When Bugatti was saved by the railroad
We are currently going through a difficult time economically, but it is nothing compared to the crisis of 1929. Financial manipulation of the New York Stock Exchange that plunged the world into a terrible recession. Customs barriers, which were everywhere at the time, only slowed the spread of the economic downturn, which affected France in the early 1930s, which for some time thought itself immune to it. Bugatti paid the price, seeing its sales decline, even though it invested large sums in the design of the Type 41 Royale.
This car of excess was intended for crowned heads and billionaires, but between its design and its marketing, the world has changed! All pre-orders were cancelled, and the Molsheim firm found itself with large cars, equipped with an 8-cylinder in-line 12.7 l designed specifically for the Type 41. Bankruptcy awaits! What to do to heal?
At the time, France benefited from an incredibly dense rail network, but here, the trains, often very slow, began to be challenged by coaches and individual cars. Raoul Dautry, Director General of the State Railways Administration, is concerned about this state. For his part, Ettore Bugatti, a shrewd business manager, understood that there was a potential outlet for his Royale’s engine.
He envisioned a rail vehicle that combined the advantages of the train and the car to speed up train service. A Railcar, powered by a massive 8-cylinder. O many! Dautry and Bugatti corresponded, the former promising the latter to buy his machine if it met his expectations. Studies began in 1932, and by 1933, the Autorail was ready.
Lighter than a traditional train, it is adorned with carefully aerodynamic bodywork, apparently inspired by the Bugatti Type 32 nicknamed “the Tank” due to its one-piece shape. Jean Bugatti (who will celebrate his 114th birthday today) delivered the first copy to the Saint-Lazare station on April 11, 1933, 80 years ago, and from the first tests, the Autorail proved to be fast. 135 km/h.
Then, during intensive certification tests, it reached 172 km/h. This is the train speed record! This speed, he owes it to not one but four Royale engines. That gives a total of 800 hp! Its brakes are also very good, and its designers have been pragmatic, it has several possible layouts.
The Bugatti Railcar quickly entered service on the State Railways network between Paris and Deauville in May 1933. It connected the two cities in two hours: unprecedented at the time. Other train companies are buying Autorail, such as PLM (Paris-Lyon-Marseille) which ordered an extended version, equipped with a second car. In total, this 35-ton vehicle carries only 125 passengers and their luggage. The service speed reaching 140 km/h, this Railcar connects Paris to Vichy in 3h50 from 1934, then Paris to Lyon in 4h45.
That year, Jean Bugatti took the Autorail to another dimension, reaching speeds of 196 km/h. Another record! The success of his train in the future was strengthened, because it was bought by the AL network (Alsace-Lorraine) serving the east of France. So Paris is connected to Strasbourg at 3h30. This represents an average speed of 144 km/h, which is again a record for a commercial line.
As it evolves, the Autorail Bugatti will adapt to the necessary uses. So, in 1935, a short and economic version (with two engines) was proposed, then in 1936, a Triple variant appeared, on the contrary larger (60 m long for 152 places) and fast: this is the peak. !
But, the following years were the misfortunes for Bugatti, between the terrible accident in which Ettore killed a girl while crossing a village despite a desperate maneuver resulting in a violent exit from the road, and above all, the one where Jean Bugatti found death on August 11, 1939, wanting to avoid a cyclist who ventured on the closed road where he was building a car. Less than a month later, World War II broke out…
The Autorail was a success: 88 examples were produced (ie more than 350 machines), allowing Bugatti to survive well into the 1930s. Examples that were not destroyed (except one) during the war, they continued in service in 1945 and were not withdrawn until 1958, their operation became too expensive. Today, only one remains, preserved in the Cité du Train, in Mulhouse.