Sitting in the world’s most expensive car

Have you driven a Bugatti Veyron? It’s the first, second or third question I get asked when a new acquaintance learns my occupation. [The other questions are; what’s your favourite car?, and what’s the fastest you’ve driven?] Yes, I’ve driven a Veyron (twice, actually), but sitting in another Bugatti was almost as thrilling.

It’s a smell familiar to anyone who’s spent time in the interior of old cars. A heady combination of oil, fuel and musty carpets with top notes of wet dog. But this isn’t any wet dog, this is the most expensive car in the world; the essentially priceless Bugatti Type 41 Royale Coupe Napoleon. It’s the star attraction at The National Automobile Museum in Mulhouse France. Once the personal car of Ettore Bugatti, this Type 41 is one of six completed cars and the only one to wear the Coupe Napoleon bodywork (the 6.3 metre coachwork was designed by Ettore’s son Jean). Pressed on a value, my guide suggests something in the order of $100 million, maybe more. And I’m sitting on the backseat, surrounded by faded blue brocade velvet trim.

My private, after-hours tour ended in front of the Coupe Napoleon, which sits next to another Type 41 (the ex-Briggs Cunningham car). A third Type 41, built from an unused chassis and new ‘old-stock’ parts, graces the museums entrance.

My guide, museum director Emmanuel Bacquet, says that France would need to be in financial meltdown before it would consider selling this national treasure. When he asks whether I’d like to sit in the Royale, I think he’s joking. To show he’s serious, Bacquet calls through to security and asks them to turn off the alarms and sensors guarding this automotive Mona Lisa. Then I’m asked to remove my shoes, belt, chunky watch and anything from my pockets that might scratch, dent or mark the Bugatti. Bacquet almost faints with relief when I remove a cheap pen from my pocket. I’m also asked to lower my myself slowly and gently onto the seat, lest my 60kg frame split the fabric.

Even beside driving some of the world’s best cars on the great roads and race tracks around the globe, my few minutes reclining in the left rear seat of the world’s most expensive car ranks as a career highlight. The elegant silver elephant hood ornament (designed by Ettore’s artist brother Rembrandt) is about 5.5 metres away from my vantage point. A coupe of Veuve Clicquot would complete the experience, but I dare not suggest that to my gracious host.

The 2.8-metre bonnet conceals a 12.8-litre in-line eight-cylinder engine that features three valves per cylinder (two inlet, one exhaust) – the engine was later used to power Bugatti trains. Peak power was claimed at 190kW, good enough to push the three-tonne Coupe Napoleon to a 200km/h vmax. Ettore Bugatti was known to buzz the limit on runs down from Paris. On one late-night trip, Ettore fell asleep at the wheel of his Royale and dropped it into a ditch.

Jesse Taylor

 

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