If you're like me, your one thought after seeing an auto museum's retrospective about a particular marque is "where the hell were the sculptures of elephants and the Art Nouveau furniture?" That will not be an issue when you go see the Mullin Museum's spectacular exhibit about the Bugatti family.
The Mullin isn't nearly as open or accessible as, say, the Petersen in LA, but if you're anywhere around Southern California it's absolutely worth trekking out to an anonymous-looking and very beige semi-industrial area around Oxnard to find the museum. The collection has always been remarkable, but this exhibit that features the talents of four members of the Bugatti family is really something special. As you've probably guessed, the Bugattis were a remarkably talented clan. If you grew up next door to them, I'm pretty sure you'd have an inferiority complex the size of many Bugattis, stacked one atop the other. The exhibit primarily showcases the work of the father, Carlo Bugatti, and his sons, Ettore (the one most of you think of — the car guy), Rembrandt (a sculptor), and Ettore's son, Jean.
Mullin owns the largest private collection of classic Bugattis in the world, and for this exhibition he even sought to borrow more, as well as having all of the non-automotive works on display, which include, along with furniture and sculpture, manufacturing tools, a boat, a bike, and a freaking airplane. There's no half-measures here. You're the goose, the exhibition is whatever they force-feed geese, and the sense of awe you'll feel is the foie gras. But less disgusting.
Let's talk about the cars first, since that's really the main reason any of us will see this exhibition, and they're absolutely worth it. The whole span of Bugatti is covered here, from the adorably tiny Peugeot BP1 Bebe (one of Ettore Bugatti's first cars to be in large-scale production) all the way to a Veyron, which, in this company, is pretty ignorable. And that says a lot.
There's the stunning and incredibly successful iconic Type 35C racecar from 1927, with its integrally-cast brake drums in the wheels, a Bugatti trademark. There's the massive, elephant hood-ornamented Type 41 Bugatti Royale, which feels sort of like a long, land cruise ship. It increases your body's count of class cells in your blood just by standing in its generous shadow. There's the rare and novel-looking Type 101C, a full-width 50s-era design that evokes Jaguars and Bristols but manages to outclass them both in sheer elegance.
It's a stunning collection of cars, and, happily, there's respect given to the less pristine, unrestored cars as well. Alongside several rough charmers from Mullin's collection, there's five incredible cars from the Schlumph collection. They're all wildly original, unashamedly unrestored (one looks like a chili bomb went off inside it) and it also includes the only Bugatti woody wagon I've ever seen.
When it comes to landmarks of non-restoration, the exhibit also boasts possibly the most famous and dramatic example of the category: that Bugatti They Pulled Out of That Lake. Yes, the 1925 Bugatti Brescia Type 22 roadster is on display here, in all of its dramatic, zombie-like decay. It's hard not to compose the "ran when parked" Craigslist ads in your head when you see it. It's really stunning, in an equally powerful but opposite way that the lovingly restored cars in the collection are.
There's a great collection of contemporary racecars from Voisin and Delahaye and others as well, so you can see what those fast Bugattis were racing against, and, in an unusual move, you can even see what tools were used to build the cars.
There's also the stunning Atlantic coupé in all it's dorsal-finned, streamlined, riveted glory, an amazing and cheerily yellow Type 46 (bodied by Ettore's son Jean) that has a delightfully literal trunk, and that really remarkable all-aluminum Type 64 recreation, including the wooden styling bucks used to make it. Oh, and the body of that one is set about two feet above the chassis, giving a great monster-truck look to the car.
The tools, wooden molds used to make casts for engine parts, the raw engines, all these items make this exhibit much more than the usual lovely cars in a gallery show. Seeing these actual wood forms for, say, an intake manifold, gives you an incredibly intimate and revealing look at the processes used to create these remarkable cars, and puts you in direct contact with the artists' hands that did the actual work. It's humbling.
Of course, the whole damn thing is humbling. Mixed among the cars are examples of the other Bugattis' work, including Carlo's fascinating furniture designs. The furniture itself is a product of it's time in theme and detail, but often much further ahead in terms of raw form. Some of it is oddly ornate to modern eyes, being steeped in the era's fascination with the "orient," which essentially meant anything non-Western.
Moorish influences and decorative themes from Islamic art and design from the Levant dominate the design vocabulary, which means lots of patterns and tassels and even a good bit of what I believe is intended to be fake Arabic script. The craftsmanship is incredible and the forms under all that decoration reveal an eye for design that is far ahead of its time; the 'Cobra' (not at the show, but still) chairs that Carlo created could be updated into hyper-modern advanced design remarkably easily.
Also worth noting about the furniture: the small silhouetted icon of one of Carlo's ornate chairs really, really looks like a squat robot holding a spear in the exhibit's map. Here, look:
Rembrandt, Ettore's brother, is also well represented at the show. Rembrandt was a sculptor, specifically a sculptor of animals — the wonderful elephant hood ornament on the similarly elephantine Type 41 Royale is his work. There's other elephant sculptures around, lured into stretching out their trunks with promises and lures of peanuts — that part is even documented in photos.
There's also a good assortment of large felines, deer, horses, and other beasts, all rendered with an expressive, detailed-yet-loose style that is a bit like Rodin, which makes sense, as the two sculptors knew one another. Rembrandt, for all his talent and successes, was a troubled man, and took his life at 31.
I suspect Mullin felt that cars, art, furniture, and tools just weren't enough to really pull people in, so the exhibit wisely features carriages, a boat, a bicycle, and a freaking airplane. I guess if you can't install a water slide, that's the next best thing.
The plane is really remarkable. It's the Bugatti 100P, which, incredibly, is a pre-war design, hidden from the Germans in storage during WWII. It's an absolutely revolutionary plane, designed in 1938 to be a racing plane. It's twin-engined, but in order to reduce weight and frontal area, the two straight-8 engines are placed in tandem at the rear of the fuselage, canted to avoid one another's driveshafts, which flank the pilot's tiny seat to drive a pair of co-axial, contra-rotating propellers.
Which just means it's bonkers and looks like it came from Space Paris in the year 2100. The one on display is actually a very, very careful replica, and is set to make it's first flight this year. It's accurate in every detail, down to the millimeter, with two key modern concessions: the doped fabric skin was replaced with fiberglass, and in place of the two massive Bugatti inline-8s are a pair of Hyabusas. Is there anything those engines shouldn't be in?
Where the 100P airplane shows the incredible forward-looking elegant engineering of Bugatti, I was pleased to see at least one Bugatti product that made me wonder what the hell they were thinking. This was a small motorboat they produced, wooden, pretty, but with one very odd quality: it's a FR boat. The engine's up front, driving a rear propeller via a propshaft that runs through the whole boat. This seems like a really strange choice and a great way to get fishing lines wrapped around a spinning shaft.
There's a really lovely '50s era bike as well, and also a Bugatti Type 52 — a tiny electric Bugatti kiddie car that looked like a Bugatti racecar. Oh, and people actually raced these. By "people" I mean larval people known as "kids, little freaking kids." They have cute/modern-standards-terrifying video of a bunch of kids tearing up a track in these things. It's awesome.
Look, if you're anywhere near the American Southwest and give any manner of damn about cars, this exhibit is absolutely worth seeing. The combination of the whole family's artistic and engineering output gives a richness and depth to the event rarely seen at an automotive museum, and the unexpected extras like seeing the custom door hinges from the factory or the actual wood molds used provides a sense of intimacy with the designers and builders that you just can't find anywhere else.
You'll love it.