(For five days …)
I received a phone call in late March 2017 asking me if I could travel to Lisbon, Portugal to cover a Bugatti customer drive event for the Bugatti customer magazine, ettore. Like the parting of the Red Sea, my diary entries miraculously cleared for a whole week!
The Bugatti Chiron is many things to many people: For ridiculously wealthy car nuts, it’s a must-have; for ten year-old car nuts, it’s an aspirational pinup for the bedroom wall; for creatives, it’s a design masterpiece; for technical aficionados, it’s an engineering marvel; for collectors, it’s an investment …
For me, it was a chance to immerse myself in the Bugatti lifestyle, breathe the fashionably rarefied air of the super-rich, marvel at the sales pitch when the price tag starts at 2.5 million euros … oh, and to show off to my friends.
Two articles came out of that trip. If they have a slightly corporate feel about them, that’s because ettore is a corporate publication – and an extremely exclusive one at that – reserved only for those who own a modern-era Bugatti. Bearing in mind that Bugatti only made 450 Veyron from 2007 to 2017, and has limited production of the current Chiron to 500 over seven years, the print run for this magazine is minuscule. To make it worth their while even warming up the machines in the first place, the designers at Delius Klasing Corporate Publishing gave it a supersized format (30 x 36 cm), selected a weighty print stock, stuffed it full of sumptuous photography and coated it all in a silky matt varnish – none of which comes over in digital … ah, well.
For a bit more behind-the-scenes info pitched at those of you who are not in the Bugatti-buying league, read on below …
As you might imagine, both are rather upscale, although perhaps not as opulent or dripping in luxury as you might expect. I have it on good authority that the two-location setup was not part of the original plan. Once the hotel in Lisbon had been commandeered for the duration, Bugatti’s test drivers quickly ascertained there was not a suitable route nearby for … how shall I put it … “enjoying the potential of the Chiron”.
The format for the event was to focus on four customers per day – two in the morning and two in the afternoon. There were four pre-production Chiron on hand for the test drives in an assortment of fits and finish. One of them (spec’ed for the Middle East) had recently returned from filming for Top Gear in Dubai.
My job was to spend a few days tagging along, soaking it all in, chatting to people, doing a few interviews and then to wrap it all up neatly in a couple of articles (yeah, that’s what I have to do to earn a crust).
The two customers would make their way to the relay station in one Chiron each, accompanied by Bugatti test drivers Andy Wallace and Pierre-Henri Raphanel. Prior to heading off, either Andy or Pierre would deliver a driver briefing (aka stern lecture) with clear instructions on appropriate behaviour. Apparently, keeping the super-wealthy in check behind the wheel of a supercar can be challenging and calls for a firm, no-nonsense stance. The ride to the relay station, initially with Andy and Pierre-Henri in the driving seat, provided a chance for a more detailed briefing.
There was a small fleet of Bentley Bentaygas laid on for the accompanying entourage of plus-ones, assorted dealer representatives and, on a couple of occasions, moi. Those rides were a great opportunity for chit-chat. It turns out that being stinking rich does not necessarily equate with being stuck-up, aloof, arrogant or pretentious. In fact, everybody I met was rather disappointingly lovely.
I travelled out to the relay station on two occasions. Both times, I went there in a Bentayga, an experience itself worthy of a dedicated page. However, in the Chiron blockbuster, it plays but a minor supporting role. At the end of the first day, once the logistics for returning the customers to the hotel had been worked out, there was a spare seat in one of the Chiron for the trip back, and Andy Wallace casually asked if I would care to occupy it. Would I? Would I? Never in the history of questions has a question ever been so superfluous!
It was the golden “Top Gear” car in Middle East spec, but the only difference I could see was the Arabic lettering on the wing mirrors, presumably advising me that objects are closer than they appear. Although, in a Chiron, I highly doubt that.
My word! It was a lovely feeling slipping into the passenger seat. A remarkably civilised process, with no inelegant clamber over a high sill or ducking under a preposterously sharply angled A-pillar. First thought? “Oooh, I could get used to this.”
I enjoy driving special cars, but what I enjoy even more is being driven by special drivers – and Andy Wallace is one of them. His triumphs include winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Jaguar (C1 class) in 1988 and coming second (also for Jaguar) in 1990. He also won the Daytona 24 Hours three times and the Sebring 12 Hours twice. And as a Bugatti test driver, the Chiron is basically … well … his company car.
The 70-kilometre ride back to Lisbon was all motorway, most of it fairly quiet, and provided an excellent opportunity for Andy to provide me with a glimpse of the Chiron’s formidable skills set. Naturally, the local constabulary was aware of what Bugatti was up to on its patch, and had laid down a very specific set of guidelines for the duration in return for a degree of selective blindness in the speed department. No blasting through villages, no high-speed overtaking and no rear-end harassment. As it turned out, only one customer was pulled over – because the officer wanted a photo of himself with the Chiron.
I should add at this point, that my Chiron experience didn’t end there. Andy shot even farther up the rankings of my most favourite people in the entire world the next day when he approached me with a set of keys in his hand and uttered the words “now it’s your turn to drive”. However, that is literally a whole other story.
During my stay in Bugatti-land, the visitor roster covered customers from Europe and the Americas. I met twin brothers from Canada who run a family business making mainstream health and beauty products, a charmingly quirky investment whiz who flew for the first time in 35 years to drive the Chiron, an ebullient Dutchman who began his career cleaning cars and spent his entire visit beaming from ear to ear like a big kid, and another Dutch chap from a trucking empire who was ordering his Chiron in honour of his brother, who had died of a heart attack just before placing his own order.
Some, such as the jolly Dutchman Jeroen van den Berg, were happy to speak on record about their Bugatti associations, while others were more reticent – conscious of the negative PR such a pricey possession can generate.
What they ALL had in common, however, (aside from insane personal wealth, obviously), was the contents of their garages. With nothing short of diamond-encrusted cookie-cutter repetition, they all trotted out the same names: La Ferrari, Porsche 918, MacLaren P1. It seems hypercars only come in sets – you get one, you pretty much have to get them all. A matching set of high-value classic cars is apparently another prerequisite.
The Bugatti people I spoke to explained how their customers enjoy these opportunities to relax and mingle with similarly wealthy peers. I took that to mean “without the spectre of guilt casting a dark shadow on the frivolities”.
From where I was standing, it was “kid in a candy shop” on a ludicrous scale. All the customers present were totally psyched about being there and utterly blown away by their drive in the car. While, on the one hand, I found it refreshing that they weren’t blasé, I also found myself wondering if this kind of price tag, exclusivity and special treatment was always necessary for them to find joy in an experience. I hope not.
From my own perspective, I can honestly say that I can be made deliriously happy by considerably less. NEVERTHELESS, this peek through the steamed-up window into the lives of the super-rich was something I am guiltily prepared to admit will remain with me for the rest of my life.