Take the A22 Autrostrada to Modena from Milan and on your right you’ll notice a big blue building. The signage has faded over the years but you can still make out the letters enclosed in a familiar oval shape: BUGATTI. It’s hard not to notice this space age facility on the side of the motorway, especially painted in bright Bugatti blue. But this state-of-the-art factory is anything but these days. There’s nothing there anymore.
There are no workers meticulously hand-building supercars inside, there’s no life left inside. Once home to Bugatti Automobili, S.p.A., this factory now remains a relic from a time that promised so much for the revival of the Bugatti brand under the vision of one man, Romano Artioli. Having made his fortune in importing Suzukis to Italy and exporting Ferraris to Germany, Artioli set about going through on his vision of reintroducing the world to Bugatti with a spectacular new supercar. But first, he needed a factory worthy.
Artioli bought the land for his Bugatti revival in 1987, with the factory opening on Ettore Bugatti’s birthday on September 15, 1990. Modena was chosen as the new headquarters for Bugatti, moving it from its traditional home of Molsheim in France, which was said to be for logistical reasons. Modena was closer to all the necessary suppliers since Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Maserati were just down the road.
Keeping close was useful for when Artioli recruited people from the aforementioned brands too, as they didn’t need to relocate.
The workers were important to Artioli. He believed that if the workers had a great place to work, that would translate to the things they made. He wanted the 240 or so workers to feel like a family and not a factory. The architect of was Artioli’s cousin, Giampaolo Benedini. Benedini designed a marvel. With floor-to-ceiling windows bringing in plenty of natural light into the production line, a sci-fi office building, and even their own test track facility, it was one of the most advanced factories in Italy, and indeed in the world.
It’s hard not to be curious by this place. I’d driven past the faded Bugatti building many times before in previous trips to Modena, but this was the first time I’d stopped by. Luckily, visitors are allowed in with the guidance of the caretakers. Enrico Pavesi, whose family has a strong connection with the Bugatti Aumotomobili factory, was kind enough to show us around and explain some of the history of the factory.
Enrico’s parents actually met while working at the factory more than three decades ago and his grandmother was the original caretaker of the house adjacent. His family now reside there and have been maintaining the grounds, preserving the factory, and sharing the story ever since. He said they felt they needed to “continue the story and legacy” of the factory out of respect for everyone who put their hearts and souls into Bugatti and Artioli’s vision. They live and breathe this factory. Enrico even goes as far as to say he “owes his existence” to this place. Had his parents not worked there together at the same time, they wouldn’t have met and he wouldn’t have been born.
As Enrico opened the doors to the factory, the empty and still production line was eerie. There was only silence, it was almost like the set of a post-apocalypse movie. Yet, there was an intangible sense of life. There might not be life inside but the factory felt alive, these walls have a story. It’s unlike any abandoned place I’ve been to and certainly unlike any factory. It’s easy to Enrico and has family have taken care of this place these last couple of decades as best they can, preserving as much of it as possible.
According to Enrico, funding for the upkeep of the factory comes in the form of donations from generous visitors and the community such as local car clubs. By day, Enrico is a Provincial Coordinator for the local government but in his spare time he and his family spend their day making sure the grass on the lawn is kept tidy, the interior of the buildings remain in tact, and making sure there aren’t any squatters.
Inside is a time capsule, stuck in the early 90s with period correct calendars, fax machines, and computers. Most of the things inside were liquidated but a lot seemed to have been left over, as if everyone wanted to get out quick. A Japanese flag remains in the reception hall, perhaps for the last customer to have visited the factory before it closed its doors forever.
The work of Benedini on this factory is brilliant. When you think of ‘factories’ you think of big, grey, dull buildings that’s dimly lit and miserable. A place with no soul but not here. The tall windows brought in a lot of natural light, making it feel less like a scene out of Modern Times and more like somewhere humans would actually spend their days at, and bear in mind this was in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. Even today there aren’t many factories that are this light.
So advanced was Artioli’s vision, they had their own emissions testing room at the factory in 1992 before it was mandated by the European Union in 1995. Artioli wanted the factory to be a hub in Europe, he even had six engine testing rooms and also had a Schenck 4WD testing bench. He also did factory tours long before the other Italian manufactures started doing it.
Scattered around where the production line once was are photographs of what each section was responsible for. The factory had the goal of producing 3 cars per day, with the aim of about 150 cars per year to break even. That wasn’t a problem, demand for the car was high. The EB110 had sold out in the Japanese market and big name collectors such as the Sultan of Brunei, Ralph Lauren, and even Michael Schumacher bought one. Sales were strong enough to rack up $44 million worth of sales in a year, as Bloomberg reported in 1994. That was a testament to the brilliance in engineering and design of the EB110.
Artioli originally approached Marcello Gandini to design the car but Artioli wasn’t impressed on how similar it looked to a Diablo and less like a Bugatti. He asked his cousin, Benedini, to fine-tune the design. Apparently the finished product offended Gandini and told Artioli he didn’t accept it as his own design. The automatic seats, window, and spoiler on the EB110 GT weren’t to Benedini’s liking. Being the thrill-seeker that he was, wanted a more raw version which is where the idea for the SS version originated. Whereas the standard car developed 550 horsepower, the SS had 611 hp and a top speed of 216 mph. It was faster than its contemporaries such as the Ferrari F40 and Lamborghini Diablo. On May 23, 1993, the EB110 SS set a world record achieving its 220 mph top speed. This was thanks to the 3.5-liter quad-turbo V12 was designed by Paolo Stanzani, the V12 whiz who worked on the Miura up to the Diablo.
Things were looking good for Bugatti. They had acquired Lotus Cars from General Motors as a way to get foot in the door in the American market. (The GM-Lotus partnership had been a strange one, as Lotus’ most recent project pre-sale had been putting in “a new suspension system in the Hummer,” as the New York Times reported at the time.) Artioli wanted control in sales and distribution of his cars and wanted to use Lotus’ North American dealer network for the EB110s. During this time anew lightweight sports car was being developed with the codename ‘M111’. Continuing with Lotus’ ‘E’ name, Artioli was inspired by his granddaughter and the name Elise was chosen.
Bugatti had also started developing a second production car aimed to be mass produced, dubbed the EB112. Bugatti ended up making three cars, which Enrico believes to have ended up in Turin, Switzerland, and Monaco. Bugatti had to make more of these to break even compared to the EB110, the rough number was 350 per year. However, things started to turn sour due to a falling out with the project manager, Nicola Materazzi, who had previously been involved with the F40.
This was the start of the problems for the factory. When the new project manager took over, he found problems with the EB112 just as it was ready to go on sale. This, along with issues with suppliers that Artioli attributes to being strong-armed by rival neighbours, was a perfect storm of bringing Bugatti down. Enrico didn’t want to go into too much detail about the fall of Bugatti as the “bad stories” wasn’t the point. Instead, they wanted to focus on what made this place great. Bugatti Automobili S.p.A. officially closed its doors in 1995. By the end, Bugatti Automobili had made 139 EB110s, including 33 SS and three EB112s.
When the Modenese courts decided to sell Bugatti Automobili S.p.A’s assets, Dauer got the six partially finished EB110s, B Engineering got a chassis and engine, and Volkswagen got the rights to the Bugatti brand. According to Enrico, Artioli had valued the factory, technology, and workers so highly he had offered to give it to Bugatti for free if he could continue to work and run the factory under their ownership. As we’ve seen, Volkswagen declined the offer and moved Bugatti back to Molsheim. The factory was sold off to a furniture company, which went bankrupt before they could move in.
Ever since 2000, people started to become more curious about the abandoned factory. Enrico said people started breaking in and climbing over the fence. After these incidents they decided to open it up to the public. If people want to see inside, simply ask. Enrico and his family have their contact details posted outside the gate should you require assistance. Since then, more attention has come towards the factory including several magazine articles, video documentaries, and more recently acknowledgement from Bugatti Automobiles with a visit from Stephan Winkelmann. The grounds have also been used for various sports car clubs as a gathering place for events.
It’s great to see this place getting the historical acknowledgement it deserves. The EB110 redefined the supercar world and brought us the birth of the hypercar with the Veyron and Chiron. The story of Artioli’s Bugatti renaissance was one of great vision and promise as well as great tragedy. As cases like these go, no one is still in full agreement over what caused the downfall of Bugatti Automobili but it’s great that there are people like Enrico and his family out there still sharing the story on with anyone interested. The legacy of the factory and Artioli’s vision lives on to everyone who hears the incredible story and in a way, that brings more life back to the “super” factory.