With the emergence of automotrices and autorails — self-propelled railcars and railbuses — around 1930, car manufacturers started to focus on railways. After all, they had first-hand experience with combustion engines and single-piece coachwork, while car sales were declining because of the economic crisis.
In Italy, Fiat was building Littorinas. In France, Renault had introduced the autorail, originally for narrow gauge only. Tire manufacturer Michelin conceived the Micheline, a rail vehicle with rubber tires.
Bugatti — an Alsace-based carmaker of Italian descent — presented its autorail in 1933. It stood apart because of its streamlined design and a very high speed.
by Arjan den Boer
Around 1900, Italian Ettore Bugatti settled in the Alsace, then part of Germany. After working for other car manufacturers he started his own company at Molsheim in 1909. Bugatti gained fame as the maker of the fastest and most exclusive automobiles. After World War I the Alsace became part of France.
A successful period was followed by the economic crisis. There was little demand for the very large and expensive Bugatti Royale Type 41. To repurpose the engine developed for this car, Bugatti reached out to a new market: railways. Together with his son Jean, Ettore Bugatti designed the Wagon Rapide.
he eight-cylinder Royale engine was huge: it had a length of 1.3 meters, a weight of 350 kilos and a cylinder capacity of almost 13 000 cm³. Its power output was 300 hp.
The autorail, as the 'wagon rapide' was soon called, had no less than four of these engines. They were placed in tandem in the center of the railcar. They were slightly adjusted to a maximum output of 200 hp, making 800 hp together. The engines had a double ignition and a dry sump lubrication system. They where fueled by a mixture of gasoline, benzene and alcohol.
The bogies were perhaps the most important part of the railcars. The four axes of each bogie were grouped in pairs in order to take sharp turns without slowing down. Derailment was virtually impossible.
The wheels were composed of three rings with rubber in between to eliminate vibrations. Bugatti-designed shock absorbers ensured a smooth ride.
The chassis consisted of two very strong frames with cross beams. The steel bottom plate was riveted along its entire length for optimum rigidity.
The first autorail Bugatti was built in 1933 and deployed on the Paris-Deauville branch at an average speed of 116 km/h. French President Albert Lebrun traveled in it from Paris to Cherbourg, saving him an hour of travel time. The occasion was the inauguration of the Gare maritime transatlantique.
Railcars of this first type, of which eight more were built in 1934-36, where since called Présidentiel. The autorails had 48 seats and were over 23 meters long. The 'Presidential' usage and corresponding name contributed to the Bugattis' luxury reputation.
The streamlined design gave the autorail a modern look. The front and rear side were flattened with a slight curve. The sharp edges at the sides were less aerodynamic.
Inside, passengers enjoyed a panoramic view without any obstruction at the front and rear. The driver was located in a sort of crow's nest, a raised cabin above the engines in the center. It must have been spectacular to sit at the front window of the Bugatti while driving at 150 km/h.
Passengers were seated on large and comfortable tube armchairs with adjustable backrests. In the first class they where fitted with headrests. There was also a small galley with on-seat service available.
As early as around 1930, ETAT was experimenting with Renault diesel-powered railcars. In 1933 the Micheline — a railcar on Michelin tires — was introduced, as well as the autorail Bugatti. They were both deployed on the Paris-Deauville branch.
The first railway company to put the Autorails Bugatti in use was the Chemins de fer de l'Etat. The French government established this company in the late 19th century for unprofitable lines in the west of the country. It had since become one of the five major railway réseaux.
In 1928 Raoul Dautry became the managing director of ETAT. He carried out modernizations in order to compete with the increasing road traffic. New lines were constructed and the Paris-Le Mans route was electrified. Novel train types were introduced such as the Micheline and the Autorail Bugatti.
Hildenbrand, who was ETAT's regular poster artist, created an atmospheric poster depicting the Bugatti's high speed.
The second railway company using Autorails Bugatti was PLM, which linked Paris to Lyon and the Mediterranean. At these long distances the high speed provided by Bugatti was very welcome. From 1934 onwards the railcars were running to Vichy and Lyon, and the next year also between Marseille and Nice.
The Bugattis reduced the journey time between Paris and Lyon to less than 5 hours, as a PLM poster revealed. It was designed by railway painter and illustrator Émile André Schefer. The main characteristics of the railcar, i.e. its speed and modern appearance, emphatically came to the fore. There was also a Paris-Vichy version, which indicated a journey time of less than 4 hours.
In 1938 the five major railway companies, including ETAT and PLM, were merged and nationalized. The Alsace-Lorraine (AL) railways, which also owned some Autorails Bugatti, was incorporated as well.
From that moment onwards all Bugattis resided under the SNCF.
Around 1935 the PLM railway company published a brochure that literally copied the manufacturer's slogan. The Bugatti advertising racehorse was also used. In this way the railway company benefited from the luxury and fast image of Bugatti.
Bugatti was also advertising the railcars, aiming at domestic and foreign railway companies as well as car buyers. After all, the modern image of the autorails reflected well on the automobiles. The advertising slogan Le Pur Sang de l'Automobile was extended with et du Rail.
In 1936 a poster was published of a drawing by Lidia Bugatti (1907-1972), daughter and sister of the entrepreneurs, depicting a railcar, automobile and racehorse at full speed. In 1938 R. Géri, who frequently worked for Bugatti, designed a more colorful version.
Bugatti presented the autorails at the 1937 World's Fair. Although there was great international interest the autorail was never exported.
The autorails excelled in speed, like Bugatti cars did. Unlike other railcars they were very suitable for high-speed long distance services.
The first autorail already achieved a top speed of 173 km/h during its initial test drives. In 1935 an average speed of 130 km/h was measured between Strasbourg and Paris. On the same line, the world record for rail vehicles was established in 1937 at 196 km/h, measured over 10 kilometers.
The Bugattis also broke braking records. All 16 wheels were fitted with drum brakes. At a speed of 150 km/h the braking distance was only 600 meters.
Speed records are hard to establish objectively. They depend on measuring methods and conditions. Not all manufacturer claims are universally recognized. In any case, the Bugatti record was soon surpassed. British steam locomotive Mallard reached 202 km/h in 1938 and the German diesel multiple unit SVT 137 155 ran 215 km/h the next year.
The Autorail Bugatti's success soon led to variants with more seats and less engines. The four engines proved to be fuel guzzlers, while high speeds were not useful everywhere. For that reason very few four-engine Wagons Rapides were built after 1935, but mainly two-engine Wagons Légers (light railcars). Their engine power was 400 hp instead of 800 hp.
To increase passenger capacity double units were built with flexible bellows connections between the two parts, measuring 42 meters together and providing 74 seats. In 1937 the Surallongés were given an extended body of over 25 meters with 73 seats.
The longest Bugatti railcar was introduced in 1936: the three-piece 'Triple' measured 60 meters and had 144 seats. With such length, driving positions at both ends were necessary, because the raised center cabin offered an insufficient view during shunting.
Bugatti was originally an artisanal company. Small series of exclusive cars were produced by local craftsmen and Ettore Bugatti himself looked over every detail. The success of the autorails turned Bugatti into an industrial company. Workers had to be recruited from elsewhere while trade unions altered traditional workplace relations. Ettore could not exercise control like he was used to and left the management to his son Jean.
The Autorails Bugatti had a relatively short lifetime. After some 20 years they were taken out of service, the last one in 1958. Their early retirement was due to their high fuel consumption. Like Bugatti cars they were fast and beautiful but definitely not economical. Of the 88 Bugatti railcars only one was preserved.
The preserved specimen is number four of the first Présidentiel series, built in 1934. It was used as an inspection vehicle until 1970. In 1980 the Bugatti was restored to its original condition. Nowadays it stands in the Cité du Train museum at Mulhouse, not far from the place where it was built 80 years ago.
As a measurement and inspection car the last Autorail Bugatti was significantly altered in the 1960s. It was equipped as a small laboratory with generators, batteries, volt and amp meters and oscilloscopes. There were also four berths available for staff in case of multi-day jobs.
Autorails Bugatti, French railcars of the 1930s
Richard Adatto, Julius Kruta, Christina Japp, The Art of Bugatti, 2010
Pierre Barry, Les Bugatti. Ces pur-sang du rail... in: La Vie du Rail, 26-02-1981
William Boddy, The Bugatti Story, 1960
Barry Eaglesfield, Bugatti the Designer, 2013
Photorail, La Vie du Rail
Bugatti Builder, forum
The Bugatti Revue: Géri drafts for Bugatti