1931 Bugatti Type 41
1931 Bugatti Type 41 Royale (in background).

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Click here for more photos of the Bugatti Type 41.

The world’s auto producing countries have built many magnificent cars throughout the history of the automobile, cars like America’s Duesenberg SJ and Cadillac V16, Britain’s Rolls-Royce Phantom III, Spain’s Hispano-Suiza V-12, Belgium’s Minerva AL, Germany’s Mercedes-Benz 540K, and Italy’s Isotta-Fraschini 8A. But grand though they were, none carried quite the cachet of the mightiest of them all, the Bugatti Royale, built in France by an exacting and somewhat eccentric Italian artist-cum-engineer named Ettore Bugatti.

Bugatti was born in 1881. He studied architecture and art in Milan, but when he recognized that his younger brother Rembrandt had superior artistic talent, he switched to engineering. It was not in Ettore’s nature to be second best at anything.

Following employment with several motor vehicle manufacturers, Ettore set himself up as an automotive consulting engineer. He worked for the Deutz company of Cologne, Germany, and by 1909 had constructed a light car of his own design.

On the strength of his reputation and this vehicle, he was able to obtain financial backing to establish his own automobile manufacturing company in 1909. It was housed in a former dye works in the town of Molsheim, located in Alsace (now Bas-Rhin), France, which was then part of Germany.

Although Bugattis featured intricate and often unorthodox engineering, they were highly effective, and the Bugatti works soon became famous. Ettore entered one of his small four-cylinder cars in the 1913 French Grand Prix, and in competition against racers of much larger engine displacement its superior road holding enabled it to finish an astonishing second. Tenacious road holding was a quality for which M. Bugatti’s cars would become renowned.

During the First World War, in which Alsace-Lorraine was a battleground, Bugatti moved to France where he designed aircraft engines for the French government. One of his aero engines was a highly unusual 16-cylinder unit comprised of two straight-eights mounted vertically (not in a vee) on a common crankcase.

When peace came Bugatti returned to building road and competition cars in Molsheim. His cars continued to do well in competition, and by 1924 he had designed his small spare, Type 35. With its beautifully sculpted. jewel-like straight-eight engine it was an imaginatively engineered little machine. It would prove to be the most successful racing car of all time. During 1925 and ’26, Type 35s won over 1,000 races, an amazing accomplishment for such a tiny firm.

The 1920s were Bugatti’s golden years, and it was during this period that he conceived the mightiest Bugatti of all, the culmination of his auto building dreams. It was Type 41 Royale, and although Bugatti planned to build 25 cars, only six would ultimately be produced (a seventh has been rumoured).

The prototype was completed in 1927 with a 4,572 mm (180 in.) wheelbase, a figure that would be reduced by 254 mm (10 in.) when the Royale went into production. The prototype was fitted with a Packard body, later replaced with a custom body. All Royales would carry custom coachwork.

Although the prototype’s engine was 14.7 litres (898 cu in.), production Royales had a slightly smaller straight-eight. They had a bore and stroke of 125 by 130 mm (4.92 X 5.12 in.), for a displacement of 12.7 litres (779 cu in.).

The massive 100 kg (220 lb) crankshaft rotated in nine main bearings, cooled by the water jacket that extended down to crankcase level. The cylinder head was integral with the block, and the valves were actuated by a single overhead camshaft. Horsepower probably approached 300, with the engine turning no more than 2,500 rpm. This imposing machinery reposed under a 2134 mm (7 ft) long hood.

Power went to the rear wheels through a three speed manual transmission in which the all-purpose second gear was direct drive; third was recommended only for high speeds.

The 3,266 kg (7200 lb) Royale had a 4,318 mm (170 in.) wheelbase, and was some 7,000 mm (20 feet) long. It rode on 36 X 6.75 inch tires. Top speed was probably in the 145 to 161 km/h (90 to 100 mph) range, although higher figures have been published. At 113 km/h (70 mph) in top gear the big eight was turning only about 1,000 rpm, far slower than any modern car.

The production Royales were completed in 1931-32, which unfortunately was during the Great Depression. This affected sales, and plans were abandoned for the original run of 25 cars. Although the Royale was apparently created for European royalty, it is said that no royalty ever bought one.

Some of the extra engines were fitted to rail cars, which enabled them to attain speeds up to 190 km/h (118 mph). One reportedly broke the Paris to Strasbourg speed record.

That the Type 41 Bugatti Royale was not a financial success must have been a bitter disappointment to Ettore Bugatti. He was after all an artist first and an engineer second, and had lavished all of his prodigious talents on producing what he considered to be the world’s finest motor car, only to have it rejected.

Those six Royales, conceived in the golden twenties, and disregarded in the penurious thirties, remain almost priceless collectibles today. Ettore Bugatti died in 1947.

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