didn't want one shape or it didn't occur to him -- somehow, I expect that he'd have succeeded in doing so if he tried. Nonetheless, his result was a sculpture deserving respect on its own, even though he did away with something that had been done so well with Bugattis up to then.
The Atalante has no running board. Stating that alone should raise many cheers and congratulations, but Bugatti running boards have always been a source of grand style and attractiveness. Some would sweep down from the front wheel in one long curve that ended at the rear wheel with no horizontal span, thus requiring the side doors to be hinged at the rear. Others would sweep back up at the rear in one curve from front to back. And at least one other would be completely horizontal between the wheels.
In removing the running board, there is now no unifying element between the front and rear wheel fenders, and the fenders now run the risk of looking like pontoons stuck to the sides of the body. But at least without having to conform to the width of a functional running board, the wheel fenders can be much narrower. A big down side of this is the necessity of a big, ugly piece of chrome at the front of the rear fenders to protect against stone chips. At the front, instead of blending the front fenders with the bonnet, Jean filled the gap with horizontal elements and sat the headlights on top. This fortunately eliminated the interruption of a headlight bar that normally spanned the classic Bugatti radiator, but added a seemingly incongruous gap in the body across the front of the car. The radiator now appears to be set back in the body even though it's still in the same location where it's always been. Fortunately, some incongruities are okay.
Over time, the headlights sank into the gap filler and ran down the front. More than ten years later someone named William Lyons would do the same thing with the headlights and wheel fenders on the much revered Jaguar XK120 and receive far more respect. (In fact, the Type 101 after the war looks almost identical to the XK120.) The only essential difference is the grill, and it's difficult to imagine a grill better than that of a Bugatti. I suspect that a much higher production run and advertising budget helped. Eventually, the headlights would stick well forward of the body and compete with the optional bumpers to be the leading element. On the Atlantic, the lights would be put back on top.
With the much lower chassis of the 'S' version of the Type 57, the Atalante soon received an almost blasphemously new shape of radiator. The top remained oval, but without any chassis beneath the radiator, the bottom no longer needed to be flat, so Jean decided to have it come to a point. Additionally, like on many competing radiators, a crease appeared down the middle, and the sides were folded back. Very quickly, this new V-shaped radiator would become the most recognized feature of the favoured Atalantes and Atlantics.
Further back, the bonnet received creases along its upper edges beginning just aft of the round radiator, and these creases continue up The A-pillars. This is an unfortunate necessity of using flat glass. Minimizing the width of the pillar between the windscreen and side glass dictates a sharp change in direction, and Jean decided on the sharpest: a crease. The rear window, however, in the days before we cared about what was behind us, could be small, and the resulting C-pillars could be wide and round, as they are. On the Atlantic, the windscreen was split into two panels, allowing a bend in the middle, a lessening of the sharpness of the A-pillars, and an improvement in aerodynamics.
Below these creases are some very flat body panels that seem to be a drastic contrast to the rest of the car, especially the top and rear of the cabin. On the one hand, this could be a blatant choice of style -- on the other, a flat window needs a flat door to slide into. Later, with the Atlantic, Jean will vary the straightness of the door and window edges to somewhat offset the flatness, and the result will require a split side window so that at least some of it can slide down into the door.
But the rest of the car seems to be a bunch of wonderful roundness. The top and rear of the cabin are especially round, where they can be, and the boot, though initially distinctly separate from the rear wheel fenders, is later combined with the rear wheel fenders and shaped to look like a completely different component of the car attached to the rear of the cabin. Again, we have a little incongruity, but again, it seems to be okay. On the Atlantic, Jean would make a big improvement by tying the boot into the cabin instead of the rear wheel fenders, and end up with a single curve from the top of the windscreen to the absolute rear of the car: a fast back. Fast backs are the best way to finish a car, both aerodynamically and aesthetically.
One last design element worth mentioning on these cars is the shallow fin that appears on the wheel fenders and cabin of the Atlantic. I can't really agree that these are an improvement over the smoothness of the Atalante -- they look more like seams or attachment points for spot welding. And this extravagance contradicts the overall impression that these designs make: that these designs seem to be shapes with a minimum of body surface and material. Straight lines are used where they're needed, and curves are used where they fit to envelop four wheels, an engine, two occupants, a spare tyre, and maybe, some luggage. What else is needed? But the headlights, radiator, creases, roundness, fastback, and even the fins, all conspire to make the Atalante and Atlantic (chronologically) the very best of Bugatti. In terms of styling, these Bugattis should have come first.
A distant fourth best Bugatti is the modern Type 110. I'm glad that it's distant but surprised that it made the list at all because it was not designed by Ettore or Jean Bugatti and, therefore, cannot be considered to be a true Bugatti. In fact, it seems to be more properly referred to as the EB110. This would seem to indicate that not all voters knew what Bugatti once was -- a pity.
However, I can appreciate their point of view. I too have grown up with modern sports cars, and my preference in automotive styling is the true one box shape: one curve from front to back with no drastic change in direction that would normally be caused by a windscreen or rear window. And in addition to that single curve, a combination of curves in the form of a belt line that swoops up over the wheels and down in between helps to make a combination of curves that, in my opinion, are the most beautiful combination of curves ever to appear together on an automobile.
Have I given myself away? Have I lost you as a reader? I can't keep it in any longer! Yes, I'm an unashamed lover of the Lamborghini Countach. It is a masterpiece. It has a couple of minor problems, but, by far, it is the most beautiful car ever to reach production. But, alas, I love Bugattis too, and that is why I'm writing this. Perhaps, In terms of style, we can consider Lamborghini to be the modern day Bugatti.
The Countach is the first car to have this ideal shape and the EB110 carries on this theme very well. In fact, both of these cars were designed by the same person, Marcello Gandini. I suppose he felt that when one design is so successful, you stick to a good thing. Or, he just couldn't improve on it and he understood that if you can't improve on an idea, you copy it.
Many times, designers do something 'new' for the sake of 'new', or 'different' for the sake of 'different', and it makes absolutely no sense. If your goal is to make the best car in the world -- and the EB110 is supposed to be the best -- you use the best elements you know of whether or not they've originated in your mind. Otherwise, how could you knowingly design an automobile, or anything else, that is not the best that ever was? And if it's not as good as something that already exists, why would you ever bother to design it in the first place?
Too often have cars, and other things, appeared that were clearly inferior and downright ugly compared to other things that already existed. That's how we've gotten things like the Buick Riatta, the Honda Prelude (all of them), Bauhaus, shoulder pads, the new Bell Canada phone bill, and anything having to do with post-modernism. And that's why most designers of everything nowadays, especially fashion designers, are appreciated for designing things that are 'different' rather than things that are genuinely 'better' (or even 'good'). And though different, they're usually not new -- they've been considered before but were immediately dismissed because they were obviously bad.
In the case of the EB110, unfortunately, a single curve and a swoopy belt line are not enough to make it a beautiful design. After the overall shape, designers have to add the functional details of windows, lights, vents, grills and wheels, and if not done well, a good start could have a bad finish. And this is exactly the case with the EB110 -- The overall shape is excellent, but the details are not. Perhaps we can assume that all or most of the details came about from the reconstituted company's automobile developers rather than the original designer, Mr. Gandini. At least I feel better believing that.
The most glaringly bad details are at the front end -- the face of the automobile -- and have to do mainly with the headlights. At first glance, the clusters seem too closely set, badly composed and horribly shaped. Notice that I said "at first glance". A car, or anything else where looks matter, should look good in the first instant of viewing it -- there should be no need for explanation. You can explain how you arrived at a design, but you cannot explain how something is supposed to look good. It either looks good or it doesn't. I could also add that the Nissan 300ZX has the same style of flush headlights but looks much, much better than the EB110. Have I made my point?
Each light cluster is a mixture of rectangular and round lenses, and this just does not work. If they were all rectangular or all round, they would look okay. Or, if the rectangular lenses were in separate clusters from the round lenses, they would all look okay. But in addition, a corner of each cluster sticks out and houses the turn signal indicators. This looks horrible! Even Michelin hid them with strategic lighting in one of their ads. Obviously, the designer was simply trying to hide the radiator exhaust vents on the bonnet. He can engage in a discussion of any length to explain why he did this, and we'll all understand it, but these turn signal indicators will still look bad. And no matter how functional, if they still look bad, he's failed.
And this leads to another common mistake by automobile designers. Functionally, all automobiles need vents, and many designers have a mistaken belief that they should be blended into the shape or lines of the car. But a vent often needs to 'scoop' air from out of the airflow beyond the shape of the car, and so, scoops are needed, like on the Countach. Now, everyone will agree that the Countach's scoops are rather aggressively unattractive, but because the beautiful shape of the car was not altered to blend them in and because everyone immediately understands and accepts their necessary functionality, they're perfectly acceptable, and the beautifully swoopy belt line is uninterrupted. Contrast this with the Countach's successor, the Diablo, and its overelaborate rear haunches.
Most cars let the air for the radiator come in through the grill but provide no means for exhausting it. A high performance car needs good airflow through the radiator, and this means an exhaust vent somewhere. On real Bugattis, the sides of the bonnets were lined with exhaust vents. In the EB110's case, two channels were sunk into the bonnet, and well, they look like two channels sunk into the bonnet -- another failure. Perhaps they could have been hidden with louvers like on the Ferrari 308GTB.
But the vents' locations have also pushed the light clusters closer together. Though they don't really look too close together, they look a little too far away from the sides of the car -- there's just a wee bit too much cheek. I'd also say that the light clusters are a little too high on the bonnet and would look better further forward. And if I'm allowed to nitpick, assuming that I've not yet begun, I'd also question the overall shape of the clusters and the dark band along the inside edge. Instead, I'd rearrange the entire front end treatment beginning with the combining of the exhaust vents in the centre of the bonnet -- with louvres, like on the late model Lamborghini Urraco -- followed immediately by the moving of the lights forward and outward with only rectangular lenses, among other things.
The next problem at the front is the horizontal grill across the much too vertical air dam. I like the idea of retaining the classic Bugatti oval grill, but by having it stick up out of the horizontal grill, it looks out of place and causes an unattractive bump in the body. Instead, I'd have sunk it into the middle of the horizontal grill with the oval's upper and lower edges meeting the upper and lower edges of the horizontal grill, much like the grill work on the early 1970's Aston Martin Lagonda.
At the same time, I'd try to recede the lower edge of the front air dam, thus introducing a leading edge in the body just above the grill -- hopefully, there won't be much if any of an aerodynamic penalty for doing this. This would also help to hide, though not by much, the grill from view, which is good because front grills are typically unattractive. The brake cooling ducts also need some attention...
I could go on and on -- there are also the sides and rear to consider and they've got problems too. There are enough problems with the details on this car for a whole article of its own. The essential point of view I'm presenting here is that the overall shape of the car is excellent, but the details -- the lights, the vents, the seams -- make an enormous difference to a car's appearance, and in the case of the EB110, they make enough of a difference to keep this car from looking good, unfortunately. It should not have even made the top 20 of Bugattis. But it can be saved! I'd even do it for free. My number is ...
But before I finish with this car, I'd like to promote an idea that I heard about several years ago. It pertains more to supercars than to others. It took me some years to get used to it, but now, I'm fully in agreement. I would have brake lights on the front of the car in addition to the rear. Think about it, and if you don't agree, think some more.
And how did the Elephant, er, Type 41 ('Royale') do? Well, it came in a lowly 11th, and this is completely unjustified. It has that huge engine and long bonnet, a wheelbase that seems much too long for the weight, a non-production body allowing a plethora of styles, a low production run giving exclusivity, the cutest radiator ornament, and a level of luxury intended for kings and queens. How could you beat an automobile like that?
So which Bugatti is my favourite? Why, it's the one I own: the Type 50T. Though, I, ahem, own it in model form only. One day, I finally decided to get a 1:8 scale Pocher (Rivarossi) model car, and the Type 50T was the only Bugatti available. The model kit was designed during the restoration of an actual Type 50T in the late 1970's, but the parts were not made by Le Patron, so it took me much strife to assemble -- enough for years of therapy.
I love its simple, classic 1930's design, oval grill, severely raked windscreen, rear fender flares, ventilating wheels and cable operated brakes. The Type 50T is essentially a double overhead cam version of the Type 46 which was often referred to as the 'Petit Royale' (Type 41). (The Type 50 has a slightly shorter wheelbase.) It's hard to beat pedigree like that. This lineage looked so good that it was continued with the Type 57 Ventoux, alongside the appearance of Jean's ultimate designs, the Atalante and Atlantic.
If style alone were to be considered for this competition of Best Bugatti, these designs would surely have won. But to most Bugatti lovers, styling is secondary to engineering. In fact, many would consider the innards to be the real beauty of Bugattis. And in that way, all Bugattis could be considered works of art.
It's just such a shame that France's best automobile manufacturer came to an end at such an early age, and could not be continued or properly resurrected by anyone else. Perhaps we can be thankful for people's long memories and justified respect. Many people are due much thanks for preserving these masterpieces.