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ETTORE BUGATTI IS celebrated as a designer of automobiles, an artist who happened to run a factory as well. However, le Patron was also, early in his career, a race driver.
Ettore Bugatti’s race car driving is cited in the Christie’s auction catalog, May 22, 1990. The auction’s venue was an elegant one, Loews Hotel, at the famous downhill hairpin on the Monaco Grand Prix circuit. This particular Bugatti was a 1912 Type 16. This was the car raced by le Patron not long after he resigned from Deutz in Cologne, Germany, to establish his own company in 1910 in an old Molsheim, Alsace, dye works.
Bugatti had driven a Deutz-chassis car in the 1910 Prince Henry Trial. The Christie’s catalog notes that there’s strong evidence that this earlier car used Engine No. 471, the same 5027-cc inline-four powering his 1912 Type 16 race car.
This engine wasn’t particularly large for its day; race cars with twice its displacement weren’t unknown. It was the first to feature the Bugatti-characteristic three valves per cylinder, two intake and one exhaust, these actuated by rocker arms and a single overhead camshaft. Christie’s cites the engine as producing 90 hp at 2800 rpm.
A four-speed gearbox and rear-axle chain drive gave the car long legs for the time, said to be capable of cruising effortlessly at 80-90 mph. In 1981, the Type 16 was timed at 108 mph at Britain’s Vintage Sports Car Club Speed Trial.
Typical of the era’s streamlining, the Type 16 was fitted with a sharply tapered, wind-cheating tail. As this precluded any rear-mounted luggage rack, Bugatti fashioned a mount for his traveling case ahead of the radiator, this latter already of the Bugatti horseshoe shape.
In 1912, Bugatti drove his Type 16 in competition at Le Mans, then a venue for the Sarthe Cup, not yet the 24-hour endurance first run in 1923. Later in 1912, he competed in the car at the Mont Ventoux Hill Climb, with a class win and fourth overall.
The Type 16 was sold in 1914 to the Duke of Bavaria, who replaced its pointy-tail body with touring coachwork. Other custodians included a Swiss champion motorcycle racer and a succession of British Bugattists.
More recently, Ettore Bugatti’s personal race car has been exercised at venues such as the 2009 Goodwood Festival of Speed.
Ettore Bugatti wasn’t the only automaker to race cars. Enzo Ferrari made his competitive debut in the 1919 Parma-Poggio di Berceto hill climb at the wheel of a C.M.N., Costruzioni Meccaniche Nazionali. By that time, le Patron had already turned over Bugatti racing responsibilities to Ernest Friderich and others.
In time, Bugatti drivers such as Pierre De Vizcaya, Louis Chiron and René Dreyfus made the marque well nigh unbeatable. Le Patron showed the way. ds