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January 15, 2006

Too Much Car?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Ever want a 1,000 horsepower car? A car that could go 250 miles per hour? That could accelerate from zero to 60 MPH in less than 2.5 seconds?

Well, thanks to your friends at Volkswagen, such a car can be yours!!

All you need is one-and-a-quarter million or so dollars.

The car in question is the Bugatti Veyron. There is no real connection with Bugattis of the first half of the 20th Century aside from the name. The original company essentially ceased automobile production early in World War 2 (only a handful were built after the war).

Bugatti was founded around the turn of the century in Alsace (then part of Germany) by the Italian-born Ettore (Hector) Bugatti. He came from a family of artists and practiced engineering with an artistic temperament, making sure that his cars were beautiful with or without bodies. Bugattis were successful racing cars as well as cars for well-heeled customers. His "ultimate" cars were the Royales, huge cars intended for royalty but which were sales victims of the Great Depression. Despite the Italian name and German origin, the company became French in fact and spirit after the Great War when Alsace reverted to France.

A serious attempt was made to revive the brand in Italy during the period 1987-95. A factory was built, prototypes constructed and journalists were brought in to keep the hype flowing. One source I read said 23 cars were built altogether. This International Herald-Tribune article, printed the year before the company failed, reports claims of dozens of orders and projections of quick profitability once production got underway but also reports indications that the venture was in trouble.

Ferdinand Piëch, Volkswagen's chief, bought rights to the Bugatti name in 1998 and set in motion the project that resulted in the Veyron.

Bugatti Veyron.jpg
Bugatti Veyron.

An article here by Jeremy Clarkson in The Times sketches the car's genesis, discusses its engineering challenges and offers some driving impressions. I'll mention some of his points here as insurance if the link goes bad.

The idea was to create the ultimate-performance sports car. Top speed was to be at least 400 kilometers per hour (248 MHP). A body design was prepared and then tweaked and engineered to meet the speed goal. The engine is a 1,000 (or thereabouts) horsepower W-16 design -- basically two V-8 engines siamesed side-by side.

Clarkson emphasizes that even 200 MPH is at the outer limits of controllable driving on highways (assuming such speed was legal). At top speed (253 MPH) the Veyron is traveling 370 feet per second, which is longer than a football field, end zones included. Where I live, there are typically 20 blocks to the mile, so a Veyron would pass by almost one and a half blocks each second. This is too fast to see -- let alone react to -- emergent conditions.

In practice, no one would likely drive a Veyron at top speed where, besides visibility problems, aerodynamic forces create some "float" despite the design tricks used to counteract this. Clarkson emphasizes that the car has solid handling at high (but lesser) speeds and is exhilarating to drive.

I've seen a Veyron twice, both times at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Élégance (2003 and 2005). I'm not fond of its styling, but concede that style necessarily had to play second fiddle to aerodynamic considerations. What I find most problematical is the two-tone paint scheme. Maybe this is an irrational reaction to two and even three tone paint jobs from the 1950s, but I don't see how the car's appearance has been improved.

On the other hand, there is Bugatti precedent for two-toning. Below is a picture of a 1936 Bugatti Atalante in glorious black and yellow.

Bugatti Atalante.jpg
Bugatti Atalante, 1936.

Even though I think the Veyron is ridiculous from a practical standpoint, I admire the (misdirected) vision, guts and skill of its creators. Besides, at more than a million dollars a pop, the world's highways are unlikely to be swarming with the beasts.

Does anyone beg to differ?



posted by Donald at January 15, 2006


So the idea is for the owners of the Veyron to be able to say, "(1) I can afford a $1.25 million car, and, (2) if there was anywhere around here to do it safely, I could smoke any heap my fellow wealthy sports-car owners have handily. Of course, fortunately there isn't such a place handy, so I don't have to risk life and limb trying to do the smoking. But the owner's manual says that I could, and that's good enough for me."

I guess it's a value proposition, of sorts.

Stupid engineering question: to go well over 200 mph and retain any degree of control, doesn't a car pretty much have to look like a Formula One racer? Wings and sticky tires and all? The Veyron looks a bit too conventional, somehow, to pull off that stunt.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 15, 2006 11:01 PM

One of the funniest things on German TV is Open Day at the Nurburgring. Nurburgring is a famous historic racetrack (although no longer used for Formula 1). On Open Day, owners of brand new shiny Porsches, top of the range BMWs and the like come and discover that having the money to buy a fast car does not automatically equate to having the skills to drive one. You'll believe a Porsche can fly! (sideways)

Posted by: Alan Little on January 16, 2006 2:38 AM

Regular Top Gear viewers would probably agree that the ultimate Nurburgring lap was posted by Sabine Schmitz in a Ford Transit van.


Posted by: Nigel on January 16, 2006 7:27 AM

more video with the Bugatti Veyron, mostly from Jeremy Clarkson's Top Gear:

Funniest thing about the Veyron is that it costs Volkswagen a lot more to make than they're selling the car for.

Posted by: ijsbrand on January 16, 2006 8:32 AM

I sort of doubt that many Veyron buyers are going to be reaching high speeds on public roads. In fact, I suspect that most buyers will drive their cars very little if at all, preferring instead to keep them garaged as collectors' items.

Posted by: Peter on January 16, 2006 10:57 AM

Friedrich -- The linked Clarkson article discusses the aerodynamic issues. One trick was to have the stance of the car change with increasing speed -- the front suspension would adjust so as to slightly drop the nose of the car, creating more downforce.

Alan and Nigel -- "Heh," as they say here in the Blogosphere.

Ijsbrand -- I suppose at some point during product planning someone gave Herr Piech (a desendant of Porsche Himself) just enough positive data so that he could do what he would have done anyway. And if money is indeed lost, it's then chalked up as a "corporate image" win.

Peter -- I've never bought a car costing more than $25K because getting that first scratch might make me suicidal. (Lord knows I suffered when my Porsche 914 collected more that its share of dings and creases.) You're probably correct that the last things buyers of a $1.2 mil set of wheels would do is drop by the local 7-11 or commute daily on the Bayshore. They might take it to the country club, but then could they really trust any 19-year-old valet with those 1,000 HP? Yeah, they'll put it behind glass with whatever gas the National Archives has the Declaration of Independence sealed in.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 16, 2006 9:31 PM

On a much more everyday level than that of the Veyron, an increasing percentage of cars in the United States are being sold with ultra-high-performance engines, their buyers undeterred by high gasoline prices. For instance, a substantial portion of Chrysler 300's are being sold with the 340-hp Hemi V-8, while Chevrolet Impalas in the SS version with a 303-hp V-8 are flying out dealership doors. Both of these cars work perfectly well with their base V-6's, but buyers want more.

Posted by: Peter on January 16, 2006 9:54 PM

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