Three years ago we first visited Bugatti headquarters in Molsheim, France — the gilded 19th-century Château Saint-Jean, a palace complete with museum and ultra-modern atelier — to witness the handbuilding of their newest hypercar, the Chiron.
Bugatti’s then head of sales and marketing, Dr. Stefan Brungs, made a comment at the time underscoring the rarefied air that Bugatti occupies, declaring that the guys who drive Rolls-Royces own private suites at the football club, but the guys who drive Bugattis — they own the football club.
That brought everything into focus, and has remained emblematic of the marque that sits so far above even the pinnacle automotive brands.
In January of last year Stephan Winkelmann, who was born in Berlin and raised in Rome and once served as a paratrooper, took the reins of the vaunted hypercar manufacturer. Bugatti’s newly minted President brings with him an admirable resumé heading two of the most coveted performance brands in the world.
He ran Lamborghini from 2005 to 2016, launching landmark vehicles like the Huracán and Aventador, and raising the Raging Bull’s sales to their highest point yet.
And in 2016 he briefly took over Audi Sport (formerly Quattro) before moving to what is arguably his most challenging post yet: leading Bugatti into the future.
Winkelmann arrived just before Bugatti unveiled the Divo, a $5.7 million limited run hypercar (only 40 units) that sold out in a few weeks.
Powered by Bugatti’s legendary 8.0-liter W16 engine — which features four turbochargers — the vehicle is the latest automotive scion in a bloodline that includes the legendary Type 35, which won Bugatti the first Monaco Grand Prix in 1929. It then went on to claim over 2,000 more victories, making it what some have called the most successful car in racing history.
As the brand prepares to celebrate its 110th anniversary, we sat down with Winkelmann to discuss the challenges of heading such an illustrious manufacturer, why it’s important to maintain the cultural essence of the luxury marque, and of course what comes next:
After more than a decade at pinnacle car brand Lamborghini, you’ve moved on to Bugatti. How did the experience at Lamborghini prepare you for Bugatti?
Well, it’s clear that 11 years of Lamborghini taught me a lot, and especially all the projects we did. The main projects were the Aventador, the Huracán, and the starting and first years of the Urus [SUV].
Plus all the daily concerns of the motorsports. So all those projects taught me how to plan, how to look forward, and how to keep cars young over the lifecycle. Now at Bugatti, as the pinnacle of the pinnacle, it’s a whole new experience, it’s a completely different brand. Being at the tip of the spearhead, it’s something where you have to be extra careful with whatever you do.
And all the things that you want to engage and develop and bring to market have to overachieve the expectations of our type of customers, and also of the million fans we have around the world.
You have built extreme supercars before at Lamborghini, like the Reventón, Aventador J, Veneno, Sesto Elemento, etc. — these very limited production vehicles with obscene power, carbon fiber, severe body designs, and so on. Is the level of attention Bugatti requires above and beyond even those?
The attention is beyond those extreme cars for sure, because the level of detail, the level of quality, the level of technology we have inside [Bugatti] is unparalleled. Just look at the W16 engine with 1,500 horsepower: we have something which is a unique selling proposition, not only in the super sports car industry, but in the entire industry of the automotive world.
Both the Chiron and the Divo embrace two worlds in a perfect way. Usually when you have a super sports car brand, you have a car which is very fast, and a car which has an outstanding design, but you’re missing always something, let’s say, on the comfort side.
But with Bugatti we are getting the best out of two worlds: Here we have a car that has a high level of comfort, but also linked with an outstanding, incredible acceleration, which is something I’ve never experienced in my life before. So this is something incredible and not comparable to any other brand in the world.
Because Bugatti’s parent company, Volkswagen Group, is an international conglomerate, and there is so much shuffling of executives and engineers between brands, is it irrelevant what country the brands are from? Or do these companies still have profound cultural roots — do you feel the German character of Audi Sport, the Italian nature of Lamborghini and the Frenchness of Bugatti?
Yes, I feel that. I think that you nailed it, because every brand that you named has roots in their own country, and therefore for me it’s a privilege not being a Frenchman and running Bugatti, and not having been an Italian — even if I grew up in Italy, and I’m more Italian than German — to run a company like Lamborghini. I am blessed.
Can you explain how Bugatti has remained French?
First of all, it is clear it is the people. So when I arrived I prepared my speech in French, and they very much appreciated my bad French a year ago, and this was a good sign, because they really feel the Frenchness of this company. Also the behavior and the way that we speak and treat our customers.
For example, when they come here to visit the Molsheim experience, we have our cook prepare French cuisine, which everyone appreciates. So there is immediately a deep dive into an atmosphere, which can be only named as French. And this is some thing that I really appreciate.
I was lucky enough to visit the Château Saint-Jean a few years ago, and it really is one of the most spectacular places of provenance of any brand, across any industry. It’s such an impressive place to woo customers, a peerless tool to have at your disposal.
Yes, for sure. And also let’s say the natural way our people live in this environment is always astonishing to me, to have this historic site. It’s very natural, and the customers feel it and breathe it because it’s not only about the building — it’s also about the people and how they be have, and how they live in it, and how they propose, let’s say, the legacy of [founder] Ettore Bugatti. And so therefore I’m really grateful and honored to run this company.
You go under that big stone gate, and then you pull up to the château, and there’s somebody there waiting for you with a flute of champagne. The experience is so mind-blowing — brands could spend a billion dollars on a showroom and nothing would compare.
Yeah, roots and history are not replaceable. Time matters in this sense, so if you have a legacy, this is important. Everybody is really impressed about this location. Obviously Europeans, but perhaps Americans and Asians even more.
That’s a perfect segue: you cannot replace time. And here we are on the 110th anniversary of Bugatti. Can you give me a brief snapshot of where we are right now, and maybe what’s coming up?
With the Divo, I think it was a good test for me, for the team, in front of customers, in front of you guys, the press, to see how ready the brand is for more. And we say this test was very successful, and let’s say we are planning a lot.
I don’t know what we can realize — because it’s also a matter of huge group decisions, how much you can do at the end of the day — but the brand really is able to do more than what we are doing today.
For the time being [with the anniversary], we have a huge opportunity to refocus on the brand, on the history in the rearview mirror. But not too [intensely into the past] because everything we do has to to have a bright look into the future.
Both the Chiron and Divo have been very successful products for you. Is it true that all Divos sold out in four weeks? How many Chirons have you sold in total?
The Divo is sold out and we are starting the deliveries in the year 2020. So all 40 cars are gone. And the Chiron is sold out until the second part of 2021…. We have sold almost everything until the end of 2021, three years sold out, so we still have a bit more than 100 out of 500 [Chirons] available.
I know that you can’t reveal specifics about future product, but you were one of the big proponents for the Urus at Lamborghini, which has a lot of experts speculating you will have a similar mind frame for Bugatti. Can you address the potential of a Bugatti SUV?
If I would be able to decide today on my own, I would say we would not do a Bugatti SUV. This would not be the car which we imagine as a second model for Bugatti. We have analyzed almost every body style and also alternative body styles that are not on the market yet, and for us, the SUV is not the car we would like to see as a second model for Bugatti.
What about the Galibier concept? Is a big executive saloon type of car more likely, or is that one permanently shelved?
So the saloon, the sedan segment in my opinion is a segment that is losing momentum. It’s going down in terms of volume, so we don’t think this would be the car for the future of Bugatti as a second model, as well.
You’ve made a point of stressing that in Bugatti’s history, it’s had fourdoors, it’s had coupes, it’s had sports cars, open-air cars, it’s had everything.
So therefore it’s important to look back and to understand history, and to have important and strong roots that are reaching the past, but it’s also important to look ahead and always to surprise, and always to be ahead of what you might expect today or tomorrow.
Let’s talk about the potential for powertrains. Right now, with the W16, you have the most brilliant, apex internal combustion engine. I just don’t see how you could get much better. So what’s next? Do you see an electrified version of the W16? Do you anticipate going completely electric? Are you always going to offer W16 engines?
What I can tell you for sure is that there is a foreseeable end for the W16. This is something we cannot avoid; it will be in this sense, the last of a kind. But I also have to say this is not going to happen tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. So we still have a good lifecycle, we have still a lot of plans for this engine, but I also have to say that this is really the last one that we are going to develop like this.
And we have to say two things: On one hand, cuts are necessary. If it comes from outside like legislation, environmental issues, social acceptance, all these things come together, and you as a company — also as a leader of the company, as entrepreneur — you have to be ready to look at the next step. And like in the past, there were innovations that were great and very much appreciated — even though what you had before was, let’s say, the pinnacle — you should never be afraid to look forward and to go into new ground.
If this is electrification, then it will be an electrification that is worth stepping in because it will be a Bugatti electric engine. And I see this is a possible future for us; we are studying every opportunity, and therefore I’m not afraid. And if you look back, Ettore Bugatti and also one of his sons, they drove different things, and they were always surprising and very enthusiastic about the things that they did.
When I look into my team, I have the same impression, and I’d say we are not [too] tired to prove that we can do also something different than the W16.