As ugly as a stonefish, but what a big kick

It out-powers most F1 racing cars, and Tom Stewart sees a roaring future for the 252mph Bugatti Veyron

One thousand and one. There's a number to conjure with; I recall an advertising jingle back in the Sixties which climaxed with the immortal words, "1,001 cleans a big, big carpet for less than half-a-crown". And when applied to horsepower, 1,001 is a big, big number. It humbles the output of any current F1 car. It's enough to power a water fountain almost as huge as Geneva's, and it's way, way more than has ever been stashed under the engine cover of any standard production road car.

The giant turbocharged 5.5-litre V12 Maybach limo? A paltry 550 bhp. The supercharged 5.5 litre V8 Mercedes McLaren SLR? Just 626 bhp. The now out-of-production six-litre V12 McLaren F1 supercar? A mere 627 bhp. The turbocharged six-litre V12 Ferrari Enzo? A restrained 660 bhp. Even TVR's incredible prototype Cerbera Speed 12 -- a car considered by devil-may-care company boss Peter Wheeler to be so ludicrously powerful that production was shelved -- a relatively wheezy 880bhp.

So what's going on with the 1,001 horsepower Bugatti Veyron 16.4? This will go from 0 to 60 mph in under three seconds, and reach 186 mph in under 14 seconds. When we thought green and eco was taking precedence over hedonism and machismo; when almost all car makers, Bugatti's parent company Volkswagen included, are pouring zillions into low-emission development; when Cameron Diaz, Tom Hanks and others are eager to exchange gas-guzzlers for hybrid or fuel-cell power; why are we now presented with the option (though, at £680,000, an unlikely one) of being able to buy a 4-turbo, 7-speed, 8-litre, 16-cylinder, 64-valve, 252mph supercar?

It's no secret that Ferdinand Piech, until recently head of the massive Volkswagen empire and therefore the person to rubber-stamp the Veyron's development and production, was something of a corporate egotist. With rivals, most specifically German rivals BMW and Mercedes, making serious waves in Formula One, the Piech-led VW group opted for another form of one-upmanship.

To own Lamborghini and take credit for its stunningly beautiful 571 bhp, 200mph-plus Murcielago obviously wasn't enough. Nor was rolling out a string of VW, Seat and Audi supercar prototypes and concepts. And to have Audi and now Bentley dominate the prestigious Le Mans 24-hour race wasn't sufficient either. No, Piech had to have the most powerful and fastest road car ever, and the Veyron 16.4 is, or soon will be, it.

In the late Eighties the Bugatti name was revived by a mysteriously financed, Italian-based organisation which turned out the very competent EB110. Though this model probably deserved a future, it didn't get one and Bugatti quietly joined VW's expanding brand portfolio. But this is probably inconsequential because despite the now ancient marque's exalted reputation, not least for making a handful of completely unaffordable and gargantuan Royales, Bugatti forged its true reputation in pre-War days by turning out exquisitely manufactured, nimble sports racers while leaving it to the likes of Bentley and Mercedes to play the big numbers game. But that's history; and what Piech wanted -- not just big numbers, but the biggest numbers by far -- was what he got.

There is just one small figure pertaining to the Veyron and it's about 50 to 70, the number Bugatti will produce in a year. So, in six years or less the total planned production of 300 will have been met. Assuming all are sold at list, that would equate to 300 million euros (over £200m).

And dealers won't be taking their usual cut because there won't be any dealers -- all new Veyrons are to be sold directly through Bugatti Automobiles SAS of Molsheim, France, with maintenance only at authorised service points worldwide.

Company spokespersons are being reticent about what it's all costing, but let's not loose sleep over whether the Veyron is ultimately a loss-leader, a cash-cow or something in between. It's really happening and production and delivery timetables will be announced at the Geneva motor show in early March.

But why the delay? The Veyron project has been in the public domain for four years, and the car was first seen at the Paris show in September 2002. Cognoscenti had been expecting to see new, bug-spattered Bugattis out on the street much sooner. And then, in March 2003, Piech's successor, Dr Pischetsrieder announced the first Veyron deliveries were scheduled for or April 2004.

The unofficial word is that, not unsurprisingly, engineers were having difficulty in efficiently dispersing the immense heat generated by the 16 500cc turbo-charged cylinders, presumably without cutting ugly, gaping holes in the fastidiously preened bodywork. That malarky can be done on racing cars, but not on designer goods in this price bracket.

Another alleged problem was that when test drivers approached the Veyron's 252mph speed potential, the car began lifting with a disconcerting vagueness to the steering. Again, racing car aerodynamicists can add wings, splitters and skirts, but that would be like wrapping your Rolex in a polythene bag before taking a dip in the pool.

We will see what the latest scheduling is, but in the meantime spare a thought for the B Engineering Edonis, Ferrari Enzo, Koenigsegg CC, Lamborghini Murcielago, Mercedes SLR and Pagani Zonda C12S, all of which had designs on the title of the world's fastest road car in production.

The 680bhp Italian Edonis uses the en- gine and chassis from the defunct Bugatti EB110 and the company claims a top speed of 227mph. A modified version is supposedly going to be good for 750 bhp with a resultant increase in performance, but that's yet to happen. And 750 bhp isn't 1,001 bhp and an Adonis it's certainly not -- only it's mother could call the Edonis pretty.

Ferrari, we were told, had all of its mph Enzos spoken for. I wasn't surprised, I've been a passenger in one on a race track and I really did have trouble holding my head on. Then recently, sister company Maserati announced its FIA GT racing car based largely on the Enzo. I wonder where all those extra engines, chassis and parts are coming from?

The small Swedish concern Koenigsegg, seemingly unperturbed by having its factory burnt to a cinder last year, continues to knock out it's CC in small numbers. I'm not surprised by that either. Apparently a Koenigsegg driver was pulled for speeding in a southern Californian desert last year. The ticket said 238 mph. I've driven one in anger and that's a figure I wouldn't dispute.

I've driven the Murcielago too. Its 571bhp V12 can only muster a whisker over 200 mph. That's plenty enough for me and I suspect most of us, but obviously not Dr Piech. No other car can hold a candle to its looks though. The Murcielago is an aesthetic masterpiece.

How about the new, developed-by-McLaren Mercedes SLR? A 208 mph GT car with a fully automatic transmission is certainly something of a novelty in supercar terms, but though 626 bhpis indeed a pretty big number, the SLR doesn't quite add up.

Finally there's the achingly attractive Pagani Zonda. Like the Koenigsegg, the Zonda is the impressive result of just one man's driven ambition and vision. My wife would kill me for one and at around £300,000 she'll probably have to, but she'll soon have to keep checking her mirrors for the Bugatti Veyron 16.4.

Uglier than a stonefish it may be, but with 1,001 horsepower it's the only one which will clean that big, big carpet.

THE COMPETITION

The Ferrari Enzo is exclusive, and if you were going to be invited to buy one you'd have heard about it long ago. Look elsewhere to spend that spare £425k.

Around £320,000 will buy you the Koenigsegg CC, the best thing to come out of Sweden since Abba. Rest to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds. But a Volvo estate will carry more.

At £162,180 the Lamborghini Murchielago is a bargain in this company. This V12 has an advertised top speed of 205 mph, where legal of course.

It's a Mercedes as well as a McLaren, so maybe it's not such a suprise that the SLR comes with an automatic gearbox. The ultimate Benz is yours for £313,465.

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