THE BUGATTI FAMILY
In order to understand Ettore Bugatti, it is important to know something about the family he grew up in.
The family can be traced back to the 17th century when the well-known painter, Zanetto Bugatti, was involved in the decoration of several Milanese churches, and whose work can still be seen today. Ettore’s grandfather, Giovanni Luigi Bugatti, was an architect, but is principally remembered for his quest to
design a perpetual motion device. Carlo Bugatti, Ettore’s father, was born in 1856 and, after studying artat the Brera School and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, became a famous sculptor and respected furniture designer.
His sister Luigia lived with the Swiss painter, Segantini, who occasionally collaborated with Carlo. By the end of the 19th century, Carlo had achieved all he had ever dreamed of. He sold his business in Milan and moved to Paris in 1903, where he was able to live a comfortable life.
He was able to allow his two sons the time and freedom to choose their own careers and, above all, instilled in them the self-confidence to develop their own talents. Ettore was born in 1881, his sister Deanice two years later, and Ettore’s younger brother in 1884. He was given the promising name of
Rembrandt, even though his father intended him to become an engineer. At the age of 15, Rembrandt created his first sculpture, without having made more than 25 drawings in his whole life.
His father consequently sent him to the Brera Academy and the sculptor Troubetzkoy, a friend of this artist family, gave him additional tutoring. In 1903 Rembrandt held his first exhibition of his animal sculptures at the Venice Biennale, and subsequently became known as an “Animalier” throughout Europe and even in the USA. After the Bugatti family moved to Paris, he became a lifelong friend of Adrien Hébrard, the owner of a famous gallery. In the period before the First World War, Rembrandt spent much of his time in the Antwerp Royal Zoological Garden, the largest of its kind in Europe at that time. It was here that he created many of his celebrated sculptures, working with clay, which allowed him to finish the works in a very short time. When war broke out he served in a military hospital in Paris.
The horrors of war and the prospect of not being able to work for a long time, combined with an unhappy love affair, drove him into a deep depression. In 1916, Rembrandt Bugatti took his own life. Today his outstanding animal sculptures can be found in museums all over the world. While he is most famous for
his elephants, panthers and lions, he also depicted such humble creatures as cows and donkeys. Ettore’s life in his own words “It was while I was growing up that the motor car was born. I was not exactly designated
for this new industry nor to any other activities of this kind, as my family had been creating sculptures, paintings, engravings and chased work since the 16th century. I also started to study sculpture at the Brera Arts School in Milan. Unfortunately I was more concerned with amusing myself and besides, I had a brother who was already a sculptor. There are two types of artists. Those who are born artists – one day they create something and are ‘hooked’. My brother was one of them. The other type, to which I belong, are those who try and create art but are not as gifted, so they have to make up for it by working hard. One day they should wake up and realise that they ought to do something else. If they truly respect art, they stop and choose another path.
For that reason I left the world of fine art when I was 16 years old and joined the foundry of Prinetti and Stucchi. Mr Prinetti, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, was a friend of the family. It was during this time as an apprentice that I began to fall in love with all things mechanical. Together with a friend I eventually managed to buy a motorised tricycle, which I even entered in races. I remember one of first ones very well.
It took place in Milan and I competed with my tricycle against a whole pack of motor cars over a distance of 100 kilometres. I reached the finishing line ten minutes before any other participant.
The following year I set up my own little workshop. Not with any particular plans for the future, but simply for my own enjoyment in motor sports and love of things mechanical. In general it was the beginning of a whole new industry. Renault was also making his first steps. The only pioneers in France were Leon Bollée, Serpollet, De Dion, De Dietrich and Panhard; and in Germany Maybach, Benz and Daimler. They were all about 40 years old, while I was just 17, and Renault scarcely 20. I started building
motor cars for my own pleasure, more as an enjoyment than a way to earn a living.
Besides, I was not a trained engineer. Little by little I acquired the technical knowledge, such as calculating the strength of materials. In the beginning, my greatest asset was my ability to draw. Sketches are not only a way of representing existing objects, but a way to communicate your ideas and thoughts. Many things are easier when you can draw. And I was lucky that I could. No doubt my ancestral roots played a part. You
may not necessarily be born a genius just because your father was one, but it is quite common to inherit a talent that has been cultivated in your family for several generations.” A designer to his dying day Ettore’s son, Jean, certainly inherited his father’s remarkable talent. He was born on 15 January 1909 – the same year that Ettore started up his own company in a former dye works in Molsheim, Alsace. He regarded the
complex not simply as a factory, but as a work of art in its own right.
In 1921, Ettore became its owner, having previously rented it for 5,000 marks a year. His dominant role in the company culminated in the purchase of the Château St. Jean. As the king of Molsheim, he obviously needed a castle. None of this was necessary to run a car factory; it was simply about creating an image and satisfying his own whims as its owner. In fact, if there had not been so many anecdotes associated with his name, the Bugatti marque probably would not enjoy such prestige today. Throughout his life, Ettore never gave up. For all his major successes, there were also huge setbacks, including the loss of his son and his factories in two world wars. He retained his passion for designing things until his dying day, succumbing to pneumonia on 21 July 1947, aged 66, in the American military hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine.
THE MAN BEHIND THE MYTH
Compared to other famous automotive designers of his time, such as Vittorio Jano, Ferdinand Porsche,
Mark Birkigt or W.O. Bentley, Ettore Bugatti was certainly a flamboyant character in more ways than one. He was six years younger than Jano and seven years older than Bentley, and in purely technical terms they were undoubtedly superior to Bugatti. Yet they had nothing of his creative background, resulting
from being born into an artistic family.
Ettore Isidoro Arco Bugatti was born on 15 September 1881 as the eldest son of Carlo and Theresa Bugatti in Milan. It was his parents’ desire that the young Ettore should follow in his father’s artistic footsteps, while his brother Rembrandt, born in 1884, should pursue a technical career. In the end, it was
to be the reverse.
Rembrandt was the artist in the family and Ettore began his apprenticeship with the bicycle manufacturers Prinetti & Stucchi. Although he was never to study engineering at university, he designed machines at a furious pace. Each day he filled numerous pages of his famous notepads (over 20,000 of his sketches have survived), and not just with car designs: he also churned out ideas for
fishing boats, spaghetti machines and medical instruments. He seemed to see room for improvement in almost everything and ended up owning no fewer than 500 patents!
At his factory, Ettore was never satisfied with second best. He always wanted the best available and if it did not meet his expectations he simply made it himself. Thus, many of the tools in Molsheim were of his own
design, including the feet of the wooden workbenches and the vices used by his workers. Even the entrance and oak doors to the factory were Bugatti originals. He did not consider his Atelier as just another factory; he saw it much more as a complete work of art. And none of his contemporaries set any great store by such things.
THE DAWNING OF A NEW ERA
Ettore Bugatti was in his prime as motor racing became a spectator sport. It had shed ist image of dirty exhaust gases and dusty roads and instead was taking on a more glamorous air, with a touch of the heroic
and romantic. This perfectly suited the artist and aesthete Ettore, who saw it as his vocation to define the new fashion. Following his company’s triumph in Brescia and the steady income from racing car sales, Ettore decided to move his image up a level or two.
After all, he was now truly a factory owner and no longer wanted to be remembered for his overalls and peaked cap. Strangely, there are many references in the literature glorifying Ettore’s appearance, in particular his tasteful clothing. Yet this is not apparent from the thousands of photos available.
There are, on the other hand, contemporary references to his relatively short height, and his penchant for riding apparel even when miles away from a horse. Ultimately, Ettore’s purchase of the Château St. Jean in Molsheim in May 1928 made him “Le Patron”, and this is all he ever wanted to be. For his drivers, his employees and Bugatti clients.