Automaker unleashes Veyron’s 1,001 horses for a cool $1.2 million

Special to the P-I

A saxophone wailed, and the fog machine pumped out ersatz Carmel Valley mist on cue, stylishly backlit for maximum effect. The extravagantly fed and watered crowd gaped, then gasped. The Bugatti Veyron had arrived. It was the car world’s first look at the famous automaker’s newest triumph – a suave, sculpted, shaken-not-stirred beast on steroids, glossy in red and black formal wear, but reputedly capable of 250 mph from 1,001 horsepower. And if you had to ask how much, darling, you were at the wrong party.

The answer? A million Euros, or if you insist, $1.2 million. The car slid down a custom cantilevered ramp into a swirl of rumors – performance problems, delays in its release, a designer’s neck on the chopping block – but it still managed to wow the crowd Bugatti had assembled at Stone Pine Lodge. Nobody was talking officially, but word was the company, now owned by Volkswagen, took as many as 10 orders and deposits for what will be the world’s most muscular factory-built street-legal automobile.

It was just one way that the Bugatti marque dominated this year’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance weekend Aug. 15-17. The Veyron’s equally elegant ancestors were also triumphant. At the Concours itself, recognized as the world’s primary collector-car showplace, an unprecedented field of nearly 50 vintage Bugattis were on display, and they won top honors in multiple categories, including Best in Show. That prize went to Peter Williamson’s 1935 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic. It’s one of two proper examples of that car extant. The other, which belongs to Ralph Lauren, won the same prize in 1993.

This year, Lauren won the Strother McMinn Trophy best competition car for his 1934 Type 59. Among other Bugattis honored was Seattle collector Charles Morse’s 1939 Type 57C Gangloff Atalante, which took third place in its class. It was a year in which many important restorations were on display for the first time, and that made the event a major milestone in Bugatti history. The tone was set by Concours cochairs Sandra Kasky and Bainbridge Island’s Glenn Mounger, who arrived stage-side in a 1932 Type 41 Royale.

At $16 million, the Royale holds the Guinness World Record for the most expensive type of car ever sold. As exciting as the Veyron was as a party centerpiece, the sight of it zooming down the straightaway at Laguna Seca was a sensation. The Veyron served as a pace car for the Rolex Monterey Historic Automobile Races, which along with the Concours itself and the Concorso Italiano, completes the Monterey Weekend’s “triple crown” of events.
Again, Volkswagen spared no expense in setting the stage, flying in a cadre of chefs, fresh seafood, Alsatian delicacies, case upon case of Louis Roederer Champagne – and a bevy of celebrities. Caroline Bugatti-Rinaldi, the only living descendant of founder Ettore Bugatti, mingled easily with the pampered guests in the Bugatti tent. An hour before race time, faux European decorum gave way to a near-deafening, well lubricated and opinionated babble in at least four languages.

A stunning stream of Bugattis of all types and vintages streamed into position for the demanding, potentially catastrophic 10-lap race. The smells of hot metal, rubber and aviation gas filled the air as the Veyron led about 40 exquisite cars around the track – a rolling, revving museum of some of the world’s most important Bugattis. Suddenly, the Veyron veered out of control on the Andretti hairpin, spinning wildly, but it quickly recovered to complete the pace lap. And the Bugattis were off – about $10 million worth of automotive history thundering down the track. Major carnage was averted, and 10 laps later, German Michael Gans took the checkered flag in a Type 35B – a red and white supercharged, open-wheeled two-seater worth nearly as much as the Veyron.

The third jewel in the Monterey crown, the Concorso Italiano, was founded and is chaired by Frank and Janet Mandarano of Mercer Island. It began as a Maserati awards event in 1981 and has since grown rapidly into one of the most impressive exhibitions of Italian autos in the world. At the request of Bugatti, Cargolux airshipped six authentic, well-driven Bugattis for the weekend events, and the Concorso offered enthusiasts a chance to see these working classics up close in a relaxed atmosphere. Each offered grace, patina and the evidence of healthy use typical of the European car culture. These were exemplary workhorses, not “trailer queen” show cars.

Caroline Bugatti-Rinaldi walked among the cars bearing her family name. “Don’t take my picture,” she said quietly. “You should take your pictures of these cars.” Rinaldi and her husband carry on the family tradition as operators of their own racetrack not far from Molsheim in Alsace, where Ettore Bugatti built his first automobile.

As the weekend came to a close, rumor became fact. Dr. Karl Heinz Neumann, the Veyron’s designer, who was a courtly presence in Monterey, was abruptly fired. Der Speigel reported that Neumann was sacked Sunday night. According to Bugatti News, Neumann’s dismissal resulted from continuing aerodynamic problems and overheating issues. When the Veyron lost it briefly in the Andretti turn, did Neumann’s job spin out as well? Nevertheless, if the current “Year of the Bugatti” is any indication of things to come, both the Veyron and the marque itself have a long, welcoming stretch of open road ahead.

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