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Bugatti Torture-Tests Every Ch iron at This French Airstrip

© Richard Pardon   We visit Bugatti’s headquarters to see how the $3 million, 261-mph Chiron is assembled and validated.

By Bob Sorokanich, Road & Track

I’ll level with you: I thought I was going to drive. My visit to Bugatti’s headquarters in Molsheim, France, had been planned for months-a tour of the factory and, most tantalizing, a trip to the airstrip where they full-throttle test every Chiron, making sure it has the power, acceleration, and speed someone paid seven figures to acquire. And I’d get to do the test driving. I asked the morning I arrived, double-checked in the afternoon, reconfirmed an hour before I left for the airstrip. Every time, the answer was affirmative.

But when I showed up, I met Steve Jenny, Bugatti’s test driver for car validation. I told him I had the factory’s blessing to drive, and he looked at me like I’d asked to borrow his pajamas and sleep in his bed. “This is impossible,” he said.

© Richard Pardon   Bugatti Tests Every Chiron at This French Airstrip

It’s hard to put a finger on Bugatti. It’s a French brand founded by an Italian and owned by Germans. Porsche and Ferrari work tirelessly to connect their founders’ sensibilities to their modern products. It’s artifice, mostly, but it’s intoxicating as hell. Bugatti is an entire generation older than those brands, yet its relationship to its own history feels aloof. I came to Molsheim to probe that point, to witness how today’s Bugatti builds and tests some of the fastest, most powerful, most expensive cars on earth. I wanted to see if I could find any hidden ties to the company Ettore Bugatti founded in 1909. As for ripping down the runway in a Chiron? I was willing to settle for the shotgun seat. 

Jenny has spent more time driving Bugattis than any person alive today-more than 200,000 miles in total, starting with the first Veyron that rolled out of Molsheim’s gates in March 2005. Bugatti built 500 Veyrons and has assembled around 170 Chirons so far, and Jenny helmed all of them on their maiden voyages. I met him at a small airport in Colmar, about 30 minutes from the factory. Each test drive covers a shade over 200 miles of highway and mountain driving, and if Molsheim’s weather doesn’t cooperate, Jenny heads to the south of France. Not a bad gig.

But it’s not all bombing down empty French lanes. The stuff that opens billionaires’ checkbooks can’t be tested on public roads. “We have a problem in France,” said Christophe Piochon, a member of the Bugatti board responsible for production and logistics. “Max speed is 130 km/h. We have functions on the car which first appear over 250 km/h.” To check these without running afoul of the law-or endangering bystanders-Jenny runs every Bugatti down the airstrip.

He wears Sparco racing gloves but no helmet. He carries no clipboard or laptop; his checklist of performance tests has long been committed to memory. Every Chiron is carefully wrapped in clear protective film for road testing, extra layers of tape and foam guarding body seams and protrusions. Loaner seats and wheels are installed to avoid marring the customer’s equipment, the tape and bright-blue wheels creating a jarring aesthetic. I chalked it up to the eccentricity of wealth until someone set me straight.

The tests started off mundane. Jenny confirmed that the windows automatically close above 93 mph, that the paddle shifters shift and the parking brake brakes. He eased up to 112 mph to observe the active suspension dropping down to its high-speed setting. Then to 124 mph and a quick stab at the brakes with an eye on the mirror. Airbrake, check.

© Richard Pardon   Bugatti Tests Every Chiron at This French Airstrip

We’d been carrying on an easy conversation the whole time, pausing as he murmured notes in French into a tiny voice recorder on a lanyard around his neck. It was so serene, Jenny knocking off tests so economically, I didn’t notice when he engaged Launch mode. It took a second to realize what he was doing, lining up at the end of the runway, brake-torquing the Chiron to a furious boil. There was an eruption of noise, then liftoff.

The first fraction of a second felt, not normal, but comprehensible, all four tires skittering and sniffing out traction from the tarmac. Then the tires hooked and the turbos hit. Sternum, meet spine. Upshifts cracked by like a stopwatch ticking off seconds. It was relentless. That familiar moment where drag starts to overwhelm pure horsepower? It never happened.

Jenny kept it pinned. The Chiron has tiny displays on the dash, readouts for maximum speed, engine power, g-force. I didn’t know whether to focus on them or the rapidly approaching end of the runway. Smooth, unhurried, Jenny rolled out of the throttle and eased into the brake. The car heeled like a bird dog called off the hunt, and we traced a lazy U-turn at what felt like walking pace. I looked down at the displays. Results: 318 km/h-or 197.6 mph-and 1504 metric horsepower. “My record here is 345,” Jenny told me. “But today is a bit more windy.”

On our final sprint down the runway, Jenny cranked the wheel, slaloming the car between the dotted white lines on the tarmac, swinging the tail in tidy little drifts. I let out a roller-coaster whoop, thinking he was fishtailing for grins, unwinding. Wrong. This, he explained soberly, is the procedure for testing stability control. “I give the car bad information,” he said, “and the car must correct.” A hand-held radio in the door squawked, interrupting him. Chatter from air-traffic control, the no-nonsense reminder that we were testing on an active runway. Of course the Chiron would share a playground with a few Gulfstreams.

Jenny finished his work, and we drove sedately back to headquarters. At every roundabout, phone cameras came out, motorists gesturing with pride. Amateur photographers milled around the gate, hoping to snap a prototype sneaking from Bugatti’s cradle. The Molsheim facility isn’t just where new Chirons are built, it’s the place where the company came to be, where Ettore Bugatti set up shop and set the automotive world on fire.  

By convention, Bugatti is a French car company, but it’s more complicated than that. Ettore Bugatti was born in Milan, in 1881, to a family of artists. He joined the car industry so young, his father had to cosign his first contract, and by 1909, he had landed in Alsace, launching Automobili Ettore Bugatti right where Jenny parked the freshly validated Chiron. Alsace is haunted by a restless border. When Ettore arrived, the region had spent nearly four decades under German control. It was ceded to France at the end of World War I, occupied by Nazis in World War II, and handed back to France in the surrender.

© Richard Pardon   Bugatti Tests Every Chiron at This French Airstrip

But in 1998, a sliver of Molsheim once again returned to German control. Ferdinand Piëch, the Austrian tycoon who commandeered a middle-fish automaker and turned it into the world-dominating Volkswagen Group, masterminded VW’s takeover of the languishing Bugatti name. He revived the brand, revamped its ancestral home in Alsace, and stuffed it with engineers and money. The result was the Veyron, which debuted in 2005 as the fastest, most powerful, quickest-accelerating, and most expensive new car the world had ever seen.

Piëch could have done it anywhere. A previous revival saw the EB 110 built in Italy, far from Bugatti’s home. He chose to bring the brand back to its birthplace, and every Bugatti since has been assembled in a stylish, surprisingly small facility on the grounds where Ettore launched his car company 110 years ago. Don’t call it a factory-Bugatti refers to the modern, ovaloid building as “the Atelier,” the Workshop. With its floor-to-ceiling windows and sparse postmodern aesthetic, the artist’s loft terminology fits. 

The work that goes on there is far from creative, though. You think of a place like this, where a small, specially trained team builds $3 million supercars by hand, and you assume it all runs on passion and emotion. You thrill at the thought of third-generation artisans painstakingly honing their craft, living for the honor of hand-constructing the world’s finest car. In person, it’s kind of banal. This is Volkswagen Group precision. The Chiron, like the Veyron before it, is a marvel of design and engineering. It performs at a level that seemed impossible a decade ago, and does it seemingly without compromise. It’s engineered perfection, assembled in a series of pragmatic, repeatable tasks. 

That’s not a criticism of the folks at the Atelier. Of the two dozen people who work in the Bugatti facility, every one I observed approached their duties with absolute care and attention. There was no horsing around, no pounding of uncooperative parts. Nobody ever shouted or clanged a tool. But nobody ever stepped back to admire the beauty of their work, either. There was no wistful gazing at the sweep of a fender, no expressive gesturing when a 16-cylinder engine thundered to life for the first time. Nobody’s emotions were brimming over at the sight of a completed Chiron.

Components, including the 8.0-liter quad-turbo W-16 engine, arrive at Molsheim ready to be installed. In a bright, airy building next to the Atelier, customers select from paint and upholstery samples. A disembodied engine sits on display. It’s massive. Imagine the biggest, gnarliest dragster V-8 you’ve ever laid eyes on. Now double it. With the Ricardo-supplied seven-speed dual-clutch transmission bolted up, the powerplant has a footprint like a medium-size dumpster. Peer closely, and you’ll spot VW and Audi logos.  

Atelier technicians hoisted a powertrain onto a stand that slides on a track in the floor, inching it toward a waiting carbon-fiber monocoque hovering a few feet away. It looked like a size 12 foot headed for a size four shoe, but it slipped delicately into place. Once they’ve assembled enough car to support the drivetrain and suspension employees roll each Chiron into Bugatti’s dynamometer room. Forget ratchet straps. Here, the car is held in place by giant, Tim Burton-esque steel arms with eyes that fit over cone-shaped spindles mounted on each wheel. Standing in the dyno room as technicians locked a naked Chiron into place, I gazed down. The paint on the safety-orange floor had been worn away in one spot directly behind the car. Exhaust blast.

Each completed Chiron undergoes one of the industry’s most painstaking quality checks. It takes eight weeks for assembly and adjustment, and at the end of the journey is a light tunnel blaring with 100 fluorescent bulbs, and Yannick Bucher. 

“All over the world, in each VW factory, we use the same process, the same sequence to look at the car,” Bucher told me. He’s the auditor; since 2005, every car built here has earned his approval for delivery. The playbook he uses is the same one that guides the inspection of Golf hatchbacks and Scania heavy trucks, but while auditors in other VW Group facilities might fully scrutinize just one vehicle per day, plucked from dozens that roll off the line, every Chiron gets a complete audit. It’s language-agnostic: Every component has a code, allowing colleagues in different facilities around the world to log problems without translation errors. The Atelier completes two cars per week. Every Friday, finished cars are presented to the full quality-control team for a final check before delivery.

“They do it in German,” Piochon said. “Most people here are more confident in German than in French.”

© Richard Pardon   Bugatti Tests Every Chiron at This French Airstrip

It’s how it goes. You can’t improvise on a car built to modern regulations and expectations. You’d catch the same precise, machinelike vibe watching any high-performance 21st-century vehicle being built. Now add the challenge of 1479 hp and 261 mph. You can see why assembling these vehicles is treated as a science, not an art. 

That's not how Ettore Bugatti did things. “New models were produced, not to meet the demands of the public, but to satisfy the creative urge of the head of the family,” W. F. Bradley wrote of his friend Ettore in a 1948 biography. At times, the business faltered for it. René Dreyfus, once a Bugatti factory racing driver, recounted times when the company had no cash, when his back pay came in the form of a newly constructed chassis he was encouraged to sell privately. Ettore’s brilliance was distractible. He designed aircraft and speedboats, devised unique tools for his factory workers, patented a cylindrical razor blade. His drivers occasionally missed races because Ettore had yanked workers away to assist with his latest nonautomotive fascination.

Ettore never got to shepherd Bugatti into the efficient, precise carbuilder it is today. Odds are, he never would have. His entire career was tumultuous. World War I nearly sank him. His most ambitious automotive project, the Royale-ultraluxurious, intended for the world’s monarchy-landed at the height of the Great Depression, when even kings were feeling austere. Ettore planned to sell 25; he built seven, sold three. (He unraveled the loss by designing a high-speed passenger train powered by a pair of adapted Royale engines. Examples still roamed France in the mid-1950s.)

There was tragedy. Ettore's beloved son and protégé, Jean, was destined to take over the car company. His father forbade him from racing; Jean died at the wheel of a Bugatti on a French village road, at 30 years old. Weeks later, war began again. Molsheim was occupied; Ettore was forced to turn over his factory to the Germans and flee. Two of his most trusted employees joined the French Resistance. They were found out by the Nazis, then executed. When peace came, the French state took control of Bugatti’s factory. The man had spent his entire life as a Frenchman, building and racing world-class cars under the French flag. But the state eyed him suspiciously, an Italian-born industrialist whose factory had fallen to German hands. It took until 1947 for Ettore to win back control of his Molsheim facilities. Days later, he was dead. 
 
© Richard Pardon   Bugatti Tests Every Chiron at This French Airstrip

Modern Bugatti is unburdened by the darkness of its past. It’s free to build world-beating cars calmly, precisely, repeatably, and-one can only assume-profitably. It’s not hounded by war, threatened by occupation, uneasily balanced on a mutable border. The quiet, calm predictability of the Atelier isn’t passionless banality. It’s peace and prosperity, freedom from fear. Ettore probably wanted that all his life.

I did get to drive a Chiron while I was in France. My co-pilot was Pierre-Henri Raphanel, the former Formula 1 driver and current “official test driver for customers and press,” who hit 267.86 mph at Ehra-Lessien in a Veyron Super Sport in 2010.

If Jenny tests the Chiron with Germanic precision, Raphanel demonstrates it with French flair. To him, the engine is the beast, dropping the windows is opening the cage. A prod of the accelerator invites the animal to destroy anything that tries to keep up. This is how it works when our corner of the universe finds the rare balance that yields a car like the Chiron: Passion envelops what precision builds. It’s the fine edge that Ettore Bugatti lived for, that defined his life's work. It’s still there, thriving, in his corner of Alsace.

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