Some years ago, I first read about an astonishing secret collection of cars built up by the reclusive Italian-born, Swiss national Schlumpf brothers – Fritz and Hans – who owned mills producing woollen products. Ever since then, I had harboured a wish to see these cars for myself.
My opportunity to do so came while planning my Back to My Roots road trip. This time I had two days to get back from Germany, and figured I could make the journey via Mulhouse, a mere five-hour drive from where I was, spend the afternoon at the museum and make the trip home from Mulhouse the following day.
The history of how what is now known as the Cite de l’Automobile museum came to be is almost as fascinating as the collection within. This is a nutshell version – historians please note!
After World War II, having built up significant wealth, the brothers started collecting cars in the 1950’s. Fritz in particular had a passion for cars, especially Bugatti’s, having bought his first one just before the war. The speed with which they built up their collection was rapid, and by summer 1960 they had accumulated 40 cars, buying some from famous names such as Jo Siffert, or even directly from the manufacturer in the case of Gordini. Their focus, however, was Bugatti, and by 1967 they had acquired 105 examples of the marque and these, plus the rest of their ever-expanding collection, were housed in a specially converted wing of one of their mills.
All of this was done in secret, until, in 1977, during a break-in by striking workers, a collection of some 400-plus cars was discovered. The Schlumpf brothers, by now in dire financial straits, fled to Switzerland, while their former workers opened the collection up to the public to try to recoup some of their lost wages. Even though 800,000 people viewed the collection over two years, the collection was closed in 1979, and re-opened to the public in 1982 under the auspices of the National Automobile Museum of Mulhouse Management Association. Unfortunately, the collection gradually fell into decline, but was then offered to an organisation called Culturespaces to take over, modernise and run the museum. It is now the largest automobile collection in the world, with over 500 cars in total, of which some 400 are on display at any one time.
So that’s the – abridged – background; what of the collection itself?
The initial impression of the site, when you drive into the car park, is slightly underwhelming – an unmade dirt and gravel surface, with only maybe fifty cars parked (there’s room for a few hundred) on the Saturday I arrived. Other than my Zitrone, the only other classic car visitors were an Alfa Spider and a trio of Skodas – a 1000, an 1100MB Deluxe, and a 1000 MBX Deluxe, all from their native Czech Republic, and they looked as if their occupants had been sleeping in them for a week.
Once you cross the small bridge over a canal from the car park, things change, as the grand Cite de l’Automobile has a rather imposing entrance, which includes a sculpture consisting of numerous generically-styled cars hanging in the air.
I paid my €16 and despite my eagerness to see the cars, really needed some lunch – I’d been driving all morning and was in need of sustenance. Even so, with the words of the food police (my partner) in my head, I settled for a salad. It was OK, nothing special, but did the job. There is also a more upmarket restaurant on the site for those with more sophisticated palates.
Just through the reception area, there’s already one of my favourite racing cars greeting me a warm welcome – a mighty 1968 Porsche 908 LH, with a VW Beetle behind it to provide dramatic contrast. Then as you first walk into the museum proper, there’s a display dedicated to the development of engines leading up to the Royale’s 16-cylinder monster, and another showing the story of how a Bugatti 57S ended up in the collection.
But the first explicit “Wow!” comes as you walk down a wide corridor, or avenue, along which a number of beautiful Bugatti Atlante 57S’s are displayed. These utterly gorgeous cars are all based on the same chassis, but with differing bodies.
This corridor opens into a wider room, showing just two cars – a huge reconstructed Bugatti Royale, known as the Esder Royale Coupé, and an equally huge 1976 Hongqi CA 770 (the CA stands for China Automobiles). I’d never heard of Hongqi before, but then I’ve never thought of China as having a motor industry until more recent times.
Further on, there’s a small display dedicated to Fritz Schlumpf and his passion for Bugatti’s and motorsport, and then you start to hit the main exhibition areas.
Breathtaking doesn’t begin to describe the initial impression as you enter the biggest hall, the 17,000m2 Motor Car Experience Area. Lit by 800 lamp posts identical to those on the Alexandre III bridge in Paris, this hall basically traces the history of the motor car, with an emphasis on the history of the French motor car – hardly surprising really.
There are over 240 cars in this hall alone, dating from 1878 to the modern world in the wedge shape of the Aston Martin Lagonda – one of the ugliest cars ever made, in my view. Alongside the expected French names such as Peugeot, Renault and Citroen, there’s De Dion Bouton (an impressive 29 of them!), Darracq, Panhard-Levassor, Delahaye, Gordini, Mors and of course Bugatti. It’s a stark reminder of how the landscape of the French motor industry has changed.
It’s impossible to ignore the main object of the Schlumpf brothers’ obsession – Bugatti, of course. Of the total of 400 cars on display (the entire collection numbers 520, but some are loaned out while others are just not on display), there are 123 Bugatti’s. That’s not a typo – there really are One-Hundred-and-Twenty-Three Bugatti’s on show.
Two of these are Bugatti Royale’s, to be found in the extraordinary Motor Car Masterpieces Area, where 80 or so cars are displayed in a subdued midnight blue setting. Only seven Royales were ever made, of which six are known still to exist. They are huge, imposing, completely over-the-top vehicles, with massive wheels and 12.7 litre, 8-cylinder engines covered by bonnets you could play football on. Amazing to see them in the metal, and there’s a lot of metal.
There are numerous versions of the Type 57, some of them as elegant as any car could ever dream of being. The Type 57 became the basic model of the range after the financial crisis of 1929, but each of the examples on show is different.
There are also smaller Bugatti’s, such as Type 55 Roadsters, the early 1911 Type 19 “Torpedo”, a 1913 Type 13 “Torpedo”, and even a Type 40 Camionette pick-up from 1929, one of which covered 14,000km in a three-week Sahara crossing. There’s a stunning example of a Sport Type 35B – Type 35s won over 1800 races between 1925 and 1927. It boggles the mind just how many variants of this iconic marque can be found under this single roof, and that’s before you get to the Motor Racing Area…
Here you’ll find a stunning row of Bugatti Type 35 GP cars, another group of Type 37s that competed at Le Mans, and the extraordinary “Tank” Course Type 32 that raced in the 1923 GP at Tours.
Bugatti ceased manufacturing cars not long after the death of Ettore Bugatti in 1947, with the last model emerging sometime in the early 1950s. In total, fewer than 8,000 Bugatti’s were made, until the brand was revived in the 1990’s with the EB110 and since being taken over by Volkswagen, the modern-day motor engineering masterpieces that are the Veyron and Chiron.
While Bugatti has the single biggest presence in the museum, there are other remarkable cars from other manufacturers.
Mercedes-Benz is well represented in the collection, with road cars such as the astounding 7-litre 720SSK, and racing cars like the fantastic 1955 300SLR of the type that won the Mille Miglia road race, as well as the iconic Silver Arrows Grand Prix W125 and W154 racers of 1937 and 1939. Equally amazing, but for very different reasons, is the 1936 Mercedes-Benz 170H, which looks like a VW Beetle but with the famous three-pointed star on the bonnet. Turns out that it, just like the Beetle, was designed by Ferdinand Porsche. Imagine how different the history of Mercedes-Benz – maybe even the whole motoring world – could have been, had this car shaped the future of Mercedes-Benz instead of Volkswagen…
Also in the Masterpieces Area, astonishing cars from the likes of Hispano Suiza, Isotta Fraschini, Delahaye and Rolls-Royce stand alongside the Bugatti’s and Mercedes-Benz’s. These are cars never seen on the road and there are so few, they are even rarely seen in museums or at concours events. It’s hard to describe just how sensational this room is – even without having any real knowledge of these particular cars other than knowing their names, the impact is profound; these cars were the pinnacle of automotive engineering between the wars.
The Motor Racing Area is itself quite fabulous. Besides the rows of Bugatti GP and sports racing cars, there is a formidable selection of Gordini’s in their iconic French blue. We now know Gordini as perhaps the equivalent for Renault of AMG for Mercedes-Benz or Alpina for BMW, but they were a formidable maker of in-house engineered racing cars up through the 1950’s and 60’s.
There’s row upon row of racing cars, from the early 1902 Serpollet which averaged 83 km/h in the 1903 Paris-Madrid race, 1920’s GP Bugatti’s, legendary Maserati’s from the 1940’s and Lotus’s from the 60’s, the aforementioned Silver Arrows, through to legends of modern-day Formula 1 from Benetton, McLaren, Renault and Peugeot. It’s an awe-inspiring sight.
In a collection full of truly extraordinary cars, it’s possible that – even allowing for the Bugatti Royale’s and the spectacular 1936 Mille Miglia-winning Alfa Romeo 8C 2.9A, the most extraordinary of them all is one I had never previously heard of – the Paul Arzens-designed La Baleine (the Whale) Cabriolet from 1938 (!!). This futuristically-styled car looks like a cross between an oceanliner and a train – perhaps unsurprising as Arzens also designed trains. It’s the size of a cruise ship, and was apparently used by Arzens himself as a means of both transporting his artist’s materials (art was his other passion) and as an artist’s studio – it’s certainly big enough. But what a shape! And those headlights… imagine seeing them loom (very) large in your rear-view mirror… you’d move over pretty sharpish!
Behind this huge machine is another, very different, futuristic design from Paul Arzens – a plexiglas-bodied, battery-powered egg (it’s called L’Oeuf electrique!), that had a range of up to 100km with two people on board – in 1942! Arzens was an eccentric genius, no doubt.
Sadly, although most of the cars look to be near as dammit perfect, few of them are currently in running order, though the re-opening of the restoration workshops is intended to change this. It would be quite marvellous if something like the Arzens could be seen in motion again, even if only for special events.
Besides wandering around the museum – which I did twice – and taking in the breadth and variety of the exhibits, other things to see and do at the museum include, for a limited period this summer, a Porsche exhibition, with various classic Porsches owned by Regis Mathieu and artfully displayed and lit with chandeliers designed by M. Mathieu himself. As a Porsche fan, you can never see too many Porsche 904’s…
There’s also the opportunity to drive, very slowly around a small autodrome (which also hosts a short mobile history of the motor car at weekends), in a classic from a choice of half-a-dozen or so cars on any given day. There’s an exhibition of 101 toy cars, and yet another showing off the beautifully detailed mascots that used to decorate the radiators of so many cars before health and safety considerations effectively killed them off.
The Schlumpf Collection at the Cite de l’Automobile is a celebration of some of the greatest achievements in European automotive history. With few exceptions, the cars displayed within couldn’t possibly be less ordinary. They are expensive, glamorous, fanciful, rare, flamboyant, and exquisite. To see so many of them in one building is an unforgettable sensation, and I’m thrilled I finally got to experience it in person. It should really be a must-do for any classic car enthusiast…