It isn’t very often that a selection of Bugatti Royales can be seen together in public, at least that is outside of the famous Schlumpf Collection in Mulhouse.
In 1985, all six original cars were on display at Pebble Beach and in 2007 five of the six were at the Festival of Speed. As such, seeing three Royales modestly displayed at Retromobile was undoubtedly one of the highlights of an event which included the staggering Baillon collection and the Mercedes-Benz 540K Streamliner.
The first of the leviathans we encountered was probably the most famous of the lot – the 1929 Coupé Napoleon. This is the car which Tom Wheatcroft famously had recreated at great expense and seeing it before your eyes for the very first time it takes some getting used to. These cars were built on a scale that would have made Rolls-Royce, Packard, Isotta Fraschini and Duesenberg all blush. Add to this that the Coupé uses a prototype engine of almost 15,000cc (the rest made-do with just the 12.7-litre unit) and you get some impression of the sheer vastness of it all.
Of course, the whole episode wasn’t exactly a great success. Indeed, for a while it was looking like being a disaster. Tragically for Ettore Bugatti, he decided that he was going to produce his ultimate statement of automotive decadence just as the Wall Street Crash and subsequent Great Depression were rendering some of the very wealthiest and most powerful families impecunious, or at the very least relatively-so. As a result only three of the six Royales sold.
$30,000 was the going-rate for a Royale chassis in those days (equivalent to about $400,000 today), and that was before a coach builder was sought to provide bodywork, making the final price truly astronomical. Now consider that the Coupé and two of the other Royales couldn’t find buyers in-period. Consider also that the next car we gawped at, wide-eyed, the 1933 Park Ward Limousine was sold in 1946 as a 13 year-old car for just $2800. Talk about depreciation! But what a thing it is, and with slightly more reserved styling than its siblings, having supposedly been based upon an earlier Daimler design.
The last of the three to snare us in its tractor-beam is a replica, commissioned by the Schlumpf brothers to mimic the lines of the fifth car built. The gorgeous ‘Esders’ Coupé bodywork drawn-up by Jean Bugatti (Ettore’s eldest son) was sadly discarded prior to World War 2 and replaced with more spacious Coupé de Ville sheet metal. What you see here is a faithful replica, made from original Bugatti parts and it’s arguably the prettiest of the lot. Note the curious lack of any headlamps though …
Such was the attraction of the Royales that we were late to see the astonishing Baillon Collection, which had a similar effect on us.
Photography: Tom Shaxson