Ettore Bugatti made alloy wheels a thing

Racing car and later Tucker designer Harry A. Miller liked his aluminum pistons just as much as W. O. Bentley did in England, and by 1920, he came up with a concept for aluminum alloy wheels as well. Miller made it as far as patenting his idea, but didn’t produce any wheels. 

Then came a certain Italian called Ettore Bugatti, who developed molds that could cast aluminium wheels, spokes and brake drums at his company’s foundry in Molsheim, France. 

In May 1924, Bugatti registered a patent for “Improvements relating to vehicle wheels with cooling discs.” From that moment on, Bugatti’s most famous racing car, the Type 35, built the legend using cast aluminium wheels featuring eight flat and wide spokes instead of many thin ones, plus a removable wheel rim and an integrated brake drum.

It wasn’t a smooth ride. On their first outing at the Grand Prix in Lyon on August 3, 1924, several Bugattis retired. Yet it wasn’t the wheels, but the tires’ incorrect vulcanisation that led to the tread separating from the fibers and thus the end of Bugatti’s race.

Of course the Type 35 had more than some fancy lightweight wheels up its sleeve. Its 2.0-liter overhead-cam straight-eight engine used a crankshaft supported by two roller bearings and three ball bearings, so that it could run at speeds of up to 6000 rpm. Twin carburetors pushed it above 90 horsepower for a top speed of 120 mph, while the supercharged, 2.3-liter-powered Type 35 B version had 135 horsepower and a top speed exceeding 130 mph. Ettore’s jewel of a racing car also came with a hollow, forged front axle with sealed ends—which, together with the innovative cast aluminum wheels and integrated brake drums, helped to push the Type 35’s race-ready weight down to 1650 pounds.

Up until the early ’30s, Ettore’s Type 35 variants were absolutely unstoppable. Yet if we jump ahead in time, it also must be said that the last Bugatti racing car was Martino Finotto’s EB 110 LM at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1996. These days, Bugatti’s racing glory has faded.

Bugatti EB 110 LM

Instead, Bugatti is all about trying to end the top speed challenge. Its most direct competitor, Sweden’s Koenigsegg, produces hollow carbon fiber wheels and is also looking into ways of entering the 2020/2021 World Endurance Championship.

However, there’s at least one alloy development going on at Bugatti related to wheels—its 3D-printed titanium brake calipers. And if anything, Ettore Bugatti would have loved the idea.

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