Here Are the Bugattis that Inspired the $4 Million Bugatti Tourbillon

collection of cars at museum
The Cars That Inspired the Bugatti TourbillonMusee National del Automobile

Bugatti has a small collection of heritage vehicles at its chateau, alongside its atelier in Molsheim, France. It brings them out for client events, for car shows, and—on occasion—to allow journalists like us to drive them. But if you really want to dig into the metaphorical crates of the company's history, you need to drive an hour or so north of HQ to the Schlumpf Collection, also known as the Musée National de l'Automobile.

Housed in a former wool mill in the Alsatian river town of Mulhouse, the collection is staggering. It contains 80 Bugattis, the world's largest such amalgamation, tracing the history of the brand and its genius founding family, from before their namesake company was incorporated in 1909 up through the present day.

Lest you think this isn't reason enough for a visit, the collection also contains well over 300 other vehicles, charting the entire timeline of the auto industry. Its approach, as you might imagine, is European and encyclopedic, with a Gallic bent.

It contains the earliest French cars—including an 1878 Jacquot steam car, a (replica) 1884 Delamare-Debouteville Et Malandin that predates Benz's Patent Wagen by a couple of years, and a Daimler-powered 1894 Peugeot Phaetonnet Type 8. It has all manner of mass-produced vehicles from the earliest decades of the 20th century when Phaeton, Double Phaeton, Vis-á-Vis (face-to-face), Dos-á-Dos (back-to-back), Tonneau, and Torpedo body and seating styles dominated the emergent French roadways.

It also has dozens of Classic-era Rolls-Royces, Hispano Suizas, Isotta Fraschinis, along with grand Mercedes-Benzes, Horsches, and Maybachs with extremely problematic wartime provenance. There's also at least one Voison and one Delahaye, and a bunch of profound race cars, including an original 1955 Mercedes 300SLR, a Ford RS200, and a Formula 1 machine driven by Michael Schumacher and Nelson Piquet.

The museum collection follows through the last decades of the 20th century with more modern oddballs, such as a Tatra T87, a Trabant 601, an Alpine A110, a rotary-powered NSU Ro 80, a Citroën SM, a Renault R5 Turbo, and an Aston Martin Lagonda.

But since we were in France for the unveiling of the new Bugatti Tourbillon, we decided to hone in on that marque. There was plenty to hone, but these were some of our favorites in (mostly) chronological order. You can see elements of design from the horseshoe front end to the center spine that have continued into the modern cars.

1904 Mathis Hermés Simplex Biplace Sport

In the first years of the 20th century, while Ettore Bugatti was still tinkering with his initial eponymous prototypes at Alsatian manufacturer De Dietrich, he met Émile Mathis, who was a car dealer in Strasbourg. They collaborated to start their own marque—one of around 500 that existed in France in the era. This elegant runabout was capable of 80 mph via its 92-hp 12-liter four-cylinder motor at a time when most road cars could barely trot.

an old car with a large engine
Brett Berk - Car and Driver

1913 Peugeot Torpedo Type BB

Ettore founded his namesake company in 1909, but even a few years later, he still needed money to get his factory going, so he continued with engineering consulting projects. This included working with mainstream automakers like Peugeot, for whom he helped engineer this 11-hp 0.85-liter four-cylinder car capable of a paltry 36 mph but still holding the heart of a Bugatti.

an old blue car
Brett Berk - Car and Driver

1921 Bugatti Type 28

This prototype, of which only two were made for the Paris automotive expo in 1921, was the marker of when Bugatti really became Bugatti. This was Ettore’s first straight-eight, an engine design that would become a corporate signature. It wore an early iteration of the now-famed Bugatti horseshoe grille. It also introduced Bugatti's inverted quarter-elliptical rear suspension, rear-mounted transaxle, and steering wheel–mounted dials for adjusting the carburetor's fuel/air mixture.

a car parked inside a building
Brett Berk - Car and Driver

1927 Bugatti Type 35B

The Type 35 helped originate the automotive category of off-the-shelf race car—trackable vehicles that could be ordered directly from the factory. Not surprisingly, it was among the winningest vehicles of its era, taking over 1800 checkered flags. The "B" in the name designated this model as the most potent in the series, with 140 horsepower from a supercharged straight-eight, capable of 130 mph. This French Blue iteration wears amazingly swoopy, streamlined modern bodywork by famed French coachbuilder Soutchick, making it a race car for the street.

a blue sports car in a showroom with other cars
Brett Berk - Car and Driver

1928 Bugatti Type 52

If you were the young scion of a wealthy European family in the Jazz Age and longed to follow your parents' set into racing, you couldn't just cue up Forza or some track simulator. But you could get one of these, a battery-powered 1:2-scale version of the Type 35, known as the Baby Bugatti, and either enjoy it on your estate or track it against other kids. The Little Car Company currently makes a licensed reproduction, which is also trackable.

a blue car with a red seat
Brett Berk - Car and Driver

1936/1956 Type 57

By the mid-1930s, Bugatti was making only one model, the Type 57. This car began its life as an original cabriolet version. But in the 1950s, it was revised and given this new modern body by Soutchick. Does that make it a restomod?

a blue car in a showroom
Brett Berk - Car and Driver

1952 Type 101

By the early 1950s, the automaking Bugattis had pretty much died out. But Ettore's youngest son, Roland, had the not-so-brilliant idea to try to revive the brand by rebodying some leftover, archaic 1940 Type 57 chassis and revising their straight-eight engines with a new Weber carb and fitting a four-speed transmission. It was, not surprisingly, a flop. Only seven were ever made. The museum has three of them: a red cabriolet, a white four-door, and a blue coupe, all bodied by Swiss coachbuilder Gangloff.

a group of cars parked in a room with other cars
Brett Berk - Car and Driver

1955 Bugatti Type 251

Roland Bugatti remained relentless in his quest for brand revival. But this single-seat Grand Prix car was his final attempt. Engineered by Gioacchino Colombo–of Ferrari V-12 fame–the car had an over-square 2.5-liter straight-eight mounted transversely amidship. Though it made 230 horsepower and was capable of 160 mph, it was a failure in the 1956 French Grand Prix, completing only a dozen-and-a-half laps. The Bugatti brand vanished for 30 years after that, until the EB110 of 1987.

a person in a blue car
Brett Berk - Car and Driver

1927/1933 Bugatti Type 41

Facing competition from brands like Isotta Fraschini and Rolls-Royce in the mid-1920s, Ettore set out to build the best and most exclusive car in the world, hoping to sell a couple dozen to the global 1 percent. Unfortunately, the Great Depression intervened. Only seven were made, only three were ever bought, and only six still exist. The museum has two of them, a Coupe Napoleon that was always owned by the Bugatti family and a Park-Ward-bodied limousine sold to the heir of a Boston department store fortune. These cars are commanding, measuring 21 feet long, weighing 7000 pounds, and rolling on 24-inch alloy disc wheels. They're powered by a 300-hp 12.8-liter straight-eight making 875 pound-feet of torque. Standing between two of them was like being the meat in a car collector's fantasy sandwich.

a car on display
Brett Berk - Car and Driver

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