Late this fall, Christie's, the famed auction house, will put on the block a Type 41 Bugatti Royale, one of the rarest and most elegant automobiles in the world. It will probably be the first car ever sold for $10 million or more. Last year a Type 41 Bugatti was purchased at auction for $6.5 million and resold a short time later for a reported $8 million to Domino's Pizza tycoon Thomas Monaghan (whose other toys include the Detroit Tigers baseball team and a brace of $1 million SJ Duesenbergs).

The Royales have always been special. Ettore Bugatti, the Franco-Italian genius who built some of the world's most exotic automobiles during the 1920s and '30s, is ranked by historians among the giants of car design. He was as much an artist as an engineer, and all his machines embodied an inspired line and form. The Type 41, sometimes called the "Golden Bug," was intended to be his masterpiece -- a machine designed solely for princes and kings.

He laid down plans for the car in 1926, working at his fantastic estate-factory in Molsheim, Alsace-Lorraine, where everything -- from the manufacturing facility to the vineyards to the riding stables to the small museum (to hold the sculptures of his late brother, Rembrandt Bugatti) to the "Hostellerie du Pur Sang" (a tiny, elegant hotel to house his customers) -- had all been designed by "Le Patron" himself.

The Type 41 was intended to outshine all the other great cars of the day -- the Rolls-Royces, Minervas, Duesenbergs, Mercedes-Benzes -- at least in terms of sheer size. The Royale was created with a wheelbase of 170 inches (by comparison, the largest 1987 Mercedes- Benz model, the 560 SEL, has a wheelbase of 121.1 inches). The engine was a leviathan straight-8, producing 300 horsepower and displacing more than 778 cubic inches (the 560 SEL's engine is 335 cubic inches). The weight was just under three tons.

These awesome automobiles were to be hand-built in a limited edition of 25 units and sold for 600 pounds British sterling, which at the late-1920s exchange rate was about $30,000 -- for the bare chassis and engine! That, of course, included one of Bugatti's exquisite horseshoe-shape radiator shells -- thought by many to be one of the most classic shapes ever in the world of industrial design. The actual body, built to the customer's preferences, would cost another $10,000.

Despite Bugatti's grand dreams, none of the Royales was ever purchased by royals. Three were sold to wealthy commoners. The other three remained in the Bugatti family until the 1950s.

At present two are in France as part of the former Schlumpf collection (now controlled by the French government). A lovely roadster resides at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. The famed Harrah automotive collection in Reno, Nev., which is now in the process of being partially dismantled by its new owner, Holiday Inns, retains one, and pizza prince Monaghan possesses an ugly Berline four-door. The remaining Royale, the one to be auctioned by Christie's, is a pretty Kellner-bodied two-door owned by Florida millionaire Miles Collier Jr.

The Bugattis are part of a tiny stable of thoroughbred automobiles that are rising in value at staggering rates. Paying a million dollars for a Duesenberg is now almost commonplace, and other collectible cars moving rapidly up toward the million- dollar mark include the Mercedes-Benz 540K roadsters of the late '30s, the 1962-64 Ferrari 250 GTO coupes, some rare 1930s-vintage Packards and several other Bugattis, including the sensuous Type 57s (1934-39).

The Christie's sale of the Golden Bug will no doubt generate widespread publicity and have the dubious side effect of sending thousands of us rushing into the used-car lots of the nation armed with dreams of making it big as car collectors. In the abstract, owning a collectible car makes a lot of sense: It doesn't depreciate, and it can be driven to work to boot.

But the sale of a $10 million Bugatti has no more effect on the value of mundane "collectible" cars like Model Ts or 1965 Mustangs than the sale of a Blue Period Picasso has on a piece of motel art.

In other words, there are car hobbyists and there are collectors. For $10,000 to $20,000 you can become a hobbyist, and, by being patient and doing all your own restoration and maintenance, you might be able to make a few bucks on your prized possession in a few years. But you will have to discount storage and insurance costs -- if you can find a company to insure your car for what it's really worth -- and drive your jewel only on warm, sunny Sundays. You will be scared to death of having an accident, you will endure frequent breakdowns, and you will have to make frustrating searches for replacement parts.

On a money basis alone, the dues to become a serious collector are much higher, certainly by a factor of 10. All manner of big-time classics are going for more than $100,000 these days, and the market is very active. Many Ferraris, for example, have jumped 200 percent in price in the last two years.

The collectible car game is played by those in a very fast league, but a very democratic one. There is only one prerequisite for playing: money. And although you must bring lots of it to get into the game, those who invest in great classics like the Royale are comforted by a truism: You can't spend too much, you can only spend it too soon. ::