By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNN Business
Bugatti, the French manufacturer of $ 3 million supercars, is over a century old. But now he’s facing what could be the most difficult maneuver he’s ever had to make: the transition to an electric future.
The man who now takes the wheel at Bugatti is Mate Rimac, a 33-year-old Bosnian-born engineering prodigy – who has no illusions about the challenges his industry faces.
Famous today for some of the world’s largest and most powerful gasoline engines ever installed in a road car, Bugatti was born in 2003 as the crown jewel of the Volkswagen Group. Besides VW, the global automaker’s other brands include Audi, Porsche, Lamborghini and Bentley.
Since then, Bugatti has been a technological showcase for the company, pushing the boundaries of what engineers and customers thought possible. A car that could exceed 250 miles per hour? No problem. Who can make 300? Of course, as long as you have the nearly $ 4 million it costs. And all of that performance is wrapped up in an elegantly designed and carefully handcrafted body from expensive materials.
But huge engines powered by petroleum products are no longer technological marvels. They are old school. And in 2021, Bugatti must finally enter the era of electric vehicles.
Enter Mate Rimac, who in 2009 founded Rimac Automoblili, a Croatian startup making the 1,900 horsepower Rimac Nevera electric supercar. The high-powered performance genius had already grabbed the headlines after graduating high school and has since gained the attention of the industry.
In July, Bugatti merged with Rimac Automobili – creating Bugatti-Rimac and transferring majority ownership of VW’s luxury performance icon from one of the world’s largest automakers to a small startup in the process.
‘Why no one was using [this] to make cars fun and exciting? “
For an auto industry CEO, Rimac, 33, is rather young, and he looks even younger thanks to his dark brown hair and beard. (His the first name is pronounced as “matzoh” without the Z – Maht-teh – while his last name, and that of the company, is pronounced Ree-mahts with a slightly rolled R.)
Rimac has had an amazing and swift journey to such a vaunted position. It all started when Rimac blew up the engine of a BMW while running with the car in his late teens: instead of just fixing it, he decided to turn the BMW into an electric racing car.
This was long before Tesla sold high-performance family sedans, let alone become one of the most valued companies in the world. By this time Rimac’s family had left what was then Yugoslavia – today his birthplace is in Bosnia and Herzegovina – and had spent about a decade in Germany before returning to the former Yugoslavia. . This time the family lived in the newly independent nation of Croatia.
âBecause I was in Croatia, I read a lot about Nikola Tesla, who was also born in Croatia. Nikola Tesla had invented the electric motor 160 years ago that we now use everywhere and I was wonderingâ, a- he said, “This perfect machine that Nikola Tesla invented, why didn’t nobody use it to make cars fun and exciting?”
His electric BMW, nicknamed the Green Monster, broke records and garnered media attention. But Rimac quickly realized that installing electric motors in old cars was not a viable business in the long run. Instead, he decided he would design his own high-performance electric cars from the start.
Rimac had just graduated from high school at the time. He attended the VERN University of Applied Sciences in Zagreb but never graduated.
âI had to learn everything from scratch, which was quite difficult here without mentors and the supporting industry,â he said. “A lot of things I had to learn the hard way.”
Rimac didn’t have big investors to fund his idea, so while he and his first employees worked on this electric supercar, he also took on projects from established companies. Various automakers were looking to create electric and hybrid cars, and Rimac’s clear understanding of the technology was invaluable to them.
This part of the business – selling EV technologies to other companies – became the company’s biggest source of real income and was the reason Rimac Automobili was profitable almost from the start, Rimac says.
Now that line of work has been split into a separate company that he also runs called Rimac Technology. This company will continue to develop new electric vehicle technologies for other car manufacturers.
âFirst these are companies you haven’t heard of,â he said, âthen they started working for small car companies like Koenigsegg, then Aston Martin, then for the bigger ones. like Renault. “
In fact, most consumers may not have heard of Koenigsegg either, but the Swedish multimillion-dollar gasoline supercar maker is considered another daring innovator. And its founder and CEO, Christian von Koenigsegg, has been a mentor to Mate Rimac, as well as a client of Rimac.
âI met Mate when he came to the Geneva Motor Show at the age of 17 and asked me, ‘I want to build cars. I want to build electric cars. How do you do that? “Koenigsegg said.” So I kind of became his mentor. “
The relationship continues today and the two speak to each other regularly, Rimac said.
Two major automakers, Hyundai and Porsche, have become big investors in Rimac Automobili. Neither would discuss their work with Rimac with CNN Business. Porsche, however, was instrumental in bringing RImac together with Porsche’s sister brand, Bugatti. Porsche now owns 45% of Bugatti-Rimac.
A day with Mate Rimac
It’s normal to hear entrepreneurs in the electric car industry talk about the global importance of what they do. Things are not that simple with Mate Rimac.
Conversations with Rimac can lead to a kind of cognitive boost. He likes cars, of course. But it’s like talking to a baker who keeps talking about the dangers of consuming too much refined sugar and carbohydrates, and then pointing out that, really, the cake is delicious.
âCars are actually the culmination of all human disciplines,â he said. “It must be beautiful. He must feel good. It has to sound good. Everything, all the senses work with the car, all material sciences, software simulations, fluid dynamics. Everything is in the car, everything humanity knows.
But, in the long run, none of this really matters.
âI don’t like that bullâ-,â he said in a previous conversation about the hype surrounding the supercar industry. “Let’s call it what it is, right?” It’s making beautiful machines to put them on a wall and that’s it.
There was no deep disgust in his voice. He said it as if he was just stating a clear fact.
We were seated on the sidelines at The Quail, one of the major events of Monterey Car Week in California. Wealthy auto enthusiasts checked out beautiful classic cars parked on neatly cut grass. The latest models from brands like Lamborghini, Lotus, Bentley and Pininfarina, a company selling its own electric supercar with Rimac engineering, were also on display. The Rimac Nevera was seated right next to us.
Of cars like the Nevera, Rimac said, âOverall you zoom out, it’s going to be so irrelevant 10 years from now because cars won’t be driven by people anymore. They will be autonomous, and so on.
The twilight of the automotive age
But lest Rimac one day take all this advanced million-dollar EV technology out of the Nevera and use it to create affordable electric family cars, it’s clear he has no plans to confront Elon Musk. Others could do it with Rimac technology, he said, but he equates it to working on better music CDs just as the streaming services come out.
Today we are in the twilight of the automotive age, according to Rimac. He’s just doing his part to make sure the sunset is spectacular.
And, also, to make a profit when there is money to be made in private automobiles. Rimac will manufacture its electric supercars in Croatia, while Bugatti will continue to assemble high-priced gasoline-powered supercars at its current headquarters in Molsheim, France, where this brand was founded in 1909. Each will serve a distinct type of customer.
“The easiest [move] for us it would be to take a Nevera and put a different design in it and call it a Bugatti, âRimac said. “But that’s absolutely not what we’re going to do.”
Currently, Bugatti is building the last dozen of the Chiron, its current base model. After that, Rimac indicated that there will be a new Bugatti supercar which will likely be a plug-in hybrid. But they could also make other Bugatti models – but maybe not two-seater supercars – which will be fully electric.
In apparent contradiction to his stated pessimism about the future of cars, Rimac says he expects Bugatti, founded 112 years ago, to outlast him for a long time. He now has “the responsibility [of] the next 112 years, âhe said.
What this next century and some might bring could be decided not only by Bugatti-Rimac, but by Rimac’s other company, Rimac Technology.
âI love cars, I make money selling cars, but I think the big change that will come in the next few decades,â he said. âOver the past few decades, phones haven’t just changed the phone industry. Apple has not only disturbed Nokia and the others. It really changed our lives.
Rimac is not yet ready to say what that future will look like, shaped by a radical redefinition of the automobile. But he’s working on it.
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