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Bugatti Veyron (Bugatti)
Bugatti Veyron (Bugatti)

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Pretty potent: 100 years of Bugatti Add to ...

The 19th century was just drawing to a close when Italian-born teenager Ettore Bugatti built a "bimotore" tricycle with a combined horsepower rating that could be added up using your fingers. In his first open road race, its average speed was around 20 km/h before it broke.

As the current millennium was getting under way, a car bearing a Bugatti badge, this one powered by a 16-cylinder, quad-turbo engine making 1,001 hp, topped 400 km/h on a test circuit in Germany, re-establishing one of the most revered names of motoring's first century.

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Quite a lot happened between those two events, much of it in the 1920s and 30s, but the opening pages of the latest chapter in the Bugatti story were written in the late 1980s and 1990s. You get the feeling Bugatti himself might have liked what he was reading because, like these latest efforts, creating fast and beautifully engineered cars was his mission in life.

Fast, because Bugatti was a racer at heart, and beautiful because he had an artist's paint under his nails before an engineer's black grease.

Bugatti built only about 7,800 cars - a handful a week - between 1910 the start of the Second World War, but each was an individual and exquisite work of art.

Among them was the spindly but fast Type 13 Brescia of the early 20s and the revolutionary Type 32 racer, often called "the tank" with a frontal aspect not unlike that of the supercar creation that is carrying the Bugatti name into this century.

The most successful Bugatti racer of all time, the Type 35, appeared mid-decade with a form so pure that, in racing machinery terms anyway, it rivals classic Greek statuary. In 1925 and 1926 it won more than 1,000 events. The Type 51 and Type 59 Grand Prix cars of the 1930s were also pretty and potent.

Bugatti vehicles competed in all types of racing, from Italy's Miglia Miglia to the 24 Hours of LeMans and the Grand Prix races of the 1920s and 30s.

Bugatti's road cars were also sought after by well-to-do auto aficionados of the time who snapped up the sports, touring and luxury cars as quickly as they emerged from the Molsheim factory gates. Among them was the Type 55 sports car, deemed one of the best looking cars Bugatti ever created.

A magnificent folly was the Type 41, also known as the Royale. Only half a dozen were built and just three were sold. The Jean Bugatti Royale (named after Bugatti's son) was the first one sold, in 1932, to a French textile magnate. This model's 13 litre straight eight engine was later used to power a commuter train. Bugatti's less grand Type 49, with various sporting and saloon bodies, did better, as did the Type 50, and supremely elegant sporting grand tourers such as the Type 57, notably in Atlantic and Atalante coupe form, produced later in the decade.

The man who conjured this automotive magic was born - with impeccable timing for a future car guy - in Milan in 1881. The son of Carlo Bugatti, a successful artist turned furniture designer, the young Bugatti was determined to be "a great artist" and trained as a painter and sculptor. However these plans were scrapped when at age 16, he rode his first motor tricycle and instead heeded the call of the internal combustion and rolling wheels.

Bugatti was quick to grasp the mechanics of this primitive device. He learned to ride it just as quickly, and became an unpaid apprentice at the firm of Prinetti and Stucchi that built it.

He would never acquire formal engineering training, but his intuition and artistry, combined with innovative flare, led first to the installation of the second motor in the Prinetti tricycle and then to a car design for the company.

By 1901, at the age of 19, he had ventured out on his own to create the first Bugatti automobile. Plans to produce it fell through, but the design was licensed to auto maker De Dietrich, for whom Bugatti went to work. He followed this experience by working for two other German car makers, establishing himself as an automotive designer to be reckoned with.

It was while toiling for Deutz that he began building the prototype of "Le Petit Pur Sang" Type 10 in his basement, with which he launched his own company in 1909.

Bugatti chose a shuttered dye factory in Molsheim in the Alsace to be the factory home of his new enterprise and by 1910 it was slowly becoming operational. It would become what one historian has called "a small principality ruled by a benevolent prince" who also bred horses and tended his own vineyard.

After Bugatti died of pneumonia in 1947 at the age of 66, the company struggled to produce the Type 101 (basically an updated Type 57) without success. The last racing car was the Type 251 Grand Prix car of 1955 that proved uncompetitive and unreliable, lasting only 18 laps of the French Grand Prix. Surviving the 1950s building aircraft components, Bugatti was taken over by Hispano Suiza in the early 1960s.

The first Bugatti resurrection attempt occurred in 1987 when the name was acquired by entrepreneur Romano Artioli who launched the EB110 supercar in 1991, but was bankrupt by 1995 after building only 140 of them.

In 1998 the Volkswagen Group stepped in and created Bugatti Automobile SAS, introducing the fabulous Veyron 16.4, the first of which were delivered early in 2006, priced at about $1.7-million.

The centenary of the original Bugatti company was celebrated last year with the creation of a special edition of the Veyron called the "Sang Blue" for its two-tone hues, created from royal blue carbon fibre and polished aluminum alloy.

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