If one likes supercars, a first visit to Modena is loaded with subtle anticipation. There is surely a Ferrari parked on every medieval corner! The truth is stranger, more subtle, and rather more obscure. It is a Bugatti that looks nothing like a Bugatti.

This will not be a story of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Paganis and Maseratis, but of the chance meeting on Modena’s Piazza Grande of your humble correspondent and the first running EB110 prototype. The sun was baking the terracotta-colored heptagon of the city’s medieval core and there it was, its driver’s side scissor door popped open, idling in front of the 827-year-old Modena Cathedral, surrounded by men sharing a look that was a mixture of wonder and deep familiarity.

In his comparison test of the Bugatti EB110 and its later derivative, the B-Engineering Edonis, Evo magazine’s John Barker called the EB110 the world’s number one forgotten supercar. The car had been a confident attempt to build the best supercar ever, conceived by a dream team of Modenese engineers, designers and stylists, and it was an ultimately doomed attempt, strangled by the financial downturn of the early ‘90s and overshadowed by a certain McLaren F1. It also had engineering ambitions of playful and galactic proportions, which can perhaps best be appreciated in a section about the brakes in Barker’s piece from the March 2005 issue of Evo:

In the free-thinking, fertile environment of Bugatti, many innovations were considered. ‘We did some crazy things,’ recalls [Jean-Marc] Borel [ex-president of Bugatti]. Active suspension, evolved from the Citroën SM’s system, was investigated, as were carbon brakes. Carbon Industries, supplier of 80 per cent of the brakes in Formula 1, proposed an extraordinarily over-engineered system based on that fitted to some aircraft. Instead of pads, it clamped the central carbon disc with two others, the set-up caged by a titanium frame. The system was tested but the response was simply too great, and besides, recalls Borel, it would have cost more than the car…

The car I happened upon, walking as if on clouds after an epiphanic avant-garde lunch at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana, was built to test the carbon fiber brakes of the future EB110. It was the first prototype with an engine, which can be seen through slats in the hood, “Bugatti” stamped into the cam covers. The car bore chassis number 39001, and it can easily

How I found the first Bugatti EB110 prototype on an Italian street

be recognized by the NACA ducts on the front fenders, unique to this one prototype. And a prototype it is: lacking the cheese grater air inlets and the Bugatti horseshoe grille of the production car, it is a quick and dirty assembly of body panels and a spartan interior.

The driver popped his door for the men on the piazza, closed it again, drove a lazy circle set to the bells of the cathedral, then drove off into the city. I know. It’s a ridiculous Modena tourist trap for visiting car boys in a hurry. I wish I could say it was all terribly staged. But it wasn’t. It was nothing but a chance encounter in this ancient, wonderful city, where men come to build supercars, where potatoes want to become truffles, and where one-off V12 prototypes share the cobblestoned streets with Piaggio Apes.