In the Alsatian Town of Mulhouse, on the French side of the Rhine, sits a sprawling converted woolen factory that has become the Louvre of automobiles and the Chartres of Bugatti lovers. The tale of the creation of this collection is as bizarre as the 500 vehicles themselves are astonishing. They gleam and glow and shine, row upon row, in a space as large as three football fields under 900 baroque lampposts, copies of the lights that line the Pont Alexandre III in Paris.
Visitors to the Musèe National de l'Automobile first pass through a courtyard that is frequently filled with a rank of visiting cars belonging to members of some rallying auto club—classic Mercedes or Citroens, Porsches or Bugattis—on a pilgrimage to the grandest assemblage of vintage automobiles in the world. Inside is another kind of shrine, a large, gilt-framed photograph of an old lady at her knitting, surrounded by a kitschy group of marble statues of nymphs and maidens and a plaque dedicating this museum to Jeanne Schlumpf, NOTRE CH‚Äö√†√∂‚àö‚Ä†RE MAMAN, HANS IT FRITZ. Next to this group, in weird juxtaposition, sits a Bugatti 35B Grand Prix, with two miniature versions of this famous racer: electric-powered children's cars, one made for the young crown prince of Morocco in 1927, the other for a son of the carmaker Ettore Bugatti.
The 35B was the beginning of all this and the personal car of Fritz Schlumpf, one of two eccentric brothers who, before World War II, began their obsessive collecting with this superb edition of perhaps the most famous racing car of all time. From their headquarters in Malmersbach, France, Fritz and his older brother, Hans, amassed an empire of woolen mills, buying factories throughout Alsace in the 1940s and 1950s. They were viewed during the postwar years as strict but benevolent employers, building housing for their workers and taking them on holiday outings. Children of the factory towns would race to the side of the road when they heard the distant roar of the Bugatti's engine, yelling, "Schlumpf! Schlumpf!" as Fritz, in white racing coveralls and goggles, came roaring through their villages in his blue machine. As the Schlumpf textile business expanded and became more profitable in the 1950s and '60s, Fritz, in particular, began a serious search for fine old cars. Throughout Europe, gas-guzzling classics that owners could no longer afford to maintain or drive sat on blocks, rusting away in garages. All the world wanted the efficient little Citroen 2CV's, Renault 4CV's, Volkswagens and Fiats that were pouring off assembly lines.
Fritz was especially enamored of the work of Ettore Bugatti, who had, from 1909 to 1939, created the world's fastest, most stylish and most luxurious ears in his workshop in the Alsatian town of Molsheim, south of Strasbourg. In the summer of 1960 Fritz bought 16 automobiles: three Rolls-Royces, two Hispano-Suizas, a Tatra and 10 Bugattis. including several models of Type 57, the glorious sports roadsters that—with their two-toned bodywork and powerful curving lines—defined the high life on the Riviera in the 1930s. These cars were soon joined by an ancient steam-powered Serpollet, a Bentley and a 1933 Delage saloon.
In 1962 Hugh Conway, president of the Bugatti Club of England, published a register of all Bugatti owners, and Fritz sent a letter to each one, offering to buy all their cars. Conway estimates that this mailing produced 50 Bugattis for the collector, but still he wasn't satisfied.
The Bugatti factory had been bought by Hispano-Suiza, a ear manufacturer, and had been converted to aircraft-engine production after World War II. Ettore died in 1947. His son, Jean, who designed some of the most splendid ears of the epoch, had been killed in 1939 while road-testing a race car, so there was no one to carry on the father's work. In the spring of 1963, with the blessing of the Bugatti heirs, the remaining cars in the estate went on the market. Fritz was the highest bidder, and he got the works, 14 finished automobiles plus the inventory of engines, molds and parts. But the prize was the most valuable—and some think the most beautiful—car in the world: the Bugatti Royale Coupe Napoleon that had been Ettore's personal car, an elegant leviathan capable of 124 mph, with a sweep of "wings," or fenders, floating along a massive, polished chassis, masterfully designed by Jean Bugatti when he was only 20. Dancing on its radiator cap was the crowning symbol of all Royales, a silver elephant sculpted by Rembrandt Bugatti, brother of Ettore.
Fritz paid about $200,000 for the lot. There are only six Bugatti Royales in the world. In 1986 Tom Monaghan, the Domino's Pizza mogul, paid $8.1 million for a Royale that was in the now-dispersed Harrah's collection, based in Reno. Last May the same car was sold to dealer Don Williams of California for an undisclosed price, thought to be around $10 million.
To the dismay of many Bugattistes who believed that these thoroughbreds of the road were meant to be driven, not stabled, the word got out that the Schlumpfs would buy any Bugatti they could find. And in 1962 they found a treasure trove. John Shakespeare, a retired fishing-tackle manufacturer in St. Louis, had begun racing Porsches and Ferraris in the mid-1950s and bought an imported-car company, which he renamed Shakespeare Motors. The Bugatti bug bit him when he saw an ad for a Type 55 in a sports car magazine and bought it by phone. By the time he decided to unload his collection—he found that it took up so much time that he was getting out of shape—he had collected 30 Bugattis. He sold them all to Fritz for about what he had paid for them, an estimated $100,000.
The closed freight cars that arrived at the Malmersbach factory from St. Louis that summer held a collection of sports roadsters, coupes and limousines with Jean Bugatti's signature sweeping wings and two-colored chassis—yellow and black, deep blue and red, two shades of blue. All had the distinctive chrome, horseshoe-shaped Bugatti radiator with the red lozenge BUGATTI mark. And there was another prize of prizes: a second Royale, an imposing black limousine that had originally been owned by a Brit, Capt. C.W. Foster, with coachwork by the distinguished English firm of Park Ward.
By 1966 the Schlumpf collection numbered almost 450 cars, 105 of them Bugattis. There were a dozen racing Gordinis, 10 Ferraris, Benzes that dated back to 1893, Mercedes and Daimlers, a Rolls once owned by Charlie Chaplin, and more. To warehouse and restore these cars, the brothers had bought a textile factory on the Rue Colmar in Mulhouse. Forty specialists—leather-and metalworkers, cabinetmakers, together with mechanics and body finishers who had worked at Bugatti—were hired. Every car was returned to pristine condition. Paint finishes were done over and over until the color was perfect, the surface impeccable. No one was allowed to touch a car or open a door, a hood, a trunk without wearing gloves.
But in 1968 the general labor unrest that swept across France inflamed discontent among the 2,000 Schlumpf employees who were fighting for wage increases as inflation eroded their earnings. Hans and Fritz continued to divert their time and their profits to the car collection even as the mills became increasingly outdated and were threatened by new technology and synthetic yarns. "The owner has a right to do anything he wants with his business," Fritz maintained. The brothers bought the best hotel in Mulhouse, with the idea of converting it into a tour center to bring automobile enthusiasts from all over the world to their museum—when it was ready to open.
In 1971 the Schlumpf workers struck, but even the uneasy settlement that followed failed to get the owners' attention. Instead the brothers turned more of their attention and resources to readying the cars and transforming a bare factory into a suitable museum.
In June 1976, with the collection installed and the museum ready to open, the brothers made a stunning announcement: They were putting their textile business into receivership. In response, outraged workers seized all four factories. With the protection of riot police, Fritz and Hans fled to Basel, Switzerland, and took up residence in the Hotel Trois Rois. Their father had been Swiss, and they had dual citizenship. From exile they fought to keep the automobile collection. But in February 1977 the Schlumpfs were charged with criminal embezzlement for diverting the proceeds of the wool works to the auto works.
The collection was seized by the workers before dawn on March 7. "Scandal!" they shouted upon entering the museum. "So this is where our money went!" But cars were different from chandeliers and hunting lodges and royal ch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢teaus. They were the work of people like themselves. One in every 10 workers in France was, and still is, employed by the automobile industry. So the union took over and ran the museum for two years, welcoming 800,000 visitors, collecting more than 3 million francs—roughly $700,000—and distributing the difference between the daily costs and the proceeds to needy worker families. The mayor of Mulhouse persuaded the French government to declare the treasures in the collection "historical monuments," preventing them from being sold to pay the enormous debts the Schlumpfs had incurred and from being smuggled out of France, as the brothers had been rumored to be planning.
In April 1981 the bankruptcy court allowed the collection to be sold to pay Schlumpf creditors. A not-for-profit association was formed, made up of the town and the chamber of commerce of Mulhouse, the department of Haut-Rhin, the region of Alsace, the Automobile Club of France, the Paris auto salon and the company Panhard et Levassor, the car manufacturer based in Paris. For 44 million francs (less than $8 million) the association became the owner of the buildings and their contents and was charged with the mission of turning what Bugatti expert Conway had described in 1977 as a "nouveau riche extravaganza with no message" into a true museum.
In 1982 the National Automobile Museum opened with a director, Jean-Claude Delerm, who came from a successful career as the CEO of a textile-machinery firm. Ten years later it has become a true museum, the third-most-visited in all of France, after the Louvre and Versailles. This year 600,000 visitors are expected. With an admission fee of 52 francs (about $10), it is one of only a handful of the 2,000 museums in France that are self-supporting. By its charter, all profits are funneled back into expanding exhibits, adding educational programs and buying a few cars to help round out the collection.
As one walks the broad, bricked aisles beneath the fin-de-siècle lampposts, nostalgia permeates the atmosphere. "We have a relationship with the car in every part of ourselves," says Delerm, "the closest of any of man's possessions." And as one enthusiast has written, only a stately, beautifully furnished home has the nostalgic impact of a glorious classic car. Passing the open phaetons of De Dion-Bouton, one conjures up dusters and veils, and top hats and egret plumes seem to inhabit the high, closed Panhard coupes de ville. A 1908 Delage Grand Prix that once raced from Paris to Dieppe recalls a Lartigue photo, pilot and mechanic leaning into a turn. And then the Bugattis! A phalanx of French-blue racers stretches the length of the hall.
Even silent, they seem to be straining at their traces. No Bugatti was ever built with left-side steering. A driver sitting on the right more clearly saw how closely he shaved the car he was, of course, overtaking. Only 6,000 Bugattis were made, fewer than an hour's production at GM.
Under Delerm, signage, photographs, and tableaux vivants of early garages and Indy pit stops have been added to bring these idle machines to life. A very special exhibit of 20 Panhard-Levassors was given to the museum by board member Jean Panhard. It traces the social history of the first century of the manufactured French car from 1891, the first year of Panhard, in vivid clarity. Porsche, realizing that more Germans go to the Mulhouse museum than even to the Porsche museum in Stuttgart, placed on permanent loan the cream of its gallery of competition cars, including the Type 936, in which Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell won Le Mans in 1981.
There are only two American cars in the museum, a 1930 Model A Ford Cabriolet, representing 26,000 of its kind, and a 1986 Ford Model RS300. In perfect shape, it was recently donated by a family from Marseilles. Delerm hopes to add other American models to his collection—not only examples of the mass-produced car, but also Duesenbergs and Cords, Stanley Steamers and Packards.
Also in the plans is a stadium to be built behind the museum on what is now a soccer field, with seating for 2,000 and a course on which Ferraris and Hispanos, Panhards and Delahayes will at last be heard as well as seen. Eighty percent of the museum cars are road-ready, and 40 to 50 of them will soon add their sounds to the chorus of nostalgia.
For years Fritz Schlumpf essayed to reproduce, with many authentic parts that he had collected, the Seventh Royale of Parisian industrialist Armand Esders. It had been destroyed during World War II. The museum invested $250,000 to complete the work on this fabulous car, an enormous open roadster, its body sea-foam green, its fenders double jade-green waves. It was at the Concours d'Elègance at Pebble Beach in August and will be on display at the Behring Museum in Danville, Calif., through December.
Hans Schlumpf died in 1989. Two years ago Fritz Schlumpf visited the museum in Mulhouse for the first time since his exile. He came to see the finished Royale and to stand for a while before his mother's photograph. Fritz died at 86 in Basel in April of this year.
Fred R. Smith, who lives in New York City, writes on health, fitness and travel.