Model history: When Ettore Bugatti launched the Type 41 Royale early in 1929, he fulfilled his long held dream of building the ultimate luxury car. Displacing well over 12 litre, the Royale's engine was more than four times the size of the next biggest engine in the Bugatti range. To fill that sizeable void, a second luxury Bugatti was introduced shortly after. Dubbed the Type 46, it was in many ways a scaled down version of the massive and ultimately unmarketable Royale.
Like the Royale, the Type 46 used the latest version of the familiar straight eight Bugatti engine. Used so successfully in the Type 35 racing cars, it featured a single overhead camshaft, actuating three valves per cylinder (2 inlet and 1 exhaust). By casting the head and block in one piece, the straight eight engine had a very clean look. For the Type 41 and 46 engines, the casting was extended down to the bearing supports. This made the engine very rigid and resulted in exceptionally smooth running. Displacing just over 5.3 litre, the Type 46 'eight' produced a relatively modest 140 bhp. Thanks to a long stroke, it did generate more than enough torque at very low engine speeds.
The Type 46 chassis was also very typical Bugatti. The steel ladder frame was suspended by rigid axles on both ends with semi-elliptic leaf springs at the front and reversed quarter-elliptic leaf springs at the back. Bugatti remained loyal to the cable-operated drum brakes even though most rivals had switched to hydraulic systems. The front brakes featured an ingenious system to prevent self-servo action caused by axle twist. As on the Type 41, the three-speed gearbox was mounted in unit with the differential. The exact reason for this unconventional and, combined with a live axle, illogical location is not known. Perhaps Ettore Bugatti simply wanted to be different.
Towards the end of 1929, the first Type 46 was shown at the important Paris and London shows. With its 5.3 litre engine and 3.5 metre wheelbase it was by no means a small car. It was nevertheless smaller and not nearly as expensive as the Royale. The Type 46 was well received by the motoring journalists and whereas the Royale proved impossible to market, orders for the new luxurious Bugatti quickly piled up. Bugatti delivered most of the cars as rolling chassis for prominent coach-builders to body. Due to its considerable length, the Type 46 could accommodate a wide variety of bodies, ranging from stately saloons to sporty coupes and cabriolets.
Ettore Bugatti's son, Jean, emerged in this period as a talented designer. The aerodynamic coupes he styled featured steeply raked windscreens and notchback (Semi-Profilée) and hunchback (Superprofilée) rear ends. Almost all Bugatti built bodies, however, were of a more conventional design. In 1931 the Type 46 was expanded with the Sport or S model. This featured a supercharged version of the 5.3 litre engine. Mated to two Zenith carburettors, this Roots-type supercharger provided 20 bhp increase in power. This was not enough to convince many customers to pay the premium as only around 20 Type 46S Bugattis were produced.
Around the same time, the Type 50 joined the Bugatti line-up. This used a virtually identical chassis but was powered by an all-new twin-cam eight cylinder engine. Available only in supercharged form, this five-litre unit produced a much more impressive 200 bhp. Both the Type 46 and Type 50 were available until 1936, when they were superseded by the Type 57. Even though it was twice as expensive as a similar Delage, Bugatti managed to sell over 400 examples of the 'Petite Royale'. Sadly today only very few examples of what was Ettore's favourite Bugatti have survived.
Built in 1931, chassis 46501 was sold new to a French customer. It was fitted with a very elegant Roadster body by French coach-builder Ottin. Early in its life, this Type 46 changed hands several times but since 1972, it has been owned by the same French/Irish collector. In pristine condition, chassis 46501 was shown at various events, including the 2006 Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este where it is shown here.