Los Angeles - Aficionados have argued for ages over which individual has had the greatest influence on the automobile.
Enzo Ferrari is a favourite. Traditionalists may side with Ettore Bugatti. Henry Ford gets the American vote, while Soichiro Honda rates high for innovation. Modernists might include the current chairman of the Volkswagen Group's supervisory board, Mr Ferdinand Piech.
Each of those geniuses deserves a major show of his creations, but the Mullin Automotive Museum here, about 97km west of Los Angeles, takes a broader view in its exhibition, The Art Of Bugatti.
The show, which opened last month, honours not just Ettore Bugatti, whose grand machines remain landmarks of design and engineering, but also three generations of the Bugatti family, who produced a fascinating variety of creative works.
There are other genius families, concedes
Mr Peter W. Mullin, 73, founder of the museum and chairman of M Financial, but they tend to follow a single discipline (with exceptions like Johann Sebastian Bach the Younger). Mr Piech may be the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, but both stuck with the car business.
Mr Mullin, a Best of Show winner at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance and a lover of French cars, and his guest curator, Ms Brittanie Kinch, researched the family members' artistic pursuits and gathered representative works by each.
Carlo Bugatti (1856-1940), born in Milan but living much of his adult life in France, was the patriarch. His discipline was mainly art nouveau furniture, although he was also known as a painter and designer of jewellery and silver tableware.
Rembrandt Bugatti (1884-1916), one of Carlo's sons, experienced both success and tragedy. Given his name by an uncle - the noted Italian painter Giovanni Segantini - the story goes, this Rembrandt was a sculptor, specialising in animals cast in bronze. Living in Belgium in the early 1900s, he would arrive early in the day at menageries such as the Antwerp Zoo and fashion animal likenesses while the creatures were most active, all the better to capture them in motion.
The tragic part: Rembrandt's suicide at 31, thought to have been a result of depression brought on by his serving at a Red Cross military hospital in World War I and by the wartime killing of many of the zoo animals that had been his subjects.
Ettore Bugatti (1881-1947), Rembrandt's brother, was also an artist but his medium was the automobile. Ettore's creations ranged from the Type 10, a car so small he was able to build it in his basement, to the huge, and aptly named, Royale. His Type 35 is one of the most successful Grand Prix cars in history; the Type 55s were arguably the epitome of pre-World War II sports cars, and the various Type 57 models were a sublime mix of speed and elegance.
Yet that was not enough. In his factory at Molsheim in Alsace - under German rule when the factory was established but later part of France - he designed huge railcars, small boats, even a radical airplane.
Jean Bugatti (1909-1939) was Ettore's son and a mix of his forebears. While able to keep pace with this father's technical prowess, he showed his creative side by designing bodies for Bugatti chassis. Many of the elegant Type 57 bodies came from his drawing board, the most spectacular being the Atlantics. Only two Atlantics remain, one in the Mullin museum and the other in the collection of Ralph Lauren.
Tragedy struck the Bugatti family again when Jean died in a freak accident in 1939 while testing a race car known as the Tank, a Type 57G that had recently won the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Those are the main characters in the Bugatti drama, although the show also displays paintings, drawings and sculptures by Lidia Bugatti, a daughter of Ettore.
In the museum, decorated like a pre-war French auto salon, Carlo's work stands out for its decidedly eclectic design, including throne-like chairs with non-matching posts on either side, one with a carving at its top, the other post appearing to be topped by a lampshade. One cannot be certain how comfortable the chairs might be, but they are a visual treat.
Mr Mullin relates the story that the classic shape of Bugatti grilles was taken not from a horseshoe, as widely believed, but the curves of Carlo's chair legs.
In the exhibition, one can readily see the passion in Rembrandt's work: a bellowing elephant (one version of which graces the hood of Type 41 Royale models) and a bison, its surface a shaggy coat you would love to touch. Still, Rembrandt's specialty seems to have been big cats, an example of which is a stretching panther, its musculature and the curve of its back leading to the arc of its tail, thoughtfully placed next to the Type 57SC Atlantic.
For all the flamboyance of Carlo's creations and the sublime beauty of Rembrandt's bronzes, it is the cars that dominate this show, thanks to their fame - and their size.
The star is quite likely the Atlantic, considered by some to be the Mona Lisa of motorcars. Today's Bugatti Automobiles, part of the Volkswagen Group, produced the modern 1,200-horsepower Veyron 16.4 Super Sport in the show and also sent for display a 19-foot 6-inch-long Royale assembled in 1932.
In contrast is the tiny Type 10 Le Petit Pur Sang, whose name translates to little thoroughbred. There is a Type 55 Roadster, designed by Jean Bugatti, rotating slowly on a platform. Five unrestored vehicles, including a wood-sided truck, serve as a reminder of textile magnate Fritz Schlumpf, an infamous Bugatti hoarder.
For all the beauty in the exhibition, perhaps the most fascinating display is of a well-rusted hulk with just two wheels.
"Most people walk in to see the Atlantic but walk out talking about the beauty from the deep," says Mr Mullin, who is also the chairman of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
It is a story involving a 1925 Bugatti Type 22 lost in a poker game, its new owner unable to pay import duties and the car ending up 170 feet down in Lake Maggiore in Switzerland for more than 70 years. The car was recovered in 2009, and Mr Mullin bought it at auction the next year for about US$370,000.
In another display, an unfinished shell appears to levitate above a Type 64 chassis in Mr Mullin's collection that had never been bodied. He had Jean Bugatti's preliminary drawings for the car, which included papillon - French for butterfly - doors, hinged in the roof, predating Mercedes-Benz's gullwing design.
Mr Mullin asked Mr Stewart Reed, head of the transportation design department at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, to "reimagine" a body for the chassis. Not wanting to hide the charm of the frame, driveline and wheels,
Mr Mullin has the completed body - purposely unpainted - hovering above.
Then there is the 100P airplane. Ettore started working on it in the 1930s, intending to build a speed record setter. An unusual design, it has wings that sweep forward, a V-shape tail and a pair of 450-horspower engines behind the cockpit driving counterrotating propellers at the front. Only one was built, and it is at the AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin; the 100P in the exhibition is a reproduction planned for flight this year.
While a closing date for The Art Of Bugatti has not been set, anyone planning a visit - an experience bound to give the feeling of stepping into the 1938 Paris Motor Show - should do so by year-end.
New York Times