The World’s Most Expensive Car Gets Less-Than-Princely Welcome

Times Staff Writer

Three tons of faded French royalty has ended a cold and ignoble exile on an air freight ramp at LAX. For two weeks while clearing customs, it was wind-swept and rained upon. Companions were commoners, computer parts departing to Australia and vinyl tote bags arriving from Taiwan.

But Sunday, this 1931 Bugatti Royale, this bluest of bloods, was trucked to Las Vegas to resume a throne--as the world’s most expensive automobile.

Next month it will be sold at auction.

For a predicted $15 million. Or more.


“This same Royale was auctioned by Christie’s at the (London) Albert Hall for $9.6 million,” explained Nick Harley, the European agent who 18 months ago bid exactly that amount while purchasing the Royale for Hans Thulin, a Swedish collector. Harley was speaking from the South of France, gallantly allowing a telephone interview to interrupt his l’heure du diner . “That was the price just about 10 days after the 1987 stock market crash when everybody was cagey, very cagey indeed.

“In the intervening 18 months, most major cars have doubled in value. A Ferrari P4 racing car has sold for $7.5 million. A certain Bentley went for, I think, about $7 million or $8 million. Yes, I see no reason at all why the Royale should not follow that path . . . and reach maybe even $18 million.”

To some--certainly to churls and the Chevrolet-minded--that might be a little thick for a vehicle that sat at a Flying Tigers terminal (“The Bugatti? Yeah, we got it out back”) last week and appeared more shop soiled than showroom fresh.

Mica laminations have turned the windshield brown. Much of the nickel plate on the mixing bowl headlights has been removed by half a century of elbow grease. There’s rust on the steering wheel spokes and the engine drips oil.


Yet that’s examining the superficialities, say the experts, not the soul of the car. It’s evaluation by a Philistine who probably sees the “Mona Lisa” as an umber-depressive portrait of a chubby homemaker.

Mystique of the Name

To Harley, the full wealth of the Bugatti Royale has to do with “the mystique of the Bugatti name itself . . . the fact that he (Italian-born Ettore Bugatti) became famous for manufacturing cars to an incredible degree of design and craftsmanship.”

A brother, Carlo Bugatti, designed ornate, extraordinary furniture that now fills museums. Another, Rembrandt Bugatti, was a painter and sculptor. Expatriate Ettore Bugatti’s artistry was the cars he chose to build in France.

“His cars worked brilliantly. They also looked like architecture,” Harley concluded. “In the car world, the Bugatti Royale is the emperor. It is it. If you want to use superlatives, I suggest you use all of them.”

It certainly has aided the appreciation--of both design and price--that only six Royales were built and no two were alike. The batch survives. There is the Harley-Thulin car currently resting between king’s ransoms. One Royale is in the private collection of Newport Beach home-builder William Lyon, two live in France and there are two in Michigan--including one in the collection of Tom (Domino’s Pizza) Monaghan.

Not Less Than $10 Million

No Royale is worth a dollar less than $10 million, and for that amount you could buy 50 Rolls-Royce convertibles with a couple of Bentleys for the kids.


Such is inflation for a Royale that cost only $85,000 when new. But even in 1931, that was triple the cost of a Rolls-Royce.

“It’s definitely a bit out of my price range,” concluded Rocky Colavito, a Flying Tigers ramp service worker. “Even if I did win the lottery.”

The Royale had flown in from London (“Pieces: 1. Weight: 3,000 kilos” noted the baggage tag tied to a door handle) and was lashed like Gulliver to a loading palette. Colavito and his tractor had wrangled the vehicle from the open Tarmac to a berth alongside an empty freight container. The duchess was on Skid Row.

A Sense of History

“It’s beautiful,” Colavito said. “I am able to take a look at it and feel all the history she represents. But I own a ’33 Buick Crown Victory so I’m an antique buff anyway.”

Bias notwithstanding, Colavito’s sense of history is not misplaced.

Bugatti’s stated aim for his Royale line was quality beyond standard restraints of cost. His cars would outweigh, outgrow and outclass anything by Rolls-Royce, Mercedes, Duesenberg or Cadillac. If not purchased by monarchs, they certainly would be built to royal standards and sold not through advertisements or promotion, Bugatti vowed, but by word allowed to “filter out in the best circles.”

Bugatti built his half-dozen Royales to stand almost head high to a 6-footer. The aluminum engines were 12-liter straight-eights developing 300 horsepower. Tires on polished aluminum wheels measured 3 feet across.


Ivory shift knob. Melton headliner. Leather seats with horsehair stuffing. A bonnet as long as Santa Monica Pier and running boards that rose and flowed and ran forever. And the hood ornament was an elephant rampant in silver sculpted by Rembrandt Bugatti.

But for $85,000 you didn’t always get a speedometer.

“I like what one of our public relations people wrote about that,” Harley said. “If you were in a Bugatti Royale, you didn’t need a speedometer, because you were already there.”

The Family Car

The Harley-Thulin Royale--with coachwork by Carosserie Kellner of Paris--served as a family car for the Bugattis.

During the German occupation of France in World War II, it was hidden behind a false coach-house wall at the family estate.

In 1951, after the death of Ettore Bugatti, the car was purchased by millionaire American sportsman Briggs Cunningham. Cunningham paid 100,000 francs ($16,000 at today’s rate of exchange) for the Royale. Plus two GE refrigerators.

The car was displayed at Cunningham’s auto museum in Costa Mesa for 36 years. That collection was sold in 1987. The Royale was returned to Europe, auctioned by Christie’s and now has been flown back to California--with far more air miles on the vehicle than the 5,000 road miles on its odometer.

According to a spokesman for owner Thulin, the Royale is being sold because it no longer fits a collection that has been reshaped to emphasize classic racing cars.

The blue-on-black dreadnought goes on the Las Vegas block April 22-23, at the Landmark Hotel and Casino. It will command a premium price, a spokesman said, because the car is in original condition, was the personal car of its designer and is considered the best-handling of all the Royales.

Auction partner Don Williams says 10 car collectors and “major, major investment groups” from several countries have already expressed interest in the Royale and “one American collector has said he’s going to own it . . . and he’s capable of that.

“This is the Hope Diamond of automobiles. The Sistine Chapel. It’s Van Gogh’s ‘Irises’ It’s. . . .”

It’s also a car with a catch.

For the lucky purchaser also becomes the unlucky person who has to pay duty on the car.

On a $15-million Royale, that’s about $300,000.