Wednesday, 30 January 2008

My Bugatti

At the recent Autosport show at the NEC, I got the chance to sit in a Pur Sang T35 and make tearing calico noises*. The Pur Sang is an Argentine built tool-room copy of a Bugatti T35, and is where I’d put £125,000 of my lottery-win pounds without hesitation.

As it happens, I have a Bugatti copy sitting in the hallway at home.

Ettore Bugatti applied a magical combination of artistry and technology in the design and construction of his cars. Some of them, such as the T35, were amongst the most lovely of all car shapes, and arguably amongst of the most perfect forms industrial man has ever produced.

His company didn’t survive the 1939-45 hostilities and the death of his beloved son, Jean, but such is the legendary power of the name it has since been resurrected, in the 50’s, again in the 80’s, and now once more by VW.

In some ways the current Veyron is a travesty of the Bugatti tradition; most of the original cars were pure-bred lightweight sports cars using the same designs and technology as the then current GP cars. In fact it was Ettore Bugatti who referred to the rapid, but big and heavy Bentleys, as "Fast truck’s". It seems odd, then that the fastest truck of them all is the current €1M, 2000kg, 1000bhp, Veyron 16.4.

On the other hand, Bugattis always were cars for the very, very rich, so maybe not much has changed.

Ettore’s artistry ran in the family. His brother, Rembrandt, produced superb sculpture, and his father, Carlo, was a furniture maker. It is even said that the trademark horse-shoe Bugatti radiator’s shape was inspired by one of Carlo’s chair designs. Such was the reputation of the creativity and quality of work produced by the family, that in 1979, there was a successful exhibition held at the Design Council in London entitled ‘The Amazing Bugattis’.

Carlo’s work was heavily influenced by Levantine and North African native artwork. The exotic Art Nouveau furniture he produced at the end of the 19th Century was decorated with ivory inlays, silk tassels, beads, copper, and often upholstered with skins or parchment. One piece in the exhibition really caught my eye, a sculptural chair known as the cobra. More simple than his other work, it was a beautifully elegant shape, with a seat that seemed to float on a curve that ran from the legs to the high seat back.

Some years later, I noticed that the Conran Shop in London’s Old Brompton Road had a reproduction of this chair. However the price was huge, much more than an impecunious young database marketeer could afford, so I regretfully had to pass. However, it was still there the next time I walked past the window, and the next, and by this time ownership of this object was becoming something of an obsession. Could it possibly be included in the shop’s January sale?

I arrived outside the store on the day of sale early, and was delighted to see ‘my’ chair in amongst the discounted sample sofa’s and other remnants. A hour later it was in my Clapham flat, and it has been a prized possession ever since.

Several house moves later I discovered what the material used for the drumskin-like upholstery was. A visiting relative decided to try the chair out; a second later he was dumped on the floor – the material on the seat had split completely.

Many furniture restoration specialists later I eventually discovered someone who identified what it was; a vellum made from goat-skin. Fully restored, the chair is again in place, and this time no-one dares to actually sit on it!

straight eight supercharged T35 engine note is reckoned by fabric-rippers to sound like this

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