We recall the ill-fated 1987 revival of Bugatti and celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the one car it produced, the extraordinary EB110 hypercar.
Bugatti is undoubtedly one of the most revered names in the automotive firmament. The company’s heyday was its first era, under the ownership of Ettore Bugatti, its eponymous founder. Bugatti was born in Milan in 1881, the son of a successful Art Nouveau furniture designer. Although he chose engineering as his profession, an innate understanding and appreciation of fine art was very much part of both his genetic inheritance and upbringing, with renowned sculptors, painters and architects in his extended family. This would manifest itself in a series of cars that were not only technically accomplished, but things of great beauty that are still held in the highest regard today.
Tragically, Bugatti’s eldest son and likely heir, Jean, died in 1939 at the age of just 30 in an automobile accident while testing a Bugatti Type 57 racing car. Bugatti’s wife, Barbara, died in 1944 and, although he remarried in 1946, Bugatti died just a year later. Without a capable successor at the helm, the company foundered and was eventually purchased for its aircraft parts business in 1963.
The Bugatti name was bought by Italian businessman and entrepreneur, Romano Artioli(1), in 1987. Artioli formed a new company, Bugatti Automobili S.p.A. and built a factory in Campogalliano, a small town located 8km (5 miles) to the north-west of Modena(2) in Northern Italy. He wanted to revive the storied marque with a new flagship and hired automotive engineer Paolo Stanzani as Technical Director to lead the project. Stanzani had worked for Lamborghini from 1963 to 1975 and had been closely involved in the development of a succession of models from the Miura to the Countach, so was highly experienced in the type of car Artioli envisaged for Bugatti.
Artioli’s vision was not a supercar merely to compete with the flagship models from Ferrari and Lamborghini, but one that would comprehensively outperform them in power and torque, acceleration and maximum speed. It would be a hypercar and feature a rear mid-engine layout, a bespoke V12 engine, six-speed manual transmission and four-wheel-drive.
Artioli invited styling proposals for the new model, to be called the EB110, from Italdesign, Bertone, former Pininfarina designer Paolo Martin and former Bertone designer Marcello Gandini. The latter’s earlier work for Carrozzeria Bertone included the Lamborghini models engineered by Stanzani, so the two already had a good working relationship and it appeared that they might be the ideal pairing to lead the EB110 project.
Unfortunately, Artioli’s relationship with both Stanzani and Gandini became strained when Artioli disapproved of Stanzini’s design for a honeycomb aluminium chassis and disliked Gandini’s first styling proposal, which he regarded as rather brutal. The aluminium chassis was heavier than specified and hard-driven prototypes began to lose torsional rigidity, which had an adverse effect on handling.
Gandini refined the styling to a degree but, when Artioli insisted upon further changes, he demurred and quit the project. He was replaced, not by an automotive designer, but by an architect, Gianpaolo Benedini, whom Artioli had previously commissioned to design the new Bugatti factory in Campogalliano. Benedini retained Gandini’s overall design but rationalised the engine cooling ducts in the front end and replaced pop-up headlights with fixed units. The resulting design might not be conventionally beautiful, but it was certainly purposeful and even intimidating.
Fundamental disagreements over the chassis and other technical issues ultimately led to Stanzini’s departure from the project. He was replaced by Nicola Materazzi, who engaged French aeronautical company Aérospatiale to design and build a new carbon-fibre monocoque chassis which could achieve the required weight and torsional stiffness targets. Materazzi, working with engineers Oliviero Pedrazzi and Achille Bevini, developed and refined the engine design into something quite without precedent in the automotive industry.
The 3.5 litre engine had five valves per cylinder, four turbochargers and produced a maximum of 560bhp (418kW) of power at 8,000 rpm and 450 lb ft (610Nm) of torque at 4,200 rpm. These figures were enough to give the EB110 a claimed 0 to 62mph (100km/h) time of 3.5 seconds and a top speed of 212mph (342km/h). Despite these extraordinary performance figures, the car was intended for road use and came with the full complement of creature comforts that would be expected. It weighed 1,620kg (3,571 lbs) and sat on a wheelbase of 2,550mm (100½”). Overall length and width were 4,400mm (173¼”) and 1,940mm (76½”).
The EB110 GT was unveiled in Paris on 15th September 1991, exactly 110 years to the day after the birth of Ettore Bugatti, which explains the rather clinical and unevocative name chosen for the relaunch model. Six months later a more powerful and lighter SuperSport derivative was introduced. Carbon-fibre body panels reduced weight by 200kg (440lbs). Maximum power and torque were increased to 611bhp (456kW) at 8,250 rpm and 480 lb ft (651Nm) at 4,200 rpm. This reduced the claimed 0 to 62mph (100km/h) time to 3.3 seconds and increased top speed to 221mph (355km/h).
Autocar magazine road-tested the EB110 GT in March 1994 in left-hand-drive form(3). The UK list price at that time was £285,500(4). The reviewer found the car to be surprisingly well suited to everyday driving, with a flexible engine that would pull cleanly from under 1,000rpm in top gear and “a driveline as tight as a drum and a [gear]shift, though meaty, that is cleaner and quicker than you could ever wish. Even the clutch isn’t viciously heavy”. Moreover, it was relatively economical, achieving around 20mpg (14.1 L/100km) on test, which was “5-10mpg more frugal than any other supercar” and “one of the few with a genuine 500-mile-plus range”.
The EB110 GT had very well-sorted suspension, and such good body control that “you end up wondering whether there is any corner of earth that the Bugatti can’t negotiate at 80mph”. Stopping was not an issue, thanks to “unbeatable race-spec 332mm brakes”. The ride quality was the best of any supercar the reviewer had driven.
The car’s only serious drawback was a relatively cramped cabin, and no luggage space other than a bespoke suitcase that fitted behind the seats. If installed, this caused legroom issues for taller drivers. In summary, the EB110 was praised for “setting spanking new standards for ride and agility among supercars and offering similarly delicious rewards for the ultimate enthusiast”. It was also the most “friendly and easy thing this side of the Honda NSX”.
High praise indeed, but buyers were still hard to find in the early 1990’s and Artioli had stretched Bugatti’s finances to breaking point with his money no object approach to developing the EB110. A second model, the EB112 luxury saloon, was shown in concept form at the Geneva motor show in March 1993. In August of the same year, having failed to find a larger automotive industry partner, Artioli bought Lotus Cars from General Motors in a futile attempt at diversification.
Just two years later, it was all over. In September 1995, Bugatti filed for bankruptcy and shuttered the Campogalliano factory. A total of just 128 EB110 production cars had been completed, 96 GT and 32 SS models, while the EB112 was stillborn.
Bugatti would, of course, rise again, this time in the safe and hugely well-resourced hands of the Volkswagen Group, which bought the marque in 1998. The EB110 defined the useable hypercar template for the Veyron and its successor, the Chiron. Given the limited resources at Artioli’s disposal, the EB110 should be remembered as an extraordinary technical and engineering tour de force, if not a sales and financial success.
(1) Artioli was the official importer and distributor for General Motors vehicles in Italy.
(2) The area around Modena was home to Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati and DeTomaso. It attracted a workforce highly skilled in the design and construction of supercars, so was an ideal location for the new Bugatti operation.
(3) The EB110 was never produced in RHD form.
(4) Around £488k (US $678k) in today’s money