Bugatti: The Marriage of Art and Design

By Mark Yost
The Wall Street Journal

Oxnard, Calif.

BugattiThere have been many exhibits on Bugatti, but none quite like the one now at the Mullin Automotive Museum. “The Art of Bugatti” looks not only at the gorgeous cars that defined the Art Deco movement’s marriage of art and design, but at the Bugatti family itself—Italians whose story often gets lost in the glare of the headlights of their fabulous French creations.

“If you think about it, there has been no other family like them in the past 500 years—with multiple generations that have had such influence on art and design,” said Peter Mullin, an insurance billionaire and collector who has a soft spot for the Art Deco period and its pieces. You could debate that, but what’s not disputable is the depth and breadth of this exhibit, which features 27 Bugatti automobiles, the single-largest collection of the luxurious marques ever displayed (many of them from Mr. Mullin’s private collection), and a thorough history of the family told through paintings, sculptures, furniture, manuscripts, design sketches and other heirlooms, some on display to the public for the first time.

The tone of the exhibit, officially curated by Brittanie Kinch but very much a labor of love for Mr. Mullin, is set early when visitors enter a circular gallery—one curved wall featuring short biographies of the Bugattis; the other, a timeline of the cars. Visitors learn that automotive patriarch Carlo (1856-1940), the son of architect and sculptor Giovanni, was as well known for his silverware and furniture—his Art Nouveau Snail Room furniture suite wowed crowds at the 1902 Turin Exposition of Decorative Art—as for his automobiles. His son Rembrandt (1884-1916) hewed to the art world, while Ettore (1881-1947) would take the car company to what many consider its pinnacle of artistry.

Bugatti 2To reflect the exhibit’s theme that the family’s artistry spread well beyond the garage, works such as Rembrandt Bugatti’s 1908 sculpture “American Bison,” cast in bronze at Paris’s Hébrard Foundry, are intermingled with four cars, including a 1929 Bugatti Type 46 coupé. A short film in the exhibit further connects these dots, noting the similarity between the sleek lines of Rembrandt’s 1914 bronze sculpture “Stalking Panther” and those of the 1936 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic, considered one of the greatest creations of Jean Bugatti (1909-1939), son of Ettore, and a car that Mr. Mullin bought for an estimated $35 million in 2010.

Also on display throughout the museum—which has devoted all of its nearly 47,000 square feet of display space to the Bugattis—is a rare Carlo Bugatti banjo, circa 1898; a Carlo Bugatti oil-on-canvas portrait of his wife, Thérèse; and a 1927 Ettore Bugatti wooden horse-drawn carriage.

An interactive kiosk in the second major gallery—Bugatti Power—compares and contrasts the engine that Ettore built for the luxurious Type 41 “Royale” (more than 12,000cc, producing 300 horsepower at 1,800rpm) and the engine that his eldest son, Jean, built for the sportier Type 50 (a little less than 5,000cc that produced 225 horsepower at 4,000rpm). It notes that if there was any rivalry among the talented Bugattis, it was between those two men. “He took creative and financial risks that gave even his famously idealistic father pause,” the kiosk says of Jean, who was killed when he was just 30, testing a Type 57 racer that had just won Le Mans.

The Type 41 (1926-33) was one of the most expensive cars ever built because of its size, engineering and materials used. It cost more than 650,000 francs, or six times the average price of a Rolls-Royce. Ettore had planned to build 25 Type 41s, but made only six (and sold only three) because even Europe’s aristocracy, crimped by the Great Depression, found them too expensive. Jean’s Type 57, a panel here tells us, was in direct response to the decline of the luxury market in the 1930s. From 1934 to 1939, 660 Type 57s were produced in three versions: standard, the sportier 57S, and the 57SC that Mr. Mullin acquired in 2010. The Type 57, with its sleek lines, oversize fenders and bulbous cockpit, we’re told, “cemented Jean’s position in the high pantheon of automotive artists and made him a worthy contemporary of 20th-century modernists like Picasso and Chagall.”

Many of these cars were made at the Alsatian estate that Carlo Bugatti bought in 1909. True to the Art Nouveau movement, even the hinges on the factory doors in Molsheim, France, where Bugattis are still made today by its parent company Volkswagen, VOW3.XE +0.41% were custom-made and fabricated on site.

While all of this family background is news to many, the true stars of this exhibit are the cars. In addition to the models previously mentioned, all of which are on display here, the pièce de résistance is the Type 64 that Jean was working on when he was killed. Mr. Mullin has put his considerable resources into completing the unfinished masterwork, built to what many believe would have been Jean’s wishes and based upon a handful of drawings Jean made of the prototype. Mr. Mullin’s version includes a hybrid aluminum body that’s impossible to weld because of its metallic properties and instead is riveted like an airplane. In displaying the car, Mr. Mullin chose to suspend the body a few feet above the chassis, because “what’s underneath is as beautiful as the exterior,” he said.

Next to the completed car is a beautiful mahogany buck, a new wooden silhouette like the ones that auto makers used to build so they could hand-shape the individual body pieces and hang them. “Auto makers, of course, don’t do that anymore,” Mr. Mullin said. “It’s a lost art. So I thought it was important.”

It is important, as is most everything shown in this exhibit—one of the best ever put together showcasing the marriage of art and the automobile.

Mr. Yost is a writer in Houston.

About Mark Yost
Mark Yost is the author of the Rick Crane Noir series, published by Stay Thirsty Press. Rick Crane is the classic, anti-hero private eye in the spirit of Sam Spade and Jim Rockford. He works in the unmistakably noirish underworld of Upstate New York, running errands and fixing problems for Jimmy Ricchiati Sr., one of Upstate New York's most notorious crime bosses. But readers quickly learn that deep down, Rick Crane is one of the good guys. "Cooper's Daughter," the first book in the widely acclaimed series, is a fast-moving tale in which a heartbroken father comes to Rick and asks him to find out what really happened to his daughter, who was murdered and the details buried in the Unsolved Crimes File of the local police department. The second book in the series is "Jimmy's Nephew," which begins with the death of Joey "Boom Boom" Bonadeo, an up-and-coming boxer and the nephew of Rick's underworld boss. What starts out as a routine investigation turns into a case that will test Rick's faith -- in the Catholic Church and his fellow man. Book No. 3 in the series, "Mary's Fate" is due out in August 2015. Mark Yost also writes for The Wall Street Journal Arts in Review page, as well as the Book Review section. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America -- Midwest Chapter, International Thriller Writers, and a number of other author groups. He is also a member of the Amazon Author's Program. Mark lives in the Loyola neighborhood of Chicago, but he and his son, George, call the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn "home."

3 Responses to Bugatti: The Marriage of Art and Design

  1. Ed Shill says:

    Just read it hard copy – well done Yost!

    Ed Shill QCI Cell 734-0529


  2. Mark Yost says:

    Now I know what Matt Shill takes to auditions…..

  3. R M Watkins says:

    Really enjoyed the Bugatti piece. Sounds like the exhibit might be worthy of a book, coffeetable style or otherwise. Fascinating people creating art as automobiles became a viable medium for such expression.

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