The Bugatti EB110 Is The Nineties Hypercar Time Forgot
Bugatti today is a byword for ultimate performance. From the Veyron to the Chiron to the Divo, it seems the marque can’t help but churn out world-beaters.
Which makes sense, given that was always its raison d'être: founded by Ettore Bugatti back in 1909 – his initials still crown the badge – the firm’s machines were famed for their speed, style and grace, from the dominant Type 35 to the jaw-dropping Type 57 Atlantic.
Well, almost always. There was a little blip in 1952. A blip that saw the marque completely fold after its founder’s death. The only thing Bugatti produced after that? Aeroplane parts. Which was a far cry from winning Grands Prix.
Not until the Eighties would Bugatti find the hero it needed, when Ferruccio Lamborghini, Paolo Stanzani and Nuccio Bertone walked into a figurative bar. Between them you had the founder of Lambo, the father of the Miura and the designer of, well, loads of really cool cars. And they wanted to make a new one. But they needed money.
Helpfully, Italian entrepreneur Romano Artioli was sitting in that same metaphorical bar – the Turin Motor Show – and he was ready to buy everyone a round. And the rights to the Bugatti name. And a new, state-of-the-art factory.
After a few phone calls to the French, Bugatti was back in business. Its aim? To build the car it would’ve been building had it not folded 35 years before: an exotic, cutting-edge vehicle that would use the most advanced materials available, crafted in-house from the ground up.
But first it needed that factory. Over to architect Giampaolo Benedini, who sketched an ostentatious production facility so glassy and avant-garde that it made the others look like sheds.
It took two years to build – enough time for Lamborghini, Bertone and Stanzani to discover their creative differences and step away from the project. That left Artioli on his own with a Gandini-designed prototype that he didn’t much like. So he called Benedini again, who gave credence to the lesser-known proverb, “If you can design a factory, you can refine a car.”
The result? The EB110: a car that’s unique if undramatic, its smooth edges the antithesis of everything loud and angular about the late Eighties. Its funky front didn’t quite ape the grace of the original Bugattis but, bar the scissor doors, it was definitely distinct from its Italian contemporaries. And, at just 44 inches tall, it was properly compact.
But there was more to this Nineties hypercar than its aluminium shell: at its core was an innovative carbon-fibre chassis made by Aérospatiale; in the tail was a hidden wing that rose at speed; underneath, it deployed four-wheel drive – something Ferrari had tried and failed to do. Bugatti, in its upstart reincarnation, was breaking more ground than the big guns.
Then there was the engine. Its figures today sound trifling next to the 1,500bhp of the Chiron, but in the Nineties the EB110 was something else. Radically fitted with a quartet of turbos, the 3.5-litre V12 delivered 550bhp, a punch in the gut at 4,000rpm and a record top speed of 212mph – when the best efforts of Ferrari and Lamborghini could just hit the doubleton.
All of which garnered plenty of attention. Launched in 1991 on what would have been the 110th birthday of Ettore Bugatti – hence the name – the world’s media fawned over the EB110 GT. When the 600bhp Super Sport version arrived six months later? Even Michael Schumacher wanted one.
And so, Bugatti enjoyed a glorious rebirth. But it would be a brief one: despite the power, the performance, the luxury and the exclusivity (cars were hand-delivered to vetted buyers), the reward for all that effort was not a burgeoning bank balance. It was bankruptcy.
Assembled by a team so dedicated they didn’t want to leave the factory at weekends and built to be more innovative than anything at the time, nothing could protect the EB110 from the death knell of empty coffers.
Some blame the lavish expenditure on launches and facilities. Others, the slow, inefficient production process and the sucker-punch of a global recession. In truth, between corporate conspiracies, Mafia involvement, Artioli’s acquisition of Lotus and the distraction of the McLaren F1 (unveiled a year later), the internet can offer a hundred reasons for the born-again Bugatti’s failure.
But was the EB110 a failure? A mere 139 were built between 1991 and 1995. Never enough to sustain production. Yet each was a symbol of ambition, engineering and passion, a fitting tribute to the man for whom it was named. And each was an absolute rocket.
This year marks 110 years since Ettore Bugatti gave his name to a car company – a name that today belongs to Volkswagen and will be celebrated with the Divo. But it’s the EB110 that deserves to be the tribute. Without its boldness, its brief but breathtaking effort to raise the Bugatti flag, we wouldn’t have the Veyron or the Chiron. And the name adds up.