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By Ben Selby
The name Bugatti is legendary amongst countless avid motoring fanatics. The cars bearing the name of Italian born artist and engineer Ettore Bugatti will forever be regarded as exquisite and expensive pieces of automotive art.
Now, one could certainly identify Bugatti’s golden period as being the years prior to World War II. The factory in Molsheim, France employed machinists and craftsmen to build the automotive equivalent of a bespoke hand made watch.
Bugatti saw great success on the Grand Prix stage and in events like the Targa Florio. Cars like the Type 35, Brescia and Type 59 soon became icons, as did Bugatti’s Road cars like the magnificent and very expensive Type 41 Royale. After WW2, Ettore Bugatti passed away in 1947 aged only 65. With his death, the company fell into decline before fading away completely
Today, Bugatti is alive and well under the control of the Volkswagen Group and has been since 1998. Prior to Volkswagen taking control, two men took a punt on bringing Bugatti back from the dead. The first was Italian entrepreneur and one-time Lotus CEO Roman Artoli, who bought the rights in 1987 and was responsible for the short lived EB110 supercar. The other was American car designer hero Virgil Exner.
Exner had already enjoyed a long career penning ground breaking designs for Studebaker and most notably Chrysler. He was also involved with styling Volkswagen’s Karmann Ghia. His attempt to revive Bugatti was part of a plethora of design concepts for a 1963 issue of “Esquire” magazine under the banner “Revival Cars.”
The Exner designed Bugatti can trace its routes back to 1949 where Bugatti management were keen to keep car production going after the deaths of Ettore and his son Jean. The plans were for an updated version of the pre-war Type 57. Called the Bugatti 101, only six chassis ever left the factory and were all given bespoke coach-built bodies by styling houses like Gangloff and Antem.
Exner took his designs to Ghia for the sixth chassis and his son Virgil Jr designed the interior. The wheelbase was shortened by 46cm and the roof was taken off. Power came from the 101s 1951 3.3L straight-eight with 142kW thanks to a Rootes Supercharger. The whole process took Ghia six months.
The 101C Ghia Roadster made its debut at the 1965 Turin Motor show. Here Exner had high hopes potential buyers would flock to the stand and put down deposits. He was to be disappointed. The money needed for production never came. Perhaps people didn’t fancy paying a considerable sum of money for a car which underneath was almost 15 years old.
Either way, Exner’s Bugatti dream was not to be. Exner wasn’t finished with brand revivals though. Before his death in 1973, he was instrumental in bringing the long defunct Stutz brand back from the dead. As for the 101C Ghia Roadster, Exner kept it for many years. However, he never managed to do more than 1,000 miles. Its current owner has owned it since 1989. It also gets plenty of exposure at events like the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
The Bugatti Type 101C Ghia Roadster is one of the those great “what ifs” of motoring history. What if Exner got the money needed to back his Bugatti dream? Maybe the legacy of Ettore Bugatti would have turned out quite differently indeed.