Record Auction Sales: 1931 Bugatti Royale Kellner Coupe


Ever since they were first produced, Bugattis have been massive in style and power.

This Bugatti Royale, also known as the Type 41, is a unique car on this list. Most of the records for expensive cars sold at auction have been set in the last ten years. There are a number of reasons for this, but classic cars are just simply worth more now than they ever were before. But back in 1987, a buyer paid so much for this 1931 Royale that the record still stands today, even without adjusting for inflation. If inflation is adjusted, then this is the number one record holder.

The name and year of the Royale tell quite a bit of its story right from the beginning. It was a car intended to be sold to royalty, just at a time when royalty was disappearing all over Europe. In the end, not a single Royale was sold to royalty. King Alfonso of Spain had intended to buy one, but was deposed in 1928 before he was able to take delivery. Just six copies of the Royale were built, between 1927 and 1933, and Bugatti wasn't able deliver the first one to a customer until 1932. Ettore Bugatti even famously rejected King Zog of Albania's request to buy a Royale, citing the man's terrible table manners as the reason why.

Given this kind of unmitigated snobbery, it's hardly surprising that the Royale was built purely out of spite. Legend has that Ettore was told by an English lady that she considered Rolls-Royce to be a superior machine to his, so he built the Royale, just to shut her up. In the end, only three of the six Royales produced were sold, with the unsold three hidden away until after WWII. All six survive today. It's not exactly a shock that Bugatti didn't manage to move many cars during the Great Depression, the unbodied chassis went for $30,000 at the time, or about $370,000 today.

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With the body, the Kellner Coupe cost $45,000 ($560,000 today). Not that the Royale was in any way unimpressive. It must first be said that the thing is massive. It has a fifteen-foot wheelbase, with an overall length of twenty-one feet, and stands five feet tall just at the hood, making the elephant hood ornament nearly eye-level. It is a full 1/5 bigger than a modern Rolls-Royce Phantom, and 1/4 heavier. Perhaps the most impressive part of the Royale is its engine. Originally, this was an aircraft engine, known as the U-16.

Bugatti had built these in anticipation of a contract with the French government which never materialized, due to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and the end of WWI. The engine was an odd design, basically two straight-eights which used a common crankcase but employed separate crankshafts. The advantage of this was that Bugatti was able to easily convert the design to a single straight-eight for use in a car. The engine was still massive, as was everything else about the Royale. Displacing 12.7 liters, it had three valves per cylinder, a single overhead camshaft and a single carburetor, producing between 275 and 300 horsepower.

This engine ended up being the thing that saved the Royale from being a complete commercial disaster. Having produced some 23 more engines than he could find cars for, Bugatti built a train locomotive using several of these engines to power it. The prototype landed him a contract with SNCF, the French national rail company, and 79 were built in all, making the company a fortune. The Kellner which broke the sales records has an unusual story. After hiding out at Etore Bugatti's estate through WWII, it was sold in 1950, along with another Royale known as the Berline de Voyage (which itself sold in 1986), to American racing driver Briggs Cunningham.

For the pair, he paid $3000 and two GE refrigerators. It should be mentioned that refrigerators were nearly impossible to buy in France in 1950, and were therefore far more valuable than it would seem. That said, it's still safe to say that Cunningham got the better end of the deal. The car sold at auction for $9.7 million ($20 million in today's dollars) in 1987. It changed hands a number of times until it was bought by Meitec Corporation of Japan in 1990, who held onto it until 2001. It was sold again recently through a broker in Switzerland, but the present owner in unknown.

The name Bugatti has been reborn and is once again synonymous with astounding feats of engineering, as well as almost completely unchecked hubris. This new incarnation of Bugatti (as well as another, short-lived one in the early Nineties) has focused more on performance than luxury, although this was also something important to the original company. Rumor has it that plans are in place to produce a new luxury model, the Galibier, and a concept has even been built. But the car was first presented in 2009 and production keeps getting pushed back. It's currently unknown whether we'll ever see such a car at all.

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