Past Imperfect


From the archives of Bob Montgomery, motoring historian

BUGATTI - THE FINAL YEARS: The outbreak of the second World War was a very difficult time for Ettore Bugatti. Despite moving the entire factory to the relative safety of Bordeaux, the fall of France in 1940 meant that his beloved factory fell into the invaders' hands. The Germans re-organised the factory to produce on behalf of their war effort and as a result it became a target for Allied bombing.

The inevitable happened in November 1940 when the RAF extensively damaged the Bugatti factory. On his arrival there the following morning, Ettore found himself barred by armed guards from entry. No longer allowed entry to his factory, Ettore returned to Paris, where he set up a drawing office on the Avenue Hoche.

Officially, he was in retirement and indeed his health was failing but in reality this was a golden period of design for Ettore - working on designs for cars, aircraft, engines, boats and machine tools, all in anticipation of more peaceful times.

The office was also a centre of resistance and sabotage, primarily through the covert activities of two members of the pre-war Bugatti racing team, Robert Benoist and Grover Williams.

The strain of the years of occupation took their toll on the Bugatti family. The tragic death of Jean Bugatti on the eve of the war and the anxieties suffered under the occupation led to a breakdown of the health of Madame Bugatti, who died a few days before Paris was liberated.

In response, Ettore threw himself into the design of a new 1500cc racing car anticipating a post-war revival in motor sport. (This was the car with which Wimelle won the first post war race in Europe - the Prisoners of War Cup in 1946). With peace, he also anticipated returning to Molsheim and reviving the factory there that had been taken by the Reich.

Instead, he found it claimed by the new French state. Bugatti vigorously contested this action but lost, and with that ruling lost the opportunity to return to car manufacture. Instead, while still contesting the ruling, Bugatti still found time to turn his attention to some revolutionary ideas for the design of sea-going yachts.

Finally, refusing to accept that his Molsheim factory had become the property of the French state as enemy property, Bugatti appealed the case in Strasbourg and this time the ruling was entirely in his favour.

Despite the hardship this protracted legal battle had caused him, Ettore Bugatti appeared to have lost none of his old enthusiasm and showed no recriminations: he simply wanted to do what he had always done best, create. But a chill caught on the return to Paris from the final victorious court battle left him weak and he developed influenza, followed by a blocked artery which left him partly paralysed.

Despite the best of care he slipped in and out of a coma before he died on August 21st 1947 at the American Hospital in Neuilly. Aged 66, he thus never had the joy of seeing his beloved factory return to production of the cars which bore his name.

With the death of Ettore Bugatti, the final spark of magic surrounding the products of Molshem died. Never again would a car manufacturer exist whose products were themselves pieces of art given life by one of the great artists of the 20th century. Ettore Bugatti, the greatest artist of the automotive world, producer of great works of art, was unique in motoring's long history.