While I've done a couple of autocross events and been a passenger on track in everything from a Mercedes-AMG GT R to a NASCAR Toyota Supra and Ken Block's Hoonitruck, I've never actually driven on a race track before. At least I hadn't until a few weeks ago, when I headed to Willow Springs to drive a brand new, very rare, very expensive Bugatti.
Without any context, that statement is simultaneously impressive and confusing, as it seems like quite an intense way to experience driving on a track for the first time. But look at the photo above and everything will make a lot more sense: It's the new Baby II, a tiny and slow electric toy car that's really meant for children.
Bugatti Baby II is an electric scaled-down Type 35 race car for kidsSee all photos
Bringing back Baby
The original Bugatti Baby prototype was built in 1926. It was an electric Type 35 scaled down to half size, built by Ettore Bugatti for his son Jean. After showing the car to customers and getting a positive response, Bugatti put it into production and around 500 were sold from 1927 to 1936. Bugatti decided to recreate the Baby for the company's 110th birthday, and thus the new Baby II was born.
In order to create the Baby II, Bugatti did a complex 3D scan of an original Type 35 and shrunk it down to three-quarters scale, as that bigger size is better suited to kids today than the original half-scale car. At just 110 inches long, the Baby II is almost as short as a Smart Fortwo. Bugatti brought a real Type 35 to Willow Springs to visually compare against the Baby (though sadly not to drive), and it's pretty incredible to see the two cars next to each other. The Baby II looks almost identical. The Type 35's groundbreaking front axle is perfectly recreated, as are the steering and suspension components. Even Bugatti's "Macaron" badge in the grille is spot on, made of solid silver.
In the place of the original Type 35's fuel pump is a rotating handle on the machined metal dashboard that acts as the gear selector, and there's a physical handbrake mounted on the right side of the car. The Type 35's fuel pressure and oil gauges are replaced by a battery and power gauge, and there are additional buttons for the lights and horn. For my 5-foot, 9-inch self, getting into the Baby II is fairly easy -- I basically just hop in feet first. The wooden Nardi steering wheel is fully removable -- it's the smallest quick-release steering wheel out there -- and the pedals are adjustable. In fact, the pedals are the only modern part of the car, having been modeled after those found in the Chiron.
Starting the Baby II is easy. There's a traditional key slot on the right side of the dash, and all you have to do is insert the metal key and twist it, then turn the gear selector to drive. Getting acclimated to the controls only takes a moment, and then it's time to hit the track. "It's windy out there, so watch out," a Bugatti representative warns as I get ready for my laps. "The car gets really drifty when it's windy." Great!
'Slow car fast' to the max
Bugatti offers three different versions of the Baby, with two different powertrains. The base model has composite bodywork, the smaller 1.4-kilowatt-hour battery back and the "standard" powertrain. With that you get a 1.3-horsepower Novice mode with a 12-mph top speed and a 5.4-hp Expert mode with a 25-mph top speed. Jumping up to the Vitesse model like the one I'm driving gets you a carbon-fiber body, while the top-end Pur Sang has handmade aluminum body panels; both have the long-range 2.8-kWh battery pack.
Along with the bigger battery pack, the Vitesse and Pur Sang also get the "high-performance" powertrain, and boy oh boy are they not lying when they call it high-performance. In addition to the Novice and Expert modes, which are indicated by a turtle and rabbit icon and selected when you twist the key, the high-performance models get a derestricted mode that I'll get to in a bit.
I decide to start out in the Expert mode for my first couple laps, because why not. Even with just 5.4 hp the Baby II is quick, getting to its 25-mph top speed in no time. You hear fun whirring noises from the electric motor, but otherwise the car is as silent as any other EV. The Baby II has regenerative brakes that are so strong I pretty much never need to touch the actual brake pedal, and I'm able to keep the accelerator floored nearly the whole time. The steering is quick and direct, and the Baby II's diminutive size makes it easy to place.
Now, I won't say that the Baby II is the ideal way for a first-timer to learn a race track, as it's so small and so relatively slow that it doesn't really matter what racing line I take or when I choose to brake for a corner. But it's certainly fun as hell, and its simplicity means I can see exactly what the steering, suspension and wheels are doing as I zip around the course. I feel every single bump and dip and rock in the road, every surface and gradient change. It makes me think about how race car drivers will walk a track before a race to get acclimated -- maybe they should just do some laps in a Baby II instead.
The Baby II isn't comfortable, though. In fact it might be the most uncomfortable car I've ever driven, and I used to own a lowered and horribly stiff old Volvo. Unlike the Type 35, the new Baby has adjustable dampers, but I don't think they make much of a difference. Oh, and then there's the driver's "seat." I put that in quotes because it's more like a leather-covered park bench, and there's no seatbelt. So I just kind of bounce around gripping that skinny wooden wheel. Cool, right?
After getting a feel for the track, it's time to activate the top speed mode, which removes the electronic limiter. This is done by inserting the Speed Key, a mini version of the Chiron's similar key, into a slot on the left side of the dash. This raises the Baby II's maximum velocity from 25 mph to a blistering 42 mph.
On paper, 42 mph doesn't sound very fast at all. But when you're in something this small and basic, with a completely open roof and no semblance of safety features, 42 mph might as well be 400 mph. The Baby II also accelerates to its top speed much quicker in this mode (it takes a little over six seconds), and I actually have to use the mechanical brakes this time, as the regen isn't enough. The car feels looser too, with those skinny Michelin tires losing grip a lot quicker and in more situations above 30 mph, requiring me to put a lot more thought into the lines I'm taking through corners.
Yet nearly the whole time, I'm laughing my ass off. The Baby II is just so much fun. The sense of speed is immense, as is the sense of relative danger. I just keep pushing the Baby II harder and harder, trying to find the car's limits without sending it into a spin. Oh, and the Bugatti rep wasn't lying about the wind making it drifty.
In normal circumstances the Baby II with the larger battery can go around 30 miles on a charge, but I can only do about six hot laps with the speed-limiter off before the car goes into limp mode, forcing me back to the paddock. The 48-pound battery can be recharged in a few hours, or you can just open the hood, take it out and plop in a new one. (Bugatti will sell you extra batteries if you want.)
Actually, money can buy you happiness
This is a drive I'll remember forever. The Baby II left me sore after just 15 minutes. My upper body and face got absolutely whipped by the air, and I even got stung by a freaking bee through my helmet. But it was so, so worth it. I couldn't stop smiling for the rest of the day -- really, the rest of the week. I can't imagine that any other vehicle would be more fun on a track than the Baby II, at least a small and tight one like Streets of Willow.
Bugatti is only going to build 500 examples of the Baby II, and when it was first announced for sale last year the entire production run was spoken for in a matter of weeks. But if you're super rich and hoping to get one as a last-minute holiday gift for your kid (or yourself), there's good news: Bugatti says some reservation holders have pulled out during the coronavirus pandemic, leaving a handful of build slots open. If you're interested you can apply online, with slots handed out on a first come, first served basis.
You'll have to shell out a ton of money, though. The base Baby II costs $36,600, and it only comes in the classic French Racing Blue. The $53,000 Vitesse models offers up a range of vintage Bugatti colors and leather options, as does the $71,400 Pur Sang. Yes, $71,400 -- more than the cost of a Porsche 718 Cayman T. Of course, you can also spec your Baby II to match your Chiron if you so desire.
People say that money can't buy happiness, but that's not true. Money can buy you a Bugatti Baby II, which is the closest thing to pure automotive happiness I've ever experienced. Make mine purple with bright blue leather.