How can one explain the mammoth 1926-1932 Type 41 Royale? The answer lies in the man himself.
Ettore Bugatti died in 1947 after 66 years "full of frenzy and creation," to use journalist Ken Purdy's words. Thirty of those years he spent building some 7,800 cars-mostly lithe racers and sportstourers unrivalled for handling, performance, and craftsmanship.
All Bugattis mirrored their creator, but the Royale was perhaps the fullest reflection. Purdy described Ettore Bugatti as "an Italian who lived his life in France among Frenchmen, and was, they said, un type...a character...greatly gifted, proud, unswervingly independent, indifferent to any opinion but his own ...aristocratic, impractical, profligate..."
He was just as much the Michelangelo of motoring. Born the son and brother of artists, he believed "a technical creation cannot be perfect until it is perfect from an aesthetic point of view." How strong was that belief? Look no further than the simple visual elegance of most any Bugatti engine, or even front suspension.
But Ettore also possessed the great drive and native mechanical ability of a Henry Ford -- and an equally monumental ego. The story is told of the Parisian Bugatti owner who, still dissatisfied with several details on his car after two visits to the dealer, went in again and met Le Patron himself. "You are the one who has brought his [car] back three times?" Bugatti asked. Thinking things would be put right at last, the customer said yes. "Do not," Bugatti huffed, "let it happen again."
By that time, as Purdy observed, Bugatti "had earned the right to be arrogant." He had, after all, built his first car from the ground up in 1898 at the age of only 17. A second car completed the following year won him a gold medal at a 1901 exhibition in his native Milan -- and an engineering job with the French automaker De Dietrich.
After brief stints at Mathis, Deutz in Germany, and Isotta-Fraschini, Bugatti decided to build his own cars based on a miniature chassis he'd constructed around 1908: a four-cylinder shaft-drive design evidently inspired by the contemporary Isotta Coupe de Voiturettes. With financial backing from a Monsieur de Viscaya, he set up in an old dye works near Molsheim, then in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, later the Bas-Rhin district of Germany.
On the next page, learn of the ideas leading to the Bugatti Type 41 Royale.
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The Ideas Leading to the Type 41
Like Enzo Ferrari in the late 1940s, Bugatti established his automaking credentials through racing. It started with the 1911 Grand Prix du Mans, where Ernest Friederich, Ettore's friend, associate, and mechanic, drove a tiny 1.4-liter Bugatti to second place behind a monstrous six-liter Fiat.
"The disparity in, size between the two cars made the victory most impressive," Purdy wrote. "Bugatti was famous from that day forward." After World War I, more impressive Bugattis turned in more impressive performances, including an outright Le Mans victory in 1920. In 1924-1927, Bugattis racked up no fewer than 1,851 wins.
By that time, Molsheim had grown from 65 to over 1,000 employees -- about a third of the town's population -- who worked in greatly expanded physical facilities that Bugatti ruled like a kingly father -- Le Patron.
Besides a complex of one-story factory buildings (kept surgically clean at his insistence and fitted with identical door locks to which only he held the master key) there was a museum housing the sculpture of his brother Rembrandt, another for Ettore's carriage collection, a kennel, stables (horses were Bugatti's second love), vineyards, a family chateau, and an inn for favored clients, L'Hostellerie du Pur Sang: literally "hotel of the pure blood," as in thoroughbred horses-and motorcars. Each day, Le Patron toured his fiefdom by bicycle or electric car of his own design, dressed like some Hollywood mogul -- and dispensing nobless oblige like a feudal lord.
A "Car for Kings" might be expected from so imperious an industrialist. One of the many stories woven into the fabric of the Bugatti legend concerns Ettore's dinner with a certain English gentlewoman who remarked (according to Purdy): "Everyone knows you build the greatest racing cars in the world, and the best sports cars. But for a town carriage of real elegance, one must go to Rolls-Royce or Daimler, isn't that so?"
Though the Type 41 allegedly sprang from this "challenge," correspondence indicates that Bugatti had been contemplating such a car since at least 1913. That it was delayed 13 years was due mainly to a lack of resources at the time, then the intervention of World War I, plus his desire that the "machinery" be "beyond any criticism."
Learn more about 1926-1932 Bugatti Type 41 Royale's exclusive clientèle on the next page.
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Selling the Exclusive Type 41
When the Bugatti Type 41 was finally finished it was nearly beyond comprehension, so grand was its scale. The engine, for example, was a monobloc straight eight of by-then established Bugatti design, with a single overhead camshaft and three valves per cylinder (two intakes, one exhaust) -- only it derived from Ettore's wartime Type 34 aero powerplant and was thus some five feet long and 770 pounds heavy.
Pistons the size of coffee cans and a two-piece crankshaft, itself weighing 220 pounds, gave an astounding 12.8-liters displacement -- and that was destroked from the planned 14.7-liter unit of the Royale prototype. Valve jobs meant removing crank, rods, and pistons, but Ettore didn't care. If you could afford a Bugatti, you could afford to hire out the dirty work.
The chassis was also typical Bugatti -- and gigantic: a channeled pressed-steel affair varying in cross-section from one inch at the ends to 10 inches at the passenger compartment. Front suspension was by semi-elliptic leaf springs poking through square holes in a hollow, tubular steel axle that provided "independence" by being in two pieces, joined in the middle, each free to move a little. At the rear were four upside-down quarter-elliptics, one pair ahead of the axle, the other behind, with trailing rods for added longitudinal location.
The transmission, a three-speed "crash-box" in unit with the differential, took power from a combined flywheel/multi-plate clutch mounted beneath the front seat to run in its own oil bath (actually a fine mist). And that power traveled a ways, for the wheelbase measured 169 inches -- more than the overall length of today's Alfa Romeo Spider. Brakes were massive, beautifully cast 18-inch aluminum drums integral with 24 x 7-inch alloy wheels, each secured by 32 stud-bolts.
A car so exclusive that even brochures were deemed unnecessary, the Type 41 was sold only as a bare chassis at a price commensurate with its towering size and presence: $25,000, more than twice the cost of the best, fully bodied Rolls-Royce. Buyers, of course, were presumed financially able to furnish their own bodywork, which brought the final price to around $40,000 -- say around a half million dollars in today's money.
That implied a super-select clientele, but Ettore did the selecting, and you needed more than mere money to buy. Achievement and social standing counted greatly with him. It also helped to be royal, though even that didn't guarantee acceptance. King Zog of Albania was refused a car because of table manners Le Patron judged as "beyond belief."
The car was announced with word that Spain's King Alphonso XIII would be the first owner-hence La Royale, some say -- but he was deposed before he could take delivery. Ironically, the "Car of Kings" was never sold to a monarch, reigning or otherwise.
The first production chassis wasn't delivered until some four years after announcement, by which time the Depression had forced cutting the planned 25 units to only six, including the prototype chassis. The latter, Number 41100, began with modified touring bodywork from a contemporary Packard Eight, then went through three more bodies (including a lovely prize-winning Weymann coach) before Ettore wrecked it.
Fully repaired, it was given an elegant town car style penned by Ettore's talented eldest son Jean. This Coupe Napolean survives today at France's Musee Nationale de l'Automobile, the former Schlumpf brothers collection in Mulhouse.
On the next page, learn about the 1926-1932 Bugatti Type 41 Royale's legacy.
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The Royale Legacy
Some of the early Bugatti coupes survived into the 1930s. The five production Royales also survived, and have equally involved histories. Number 41111 was built as a beautiful Jean Bugatti roadster, then received Coupe de Ville bodywork by Henri Binder of Paris, retained to this day. Royale 41121 resides at the Henry Ford Museum with its original two-seat cabriolet coachwork by Ludwig Weinberger of Munich. Number 41131 has also had but one body: a six-window "D-back" limousine type with sporty sidemount spares by Park Ward of London; it, too, now lives at the French museum.
Royale 41141, bodied as a two-door coach by Kellner of Paris, remained in Molsheim for years after Le Patron's death as the personal car of his daughter L'Ebe; it was purchased in 1950 by American Briggs Cunningham, and remained in his collection until 1987, when it sold at auction to an unnamed British collector for $9.8 million. That was the highest price ever paid for a car at the time, eclipsing the previous record set by ... another Royale.
This was 41150, the odd Berline de Voyage "cabriolet-limousine" once part of the Harrah Collection (along with 41111), acquired in late 1986 for $8.1 million by American pizza baron Tom Monaghan.
The few who've actually experienced a Royale report it surprisingly easy to drive. Of course, those heroic proportions make for cautious maneuvering like that required in a semi-trailer truck, but the steering is pleasantly manageable, performance adequate, ride firmly sporting, and handling of such a high order that the beast actually seems to shrink around you after awhile.
But the Royale was less a car for driving than for arriving: one to be seen in, one to make you the envy of all whom you'd deign to survey -- the ultimate automotive statement. Then again, what else from Ettore Bugatti, a man whose life, as Ken Purdy wrote, was "full of such gestures. Indeed, his whole life was a gesture. A sweeping, magnificent gesture."
Get specifications for the 1926-1932 Bugatti Type 41 Royale on the next page.
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1926-1932 Bugatti Type 41 Royale Specifications
The 1926-1932 Bugatti Type 41 Royales were ultra-exclusive cars. Get specifications for these fine automobiles.
Engine: sohc 1-8 prototype 898.6 cid/14,726 cc (4.92 × 5.91-in./125 × 150-mtm bore × stroke), output NA; “production” 778.8 cid/12,763 cc (4.92 × 5.11-in./125 × 130-mm), 200 bhp @ 1,700-2,000 rpm
Transmission: 3-speed manual in unit with final drive
Suspension, front: Tubular axle on semi-elliptic leaf springs, friction/hydraulic dampers
Suspension, rear: Solid axle on dual inverted quarter-elliptic leaf springs, dual radius rods, friction/hydraulic dampers
Brakes: Cable-operated front/rear drums (integral with wheels)
Weight (lbs): 6,000-7,000, depending on body
Top speed (mph): 100
0-60 mpg (sec): est. 18.0
Production: 6, including prototype