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Bugatti Supercars

3rd time lucky?

Bugatti has produced three true supercars: Atlantic, EB110 and Veyron. Octane is first to drive all three together

A Type 35 kicking up dust in a lurid slide, be-goggled driver battling with the wheel as the exhaust note seeks to define the ultimate ‘ripping calico’ cliché. A Royale gliding through Monaco’s Casino Square. The legend of Bugatti.

What could be worthy of such a name? When the VW Group’s former boss Ferdinand Piech announced that the return of his newly acquired premium brand would be spearheaded by the 250mph ‘Veyron’ supercar, the news was greeted by oohs and aahs from the excitable new car press, and a cautious optimism by historic car enthusiasts.

And then the new car suffered delay after delay, cynicism replaced excitement, and it seemed that the Bugatti Veyron was destined to remain a fantastic but ultimately unsuccessful chapter in motoring history; a repeat of the Romano Artioli-funded years of the early 1990s.

But here I am, childishly excited, arriving at Munich airport for what I hope will be a revealing blast across Germany to Molsheim in France, home of Bugatti. I’m a little scared for my safety, and a lot scared for the reputation of Bugatti. My transport to Germany is a 1995 Bugatti EB110 GT: how will a decade have treated the marque’s previous attempt at greatness? Then I’ll be driving an Atlantic around some of the landmarks of Bugatti history: can its looks and character overcome well-documented dynamic shortcomings? Finally, I’ll have a full day in the Veyron: will it live up to the hype?

The EB110 waits outside the Arrivals hall. Owner Helmut Pende spots me and swings up the passenger side door. As it arcs skywards, bemused passers-by do a double-take, clearly unsure of the origins of this surprisingly subtle supercar.

Another surprise: the EB110 starts with a muted whirr and immediately settles into a smooth idle. Helmut is going to drive the first part of the five-hour journey, to get us away from busy Munich, so I drop into the passenger seat and pull down on the heavy door.

First impression? That I’ve been swallowed by a cow, and one with pleated hide at that. There’s tan leather on every surface: not just the usual seats, centre console and door cards, but the fascia top, the headlining and, most oddly, the entire length of the footwells. I worry that my shoes aren’t clean enough.

Helmut pulls away and guns into the Munich traffic. There’s an explosion of noise behind our heads, a coarse roar from the exhaust, a whine from the four turbos and chattering from the wastegates, and the four-wheel-drive transmission whirr from deep beneath the centre console area adds to the symphony. It’s not uncomfortably loud but there are agricultural elements to the soundtrack that I didn’t necessarily expect.

Settling into a fast cruise, the EB110 quietens down and I get a chance to take stock. The ride is pretty good, a little jiggly, but what I love is the way that it deals with potholes, riding over them with a solid thump that demonstrates the integrity of the car’s carbonfibre tub (this was the first production car with a carbonfibre structure).

I suppose you’d expect nothing less. The EB110 was the brainchild of a Who’s Who of the supercar world. The idle thoughts of Ferrucio Lamborghini, by the mid-1980s kicking his heels a little, prompted the project, via French businessman Jean-Marc Borel and wealthy entrepreneur Romano Artioli. After a difficult struggle to buy the Bugatti name from French state-owned aeronautical company SNECMA, the team bought in former Lamborghini engineer Paulo Stanzani and purchased a design/engineering consultancy (Technostile) run by three more ex-Lambo guys. Marcello Gandini styled the car, although the looks were always controversial.

Still, the top-notch engineering heritage shines through. We cruise the autobahns, Helmut modestly revealing his love of the Bugatti marque, formed from a first childhood glimpse of a Type 35 on holiday and now indulged thanks to the sale of his bio-genetics company.

We swap places at a fuel station, giving me my first chance to attempt an exit from the scissor-door supercar. How? Helmut points out the buttons on the (leather-covered) sills, and the door glides skywards. While Helmut is filling the twin tanks (fillers on either side are a pain, he says), I try the driver’s seat for size.

The roofline pushes my head to one side (strange that I didn’t notice that from the passenger seat – must have been slouching), the interior mirror gives me equal views of the road behind and the engine under its glass screen, which is fine by me, and the exterior mirrors give similarly equal views of my fellow road users and the muscular rear flanks of the aluminium body (the Supersport used carbonfibre panels).

You wouldn’t call the EB110 an easy car to drive. The clutch is heavy, the gearshift requires a firm, deliberate action and the engine needs a few revs to pull away, which is a surprise. But when it’s moving, it’s fluid, dynamic and damned quick, astonishingly quick. When the EB110 was launched, to great tricoleur waving spectacle in the Place de la Défense, Paris, it was the fastest production car in existence. 0-60mph in 4.4 seconds, a top speed of 214mph, and all from a new company working from an equally new factory on the outskirts of Modena.

You could write the ending even if you’d never heard of the EB110, couldn’t you? The economy takes a dive, the company overstretches itself (buying Lotus, developing the four-door EB112, you know the kind of thing), and then Artioli’s core business, a massive Suzuki dealership, gets hit by a sudden and massive rise in the value of the yen. The banks bail out, Artioli goes bankrupt, the 1990s revival of Bugatti goes pop.

What a terrible shame. This is a wonderful car, well-developed, mind-blowingly fast by anyone’s standards, charismatic… Only little details, most notably the plank-of-wood dashboard and almost total lack of luggage space, let it down, but the former was improved upon for the faster, lighter EB110 Supersport.

The EB110 was built to be a reliable, trouble-free supercar for blasting across continents. At that, it seems to succeed admirably – Helmut has no trouble from his car and we’ve spent several hours mixing (very) high-speed travel with tedious traffic jams and back-road dicing. It doesn’t seem long before we’re in Alsace, the region of France that boasts not just the Bugatti factory but the famous Schlumpf Collection too.

This is a strange area; the signs are in French but many of the place names are Germanic. Alsace was German territory from 1871 to 1918 but the signs to Molsheim, featuring a neat outline of a Type 35, work in any language.

Off the autoroute, down the slip road and I’m in need of directions. But Helmut puts me right. ‘That’s it!’ he proclaims, pointing to a modern grey building stuck in the middle of a field with no obvious way in. My first impression is of disappointment, and almost missing the discreet driveway does little to dispel the feeling.

Down a long drive, past a modest line of employees’ cars, and we’re round the front of that grey building, which now looks rather more impressive. Floor-to-roof tinted glass at its far end reveals a tantalisingly muted view of a row of new engines.

We burble past, turn hard right through a gateway in an old stone wall and the scene changes: ancient trees, perfectly cut grass, a dilapidated orangerie, immaculate barns and a familiar-looking ch΢teau up ahead. This is where Bugatti history comes alive. I pull up the EB110 in front of the ch΢teau’s sweeping steps, open the door and find that a gang of Bugatti technicians is hurrying across from the factory to check out the car. Apparently this is the first time an EB110 has been here since Veyron production started.

Ten years ago the scene would have been so different. The ch΢teau had been allowed to become derelict, to the point that a genuine restoration was impossible. How sad: Ettore Bugatti bought it as a place in which to entertain potential customers (the old factory, now used by an aeronautics company, is just 400m away).

Despite the massive costs involved in developing the Veyron, the VW Group has also rebuilt the ch΢teau and the neighbouring barns and stable-blocks. Their solution to the awful state of the buildings was a little lacking in finesse and sympathy but it was certainly thorough: they mapped every inch of the buildings and then knocked them down and rebuilt them using as much of the original materials as possible. Inside the ch΢teau, the three floors are now open-plan and thoroughly modern, which is a little odd but makes for a good working environment for the handful of Bugatti sales staff there. How relieved they must be not to have been posted to Wolfsburg.

Across the way, in the rebuilt barn, a Veyron sits alongside leather sofas, a multitude of paint and interior swatches and, in the back room, a Bugatti Atlantic. Now, there’s something important to explain at this point: the Atlantic was a special-bodied version of the Type 57SC Bugatti, the S denoting a short-wheelbase version of the Type 57 and the C telling us that it was supercharged. History books will tell you that the 57S was canned through lack of money but the truth is that they were impractically low to the ground and over-priced, and customers were few and far-between. In 1937, three decades before the launch of what’s often thought of as the first-ever supercar, the Miura, Sir Malcolm Campbell referred to his own 57SC Corsica roadster as ‘the best all-round super-sports car which is available on the market today’.

Only three Atlantics emerged from the Molsheim factory. Two survive intact (the third was badly damaged in a fatal collision with a train and was later rebuilt from the remains). One belongs to Ralph Lauren, the other to Peter Williamson. Both have won the Pebble Beach Concours in the last six years, both are worth millions. Neither are cars that are available (or appropriate) for a blast around Molsheim in the company of two rip-snorting supercars. The car in Bugatti’s barn is an exacting replica built using genuine Bugatti Type 57 parts. So, it’s less of a fake than the buildings that house it. And it’s real enough for its sensual mix of beauty and sheer menace to send a tingle down the spine.

The Atlantic (for that’s how I’m going to refer to it, replica or not) is pushed out into the daylight and fired up. The keyswitch is on the far left of the dashboard, the starter button on the right, and the ignition advance on the far right, but it’s a narrow car so the arm waving isn’t too extreme. Just like any car of this vintage there’s a background whine of shafts spinning in unsophisticated bearings, added to by the trademark whirring of the Type 57’s camshaft drive gears, but a blip of the throttle results in a gorgeous bark from the exhaust.

The clutch is heavy, the seat’s too close to the pedals, which leaves my right ankle bent at an uncomfortable angle to operate the accelerator, but the gear selection is direct and positive. It doesn’t need much gas to pull away, you just let the torque do the job, and it doesn’t take long to master the precise gearchange, as long as you’re willing to feel rather than crash the gears into mesh. Double declutching is a necessity on downchanges.

The steering is heavy though, to the point that I fear for my ability to heave the wheel effectively enough to make it through tight turns. It’s hard work but, every now and again, it all comes together and starts to flow; the motoring equivalent of the unmistakeable ‘click’ of a perfectly struck golf ball.

This is a powerful car. Its straight-eight engine has the twin bonuses of extra power and flexibility thanks to a low-slung supercharger fed by an even lower-slung single carburettor that’s only visible by peering under the car. It developed 200bhp in period and was capable of over 110mph.

What a challenge it would be to drive this wonderful machine on, say, the Mille Miglia Retrospective. The heat would build in the cabin, even with the lever-operated roof vents popped open. The hard suspension would jar every organ; the grind of the exhaust catching an imperfect road surface again and again would prompt an ever-more anguished grinding of teeth; arms would hurt, legs would ache. And at the end of the journey your brain would be pulsing with the greatest sense of achievement and fulfilment.

I could sit in the Atlantic for hours. It’s so light and airy in that cabin, although it looks from the outside as if it will be claustrophobic, and the view through the windscreen is as evocative as it gets, the wings rising up even higher than the bonnet. I wonder how the Veyron, for all its speed and power, can match this.

There’s only one way to find out.

There are Veyrons in various states of assembly in the factory, and one going for its first high-speed tests. But ‘my’ Veyron is sat outside the factory test bays. Last year, when cynicism had overtaken excitement at the oft-delayed launch of the Veyron, I assumed that this was a large, cumbersome machine, and it wasn’t until I saw the car outside of a studio or show that I realised that it’s much prettier and neater in the metal.

The exposed engine, which looks gauche and contrived in pictures, just looks sexy in reality, while the flanks reveal unexpectedly subtle sculpting up close and personal. The interior is similarly impressive, although the aluminium centrepiece, with its odd LCD displays, borders on the ‘bling’ side of good taste. I like the machining marks on the panel, though, which echo the traditional pre-war Bugatti engine-turned finish.

Trepidation sets in. This could be an horrifically difficult car to drive – it weighs 1888kg and its W16 quad-turbo engine develops over 1000bhp. Official figures have always said it’s 1001bhp but the factory technicians are claiming it’s crept closer to 1100bhp lately. The torque, always less headline grabbing, is a mind-boggling 900lb ft.

To start the Veyron you stick an electronic key in a slot and pause while various pumps and motors move fuel around and set spoiler and suspension height. Then you press the start button and there’s a satisfyingly fast whirr of starter motor, followed by a woof! of ignition. We have lift-off!

Inside the cabin, all is serene. The seven-speed gearbox can be changed by steering wheel-mounted paddles but Veyron-virgins are recommended to select fully automatic. Foot on brake, push the lever to Drive, foot off brake and a tentative squeeze of the accelerator and we’re off, the DSG transmission neatly slipping into second without hesitation. It has two clutches; one is automatically engaged in advance, allowing shift times in less than 150 milliseconds. It’s as easy as driving an old lady’s Honda Civic. The steering is light, the suspension feels supple and smooth, and visibility in the mirrors is a big improvement over the EB110. And you can still see the engine top!

Further down the road, having breezed over speed bumps and nipped easily around traffic restrictions, I switch the suspension setting from Standard to Handling. The car immediately drops down by 45mm and firms up, but again there’s no crashing over bumps. A light push on the accelerator hurls the Veyron forward but I’m still in traffic and have to get on the brakes. Whoosh! The Veyron almost stops dead. What astonishing stoppers. (Braking from above 120mph, the rear spoiler stands to attention to act as an air-brake.)

As the road opens up, I get to floor the accelerator a bit harder each time, and the result gets more ridiculous each time. I’ve never, ever driven anything like this. Every motoring cliché comes tripping into my scrambled brain: the scenery really is rushing backwards; I really am pushed back in my seat with no chance of leaning forward. And this on an A-road!

Unrestricted autoroute next. I’ve realised by now that the Veyron is far more cosseting than most other supercars, with smoother body control, better noise insulation, fewer dramatics really. So it’s quite possible to be cruising at 120mph without much impression of high speed, which is both good and bad. But from that 120mph another squeeze of the accelerator takes the Veyron almost instantly to 150mph-plus, apparently without effort. I take it to 160, can see a lorry in the far distance but can’t resist just a bit more speed, so up to 170 and suddenly the faraway lorry is a very-close lorry and it’s back on the brakes and down to 100mph or maybe less without any trouble. This sounds like bravado, doesn’t it? But a Veyron will achieve 0-100mph-0 in 9.9 seconds – significantly faster than a top superbike or any existing supercar.
(0-60mph takes 2.5 seconds, top speed is 252mph.)

What a machine. What a feat of engineering. In the ‘factory’, where Veyrons are assembled from parts shipped in from around Europe, I’m struck by the attention to detail (all fasteners are titanium, for example) and the sheer size of the engine and transmission. How does it fit in the dinky bodywork? The cars are built and rebuilt, tested and re-tested, but then you’d expect that for £800,000. If cheaper models do follow, as is rumoured, they’ll feed off this incredible quality and technology.

I went to Molsheim ready to be disappointed by both the EB110 and the Veyron. How wrong can a man be? It’s a tragedy that the EB110 didn’t last longer, at least long enough for it to become better understood. The Veyron is astonishing, a triumph of technology and spending over common sense. It doesn’t deliver the wonderfully tactile experience of the Atlantic or even of the EB110, but to drive the Veyron just once is to be part of a ready-made legend. Worthy of the Bugatti name? I’d say so.

»Special thanks to Helmut Pende and Julius Kruta.

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