Ettore Bugatti's engines set world speed records for cars, boats, trains and airplanes and his Bugatti Type 35 became the most successful racing car in history, propelling the Bugatti name to revered public recognition. Now his cars are doing it all over again on the auction block and the baby of the fleet is performing beyond expectations.
In the years between WW1 and WW2, Ettore Bugatti became one of the lions of France, showcasing world's best practice in everything he did. Bugatti's cars were not just for racers. They were also the most outrageously proportioned and sumptuous for the rich and famous.
The Bugatti Royale Berline de Voyager set a world record of US$6.5 million in 1986 and another Bugatti Royale (the Kellner Coupe) broke that record in 1987 with a sale of $9.9 million, then remarkably held the world record price for a car at auction from 1987 until 2010.
The Type 35 won the 1926 Grand Prix World Championship and the Targa Florio for five consecutive years (1925-1929). In the hands of racers across the world, the production Type 35 racing car averaged 14 race wins per week at its peak, eventually winning more than 1,000 races.
In the midst of this, Ettore Bugatti took the time to design and build a replica T35 child's car for his second son Roland who was born in 1922 and received the car for his fourth birthday.
That's Ettore's first son, Jean Bugatti, above in a T35 and second son Roland in the baby Bugatti. The response to the tiny electric vehicle at the company headquarters in Molsheim was so overwhelmingly positive that the decision was made to sell the car to the public, with the Bugatti Bebe debuting at the 1927 Milan Automobile Show.
The tiny 150 pound electric vehicle was six feet in length and had a top speed 12 mph. The Bebe's pneumatic tires ran on on detachable alloy wheels and the car was superbly made with four-wheel brakes and elaborate suspension. That's the car that sold in Paris on February 10, 2017 for $99,000 above. Around 500 copies were produced between 1927 and 1937 and 100 remain intact in the hands of private owners and museums. Two are exhibited permanently at the Cité de l'Automobile — Musée National — Collection Schlumpf in Mulhouse, France.
Transmission was by a single stage gear train from an electric motor mounted on the rear axle, the left-hand wheel being free on the axle. Reverse could be selected by a switch.
The cult toy of the rich and famous
The public fascination with the "Baby" rolled onward from there. At 5,000 francs (around US$250 in 1926), there weren't a lot of parents able to spend the price of a car on their seven year old. The Bebe became an immediate favorite with the children of royalty, the rich and the famous, and the enduring image of twenties excess was a child accompanying his parents on a stroll in his 5,000 franc toy. There were races held for the Bugatti Bebe in French holiday resorts such as Deauville and St Tropez.
The "Baby" marketplace is erratic
The history of the Bugatti Baby at auction has been difficult to understand. We still don't.
By our reckoning, the world's most expensive children's cars are all Bugattis, exactly as advertised in the day. No other children's car has come close to achieving such prices. Around 500 were sold and around 100 still exist.
The most expensive Bugatti Type Baby (pictured above) was sold by Gooding & Co at Pebble Beach in 2008 for $110,000. Apart from the $99,000 Baby at Retromobile, other significant sales include: Christies for $75,000 in 2016; Bonhams for $54,990 in 2008; $48,700 by Bonhams in 2007; Christies for $44,000 in 2007, and RM-Sothebys for $39,202 in 2011. Almost every auction description makes mention that any Bugatti Collection isn't complete without a Bebe.
There were also some very low prices recorded for what appear to be genuine items during the same time frame: such as Bonhams $5,447 in 2004; $5,534 by Bonhams in 2013; $8,625 by RM-Sothebys in 2007; $14,950 by RM-Sothebys in 2015; $16,993 at Christies in 2002; and $21,250 at Bonhams in 2014. For our tracking of the market, we convert all currencies into US dollars on the day of the sale.
If you can buy a real Bugatti Baby, and there are copies and replicas around so be careful, it should comfortably appreciate in value from this point forth. Several of the modern day replicas are created with classical period workmanship and generally available in this lower price range.
With three sales now registered above $75,000, we doubt there will be many more real ones slipping through the cracks, and those recent Christies sales have been primarily targeted at the art market, where the Baby is viewed through quite different eyes and with different monetary values.
Once a motorcar becomes a work of art, and the Bebe seems to make that transition more readily than a full size car, it enters a different realm of perceptions.