If there were such a thing as a list of the top ten forgotten supercars, the Bugatti EB110 would be at number one. The generously-financed, well-planned (though ultimately ill-timed) resurrection of one of motoring's most evocative marques produced a car that was state-of-the-art and which, in the early '90s, also held the accolade of The World's Fastest Production Car.
There are a number of reasons why the Bugatti has faded from memory, one being the McLaren F1, which arrived soon after and didn't so much move the supercar goalposts as uproot them and replant them in next week, but the most surprising reason is that the EB110 was probably too damned good. I wasn't expecting that. I'd read lots about the EB110, and long ago made up my mind about its styling, but until now I'd never driven one. So my first experience came almost a decade after production ground to a halt, and it was a revelation.
We're south of Modena, up in the hills on a route frequented by Ferrari's road testers, driving the most extreme EB110, the Supersport (or S, or SS - you choose), back-to-back with B Engineering's Edonis, which is a sort of retro evolution of the ill-starred Bugatti.
The Supersport was introduced at the Geneva Salon in March '92, six months after the launch of the EB110 GT, as a faster, lighter and sportier version. It retained the GT's four-wheel drive but swapped some aluminium panels for carbonfibre, and was powered by a more potent version of the quad-cam, 60-valve, quad-turbo 3.5-litre V12. With bigger injectors, an exhaust system with two fewer catalysts and a new ECU, power rose from 550bhp to 603bhp.
The Supersport exuded quality as soon as I started to drive it, in the exceptionally smooth mapping of the fiery V12 and the finely judged ride and handling compromise. Even in the context of what is being built today, the EB110 S stands up as a very well developed, meticulously honed car. It's befuddlingly, remarkably, outstandingly good, and after half an hour I was wondering why the EB110 isn't generally regarded as one of the world's finest cars.
Then I stepped out, looked back and remembered. That's not to say I didn't like what I saw; as is the case with a number of visually challenging cars, the Bugatti is a much more enticing prospect in the metal. It's quietly imposing, chunky but compact, and you can sense a deep undercurrent of serious intent. That never helped EB110 poster sales at Athena though, and it's an indisputable fact that the majority of people who can afford to buy a supercar want the 'wow factor' - dramatic looks that advertise dramatic performance.
There's a riot of drama in the Edonis, which we've sampled a few times here at evo, but never with the full 720bhp promised since the car was shown four years ago on the eve of the new millennium. The Edonis shares the EB110's tub and chassis, slightly modified, and the basic architecture of its engine, but there the two cars diverge. The Edonis is a classic Modenese supercar, with a striking body fashioned from hand-beaten aluminium, rear-drive only and a phenomenally potent, 3.8-litre, twin-turbo development of the Bugatti V12. It's an altogether rawer take on the supercar theme, possibly the most raw there has ever been...
The Edonis has been created by a handful of ex-Bugatti staff, headed up by Jean-Marc Borel, the man who was the president of Bugatti Holdings International. The small, talented and patient group of men who formed B Engineering after the collapse of Bugatti seem to have created the EB110's alter ego, as if to show what fire, passion and potential there was inside both the EB110 and Bugatti, of which they remain very proud.
There was no shortage of supercar-building talent involved in the creation of the EB110, so named to celebrate the 110th anniversary of Ettore Bugatti's birth, which fell on the day the car was launched. Bugatti head-hunted everyone it wanted to make its new supercar, its task made easier by the recent take-over of Lamborghini by Chrysler, and Fiat's greater influence at Ferrari following Enzo's death. The list of key staff at Bugatti read like a Who's Who of Modena supercar making: Materazzi, Stanzani, Gandini... The list went on, with positions throughout the engineering and test and development teams filled by the ideal candidates, all of them enticed by the prospect of working on a clean-sheet design in a brand new factory equipped with the most advanced test facilities. It was a dream team and the perfect environment; ideal conditions to create the world's greatest supercar.
The EB110's layout and running gear was originally planned by Paolo Stanzani, the ex-Lamborghini engineer who later left Bugatti under a cloud. His replacement as technical director was the legendary Nicola Materazzi, the man behind such icons as the Stratos, 288 GTO and F40.
The stylist was Marcello Gandini (whose CV included the Miura and Countach) but he and Romano Artioli, Bugatti Automobili's charismatic boss, fell out when the subject of revising the car came up. Seeing the prototype EB110 with its shovel nose, rear arch extensions and scissor doors, it's no wonder that those who spotted it thought they'd spied the next Lamborghini. When Gandini declined to re-work the EB110 the task fell to Giampaolo Benedini, designer of the new Bugatti factory at Campogalliano, but there was input from others.
The resulting car is distinctive but you couldn't imagine Gandini putting his name to it. Equally, I can't imagine him flourishing his pen in the bottom corner of the Edonis styling sketches either. Where the EB110 lacks drama, the Edonis has an excess, a point rammed home when we arrange a group shot at B Engineering's workshops with the Edonis and three EB110s - the first production GT, a Supersport and the well-worn, original prototype. Even the Supersport looks demure. And the architect and co-stylist of the Edonis? None other than Nicola Materazzi.
While the styling issue rumbled on at Bugatti, development continued apace. The EB110 initially had an aluminium chassis but this proved unsatisfactory having lost 20 per cent of its stiffness after 30,000 test kilometres, so Bugatti turned to the French aeronautics company Aerospatiale whose rocket division had experience with carbonfibre. Aerospatiale agreed to help develop and produce the tub, making the EB110 the first production car with a carbonfibre superstructure.
In the free-thinking, fertile environment of Bugatti, many innovations were considered. 'We did some crazy things,' recalls Borel. Active suspension, evolved from the Citro«n SM's system, was investigated, as were carbon brakes. Carbon Industries, supplier of 80 per cent of the brakes in Formula 1, proposed an extraordinarily over-engineered system based on that fitted to some aircraft. Instead of pads, it clamped the central carbon disc with two others, the set-up caged by a titanium frame. The system was tested but the response was simply too great, and besides, recalls Borel, it would have cost more than the car...
Brembo provided the brakes on the production car, suspension was by conventional double wishbones and coil springs with twin spring/damper units at the rear, the carbon tub was clothed with aluminium bodywork and the power of the quad-turbo V12 was transmitted to all four wheels via a six-speed gearbox. Tyres were specifically developed by Michelin and an organic lubricant (created for the Benetton F1 team) was supplied by Elf. The development programme took the EB110 to all the outposts that a thoroughly tested, high-quality, high-volume production car would have visited, including the N¼rburgring and the Arctic Circle. Bugatti confidently predicted that the EB110 would be the world's best supercar.
Having spent three days around Modena with the B Engineering team, you acquire a better understanding of why Bugatti was so confident. Modena was - and remains - the world's greatest producer of supercars. When BMW wanted to make the M1, it went to Lamborghini. When Porsche developed the fantastically sophisticated 959, Ferrari responded with the F40, which out-sold it four to one. Bugatti believed that the EB110 was the best supercar Modena had ever produced, ergo it would be the world's best.
During its homologation, the EB110 GT attained a certified top speed of 212.5mph, setting a new production car world record, and, soon after, the Supersport raised the bar to 218.1mph. Just a few years before, cracking 200mph was considered remarkable. Bugatti also claimed a 0-60mph time of just 3.14sec for the Supersport.
Rivals included the new four-wheel-drive Diablo VT, Lamborghini's first all-wheel-drive supercar. Coincidence? Probably not; the Modena supercar fraternity is rather like a club, with a frequent circulation of members and a friendly rivalry between the marques. There was also the Jaguar XJ220, so named to reflect its anticipated top speed. It never quite made it, falling just short of the Supersport's speed. The 'productionised' XJ220 wasn't what the 400 enthusiasts and investors had put their £50K deposits on in 1990 either, the original's 6-litre 48-valve V12 and four-wheel drive having become a turbocharged V6 and rear drive. Bugatti's concern was only that it meant 400 less people in the market for a supercar, a market that was rapidly shrinking due to the downturn in the global economy.
A bright spot appeared in February '94 when up-and-coming Benetton F1 driver Michael Schumacher helped a German magazine with a three-day supercar test at Goodyear's Mireval proving ground in the south of France. The cars included an XJ220, Porsche 911 Turbo, Diablo VT, Ferrari F40 and EB110 GT. After the test, Schumacher put his hand in his pocket and bought a Bugatti, a yellow Supersport with a GT interior - he didn't want the carbon-backed seats because 'I sit in them all day at work'.
Perhaps the biggest blow to Bugatti's ambitions was a three-seater from Woking. The McLaren F1 was ruthlessly, fanatically lightweight, exquisitely made and uncompromisingly equipped. It weighed 1140kg, was powered by a bespoke, normally aspirated, 627bhp BMW V12, and soon proved to be the fastest production car in the world. It cost £540K (plus taxes), more than twice the price of the EB110 Supersport (£281K), but that didn't matter; it was percieved as unequivocally the best supercar the world had ever seen.
Incredibly, all EB110s came with a three-year 'contract' covering all servicing costs, even including consumables such as brakes and tyres. Contrast that with the experience of McLaren F1 owners, few of whom escape from a service at the factory with a bill for less than five figures. Nonetheless, when the Bugatti factory closed in September '95, it had delivered just 84 EB110 GTs and 34 Supersports, including four built for competition, making it very nearly as rare as the McLaren.
As such, it's a privilege to be handed the keys to a very low-mileage Supersport, owned by a friend of B Engineering. The exterior of the Supersport is more aggressive than that of the GT, thanks mainly to its seven-spoke BBS mag alloys and fixed rear wing but it's still rather conservative. However, the interior is even less exciting. It seems incredible that it was all designed from scratch, and even the addition of Supersport trim - carbonfibre for the shells of the sports seats and facia, and quilted leather trim for the transmission tunnel and sills - fails to suggest the exotic.
Bugatti's engineers managed to lose some 130kg from the GT (which weighted almost 1700kg, not the quoted 1620) by fitting a carbonfibre bonnet, engine cover and venturi undertray, and magnesium wheels, pedals and cam covers. A lot of luxury items were also deleted, the most obvious evidence of this being wind-up windows, while the motorised rear spoiler became a fixed wing.
Hop in, pull down the scissor door and it's clear that headroom is tight. The pedals aren't offset, though, the gearshift is mounted close by on the left of the tunnel and forward visibility is good. The big tachometer set dead ahead adds some excitement, with a scale that stretches to 10,000rpm and a red line at 8500.
Twist the key and the classic high-pitched starter-motor whine is followed by the soft eruption of 12 cylinders firing obediently into life. It's a muted, low, sophisticated growl, not as instantly expressive as the V12s from Ferrari or Lamborghini but appealingly deep-chested. The shift into second is a little reluctant until a few hundred yards have been covered - very Italian supercar - but even at low speed there's a quality feel to the ride and a sense of solid structural integrity. Nothing creaks or squeaks and although the carbon tub transmits hollow thuds as the suspension deals with the most severe urban lumps and bumps, they're not felt - impressive considering this set-up is good for nigh-on 220mph.
The 3.5-litre V12 is decently torquey and tractable at low revs, which is as you'd want it because the four little IHI turbochargers don't begin to spool up and deliver serious boost until around 4000rpm. Keep on the throttle until the rev-counter needle gets there and the acceleration abruptly but smoothly ramps up and the V12 rumble is swamped by the sound of vast quantities of air being hungrily inhaled. Back off when you're here, on the cusp of the V12's explosive, boosted performance, and the four turbos chuff sequentially, left-right-left-right.
Keep the throttle nailed and you enter another dimension. The thrust is astonishing in its force yet the four-wheel-drive system harnesses every last ounce and converts it into forward motion. In the lower gears it's a giddying shove that pins you to the seat, yet the car seems comfortable with it. In the higher gears it's a deeply satisfying, seemingly never-ending push for which there doesn't seem to be a road long enough.
Peak torque of 479lb ft arrives at 4250rpm, while peak power is delivered at 8250rpm, so once the boost is up you can ride along on it, much as you can in an F40, measuring it out with fine throttle adjustments to match a flowing road. There are no stumbles or flat spots in the mapping, even when you're on and off the throttle on twisting roads, which is remarkable. The shift of the thoroughly warmed six-speed 'box is wonderfully slick and positive too, and allied to a progressive, comfortably weighted clutch. It's a terrifically well polished drivetrain.
The chassis of the EB110 relishes decent roads. You can sense that there's more weight behind than in front but the nose never gets floaty and the power steering, although boasting just 2.8 turns lock-to-lock, isn't so sharp as to make the car feel nervous. There's enough detail through the rim to let you know that grip is outstanding, and even when you lean hard on the front tyres with a trailing throttle, the back stays solidly hooked up.
It's a quite different car to the McLaren, yet almost as thrillingly fast despite the weight penalty (some 430kg) because of the rapid escalation of torque when the four turbos kick in. The F1's normally aspirated V12 is astonishingly strong from low revs and its rear-drive chassis finds incredible traction, which would certainly give it a performance advantage on give-and-take roads, except for the fact that it has heavy, unassisted steering and heavy, unassisted brakes which lack anti-lock. Together they take the edge off your enthusiasm for pushing hard. The upshot is that to a degree the F1 and EB110 are the opposites of what you'd expect, the McLaren being more the point-and-squirt car.
Then there's the Edonis. After a ride in it, whoever coined the phrase 'you can never have too much power' would probably concede they've been wrong all these years. With rear-drive and a 1400kg kerb weight, the Edonis gives a hint of what the Bugatti might have been had it been developed in traditional Modenese fashion - apart from the carbon tub and outrageously powerful 3.8-litre evolution of the V12.
It's B Engineering's calling card, a demonstration of the skills that Modena still has to offer, including very fine, hand-beaten aluminium bodywork. As such it's a work in progress, so the engine mapping isn't fully refined, the clutch is rather weighty and grabby and the interior is still not finished to the standard of the fussy but aerodynamically efficient exterior.
B Engineering's test driver, Roberto Reggiani, another ex-Bugatti man, takes the wheel first and it's soon obvious that although this car had 'around 700bhp' the last time I drove it (evo 047), it is much faster now. It has taken four years and six development engines (at £100,000 a throw, not including build costs) to hit the target of 720bhp but the result is astounding. Maybe 'terrifying' would be more honest.
I'm apprehensive about driving it. It feels rather like the EB110, only a fraction more agile, and in the engine bay behind all is calm and Bugatti-like below 4000rpm. But when the two fat, variable geometry turbos begin blowing, all hell breaks loose. The noise begins as a high-pressure hiss then rapidly becomes a gale-force rush, as if a hurricane is being forced down a couple of drainpipes. That's nape-prickling enough but at the same time the Edonis slams forward with near-violent acceleration. If you're in any of the first three gears, the fat 355 section rear Michelins can't resist the force. Thing is, it feels like full boost arrives at 4000, which fools you into thinking that the rear tyres can cope. But a moment later it hits the peak of 590lb ft at 5250rpm, and suddenly you're winding on opposite lock as fast as you can, in a straight line. Even in fourth gear on a long, wide road, it takes courage to put your foot all the way down and keep it there.
A couple of years ago the Edonis managed almost 360kmh (223mph) at Nardo. With this latest engine - which runs a massive 2.5bar of boost - and longer gearing, the magic 400kmh (249mph) doesn't look unattainable. That's why the Edonis is fitted with the same 'Pax' tyres that Michelin is developing for the new VAG Bugatti Veyron. Ah, the irony.
The Edonis shows what the EB110 might have been and also demonstrates just how effortless and exploitable the Supersport makes over 600bhp feel, and what a superbly developed car Bugatti produced. Back in '92, evo contributor Brett Fraser flew to Italy to drive the EB110 GT for Car magazine. He was thrilled by its on-boost performance but concluded: 'I'm slightly bewildered as to whether I like it or not. I'd prefer it to act more like a supercar more of the time.'
The Supersport does, but I know exactly what he's getting at. For an Italian supercar, and a very expensive one at that, the EB110 is surprisingly lacking in passion. It's very quick but being so competent, so refined and so easy to drive, and so conservatively styled, it doesn't stir the emotions like a Diablo or 512TR. The EB110 really is the supercar that was too good.