The Bugatti Veyron is a car that famously had 1,001 horsepower out of the box and was capable of achieving a top speed of over 400 km/h. Those stats meant the Veyron was an engineering masterpiece, even by today’s standards – some 15 years later. It truly was a Concorde moment for motoring.
But why the comparison to the emblematic super-sonic airliner? Till this very day, if one were to travel beyond the speed of sound, they would need to be protected against hostile conditions. They would need to wear specially made flight suits and a breathing apparatus just to survive the trip. With Concorde, they traded their flight suits for lounge suits. Passengers could sip champagne in their seats, in comfort, while travelling faster than a speeding bullet or Mach 2, if you prefer.
In similar ways, the Veyron changed things forever. It performed ‘impossible’ tasks, effortlessly. Just as sipping bubbly at Mach 2 on Concorde was a no brainer, the Veyron went past the 400 km/h mark without as much as breaking a sweat. It did in pure comfort and without hesitation. Furthermore, 15 years down the line, it’s clear that the Veyron also created another category in modern car culture – million-dollar hyper cars.
Since it is its 15th birthday, the marque decided to have a stroll down memory lane. The Veyron maybe a household name today but let’s rewind the tape to 1997, to a sketch on an envelope while on a train between Tokyo and Nagoya. A legend (or at least its concept) was about to be born.
Penning the sketch aboard the Shinkansen (another world-renowned speed monster) was Volkswagen AG’s then-chief executive and former engine developer and engineer, Ferdinand Piëch. He had drawn up a crude sketch of an engine with 18 cylinders that would go on to power his vision of the ultimate speed machine.
The engine that he drew was essentially three VR6 six-cylinder engines welded together at a 60-degree offset to each other with a displacement of 6.25-litres and made a claimed 550 horsepower or 410kW. Piëch had his motor, now he just needed a frame and chassis to build on. Trouble is the Volkswagen group did not have anything in its repertoire which was capable of delivering Piëch’s vision. The group boss then went on a shopping spree.
In 1998, he oversaw Audi’s procurement of Lamborghini as he wanted the group to have a more upmarket presence. Thereafter, he tried to outbid BMW for the rights to Rolls-Royce Motors, but we all know how that turned out. In the end, Volkswagen walked away with Bentley in its arms.
That same year, while on vacation in Majorca, his son, Gregor, saw a model car in a local souvenir store – it was a Bugatti Type 57 SC Atlantic. “An amusing stroke of fate,” Piëch wrote later in his book Auto.Biographie. Piëch bought a second Bugatti model car and presented it to Jens Neumann, then Member of the Executive Board for Group Strategy, Treasury, Legal and Organisation at the first board meeting after his Easter holiday – with request to check the rights of the French brand and purchase them if possible.
Later that year, Piëch made his move on the defunct French brand after brief negotiations for its brand rights, which previously belonged to Italian car importer, Romano Artioli since 1987. Artioli was also responsible for the creation of the EB 110, which was revealed on the 110th birthday of Ettore Bugatti, the brand's founder. Piëch then set to work on raising Bugatti to the same heights it enjoyed in its heyday in the 1920s and 30s. This led Piëch to ask his friend and legendary automotive designer, Girgetto Guigiaro of Italdesign, if he could create a concept.
Now part of the gargantuan Volkswagen group, the Bugatti team continued to work to bring its concept to life. The first design prototype to break cover was named the EB 118. The nomenclature stood for the first concept car with 18 cylinders. In 1999, a second concept came to light, this time it wasn’t a luxury coupe but rather a four-dour sporty luxury saloon, code named the EB 218. The brand then shifted up a gear and released the third concept which was a super sports car, called the 18/3 Chiron.
Shortly thereafter, at the 1999 Tokyo Motor Show, Bugatti unveiled the fourth concept by Hartmut Warkuß and Jozef Kabaň, named the 18/4 Veyron. The concept was well received by prospective customers and thus established the basic elements of the future design.
Then the announcement came. Piëch, at the 2000 Geneva Motor Show, announced to the world that Bugatti will be building a series production car with an output of 1,001 horsepower (746kW) and claimed the future car to have a top speed of over 400km/h. A bold claim indeed, but bear in mind, Bugatti had the industrial might of Volkswagen AG pushing its development.
In September 2000, a near-production Bugatti EB 16.4 was introduced. The numbers had changed but not the nomenclature. This car would not be using an 18-cylinder powerplant but rather one with sixteen-cylinders. They had opted for a W16 setup instead. The engine was two VR8 blocks welded together at a 90-degree angle acting on a single crankshaft, displacing 8-litres.
This arrangement also allowed for a displacement larger than seven litres and more crucially – turbochargers. The previous concept engine was a naturally-aspirated affair and did not deliver the kind of grunt Piëch was expecting, hence it was forced-induction to the rescue. The Veyron used not one, not two, but four turbochargers. This recipe meant the Veyron had 1,001 horsepower (746kW) to give, along with a scarcely believable 1,250Nm of torque. The mountain of power was channelled on to the road by a permanent all-wheel drive system.
And there it was, a vision that became a striking reality. There was just one hurdle left to jump. Piëch needed the Veyron to break past the 406km/h barrier. Why? Piëch lead the team of engineers on the legendary Porsche 917 project. That car – which won the 24Hours of Le Mans – was recorded at 406km/h. It was clear that the Veyron had to beat that record. It went 407km/h.
“The Veyron catapulted Bugatti into an unprecedented new dimension,” says Stephan Winkelmann. “The hyper sports car enabled the resurrection of the brand in the spirit of Ettore Bugatti. He elevated engineering to an art form. He was always striving for ultimate perfection in everything he did.”
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