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The Artistic Automotive Design of Ettore Bugatti

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Grandson of an architect. Son of a designer of art-nouveau furniture and jewelry. Nephew of a painter. Brother of a sculptor, and designer of legends. Ettore Arco Isidoro Bugatti was not the first with the Bugatti name to be world-renowned, but his impact on the world may have been the most lasting. At least, it is on the asphalt.

Ettore Bugatti, or “Le Patron” as he came to be known, was born Sept. 15, 1881, the oldest son of Carlo Bugatti and Teresa Lorioli. Carlo was renowned for his art-nouveau inspired design work in many fields, including ceramics, musical instruments, silverware and textiles, but his most famous work came in the form of furniture. Bugatti furnishings were first displayed at the 1888 Fine Arts Fair in Milan. That same summer, his furniture was in its first international show at the Italian Exhibition in London, where it gained a group of avidly devoted fans and was awarded an honorary prize.

Carlo’s artistic flair gained him much notoriety, and his children did not fail to notice. Better yet, both sons pushed forward in differing realms to further the influence of the Bugatti name. After Ettore was born, the family welcomed Deanice in 1883 and Rembrandt in 1884. Rembrandt took a page from Carlo’s book and attended the same school as his father, studying at the Brera Academy in Milan. The Sept. 19 release of this year’s new Bugatti lifestyle collection was held at the Academy to commeorate the family’s love of the institution. Today, Rembrandt’s sculptures are coveted collectors items, with his bronzed animals depicting wild nature with immaculate detail. Most notorious is his dancing elephant, a consistent symbol associated with the Bugatti name to this day.

Ettore Bugatti (Source: Bugatti)
Ettore Bugatti (Source: Bugatti)

Ettore took a different route. Serious study never really came; his automotive career began with a prodigious start. At 17 and as an apprentice he joined Prinetti & Stucchi, a bicycle and tricycle manufacturing plant where he built his first engine-driven tricycle. He created his first automobile in 1900, and at the age of 19 set himself up for a revolutionary career. His first foray was financed by Count Gulinelli and recognized with an award at the Milan Industry Fair that year.

The talent within that first design was so well recognized  that Ettore left his native Milan for the De Dietrich manufacturing plant. He began his position as the new Technical Director in July 1902, but because he was still technically underage, his father had to sign Ettore’s employment contract for him. He remained with the company for three years before he left and, at 24 years old, pursued a career in freelanced car development and manufacturing.

Yet that freelancing only lasted as long as his status as single. In 1907 he met a young Barbara Giuseppina Mascherpa, who changed her name that same summer to Barbara Bugatti. Sept. 1 of that very same year, Barbara and Ettore departed for Cologne, Germany, where Ettore was set to begin his multi-year contract with the gasoline-engine plant Gasmotoren-Fabrik Deutz. It was from this position that Bugatti Automobile was spawned.

Bugatti Type 13 (Source: WorldCarsList.com)
Bugatti Type 13 (Source: WorldCarsList.com)

1909 saw another rapid-fire list of major life events for 28 year old Ettore. Jean, his first son, came into the world. Ettore also completed the design of an extremely lightweight and powerful vehicle in his basement, and shortly thereafter preemptively ended his employment at Deutz. The severance pay he received went directly toward the purchase of an ex-dyeworks plant in Molsheim, Alsace, where production of the Bugatti T13 began. The Type 13 was the first to be produced by Bugatti and the factory saw rampant success over the next 30 years.

They could say the rest of Ettore’s story is history, forever entangled with the history of his company. It was the company that eventually took Jean from him, when the test drive of a Type 57 C went horribly awry. It was Aug. 11, 1939, and Barbara passed away that same year, leaving Ettore alone not very long before the plant itself was destroyed by the ravages of World War 2.

Bugatti Type 57C (SOurce: Hemmings.com)
Bugatti Type 57C (Source: Hemmings.com)

Jean’s brother Roland attempted to keep the manufacturer alive after the war, but the rapidly moving ball of automotive development that Ettore set into motion proved too fast for Roland. He simply wasn’t ever able to catch up. The company went bankrupt and shut its doors for decades, until the name was revived as Bugatti Automobili SpA by Romano Artioli in 1987, exactly 40 years after Ettore’s death. It was purchased again by Volkswagen in 1998, and has been alive since under the label of Bugatti Automobiles S.A.S.. While no direct members of the Bugatti family may own the brand any more, each of the latest models holding Ettore’s moniker would undoubtedly make him proud.