By on November 27, 2014

Our friends over at Jalopnik ran a post on cars so important to you that you’d make a pilgrimage to see them. I really can’t quibble with the ten *cars that made their final cut, mostly because I’ve seen and photographed three of them myself, a Chrysler Turbine Car, the Gulf Oil liveried Ford GT40 that twice won at LeMans, and a Bugatti Royale. Now fortunately for me, my pilgrimage to see those cars didn’t involve crossing an ocean or getting on an airplane. It was more like getting on the Southfield freeway and driving 20 minutes to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearbon, Michigan. The museum is surely pilgrimage-worthy as it owns one of the eight extant Chrysler Turbines, one of the six Bugatti Royales that were made, and for a while the 1968-69 LeMans winner was in the museum’s Racing In America exhibit while the 1967 LeMans winning Ford Mk IV was being repaired. We recently looked at the Mk IV and not long ago featured the Gulf colored GT40, plus the Chrysler Turbine cars are pretty well known, so this is a good opportunity to talk about the Bugatti Royale.

Start the video and click on the settings icon to select 2D or your choice of 3D formats

There are cars that are special. If you get a chance to see a Duesenberg Model J with your own eyes, you immediately understand why “It’s a Duesey!” became an idiom for supreme excellence. Likewise, a Cord 810, so low slung and radical for its day, will grab your eyes when sitting a midst the Packards and Cadillacs of that era. The same is true of the 1956 Continental Mark II, considered one of the most beautiful cars ever made, hand assembled with visible build quality. Any one of those cars could be the centerpiece of a magnificent car collection, so it takes a superbly magnificent automobile to make a Duesenberg, a Cord and a Continental look almost ordinary, a little less special. The Ford museum’s Bugatti Royale sits right next to those illustrious automobiles and it does exactly that. Duesenbergs are large, impressive cars, but it’s possible that when the word massive was coined, it was waiting for the Royale to illustrate its dictionary entry. It’s not just big, it is a beautiful and stunning piece of human creation.

Ferraris have a prancing horse. Bugattis have a prancing elephant, sculpted by Ettore Bugatti's brother, Rembrandt Bugatti. Full gallery here.

Ferraris have a prancing horse. Bugattis have a dancing elephant, sculpted by Ettore Bugatti’s brother, Rembrandt Bugatti. Full gallery here.

Ettore Bugatti planned to build 25 Royales, also known as the Type 41, hoping to sell them, as the name indicated, to royalty. Unfortunately for Bugatti, the Great Depression had depressed the market for $30,000 automobiles, a bit more than a half million 2014 U.S. dollars. By comparison, when the Ford V8 was introduced in 1932 it’s starting price was $495. Henry Ford sold over 300,000 cars in 1932. Ettore Bugatti ended up making only 6 Royales and while ’32 Fords are indeed some of the most collectible cars you’ll find, the Bugatti Royale takes collectible a few quantum leaps higher.

Of those six Royales, two of them are in the French national automobile museum, the confiscated Schlumpf brothers’ collection. Volkswagen, which owns the Bugatti brand, owns a third. A fourth is in a private collection in Switzerland and the fifth is part of the Blackhawk collection. So if you want to see a Bugatti Royale, you’re going to have to go to either Europe or California… or Detroit. Well, properly speaking Dearborn. As mentioned, the Henry Ford Museum’s Driving America exhibit contains a number of great and historically significant cars, but the jewel in the collection has to be Bugatti chassis no. 41-121, known as the Cabriolet Weinberger. 41-121 has a colorful history, traveling all around the world before ending up in Dearborn.

Ordered for his personal use by Dr. Joseph Fuchs, a German who was successful at both his vocation, medicine, and his avocation, racing cars. Delivered in 1931, Dr. Fuchs contracted with the Weinberger coachbuilding company of Munich to body the the 169.3-inch wheelbase chassis. He took delivery the following year.

Soon after Adolph Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany and the Nazis came to power in 1933, Fuchs first went to Switzerland before traveling on to Shanghai, China, then a pretty wide open city. When considering refugees from the Nazis and their connection to Shanghai, one might conclude that Dr. Fuchs may have been Jewish, but none of my research indicates that he was other than a German who didn’t like the Nazis.

Fuchs had the massive car shipped to China but in 1937, with imperial Japanese soldiers advancing in the south of China he left Asia for North America, first moving to Canada and then to New York City. The winter of 1937-38 was a cold one in the Big Apple and the block for the model J’s 12.7 liter straight eight engine froze up and cracked. After unsuccessfully trying to sell it the car was sold for scrap to a junkyard in the Bronx.

One of the things that made Bugattis advanced for their day was the extensive use of aluminum. Amazingly, the aluminum intensive car survived early World War II era scrap drives.

In 1943, Charles Chayne, the chief engineer for Buick and one of the pioneers of the car collecting hobby, found out about the junkyard Bugatti and bought it, shipping it back to Detroit. Following the end of hostilities, in 1946 he started to repair the engine and restore the Bugatti in general, finishing it the following year.

Today we’d call it a restomod because Chayne wanted it to be a driver, not a museum piece. He replaced the original single carburetor with four Stromberg units mounted on a custom intake manifold (possibly of his own design). For all of his advanced ideas, Ettore Bugatti was set in his ways and he never stopped using mechanically activated brakes (Henry Ford also was a fan of mechanical brakes). To drive the car safely Chayne had the braking system swtiched to hydraulics. The car’s original black finish was repainted in oyster white, with a contrasting dark character stripe featuring Chayne’s monogram on the door. A tall man, Chayne also modified the interior to fit him better.

Charles and Esther Chayne donated the Bugatti Royale Weinberger Cabriolet to the Henry Ford Museum in late 1950s. For most of the time since then it’s been on static display but seven years ago the museum hired Classic & Exotic Services, a high end Detroit area restoration shop to get it running so it could be driven onto the show field at the Meadow Brook Concours (now the Concours of America at St. John’s).

Many people who have never visited the Henry Ford Museum are under the mistaken impression that its transportation collection must focus on Ford automobiles. While there certainly are many historically significant Fords, it’s a well curated museum that gives credit wherever it is due. If you make an automtive pilgrimage to the Dearborn museum, you’ll see marques from around the world of cars and trucks, so it shouldn’t surprise you that one of biggest stars of Henry Ford’s museum’s collection is a French masterpiece with Buick connections.

*The top ten pilgrimage cars post at Jalopnik lists a Type 57 Bugatti as being at the Henry Ford Museum, but something must have gotten lost in translation because the commenter credited with making that suggestion actually mentioned the Bugatti Royale at the Ford museum, not a Type 57 (you can see a Type 57 Bugatti that was a best-of-show winner at Amelia Island in 2012 here). As far as I’ve been able to determine, the Henry Ford Museum does not have a Type 57 in its collection. Also, the Jalopnik article says that you can see the 1968-69 LeMans winning Gulf livery Ford GT40 at the Henry Ford Museum but, as was pointed out in a recent TTAC post and mentioned above, that car was on temporary loan to the Henry Ford while the museum’s own 1967 LeMans winning Gurney/Foyt Ford Mk IV was being repaired and preserved. Now that the Mk IV has been fixed, the Gulf liveried car has been returned to its owner.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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27 Comments on “Bugatti Royale: The Most Magnificent Car In The World?...”

  • avatar

    Stupid low greenhouse, elephantine landau pillar, microscopic rear window. Driver would be blind as a bat. Better have a back-up camera.

    What the sam hill are cars coming to?

  • avatar

    All cars from that era were the most beautiful in my opinion.Handmade to customer order. They have qualities that you cannot reproduce today.They were not cars for the masses.Bugatti models were not only advanced and beautiful but also very rare.Detroit and Michigan are very fortunate to have many beautiful cars in their museums.

  • avatar

    It’s been quite awhile since I visited the Henry Ford museum, so I either never knew or forgot the history of their Royale. Interesting, and lucky that it survived.

    Just a small point that there are NINE remaining Chrysler Turbines, not eight. I am on a quest to see all of them. I’m up to four so far.

    • 0 avatar

      Several years ago I had the opportunity to go for a ride in one of the turbine cars. At that time it was supposedly the only running version in private hands. I think there are 3 now. An odd experience. The man that had it used to drive it around quite a bit. It got a lot of double takes cruising around town.

      • 0 avatar

        You are very lucky. I haven’t even got to hear one running yet. You must be talking about Frank Kleptz. Jay Leno has one now too. The third is at the St.Louis Transportation Museum. The two that Chrysler still owns are also in running condition.

        • 0 avatar

          Yes I am. He used to bring it to the Chrysler dealership where I worked and would offer rides to almost anyone. It sounds like the whine of a jet though quieter. It is very nice original condition. Nicer than the one in the Smithsonian. Jay Leno wanted to buy the car. He came to town and rumor was he offered a million dollars for the car back then. Mr Kleptz would not sell it and since has passed away. Leno has since found another. As far as I know the car is still in town but isn’t driven but you probably already know all this since you knew his name.

          • 0 avatar

            I knew Mr.Kleptz passed away. I presumed that his car collection, including the Turbine, was being kept complete by his family and not sold off. Sad to hear that his Turbine doesn’t get out anymore though.

  • avatar

    I still have the leftover parts from a 1/24 scale kit I got of a Bugatti Royal as a young boy in the parts box (possibly awaiting another failed hotrodding attempt). Fell completely in love with the whole insanity of it, and I would love to go see one someday just to be able to comprehend it fully. In 1/24 scale it seems to be ble to swallow at least tree big block chevys in line under the long hood, and all it’s other dimensions seem to match a Ford F450 Super Duty.
    I cant remember if Bugatti originally ment for the engines to be used for the french railroads, or if that was just a sideeffect of building more engines than he could sell ?

  • avatar

    But how does it *drive*?

  • avatar
    Kevin Jaeger

    The Henry Ford Museum is simply magnificent. Every car guy really has to make a pilgrimage to it at some point.

    I was expecting it to be very Ford-centric, but it really is much more than that. And the Bugatti Royale is worth the trip all by itself.

  • avatar

    I have to go Duesenberg, I don’t know, just cause.

  • avatar

    Hundreds of the Royale motors were used in RR coaches, detuned from 300 to 200 hp.

    • 0 avatar

      Why did he build so many engines if he only sold six? Were they intended to be used in other Bugattis?

      • 0 avatar

        If I recall correctly, he started by selling the leftover engines built for the already planned cars, and they worked so well for the trains that they started a proper production run of these. With the detuned engine they managed to go 120 mph with the train, so you can imagine what the ‘lightweight’ cars performance would be like.

  • avatar

    I’ve been to many classic car shows and Concours. The car I still remember that knocked my socks off seeing it in person was a Delahaye. Particularly the 165.

    Those cars are stunningly beautiful in person.

    • 0 avatar

      I have 6 photos of vehicles displayed at the 2009 Meadow Brook Concours on my phone’s SD card that I cannot bring myself to delete – two are Delahayes. I’ll definitely need to get to next years Concours in Plymouth and get my fix again.

  • avatar

    If you are coming to Germany, be sure to visit the excellent Auto and Technik Museum Sinsheim and its auxillary Technik Museum Speyer. Not only can you view many rare cars, but you can also board the Concorde and TU-144 as well.

    Another noteworthy museum about two-hour drive from Sinsheim is Schlumpf Museum in Mulhouse. The Schlumpf brothers embezzled lot of fund from its textile factory to acquire and accumulate one of the largest Bugatti collection in the world.

    After Volkswagen bought Coupé de ville Binder in 1999, it was on display in its Automobil Forum centre in Berlin for a several years. That was the first time I had seen Royale, and I was awestruck by its magnanimous presence.

  • avatar

    Actually there are now 7 Royales. The Schlumpf brothers finished a Royale that Mr. Bugatti started but never finished. It’s at the Musee de l”Automobile in Mulhouse, France. Also displayed are the wooden forms used for forming the body panels.

    The reason there were so many Royale engines made is that Mr. Bugatti was an optimist. He thought he’d sell a lot of Royales. The depression got in the way of that, as well as a dose of reality. Their use in rail carriages was an afterthought.

    The most impressive part of the Mulhouse museum, even more so than the incredible number of Bugattis, is the huge collection of 19th century cars. It is amazing, to me, the infenuity and creativity of people making the first cars, and trying to find solutions with the technology of the times. Believe it or not, there were cars before there were spark plugs. The technology to ignite the fuel in the engines was truly clever.


  • avatar

    Thanks Ronnie.

    I recently picked up a book titled “The World’s Worst Cars.” It features 150 of what the author decided was the world’s worst cars, grouped into five catagories – “Badly Built”, “Design Disasters”, “Financial Failures”, “Misplaced Marques”, and “Motoring Misfits.” I already purchased and enjoyed “The World’s Worst Aircraft”, so buying this one was a no-brainer. (The third and final book in the series is “The World’s Worst Weapons (From Exploding Guns to Malfunctioning Missiles)”.

    Most of the cars it contains are no-brainers (in more ways than one), and worthy of inclusion. But under Financial Failures was — the Bugatti Royale. (Both this book and the Weapons book get panned by critics for some of their inclusions, the Aircraft book less so.)

    I suppose it could be labeled as such, though the book fails to mention the car’s poor timing in regards to the Great Depression. It mentions that not only were only six completed, only three of the six were actually sold; this apparently being one of them; the other three remained with the Bugatti family.

    Not obvious from the pictures (since we are used to seeing chrome nowdays); but the book mentions that the wheels were plated with genuine sliver, and cost 10,000 French francs to make. They are also 20 inches in diameter. The seats were trimmed in ostrich skin, the dash edging was gold plating. Even more amazing than the car surviving it’s scrapyard days are the fact that these features are still place; provided they still are.

    One can imagine how fun such a large car with a seven foot long hood and poor rear visibility would have been to daily drive. And there is no rear seat, so one would assume it was meant to be owner driven.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Bugatti and his cars certainly make for an interesting read/study.
    As great as the Duesenbergs were the Bugattis are indeed the top of the heap as demonstrated by their auction prices.

    The finish on Bugatti’s was spectacular. Each piece, even those not meant to be seen

    Take a look at Ralph Lauren’s Atlantic (estimated value over $40 million).
    Or the creation (it’s not really a restoration and I don’t think that David Grainger is happy with others calling it a ‘recreation’) of the fabled Aerolithe

    If you are ever in the GTA you should visit his shop in Bradford.

    As for the Ford museum it is wonderful.

    The French made possibly the most beautiful cars in the world during the period 1930 – 1939 and 1946 -1954. Bugatti and Delahaye in particular.

    However the Cord is probably the most modern of the classics mentioned and the closest predecessor to what we now drive.

  • avatar

    My fave was the 1937 Bugatti* Type 57SC Atlantic Elektron (Magnesium) Coupe

    My other favorite 1930’s aerodynamic sports coupes are the:
    1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Coupe
    1937 Delahaye* 135 MS Competition Court Coupe
    1937 Peugeot 402 DS Darlmat Coupe
    1937 Adler Rennlimosine Competition Coupe
    1937 Alfa-Romeo* 8C 2900 Touring Berlinetta
    1938 Delage D8 120 Aerodynamic Coupe
    1938 Mercedes-Benz 540 Stromlinien Coupe
    1938 Hispano-Suiza H6C DuBonnet Xenia Streamline Coupe
    1939 BMW 328 Mille Miglia Touring Coupe
    1938 Fiat 508c MM Berlinetta
    1938 Lancia Aprilia Coupe
    1938 Jaguar SS100 Coupe
    1938 Bentley* 4.5 Litre Coupe
    1938 Peugeot Darl’mat 402 Pourtout Coupe
    1939 Talbot-Lago* T150 SS Teardrop Coupe
    (* indicates company was a LeMans winner)

    I also have a weird thing for the 1938 Chevrolet coupe. I don’t understand the attraction. It’s totally irrational.

  • avatar

    I have been to the Schlumpf collection in Mulhouse, France. It’s awesome but overwhelming. So much to see there. If you’re in Europe in the area of Basle, it is very worthwhile to visit.
    Of their three Royale’s, I think the Esder Spider (arguably a replica) is the best looking.

  • avatar

    I remember seeing the Bugatti Royale Kellner Coupe at the Briggs-Cunningham Museum in Costa Mesa, CA as a teenager. The place was nearly empty and an elderly gentleman in overalls came out from the workshop when he saw us milling about. He gave us a informal tour and when he got the the Royale explained the classic design theory that informs the profile. The A-pillar is at the mid-point between the axles, the radiator grill is at the front axle, and the rear window is at the rear axle.

    This image makes it all clear:

    We later learned the gentleman was Briggs Cunningham himself.

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