History of the Bugatti Company

Ettore Bugatti: An Exotic Car Pioneer

Bugatti super cars
Martyn Goddard/Getty Images

The Italian-born Ettore Bugatti got his start like a lot of automotive visionaries: building bicycles at the turn of the twentieth century. He eventually designed an engineered a series of early cars for several different European car companies and formed the Bugatti Company.

The cars he created include:

  • Type 1: for Prinetti and Stucchi, a four-engined vehicle
  • Type 2: for Dietrich; 5.3-liters
  • Type 3: for Dietrich; 7.4-liters
  • Type 4 and 5: for Dietrich; 12.9-liter racers
  • Type 6 and 7: for Mathis; Hermes models
  • Type 8 and 9: for Deutz; overhead cams
  • Type 10: for Deutz: 1.2-liter 4-cylinder

See pictures from Bugatti's history in the gallery.

Le Patron and Lucky Number 13

Ettore Bugatti produced his first car, with his own name affixed to the grille, in 1910. The type 13 was built by Automobiles Ettore Bugatti at its headquarters in Molsheim, near Strasbourg in France. The car had a 1.3-lite four-cylinder engine with 20 bhp and a top speed of 60 mph. "Le Patron," as Ettore Bugatti would be known, was only in his 20s at the time, and already known for his stubbornness. Over the years, he would resist innovations like superchargers and mass production to create some of the finest hand-built cars -- especially race cars -- in the world for three decades.

A Blur of Bugatti Blue

Like most auto builders at the time, especially in Europe, innovations for the track influenced designs for the street. It also encouraged buyers to buy in an age before television. Ettore Bugatti was an avid racer himself and built cars -- painted a distinctive French blue -- that dominated the track, like Type 13 that took the top four spots in Brescia, Italy, in 1921. The Type 13 became known as the "Brescia," and was the highest-selling Bugatti ever, with 2000 cars finding new owners. Type 35 was the first Bugatti to perform as well on the track as it did on the road.

The Bugatti Company: A Family Business

Again, like so many car manufacturers at the beginning of the auto age, Bugatti was a family business. Ettore's oldest son Jean took over the company at the end of the 1920s. Jean was responsible for (among other cars) the Type 41, known as the "Royale" for its intended royal customers. The massive, 13-liter luxury car cost twice as much as a contemporary Rolls-Royce and never found many buyers, despite the dancing elephant hood ornament sculpted by Ettore's brother Rembrandt. Jean died during a test drive 1939, and Ettore took over the helm again. After Ettore's death in 1947, younger son Roland headed the company.

Bugatti Company, Take Two

After World War II, many European car companies struggled to survive. Rather than declare bankruptcy, Bugatti closed its doors. But 30 years later, a supercar fever swept the globe. Italian Romano Artioli revived the brand -- but not the Molsheim factory -- by introducing the EB110 in time for Ettore Bugatti's 110th birthday in 1991. Despite the tiny signature horseshoe-shaped grille, there were only about 150 EB110s produced, and the company's second coming was cut short in 1995.

Third Time's a Charm

In 1998, German car maker Volkswagen bought the Bugatti name and reopened the factory in Molsheim (not exactly the same facility, but a new, modern one). In 2005, the company delivered on its promise to live up to Ettore Bugatti's standards for speed and luxury with the Bugatti Veyron 16.4, and million-dollar supercar with more than 1000 hp -- and that distinctive horseshoe-shaped grille.