Ettore Bugatti was born in Milan to a family of talented artists, and his artistic bent marked his cars as much as his pioneering modular approach to engineering.
Bugatti worked for several pioneer carmakers between 1898 and 1909, and he achieved a reputation for innovative and intelligent engineering solutions.
His work at the German Deutz was particularly significant because the concepts he designed there inspired him to start his own company in 1910. He built his cars in Molsheim, in Alsace, which was German when he began and French when he ended three decades later.
Bugatti's work was characterized by a unique combination of advanced yet simple engineering and artistic execution of all technical details.
His creations are considered pure art by nonautomotive experts as well as his admirers.
In 1910 he created the first serious small car. It was extremely light and had a high-performance, 1.35-liter, four-cylinder engine with a single overhead camshaft.
Four years later, a 16-valve configuration became the world's first series-produced multivalve engine.
Apart from the artistic approach he took to his engineering, his great contribution to the automotive industry was the concept of modular engineering.
For more than a decade, every Bugatti model was made not just in series, but with parts that were used in other Bugatti models. This alone would justify his genius.
Bugatti's single overhead camshaft design with three valves per cylinder came either in four-cylinder or eight-cylinder configuration. The eight was two four-cylinder engines joined to a common crankcase. Transmissions and axles were interchangeable for either pure racing cars or production models.
Fitted with lamps and mudguards, his racing cars could be driven on the road. Bugatti's application of common platform engineering principles was probably the first in the world, and it allowed his business to prosper in the 1920s and 1930s.
He produced sports cars and racing cars on an industrial basis, so he could offer them at reasonable prices. Even his Grand Prix models were series-produced. And they were good.
The Bugatti Type 35 became the world's most important racing car, for its light and efficient construction as well as its purely functional body design. It won hundreds of races. His design for multispoke light-alloy wheels for the Type 35 continues to be the most widespread design for alloy wheels.
Bugatti was unable to make the transition from his successful light cars to the luxury market. His attempts to build exotic and expensive models failed. The huge, 11.0-liter Royale failed to attract buyers.
A 16-cylinder racing car he built never performed well. The larger Grand Touring model he made in the 1930s only succeeded after his talented son Jean gave it some extravagant bodywork. Bugatti lost his creative edge when his wife and son died in 1939, and he lost some stature temporarily when he was imprisoned after World War II, charged with collaboration. But when he died in Paris in 1947, the world had 7,950 Bugatti automobiles, and they keep his name lustrous.