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On the surface, Volkswagen’s resurrection of Bugatti looks like one of the many chess-like moves made in its bold quest to expand its portfolio of brands during the late 1990s. In a way, it was; branching out into new segments motivated executives to buy a once-venerated French brand that hadn’t made a car in years. On a secondary level, the acquisition allowed one man to fulfill his dream of developing the world’s most prestigious car. Bugatti opened its archives to tell the story of how its first 21st-century car, the Veyron, was born.
Ferdinand Karl Piëch (1937-2019), a brilliant engineer who rose to the top of the Volkswagen Group during a long and illustrious career, sketched out an 18-cylinder engine in 1997, on the back of an envelope, while riding the bullet train between Tokyo and Nagoya. It consisted of three VR6 cylinder banks separated by 60 degrees and tuned to deliver 555 horsepower. The 6.25-liter engine was naturally aspirated and envisioned for high-end luxury cars — the kind that would make Mercedes-Benz (who also experimented with an 18-cylinder engine) blush.
There was one big problem: Volkswagen Group didn’t have a suitable car to put it in. Rolls-Royce would have been an option, but BMW unexpectedly ended up with the name (though not the factory nor the Spirit of Ecstasy) after a bitter bidding war. Although Volkswagen had bagged Bentley, Piëch set his mind to buying the dormant Bugatti brand, which belonged to Italian entrepreneur Romano Artioli, after Piëch’s son gave him a model of a Type 57 SC Atlantic while vacationing in Majorca. He talked Volkswagen’s financial department into clearing the funds needed to buy the brand right after he returned to Germany, and the transaction was completed in 1998.
With an engine and a name, Piëch set the ball rolling. Italidesign’s Giorgetto Giugiaro designed the EB118 concept in a matter of months and presented it to the public at the 1998 edition of the Paris Auto Show. It arrived as a front-engined coupe powered by the Austrian engineer’s 18-cylinder engine. Several concepts followed: the EB218 shown at the 1999 Geneva Motor Show explored what a Bugatti sedan could look like, the EB18/3 Chiron introduced that same year moved the brand in a sportier direction, and the EB18/4 Veyron brought the idea of a modern-day hypercar much closer to production. It’s this design study that received the green light for production.
When development work started, engineers abandoned Piëch’s 18-cylinder engine in favor of a W16. They arranged the cylinders in a W configuration because putting them in a V would have created a bigger, heavier engine. In hindsight, developing the quad-turbocharged, 8.0-liter W16 must have been a relatively easy item to knock off the to-do list. Executives also insisted the car had to reach 100 kph (62 mph) in 2.5 seconds, have a top speed of over 406 kph (252 mph), boast a little more than 1,000 horsepower in its most basic state of tune, and carry its owner from the race track to the opera house on the same day, with the same set of tires. Talk about a tall order; no car in the world ticked all of these boxes around the turn of the 21st century.
406 is an oddly specific number, and it wasn’t chosen at random. Bugatti explained the V12-powered Porsche 917 designed by Piëch reached 406 kph on the Hunaudières Straight during the 1970 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which it won. He concluded the Veyron wouldn’t accurately demonstrate how far automotive technology had come since the 917’s heyday if it couldn’t exceed its top speed. It easily beat it; it entered the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s fastest car when it averaged 431 kph (267 mph) in 2010.
Fast forward to 2020, and the record belongs to the Chiron. Bugatti became the first hypercar manufacturer to break the 300-mph barrier when test driver Andy Wallace reached 304 mph in 2019.