OXNARD, CALIF. – Aficionados have argued for ages over which individual has had the greatest influence on the automobile.
Enzo Ferrari is a favorite. Traditionalists may side with Ettore Bugatti. Henry Ford has got the American vote, while Soichiro Honda rates high for innovation. Modernists might are the current chairman of the Volkswagen Group’s supervisory board, Ferdinand Piëch.
The Mullin Automotive Museum here, about 60 miles west of La, takes a broader view within its exhibition, “The Art of Bugatti.” The show, which opened last month, honors not just Ettore Bugatti, whose grand machines remain landmarks of design and engineering, but three generations of the Bugatti family, who produced a fascinating selection of creative works, though every one of those geniuses deserves a major show of his creations.
There are other genius families, concedes Peter W. , founder of the museum and chairman of M Financial, but they often follow a single discipline (with exceptions like Johann Sebastian Bach the Younger).73 and Mullin Mr. Both tied to the car business, though piëch may be the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche.
Mr. Mullin, a Best of Show winner at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Élégance and a lover of French cars, along with his guest curator, Brittanie Kinch, researched the family members’ artistic pursuits and gathered representative works by each.
Carlo Bugatti (1856-1940), born in Milan but living much of his adult life in France, was the patriarch. He was also known as a painter and designer of silver and jewelry tableware, despite the fact that his discipline was mainly Art Nouveau furniture.
Rembrandt Bugatti (1884-1916), a son of Carlo, experienced both tragedy and success. Given his name by an uncle – the noted Italian painter Giovanni Segantini – the story goes, this Rembrandt was a sculptor, specializing in animals cast in bronze. Located in Belgium in early 1900s, he would arrive early in the day at menageries like the Antwerp Zoo and fashion animal likenesses whilst the creatures were most active, all the easier to capture them in motion.
The tragic part: Rembrandt’s suicide at 31, thought to have been a direct result depression caused by his serving at a Red Cross military hospital in World War I and through the wartime killing of many of the zoo animals which had been his subjects.
Ettore Bugatti (1881-1947), Rembrandt’s brother, have also been an artist, but his medium was the automobile. Ettore’s creations ranged through the Type 10, a car so small he was able to build it in his basement, to the huge, and aptly named, Royale. His Type 35 is one of the most successful Grand Prix cars in history; what type 55s were arguably the epitome of pre-World War II sports cars; along with the various Type 57 models were a sublime blend of speed and type.
Yet that wasn’t enough. In their factory at Molsheim in Alsace – under German rule when the factory was established, but later component of France – Ettore designed huge railcars, small boats, even a radical airplane.
Jean Bugatti (1909-1939) was Ettore’s son and a mix of his forebears. While able to keep pace with this father’s technical prowess, Jean showed his creative side by designing bodies for Bugatti chassis. Lots of the elegant Type 57 bodies came from Jean’s drawing board, the most spectacular being the Atlantics. Only two Atlantics remain, one out of the Mullin museum and the other within the collection of Ralph Lauren.
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Tragedy struck the Bugatti family again when Jean died in the freak accident in 1939 while testing a racecar known as the Tank, a Type 57G that had recently won the round the clock of Le Mans.
Those are the main characters in the Bugatti drama, though the show also displays paintings, drawings and sculptures by Lidia Bugatti, a daughter of Ettore.
In the museum, decorated similar to a prewar French auto salon, Carlo’s work stands out for the decidedly eclectic design, including thronelike chairs with nonmatching posts on either side, one with a carving at its top, one other post appearing to be topped by a lampshade.
One should not be certain how comfortable the chairs might be, but they are a visual treat. Mr. Mullin relates the story the classic model of Bugatti grilles was taken not coming from a horseshoe, as widely believed, but the curves of Carlo’s chair legs.
In the exhibition, one could readily begin to see the passion in Rembrandt’s work: a bellowing elephant (one version that graces the hood of Type 41 Royale models) and a bison, its surface a shaggy coat you would love to touch. Still, Rembrandt’s specialty may have been big cats, an illustration of which is a stretching panther, its musculature as well as the curve of their back ultimately causing the arc of its tail, thoughtfully placed next to the Type 57SC Atlantic.
For all the flamboyance of Carlo’s creations and also the sublime appeal of Rembrandt’s bronzes, it is the cars that dominate this show, thanks to their fame – and their size.
The star is quite likely the Atlantic, considered by some being the Mona Lisa of motorcars. Today’s Bugatti Automobiles, part of the Volkswagen Group, produced the modern 1,200-horsepower Veyron 16.4 Super Sport in the show, and also sent for display a 19-foot 6-inch-long Royale assembled in 1932.
As opposed is the tiny Type 10 Le Petit Pur Sang, whose name translates to little thoroughbred. You will find a Type 55 Roadster, produced by Jean Bugatti, rotating slowly on a platform. Five unrestored vehicles, such as a wood-sided truck, serve as a reminder of the textile magnate Fritz Schlumpf, an infamous Bugatti hoarder.
For the beauty inside the exhibition, probably the most fascinating display is of a well-rusted hulk with only two wheels.
“Most people walk in to see the Atlantic but go out talking about the sweetness from the deep,” says Mr. Mullin, who is even the chairman in the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
It’s a story involving a 1925 Bugatti Type 22 lost in a poker game, its new owner unable to pay import duties and the car ending up 170 feet down in Lake Maggiore in Switzerland in excess of 70 years. The car was recovered in 2009, and Mr. Mullin purchased it at auction the next year for about $370,000.
In another display, an unfinished shell appears to levitate above a Type 64 chassis in Mr. Mullin’s collection who had never been bodied. Mr. Mullin had Jean Bugatti’s preliminary drawings for the car, which included papillon – French for butterfly – doors, hinged in the roof, predating Mercedes-Benz’s gullwing design.
Mr. Mullin asked Stewart Reed, head of the transportation design department at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., to “reimagine” a body for that chassis. Not wanting to hide the charm of the frame, wheels and driveline, Mr. Mullin has got the completed body – purposely unpainted – hovering above.
Then there is the 100P airplane. Ettore started working on it in the 1930s, intending to build a speed record setter. An unusual design, it has wings that sweep forward, a V-shape tail and a pair of 450-horspower engines behind the cockpit driving counterrotating propellers in the front. Only one was built, and is particularly at the AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh, Wis.; the 100P in the exhibition is a reproduction planned for flight this coming year.
While a closing date for “The Art of Bugatti” has not been set, anyone planning a visit – an experience bound to offer the feeling of stepping into the 1938 Paris Motor Show – should do so by year-end.