A flight of fancy at the unveilling of the Bugatti Legend

Six models. Three cars each. The Jean-Pierre Wimille Bugatti was launched last month at Pebble Bay, California. The car is part of the (very) limited-edition Legend series - meant to honour six important people who have contributed to the impressive Bugatti history -and is based on the world?s fastest-ever convertible, the Veyron Grand Sport Vitesse. Kevin Hackett witnesses the unveiling.

Blue-Blood Legacy" The first model of the 2013 Bugatti Legend series is the same shade of blue as the Bugatti 57gG Tank, which catapulted its fearless French driver to racing hall glory almost eight decades ago. Courtesy Bugatti.
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Have you ever wondered how fast you’re travelling when the plane you’re in actually takes off and leaves the runway? Depending on the type of aircraft and the weather conditions, it can vary between 240 and 320 kilometres per hour and, if you’ve ever been on the side of a runway when a plane is taking off, you’ll know just how fast that looks. Keeping a car on the ground at speeds above those at which an aircraft takes off, then, must require some extremely clever aerodynamic aids.These thoughts cross my mind whenever I look in the rearview mirror and see the rear spoiler of this orange-and-black Bugatti Veyron raising and lowering itself, adjusting the angle of its blade like there’s some sort of anti-pilot controlling it, making it stick to the surface of the ground rather than hoisting itself into the air. It works, too, because this car could, if the road and police allowed, reach 410kph with all four wheels still on terra firma. Can you imagine the physics at play here, constantly being defied by the indecipherable technology that lies within?

It isn’t the sheer speed of the Veyron that impresses the most, at least when it’s your fourth time experiencing the car firsthand. It isn’t the violence of the acceleration, which really does pin you into your seat. Neither is it the way it looks or sounds. Rather, it is how it manages to be the world’s fastest production car but also, at the same time, one of the most usable. Remember, as part of the mighty Volkswagen empire, Bugatti has to ensure that every Veyron is as dependable as a new Golf.

And, just as cars such as the humble Golf need a periodical refresh in order to keep purchasers interested, so too must the world’s most expensive supercar be treated to a bit of a sprucing up. Bugatti has a self-imposed limited production run of just 450 Veyrons and, so far, approximately 390 have been delivered. Perhaps understandably, given its US$2million ticket price (Dh7.3m), the uptake has been slower than Bugatti would have liked and the worldwide economic downturn did it no favours - as a barometer of conspicuous consumption, nothing beats a Veyron, and many potential owners have shied away in order to save face.

Not that this has been much of a problem in the UAE, though. Per capita, this has always been the world’s most lucrative market for the cars and, like California, it’s one of the few regions in the world where you can expect to see them being driven on the open road.

Just three days before my date with California’s legendary Pacific Highway 1, Bugatti was unveiling its own legend: another special-edition Veyron, this time a Grand Sport Vitesse, presented at The Quail, an ultra-exclusive precursor event to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

The cynics might argue that this must be good news for owners of regular, non-limited edition Veyrons, because their cars are surely soon to be more exclusive than the seemingly endless commemorative iterations, but Bugatti’s people at The Quail unveiling wouldn’t be drawn on such conjecture. Rather, they said, it was high time that the company paid tribute to some of the people that have been pivotal in its success over its 104-year history.

So six of the most important individuals in the Bugatti story are being honoured with a car designed around their stories. The first is what we saw at The Quail: the Jean-Pierre Wimille edition. There will be six ‘Legend’ models, unveiled every two months from this point on, and three of each will be built. So that’s 18 out of the roughly 60 built slots left accounted for - no doubt the company’s people are madly figuring out what ‘special editions’ will follow the Legends series. Unlike many limited production vehicles, though, these basically amount to no more than unique trim and colour combinations. For when a car is as technically honed as this, you cannot simply garnish it with the occasional spoiler without fundamentally changing the way it drives and behaves, particularly in the upper echelons of its performance envelope.

Who was Jean-Pierre Wimille, then? He was a fearless French driver who won two victories for Bugatti at the 24 Hours of Le Mans: in 1937, driving a Bugatti 57G ‘Tank’, co-driven by Robert Benoist, and again in 1939, this time supported by Pierre Veyron in a 57C Tank - the same ‘Veyron’ who lends his name to Bugatti’s supercar in the first place. Wimille also drove Bugatti’s final competitive racing victory at the Bois de Boulogne in 1947, behind the wheel of a 4.7-litre Monoposto Type 59/50 B. He died in a car accident two years later.

The new Wimille Edition is inspired by the 1937 Le Mans-winning car, which was decked out in French racing blue. This Veyron reinterprets the finish with blue, clear-coated carbon fibre body panels and a light, Wimille Bleu paintwork finish. For The Quail unveiling, Bugatti had even gone to the trouble of tracking down the Le Mans-winning 57G and the two were displayed next to each other, lest there be a doubt in anyone’s mind about the somewhat tenuous connection between old and new.

No matter what your feelings about the Veyron and the seemingly endless procession of limited-edition variants - there were even three ‘Middle East’ versions unveiled at 2011’s Dubai Motor Show; one that combined a bright-yellow exterior and interior with black carbon fibre inserts and black wheels, a second that had a blue carbon-framed exterior with polished aluminium and an orange interior, and a third that featured a green carbon finish, once again framed with polished aluminium; naturally, all sold immediately - there’s no denying the visual appeal of this latest one. Of course, you get a matching interior scheme, complete with a Le Mans track map picked out with stitching on the rear bulkhead, and there’s another map tucked away within the car’s rump. But the real delights are to be had when you’re up-close, inspecting the handcrafted carbon panels, with their flawless weave and lacquered finish.

The attention to detail everywhere you cast an eye takes the breath away and yes, if you study the old ‘Tank’, you can see where there have been certain styling cues continued to the Veyron.Who will the new editions appeal to? There’s certainly no such thing as a ‘typical’ Veyron owner but there are certain collectors who make sure they get hold of these whenever they are announced, so it’s a sound business model for Bugatti. The depreciation curve for Veyrons has been undeniably steep in recent years (watch that trend slowly reverse once production has ended), but the limited editions have retained comparatively high residual values, making them a more sound investment. And yes, there are people out there who have multiple Veyrons.

No doubt all will find homes rather quickly, but what next for the company resurrected by Volkswagen in order to put a fitting name to the world’s fastest, most technically advanced automobile? Rumours abound but the official line is that there will not be a ‘Super Veyron’, which speculators said would take a hammer to the already stupefying performance statistics of the standard car. The Chinese market might necessitate a four-door, four-seat limousine like the 16C Galibier show car of 2009, but there’s little doubt that Bugatti will continue once the Veyron has breathed its last.For now, though, I savour every opportunity to give the orange monster, assigned to me, its steam.

The road surfaces in California are patchy at best, which serves as a reminder that this is a most civilised hypercar. No crashing about, no discomfort; simply devastating performance that even your grandmother could liberate without any bother whatsoever. The noises generated by this car, particularly when the removable roof panel is absent, are almost worth the asking price alone - its unabated hunger for cooling air, gulped through the large ducts behind the occupants’ heads, the way its four turbo wastegates dump that air back into the atmosphere, the heady roar of its 16 cylinders as the engine responds to your throttle inputs, and the rush of air overhead as the car bends space and time.

In a world that has seen and done it all, it’s gratifying to experience a car that still shocks and surprises years after it was first launched.In the past I have felt more willing to exploit the Veyron’s upper limits, although I am yet to get one beyond 335kph (the track I was on simply ran out). But today I’m content to simply enjoy the pulse-quickening thrills offered by its ballistic acceleration.”The police around here have a sense of humour failure at anything above 85mph [140kph],” advises my co-driver, and here they aren’t content to slap you with a hefty fine. You’d be looking at jail time for a Veyron-induced infraction, and I don’t fancy that.

So whenever the road clears and visibility allows, I slow it right down and unleash the boundless fury and energy of the world’s fastest open-top car. A glorious irrelevance, the Veyron shouldn’t really exist in a world that’s becoming more politically correct by the hour. It’s as far removed from socially or environmentally responsible as a car can be, but I, for one, am glad it does exist. Aftermy first experience in one, four summers ago, I remarked that it was the motoring equivalent of the Burj Khalifa. That impression remains as strong as it ever was. It is a giant among automobiles.