The two young
cyclists came to a skidding halt and turned to stare as I eased the throbbing,
supercharged Bugatti into the elevator of a New York garage.
dat?" asked the girl incredulously.
cah," replied her boy companion.
san ahmah'd cah?" persisted the girl, somewhat dubiously.
"I know an
ahmah'd cah when I sees one," snapped the boy, shutting off any further
Such are the
incidents that keep the true Bugatti owner going. It doesn't much matter
whether the observations are accurate. The important thing is that they should
occur with a high rate of frequency, for they provide a direct transfusion to
what otherwise would be a seriously damaged ego. Without these little
interludes few mortals could withstand the doubts, frustrations and anguish
that assail a Bugatti owner as he sets out on the open road, the loneliest
driver there because he knows full well that in so doing he is putting himself
several hundred, or perhaps a thousand, miles away from the nearest human being
who has the faintest idea of what makes this particular machine tick.
By now it is
almost common knowledge that the Bugatti is the greatest automobile ever made.
There is an aura and mystique about these cars that applies to no other known
vehicle. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s they swept the racing circuits of
Europe, amassing an overall victory total that has yet to be surpassed. Top
speed in some of the last models reached 180 mph, quite a clip even for today.
To own a Bugatti was to possess what Sir Malcolm Campbell described as "a
car in a class by itself." "Pur sang" was the term the aficionados
used—thoroughbred. There is a story, possibly apocryphal but completely
credible, about a Frenchwoman who poisoned her husband to collect his
insurance—so she could buy her lover a Bugatti.
World War II put
an end to the Bugatti era when the factory at Molsheim in eastern France was
overrun by the German army. Ettore Bugatti, the Italian automotive genius who
moved to France as a young man and designed the cars that bore his name, died
shortly afterward. Hugh Conway, a Briton and world authority on the cars,
estimates that around 6,000 were produced during the 30-odd years of the era
and that roughly 1,200 have survived. A few models even appeared in the postwar
years. But the spark was gone. Yet, though more than a quarter century has
passed, the Bugatti mystique remains as alive as ever. Two magazines in
circulation today are devoted purely to Bugatti matters, a fact unique in
automotive history. It is as though the era never ended. And in a way it
hasn't, for some people anyway, as I discovered on seeing my first Bugatti.
The encounter took
place in the summer of 1952. The car, a sleek gray convertible, had been
brought to New York from Europe by an engineer friend who was also a sometime
racing driver. I had practically lost all interest in automobiles at that
point, though I retained vivid childhood memories of the classic American cars
of the '30s—my first hair-raising ride in a boat-tailed Auburn Speedster, then
hours of curbside watching with the gang in our small town, hoping for a
glimpse of one of the great Packards or Cadillacs or Lincolns and later the
Cords. But something happened to cars after World War II.
One day in New
York I met my friend's Bug (a frequently used diminutive, not a mechanical
term). My first reaction was: "What a queer-looking automobile!" And
indeed it was, completely unlike any other machine I had ever seen or even
imagined. I circled the car warily, looked under it and sat in it as my friend
chatted about finned racing brakes, the unique front axle, precise steering,
instruments and so on. I still didn't get the idea though. Then he took me for