Craftsmanship, delicacy and luxury united to create Bugatti one of the most coveted car brands before the Second World War. Then came the invasions, bombings and denunciations that plunged the company into bankruptcy. However, the traumatic episode from which Ettore – the progenitor – could no longer recover was the death of his son and heir.
Hours after waking up shaken by a premonitory nightmare, which he tried to witness but fate did not want to reciprocate, the news of the Jean’s death in a car accident was the tragedy that marked him forever.
The Bugattis were a family of artistic lineage. Ettore, born in Milan in 1881, grew up jumping from village to village with Carlo, an architect and sculptor -inherited from his father- who excelled in furniture design. Ettore Arco Isidoro’s trade, on the other hand, was in the mechanical workshops. There he gave free rein to his own interpretation of art.
Of the Futurism that would dazzle Benito Mussolini he anticipated the fascination for the beauty of the machine and speed. He was separated from nationalism by the family hobby of crossing borders. In 1909 in Alsace for which France and Germany were already fighting each other, as well as Italy, he founded Automobiles Ettore Bugatti to design luxury cars tailored to the mood and pockets of the European elite.
Their vehicles weren’t just parts for millionaires. They were also machines of speed and endurance to meet the toughest challenges of the time, such as his victory in the first Monaco Grand Prix, in 1929. It was indeed one of his cars, a prototype that had just won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, that Jean had to test on 11 August 1939.
That morning a nightmare alerted him: the accident was imminent, the unconscious seemed to yell at him. Though he did everything to avoid death, he couldn’t prevent it-as he had feared in his dreams of him- his son lost his life in an unusual accident. What came next was heartache and the collapse of the company.
Jean, the natural heir to the Bugatti empire
The different generations of the family moved to the rhythm of exhibitions and business. His nomadism also contributed to the convulsive European political scene.
Carlo, the man with a talent for silver and wood for furniture, was born in the Kingdom of Lombardy but also lived in Paris and Pierrefond (northeast of the French capital). Ettore was also born in Milan, although his first jobs in the sector took him to Niederbronn-les-Bains (in Alsace, northeastern France, then under German control), Strasbourg, Cologne and finally to Molsheim ( always in disputed territory). His company was there and it was where the three generations finally met years later.
At the time of his birth on January 15, 1909 in Cologne, Jean was actually referred to as Gianoberto Maria Carlo. The name by which he is still known today was an adaptation of his French friendships with him, partly cultivated after Alsace passed into the hands of Paris as part of the Treaty of Versailles and in the full blossoming of the family brand.
Gianoberto was the eldest, before the arrival of Roland in 1922. He was also the one who emerged as the company heir from childhood. In the first years he wandered around the factory and, already in his youth, he joined the company. He didn’t do it for financial management, but through the legacy of his artisan ancestry: he got his hands dirty under the hood and with a pencil between his fingers forged at least four models, including a legendary one.
At 26 he modeled the Type 57, the most successful creation of the brand. In total, 685 examples were produced between the following year and 1939, with different labels: Ventoux, Stelvio, Atalante and Atlantic. The latter version was a flagship version that anticipated post-war supercars.
It also has an amazing story. Only four copies were made, one of them for Jean himself. That “Voiture 1” or “Voiture Noir” has been lost in a corner of history, with the German management of the collaborationist Vichy regime, and its whereabouts are still a mystery. By then, however, grief was already hanging over the family.
The morning of the tragedy and the end of the company
Bugatti also engaged in the construction of racing cars, based on its touring models. They competed in the European Grand Prix in the early 1930s, with Louis Chiron at the wheel (currently a model from the revamped house reminds us of the Monegasque driver). And he also scored in one of the most demanding races on the calendar: the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
He won the Circuit de La Sarthe twice: in 1937 with the duo Robert Benoist-Jean-Pierre Wimille and in 1939 with Pierre Veyron-Jean-Pierre Wimille, both with Type 57 variants designed by Jean.
The Bugatti Type 57c tank was built on its predecessor. It had the same 3.3-liter engine, but had been bumped up to 160 horsepower. One of those prototypes was consecrated on June 18, 1939, in the last edition before the ten-year break caused by the outbreak of war and its aftermath. He let the French flag flying, clocking up 3,346.106km and taking four laps from British team Ecurie Walter Watney.
Though glory seemed to cover the mark, tragedy loomed and, with it, deterioration.
In Molsheim they had a date marked on the calendar: August 11th. That day, several prototypes of the Type 57c tank were to be checked on the outskirts of the city, still under French control.
The previous night was a torment for Ettore who, by now, was already co-director of the company with his eldest son while he devoted more time to the growth of his second son, Roland. After I closed my eyes, the nightmare arose from the depths of my unconscious.: an accident of the prototype IX. That was the car Jean had to test hours later. Desperate, he wanted to banish all his fears with the stroke of a pen: he redistributed the assignment of seats and entrusted his son with driving the prototype XI.
In the morning, Jean climbed into the prototype and left the factory behind. On an access road to the neighboring municipality of Duppigheim, the young man met his death in the figure of a postman who got in his way with his bicycle. He improvised a maneuver to avoid hitting him and got stuck in a tree. The end was as instantaneous as it was inevitable, despite the premonition and last-minute change her father had made.
Twenty days later, Germany annexed Poland, the starting point of World War II.
In 1940 Carlo died, spending his last days in an apartment inside the car factory, dragging along the pain caused by the suicide of another son, Rembrandt, who took his own life in 1916. Shortly after the Germans entered the region of Alsace and destroyed it for five years. Ettore lost control of the company and took refuge in Fascist Italy. He carried the long shadow of his dead son.
In 1947, after a trial for alleged collaboration with the Axis powers, he was given back the administration of what remained of his company. His health was deteriorating. Legend has it that during a visit to Molsheim the ghost of tragedy descended on him and left him in a coma. The official version indicates that he, in reality, did not know that the family had recovered the factory: he had already been hospitalized in a Paris hospital, where he died on August 21st.
Roland (Rolando Cesare Maria Bugatti, in the original documents) is left at the helm of the company together with his stepfather, René Bolloré. His Type 251 project was a failure on a par with his poor attempt to compete in Formula 1: he retired with mechanical problems in his only outing, at the 1956 French Grand Prix.
An entrepreneur recovered the brand in the 1990s. Now, under the wing of Volkswagen, he focuses on powerful supercars. The True Testament is distributed in numerous hangars of collectors willing to shell out up to 13 million dollars for an authentic work.
Ben Stock is a journalist working for News Rebeat, where he covers the automobile section. With a passion for cars and the industry, Ben brings insightful and in-depth reporting to his readers.