By Mark Yost
Houston, TX, USA

If there’s a modern-day Medici – in the automotive world anyway – it’s Peter Mullin, the management guru whose love of all things Art Deco has changed the very definition of Southern California car culture. He used his billion-dollar fortune to first found the Mullin Automotive Museum, whose Art Deco furniture, artwork and
Peter Mullin
grand Italian and French coaches from the 1920s and ‘30s have made Oxnard, California, a must-stop for any serious car enthusiast. Still unsatisfied, he took the long-languishing Petersen Automotive Museum, perhaps one of the greatest car collections in the country under one roof, and breathed new life into it with a total redesign both inside and out. The $90 million makeover not only improved the display space and allowed the museum to show off more cars, but Mullin created a $35 million endowment – something the museum had never had before – to make sure that the collection and the space where they’re shown never grow moribund again.

The Petersen renovation has also given Mr. Mullin a chance to display more of his Art Deco collection, especially his cars. The latest effort is a new exhibit on Bugatti, a brand name that defines the marriage of artwork and technology that was a hallmark of the Art Deco movement (Mr. Mullin is also the president of the American Bugatti Club and a member of the Bugatti Trust).

It would be fairly easy for even the most lackadaisical car buffs to put together an exhibit of the world’s greatest Bugattis, such as the 1932 Bugatti Royale, or 1936 Type 57SC Atlantic, which Mr. Mullin bought for a reported record $35 million. But it takes someone with Mr. Mullin’s appreciation for the era, as well as the breadth and the depth of the family whose name is on the hood ornament, to curate something like “The Art of Bugatti,” now on display at the Petersen in downtown L.A’s Arts District through Fall 2017.

1932 Bugatti Type 41 Royale
In addition to the cars (we’ll get to those in a minute), Mullin uses objects – from family patriarch Carlo; his son Rembrandt, a renowned sculptor; Rembrandt’s daughter, Lydia, an artist in her own right; Ettore, Carlo’s son who established the automotive dynasty; and Jean, Ettore’s oldest son, who took the marque in new directions – to tell the story of this incredible Italian family.

Carlo’s milieu was Art Deco furniture, and some of his grandest pieces from Mr. Mullin’s own collection are here, including a pair of silk fringed chairs, circa 1900, made from walnut, pewter, brass and vellum, as well as a desk and smoking table from the turn of the century that marry wood and metal, a signature design feature of the Art Deco period. Also here is artwork from the entire family, including Carlo’s oil on panel self portrait (date unknown), as well as a circa 1910 oil on canvas Portrait of a Lady (Barbara Bolzoni Bugatti, Ettore’s wife).

Pair of Silk Fringed Chairs (circa 1900)

Although Rembrandt was primarily known as a sculptor, he also worked in pencil and ink and charcoal, producing sketches, such as Le Rencontre (The Encounter), and the charcoal and chalk Etude de Buste d’Homme (Study of a Bust of a Man). Lydia, who we learn was the only Bugatti with no formal training – she learned at the elbow of her grandfather – produced a circa 1930 blue pencil on paper sketch entitled Siblings, as well as a rare Leaping Greyhound Radiator Badge Sketch, also from about 1930.

Leaping Greyhound Radiator Badge Sketch

While these artworks are important to understanding the depth and breadth of the talent of the Bugattis, it is Ettore and Jean’s “artworks” that take center stage here – and rightfully so. I tend to like the long-nosed coupes of the 1930, especially the 1931 Bugatti Type 54. As the exhibit notes explain, “Bugatti developed the Type 54 as a competitor to the high-powered race cars from Germany and Italy. But whereas previous Bugatti race cars had focused on finesse, this model focused on power and its 4.9-liter engine was so large and heavy that it made the car difficult to handle. At times the vehicle’s weight and power caused the tires to detach from the rims, resulting in a large number of crashes. Consequently, it was not a successful competitor and very few were built.”

1931 Bugatti Type 54

I also like the look of the 1928 Type 43  44, which the exhibit explains was one of the first supercharged models to be offered to amateur drivers. “The light chassis’ short length, narrow wheelbase, and supercharged engine made it suitable for a variety of races and long-distance touring. After an unsuccessful race in 1929, this car was stripped of its factory body and rebodied by Joseph Figoni.”

1928 Type 43  44

That’s an important footnote. The Bugattis were smart enough to realize that they couldn’t do it all, and the partnership with Figoni was the first of many with coach and interior designers. Another Bugatti partner was Corsica, the British firm that furnished the bodies for at least 14 Type 57s.

And then there’s the 1935 Type 57SC Atlantic, perhaps the greatest Bugatti of all time. It was, the exhibit explains, the production version of Jean Bugatti’s AĆ©rolithe Coupe, which was unveiled at the 1935 Paris Auto Salon. “The riveted flanges that join portions of the coachwork pay homage to aviation engineering and emphasize the all-metal construction of the body. This prominent motif merges art and technology into functional sculpture.”

1935 Type 57SC Atlantic

The provenance of the particular car is equally interesting. It was originally delivered to the third Baron Rothschild in England on September 2, 1936. “In 1939, Lord Rothschild had the Bugatti factory install a Roots supercharger from a Type 55 engine, upgrading the model to a Type 57SC.”

It eventually ended up with Robert Oliver, a wealthy American deployed in France with the United States Army Medical Corps. In August 1946 Oliver shipped the car to New York and drove it home to Los Angeles. “In 1953, he shipped the car back to the Bugatti factory, where its engine was completely rebuilt and the correct Type 57SC supercharger and hydraulic brakes were installed. The Atlantic was sold in 1971 through public auction to Dr. Peter Williamson, who paid an unprecedented $59,000.” It is one of the few non-Mullin Bugatti’s on display here.

Fast forward to 2017 and Bugatti is still setting the bar high in terms of the marriage of art, design and engineering. For a limited time, the new Chiron, the latest generation of Bugatti supercars, with a top speed of 261 MPH and a price tag of $2.6 million, will be on display here. As the exhibit explains, it is the first production car – only 500 will be made – to produce 1,500 horsepower.

2017 Bugatti Chiron

“The Chiron is well-positioned to reach a maximum speed significantly above the world speed record currently held by the Veyron.”

And it’ll look good doing it, too.

Mark Yost


Mark Yost is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal and is the author of five novels in the Rick Crane Noir mystery series.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.