Here is how Bugatti, the French ultra-supercar with an Italian founder and a German owner, is just like NASA: It builds complex machines that are beautiful, mysterious, and travel extraordinarily fast. These machines are so astronomically expensive that only a few with an earthbound budget could possibly afford one. In 2005, Bugatti introduced the Veyron to stunned aficionados and an incredulous automotive press corps, which marveled at what is still the fastest production car ever made. The current Veyron Grand Sport Vitesse travels 270 mph or so in a straight line and carries a punch-line price tag of $1.8 million. Only 43 are made every year, by hand. NASA, to continue the comparison, had a 2005 budget of $16 billion, more or less. These days, some of the Veyron's shine has worn off, though arguably it's holding up better than the space program.
And the people who actually pilot the Veyrons are sort of like astronauts, in that normal schlubs have a hard time understanding why they fly into the deathly vacuum of space – or, in the case of Bugatti, why they buy something like the Veyron Grand Vitesse Sport. The typical Bugatti owner already has 35 cars parked in his garage. That is not a typo: 35 cars! So why not add the Veyron to the collection? Its rarity is as much an explanation for its appeal as its unearthly velocity. Would a connoisseur of baseball memorabilia pass on Barry Bonds' rookie card? Would a rare book collector turn up his nose at a first edition of 'Ulysses'?
The most recent Grand Sport Vitesse is the Legend, an off-black monotone that shows off the carbon fiber weave from stem to stern. Like all Bugattis, the Legend was hand-built by a single man in a "factory" on a medieval estate in Alsace, France. But this particular Veyron is an homage to the rarest and most valuable car on the planet: the Bugatti Type-57S Atlantic. There were only four of them manufactured, and the fourth, owned by Mr. Bugatti himself, was spirited away from the Bugatti works when Herr Hitler invaded France. This ghost Atlantic is widely speculated to have been buried somewhere in Germany to prevent its destruction. If treasure seekers found it, it would likely fetch $50 million or more at auction.
Until that day comes, the Grand Sport Vitesse Legend will have to suffice. On the busy, narrow back roads of Alsace, in a faraway corner of France, the Legend is a caged beast, like an adult leopard stuffed into a jewel box. Only a few owners have actually driven this mother to its top speed, and usually (one would hope) that takes place on a closed racetrack. (One owner, a Czech gazillionaire, joined the 285 club on the German Autobahn by placing sentinels with walkie-talkies on bridges along the route to watch out for slow cars, cops and, presumably, fauna.)
The car is not really a car. It requires two keys – the first for "normal" driving, the second in case you want to exceed 230 mph. "Normal" driving means you have 1,200 horsepower at the tip of your right foot. At full throttle, the monstrous 16-cylinder engine, situated just behind the driver's right shoulder, sounds as though it has billions of parts, all moving in unison. The feeling of acceleration (from 0-62 mph in 2.8 seconds, and back to zero again in 2.4 seconds) is not normal, even by the standards of a supercar. Maybe this rare sensation is really what a Bugatti owner is purchasing.
And until someone finds that missing fourth Atlantic, the Legend's ridiculous, astronaut-worthy speed will have to suffice. [$1.8 million; bugatti.com]