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Bugatti Royale

Bugatti Royale

By Jack Nerad

Bugatti Royale The phrase "over the top" had not been invented in 1927, but if it had it would certainly have been applied to Ettore Bugatti's Royale. This short series of cars -- only six or seven were built, and no one is quite sure of the number -- lent new meaning to the word conspicuous consumption. At the same time, the behemoth Royale was a meticulously crafted and beautifully engineered piece of automotive art.

Born the son of a painter, Bugatti exhibited all the erratic brilliance of a true artist. A Milan native, Bugatti grew up a mechanical genius who exhibited a car of his own design at his hometown's motor show prior to his 21st birthday. The design showed such sophistication that the De Dietrich manufacturing concern in what was then the German province of Alsace hired Bugatti and immediately made plans to bring his car to production. The under-age Bugatti was forced to consummate the deal using his father's name to complete the legalities.

Soon Bugatti was designing cars for a number of manufacturers, including Mathis Hermes and Deutz. Automobiles Peugeot had realize success with its original Bebe model, perhaps the first compact car in the modern idiom.

When the time came to redesign the landmark model for the 1912 selling season, Bugatti was the choice to do the honors. The car he delivered weighed just 730 pounds and was powered by a 856 cubic centimeter in-line four cylinder engine. Equipped with just a two-speed gearbox, which was sufficient for its 37 mile-per-hour top speed, the Bebe's reverse gear was engaged by using a separate lever. Like the Ford Model T, the front suspension was by a semi-elliptical transverse leaf springs, and like the Model T, the Bebe sold in substantial numbers, though nothing like the millions the Ford design would eventually garner.

By the age of 30, Bugatti was out on his own, building a small series of cars at a factory in Molsheim, Alsace. The Type 13 that was his firm's initial offering was very sophisticated for the day -- its engine was an overhead cam design, for instance -- and it did extremely well in competition. One of its most notable victories was a win over a highly favored big displacement Fiat in the LeMans Grand Prix.

Unfortunately for Bugatti, the outbreak of World War I ended his winning streak and effectively put an end to his production and motorsports efforts until the hostilities came to a close in November 1918. When the dust from the war clouds had settled, Alsace, which had been part of France until the 1871 Franco-Prussian War, was returned to the victorious French, and Bugatti became a citizen of the French Republic. (Because of this his subsequent racing cars wore French blue, rather than the red of his Italian homeland.

A re-vamped Type 13, called the 22/23, got Bugatti's post-war racing program off to an excellent start. He followed up with the Type 35, which became the dominant Grand Prix racer of the mid-1920s.

Like the Royale that would follow, the Type 35 demonstrated Bugatti's meglomaniacal pursuit of a victory at any cost. The Type 35 was fitted with a gem-like 2-liter, 8-cylinder engine with a single overhead camshaft operating twin intake valves and one exhaust valve per cylinder. And what a camshaft! A composite of nine separate pieces, one Type 35 camshaft was said to cost the equivalent of a Type 40 chassis.

The running gear and body of the Type 35 were just as refined as the engine. To keep the center of gravity low the two-seater rode on an under-slung chassis, and the drum brakes were finned for cooling and derived additional cooling from a "fan effect" created by the open wheels. The hand-formed aluminum body had a tapered tail that anticipated "aerodynamic" racing car design by decades.

With the masterpiece of the Type 25 undergoing constant refinement, it is surprising that Bugatti could even think about another model, but that is just what he did. Legend has it that Bugatti was chided into creating the Royale by an English noblewoman, who remarked to him that he built the fastest cars in the world, but Rolls-Royce still built the best.

Whether the story is true or not is of little consequence, because there is no doubt that in his Royale, Bugatti wanted to out-do evey single automobile that had come before it. If Michelangelo had his David, then so Ettore Bugatti would have his Royale.

What Le Patron (for that was his nickname) created was an elephantine chassis that, fittingly, bore the likeness of an elephant on its giant radiator cap. From its engine to its overall length to its interior accoutrements, everything about the Royale was outsized.

Under a hood that was nearly seven feet long, Bugatti stuffed a 14.7-liter eight cylinder engine, derived from an airplane powerplant he had designed during the great war. The engine itself was nearly five feet long, and it weighed a daunting 840 pounds less fluids and ancillaries. (It is said the mammoth crankshaft tipped the scales at 303 pounds, because Bugatti would not think of allowing the slightest hint of crankshaft flex.)

Equipped with an overhead camshaft, this behemoth powerplant produced a nominal 300 horsepower at 1700 rpm, but its real talent was whirring out torque. In fact, it did so in such prodigious quantities, that first gear was required only when getting the car moving from a dead stop and when attacking steep grades. For most driving, second was the gear of choice, since it would take the car from virtually zero to 93 miles per hour. Depending upon bodywork, and Royale chassis seemed to be re-bodied repeatedly, top speed was as high as 125 miles per hour.

This immense drivetrain was fitted into a 180-inch wheelbase, a wheelbase about as long as two current Chevrolet Corvettes. (Later Royales were equipped with a 12.8-liter 260-horsepower version of the same engine, and the wheelbase was shortened to 170 inches.) Overall length of the Royale was more than 21 feet, the same approximate size of a small cruising sailboat. The Royale's immense tires were fitted to wheels 38 inches in diameter.

If the mechanicals were hard to imagine, so too were the unusual, weird and perhaps frightening bodywork that adorned them. Amazingly, the first body on the prototype Royale was not a Bugatti design, but a phaeton body removed from a Packard. That chassis would then wear a Bugatti-designed coupe body (because who wouldn't want a three-seat vehicle riding on a 180-inch wheelbase?), a sedan body with anachronistic "stage coach" influences, and a four-window coupe body by coachbuilder Weymann. When Ettore Bugatti crashed the car in 1931, apparently falling asleep at the gigantic wheel, it was rebuilt with a Coupe Napoleon body designed by Ettore's son, Jean.

Other Royales went through similar, if not quite so traumatic, histories. Particularly notable is the first Bugatti sold to a customer. That customer, clothing tycoon Armand Esders, never drove at night so no headlights were fitted to his immense roadster, designed by Jean Bugatti.

If at times the Royales seemed locomotive-like, it was only because they were. The fact is that several Royale engines that never found their way into automobiles later were used in trains. Four Royales powering the Presidential Autorail sent it to a top speed of 122 miles per hour.

But it is as an automobile that The Bugatti Royale should be remembered, because, there can be no doubt, we will never see its like again.


Autoswalk.com has partnered with Studio One Networks to provide you with the history of the world's greatest cars. All of the pictures and information are copyright of Studio One Networks and Autoswalk.com, and are brought to you by Jack Nerad for Driving Today.

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