Many successful Bugatti racing drivers of the “golden era” were former pilots and perhaps not surprisingly many famous pilots were Bugatti enthusiasts.
Uncompromising racing cars and daring pilots. Bugatti is directly associated with numerous historic racing successes, in the glorious Grand Prix days of the brand. Racing cars produced by this French manufacturer from Alsace won several thousand competitions between 1920 and the mid-1930s alone. But apart from the extraordinary cars such as the legendary, agile and light Bugatti Type 35, the racing drivers in particular were largely responsible for this success. They were all cut from a very special cloth, sharing a passion for technology and speed, on land and in the air.
Aviation developed in parallel with the motor car, both of which were driven forward in France at the start of the 20th century. The first motorized aircraft took off in 1906, developed by a Brazilian living in Paris. Frenchman Louis Charles Breguet developed the first helicopter in 1907, and Frenchman Louis Blériot became the first man to fly across the English Channel in 1909. Ettore Bugatti decided to settle in Molsheim, Alsace that same year. The young developer loved extraordinary technology and was just as fascinated by aviation and pilots as he was by the motor car, which was still in its infancy. So it was hardly surprising that Bugatti didn’t just restrict himself to developing and designing light and powerful automobiles and thoroughbred racing cars, but developed speedboats, high-speed trains and aircraft as well. “Bugatti has been closely associated with motorsports and aviation for over 110 years. Early models demonstrate clear parallels to these two technical areas. This includes open mechanical systems, consistent lightweight construction a good power-to-weight ratio and initial attempts to improve aerodynamics,” says Stephan Winkelmann, President of Bugatti. “Ettore Bugatti also designed and produced a wide variety of high-precision, light, powerful and technically demanding machines. In addition to the uncompromising racing cars, this also includes aircraft engines, and his own constructed aircraft.”
The first aircraft engine built by Bugatti around 1915 was a massive eight-cylinder inline engine producing 250 PS. These were followed by 16-cylinder engines with two blocks of eight cylinders, each positioned vertically side-by-side on a shared crankcase. The French government had no interest in the aircraft engines, but the Americans did. The further-developed King Bugatti 16-cylinder aircraft engine delivered 420 PS at about 2,000 rpm. It was planned to build at least 2,000 of these engines, but this plan was rendered obsolete when the First World War came to an end in November 1918. Probably only 40 of these engines were produced. Bugatti devoted himself increasingly to his vehicles in the years that followed, but in 1925 he still built a 16-cylinder aircraft engine, the Type 34, which he later used in a modified form in the Type 41 Royale. Ettore Bugatti was also interested in aviation on a personal level: he maintained close contact with former First World War pilots throughout his life. They wanted to transfer the allure of speed from the air to the road. And this was an idea that particularly appealed to Ettore Bugatti.
Louis Blériot was the first Frenchman to drive a Bugatti. This was a real honor for Ettore Bugatti, because Blériot was already famous by then. In July 1909, he became the first person to cross the English Channel in an aeroplane with the Blériot XI, a machine he developed himself, and became a national hero in France. It took him just 37 minutes to cover the approximately 35 kilometers from Calais to Dover. This didn’t go unnoticed by Ettore Bugatti either, who at the time was working as a design engineer at Gasmaschinenfabrik Deutz AG in Cologne. At an air show in Cologne, Ettore Bugatti asked Louis Blériot to stay at his house in Cologne and chauffeured him to the airport in the car he designed himself. Blériot was enthusiastic about the car and implored Bugatti to build the car himself. At that time, the 1909 Type 10 was just a draft design – still before Bugatti founded his own company. The vehicle anticipates what the brand Bugatti has stood for ever since: powerful and fast vehicles with a sometimes unrivalled power-to-weight ratio. With a weight of around 365 kilograms and an output of 10 PS, the car was able to reach speeds of up to 80 km/h, something which appealed to the pilot Louis Blériot. The two entrepreneurs kept in touch for life. Blériot remained loyal to flying, founded his own aircraft company and built his own aircraft. The aviation pioneer died in Paris in 1936.