Bugatti's Iconic W16 Will Go Down As An Icon Of Combustion

Engine / 6 Comments

The world's greatest engine started as a sketch on an envelope.

When the McLaren F1 achieved its record-breaking top speed of 240.1 mph, many believed the automotive world had reached the physical limits of what was possible. But the late Dr. Ferdinand Piech was determined to prove everyone wrong and create something better. What started as a sketch on an envelope transformed into one of the world's greatest engines, the 8.0-liter, quad-turbo, W16 motor.

As the era of electrification draws near, Bugatti is paying tribute to the iconic motor, a feat of engineering many said would be impossible to pull off. It all started when Piech found himself traveling to Osaka on the Shinkansen high-speed train. With nothing but time, a pen, and an envelope, the former chairman of the VW Group envisioned an engine with 18 cylinders.

Comprised of a trio of VR6 cylinder banks (offset by 60 degrees to each other), Piech imagined a colossal powerhouse that would provide ample motivation to future high-performance and luxury vehicles. With nothing but a sketch from the big boss, VW Group engineers set about creating the infamous engine that has powered Bugatti vehicles for nearly 20 years.


"At the time, no one believed there could be a vehicle for the road that boasted [986 horsepower]," says Gregory Gries, Bugatti's former Head of Technical Development. "We wanted to prove we could construct an engine that was not only powerful but also manageable," he adds. Gries and his team started from scratch, developing every component from the ground up - even the W16 test bench had to be specially constructed. "

The only thing we didn't change was the pencils we used for drawing," joked Gries. The W-configuration meant the 16-cylinder engine was no bigger than a contemporary V12. Instead of three VR6 mills as envisioned by Piech, a pair of V8 blocks set at a 90-degree angle and boosted by no fewer than four turbochargers gave the W16 the awe-inspiring performance it's known for. But getting to this point was not without its challenges for Karl-Heinz Neumann and his talented team.

"Back then, there was no literature or empirical data for production engines with more than twelve cylinders or for production vehicles that could go faster than 217 mph.


"One thing proved to be a particular headache," added Neumann. "The car had to stay grounded, its power had to stay on the road - which isn't easy at these speeds." But, under the steely-eyed watch of Piech, Neumann and his team managed to pull off this incredible feat. "There was a real sense of fulfillment when the W16 was finally up and running."

But the final product was far from ready. While the engine reached new heights in terms of performance and outputs - a cool 1,001 pferdestarke (PS - or metric horsepower) - existing test benches and ventilation systems couldn't cope with the sheer power of the new W16 engine. Not only did engineers have to create new systems, but also find solutions to problems that previously never existed. For example, how do you channel extremely hot exhaust gases?


Well, if you're a VW Group engineer, you develop a titanium exhaust system so advanced it had never been used before in the automotive sector.

With performance checked off the list, the team turned its attention to smoothness and reliability. "From the outset, our aim was to generate maximum engine performance in a stable, clean manner," explains Gries.

A heavy-duty cooling system was imperative to the reliability of the W16 engine. Again, engineers had to create something never before employed by the automotive industry. It's a complicated affair; the water-cooled system comprises two water cycles. 10.6 gallons flow through the high-temperature cycle, with as many as three front-mounted coolers keeping the engine at the desired heat.

2017-2022 Bugatti Chiron Coupe Side View Bugatti
2017-2022 Bugatti Chiron Coupe Rear Angle View Bugatti

The low-temperature cycle, with its separate water pump, uses 3.96 gallons of water to cool down the charge air from the turbochargers by as much as 130 degrees. Aside from this, there are separate coolers for the transmission oil, engine oil, and differential oil. With four turbochargers aiding the already powerful 8.0-liter engine, the early W16 truly was one-of-a-kind.

Bugatti's Christophe Piochon has nothing but praise for the engine and the team which birthed it: "Only with the immeasurable commitment of the employees could this standout engine be improved, redesigned, and perfected again and again over the years." It's rather fitting that the engine was to be used in a Bugatti. As company founder Ettore Bugatti once said, "If comparable, it is no longer Bugatti."

2010-2011 Bugatti Veyron Super Sport Front View Driving Bugatti
2010-2011 Bugatti Veyron Super Sport Rear View Driving Bugatti

Introduced in 2005, the Bugatti Veyron broke cover as the world's fastest production car. With a top speed of 253.81 mph, the high-end hypercar shattered McLaren's record by a country mile. More impressively, however, was how it reached that velocity. Unlike high-powered vehicles of the past, Veyron introduced civility to the world of performance and was able to travel over 250 mph as easily as it could be driven to the shops and back.

But those engineers couldn't quite sit back and relax. A few years later, the even more powerful Veyron Super Sport hit an astonishing 267.85 mph, rocketing itself into the Guinness Book of Records. Nearly two decades later, the engine remains in use, albeit with a host of revisions. For the Chiron, Bugatti improved performance by fitting the W16 with sequential turbochargers.

At first, this saw outputs boosted to a mesmerizing 1,479 hp and, for the Super Sport and Centodieci, 1,578 hp. Not content with resting on their laurels, Bugatti sought to develop the Chiron Super Sport 300+. Capable of hitting 304.773 mph, the ultimate Chiron is the fastest production car in the world.


Bugatti has gone to great lengths to ensure the Chiron's W16 is as reliable as the original. Aside from computer simulations, the engine reportedly ran for 16,000 hours whilst in development and covered more than 310,000 test miles. Crafted in a special room at VW's Salzgitter engine plant, two experts lovingly handcraft the engine over six days. From there, it is shipped to Molsheim for final assembly.

The ICE engine is, sadly, on life support, and in an increasingly environmentally aware society, engines such as this don't have much time left. However, Bugatti has said the W16 may live on but with hybrid assistance. Now in a strategic partnership with EV experts Rimac, many have feared the Chiron's replacement will be fully electric.

But rumors suggest the successor will retain the iconic W16. A second Bugatti model will eventually join the range and may very well utilize an all-electric setup. It's extraordinary to think one of the world's greatest engines started life out as a drawing on an envelope. Were it not for the ambitious and inspired thoughts of Dr. Piech, we may very well never have seen something like this in our lifetime.

2021-2022 Bugatti Chiron Super Sport 300+ Front View Driving Bugatti
2021-2022 Bugatti Chiron Super Sport 300+ Rear Angle View Bugatti
2021-2022 Bugatti Chiron Super Sport 300+ Front Angle View Bugatti
Front Angle View Bugatti
Rear Angle View Bugatti
Front View Bugatti

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