As many classic Alfa owners might recognize first hand, an obsession with cars, especially with older ones, can take different forms, from painstaking attention to the most minute of the car's details, to a persistent need to modify one's car, to perpetually acquiring more cars. Fortunately most of us do not suffer as extreme a form of automotive obsession as the case that bit Fritz Schlumpf. Schlumpf, with his brother Hans, was a textile industrialist based in Alsace, France, the Rhine River border area with Germany. One of Schlumpf's first cars was a two-seat 1927 Bugatti type 35B, which he bought in 1939 and drove in local hillclimbs. Not only was the type 35 one of the great sports and racing cars of the period between the two world wars,
but like all Bugattis, it was built at the Bugatti plant in Molsheim, Alsace, near Schlumpf's home. Schlumpf's love for his Bugatti grew into an obsession with the marque and extended into a general interest in other European cars. With his brother's assistance, Schlumpf began to collect all kinds of European cars, but especially Bugattis. Over more than two decades, Schlumpf acquired dozens, then scores, then hundreds of cars. He turned a warehouse in Mulhouse, Alsace, into a secret restoration shop that only the shop staff knew about.
By the mid-1970s, however, the Schlumpf brothers' businesses were becoming less and less successful as the textile industry became increasingly unprofitable. In 1976, the Schlumpfs declared bankruptcy and fled to Switzerland. Their workers, unpaid and suddenly out of work, discovered the collection of cars and took over the restoration shop, occupying it for over two years, at the end of which time, the government declared the collection a national treasure. This declaration meant that the collection could not be broken up and sold off to cover the Schlumpfs' debts. Taking a cue from the laid-off workers, who toward the end of their occupation of the car collection had run it as a museum, the government transformed the building in Mulhouse and the collection into the Musée National de l'Automobile, or National Automobile Museum. The complete official name of the Musuem is now: Cité de l'Automobile, Collection Schlumpf.
When the newly-constituted museum first opened to the public in 1982, the cars were arranged in rows, along alleys, filling the enormous warehouse space, bigger than several football fields. The arrangement was more or less chronological, with groupings by marque. But otherwise, race cars, sports cars, and "ordinary" (if the word can ever be used with respect to the Schlumpf collection) cars were mixed together helter-skelter.
Bugattis were, and remain, the core and the star attraction of the collection; the catalog lists 124 of them, one quarter of the entire collection of about five hundred cars. Within that core, the two examples of the legendary Bugatti Royale (out of a total of seven that were built and six that survive) were the stars of the constellation but, originally, modestly displayed within the larger section of Bugattis.
As the years passed, change came to the museum. A new entrance to the museum has been built that in its grandeur matches the size of the collection.
It allows for the incorporation of a restaurant (appropriately named the Atalante, after another famous Bugatti model), a cafeteria, a gift shop, and additional exhibition space. The collection itself has grown through acquisitions and gifts, and these later acquisitions include not just drool-inducing super cars but humbler but significant contributions to automobile history, like a 1971 Fiat 500 (the rear-engined 500 cc kind, not the new front-wheel drive 500 currently available at Fiat dealerships). The central display has also been re-thought. Partitions have been erected, and the original single, large exhibit hall has been divided into three parts. The middle section is devoted to the history of the automobile and includes the bulk of the collection, ranging from historic brass-era models, to that same Fiat 500, to French cars, like a Peugeot 205 built and acquired since the museum opened. The wall on one side of this central area is a mirror, which serves two purposes: as at the re-designed Alfa Romeo museum in Arese, it allows visitors to see both the front and the rear of the cars displayed, and it also makes the central display area appear as large as the single exhibition hall appeared prior to the renovation.
Another section (to the far right as one enters the primary exhibition hall from the new museum entrance) is devoted to race cars.
This section is further divided into open-wheel cars on one side and other race cars on the other. The open-wheeled race cars are divided into two sections aligned in two columns each as though on the starting grid of a race. At one end are the post-1960s open-wheel race cars, festooned with sponsors' markings. Behind them is the "starting grid" for the 1950s and early 1960s open-wheel racers, all painted in their national colors (French blue, Italian red, and British racing green).
The fendered race cars, which are on the other side, are not lined up as on a starting grid but parked at right angles to the wall, yet they are also divided into a sponsorship-era section and a section of cars unsullied by sponsors' decals.
The third section of the display space (to the far left as one enters the primary exhibition hall) is devoted to "masterpieces."
The cars in this section are nearly all from between the World Wars and include most of the non-racing Bugattis and all the Rolls Royces. Set up on special platforms in the middle of this display section are the two Royales.
One is serial number 41100, known as the Coupé Napoléon; it was Ettore Bugatti's personal car, and the Schlumpf brothers acquired it in the 1960s directly from Bugatti's heirs.
The other Royale, serial number 41131, is called the Limousine Park-Ward, after the famed British coachbuilder who supplied the body to this car's original owner.
This car came to the Schlumpfs in the 1960s when Fritz purchased the entire collection of John W. Shakespeare, an American collector. Shakespeare had, according to Wikipedia, purchased this Royale in 1956 for 3,500 British pounds, which according to Wikipedia was the starting price at the time on a new Ferrari. The information at the Museum states different figures, but after considerable long-distance negotiations (no internet in the 1960s!), Schlumpf purchased Shakespeare's entire collection (which included thirty Bugattis—included, not consisted of) for either $70,000, $75,000, or $85,000. Yes, $85,000 then was not what it is today, but it is still staggering to think that such a sum then could buy thirty Bugattis, including one Royale, as well as some "lesser cars" (the Schlumpf Museum gives a whole other meaning to that favorite Velocissima phrase)!
These three sections occupy what when the museum first opened was the single, large exhibition hall. With the construction of the new entrance, though, additional display space has been created, and this new display area helps to raise the drool-inducing level of the museum to a proverbial eleven. Now, visitors purchase their entrance tickets in a large, three-story high atrium. From the ticket area, visitors pass into a darkened hallway devoted to showing only engines, all from the first half of the twentieth century, and mostly Bugatti engines (including a four-cylinder and a straight eight). At each engine stand one can push a button and listen to the sound of that engine, or one like it, in operation. But the highlight of this section is a Bugatti straight eight engine, entirely dismantled, and attached to a two-story high wall much as an exploded parts catalog would present it: oil pan near the bottom of the wall, crankcase above it, crankshaft above that, connecting rods and pistons above that, and so on, up to the valve covers. If you are like me and have never understood how a Bugatti engine was put together—I'd often read about how Bugatti cast their blocks and cylinder heads as one piece—this display is a revelation.
From the engines hallway, one enters another new hallway, which the Museum's literature calls the Bugatti Gallery.
This gallery is brightly lit and about fifty yards long. It is devoted to examples of one car model: the Bugatti type 57S coupé Atalante (plus a cabriolet).
Half a dozen Atalantes in a row would be impressive enough, but the highlight here is that one of the Atalantes is dismantled and shown in pieces:
bodywork, frame chassis with drivetrain, interior, dashboard, etc.
If you've ever wanted to learn how a Bugatti was really put together, but didn't have the time or inclination (not to mention the bank account) just to go out and buy one to take apart and re-assemble, seeing this dismantled Bugatti is the next best thing.
One of the interesting features of the hall of Atalantes is that one can see that, like all the cars in the collection, they are not all perfectly restored to concours condition. Here (as all throughout the museum), visitors can get pretty close to the cars, at least close enough to be able to see inside the windows. Some of the Atalantes' interiors have held up well over the last eighty years. But in others, age, use, and wear would provide AONE's celebrated Upholstery Doctor with a challenging project.
At the end of the hallway of Atalantes, visitors enter a room about the size of the barn at the Weston Tavern. This room displays two cars that have little relation to each other. One is a late-model Chinese limousine, a 1976 Hong Qi CA 770,
that Chairman Mao's government used for chauffeuring visiting dignitaries (including, at one time, then French President Jacques Chirac), and that Mao's successor Deng Xiao Ping used on a regular basis. This boxy, black limo looks a bit like the contemporary Zil limousines used by Soviet dignitaries. It is powered by a 5.6-litre V-8 engine and has a spacious, comfortable-looking, but not overly-opulent rear passenger section. The Schlumpf Museum car was donated to the museum in 2013 by a Hong Kong collector.
The other car in the same room is far more unique: it is a reconstruction of a third Bugatti Royale (or rather a seventh, if one is counting all six surviving examples, not just the two already in the museum): the so-called Esders Royale.
The Schlumpf brothers had tried and failed to acquire the actual Esders Royale. But the brothers owned a number of spare Royale parts (for instance the factory had built extra 12.7-litre engines for railroad applications, in order to amortize the financial losses of the Royale project, and these engines were once relatively easy to acquire). During the National Museum period, a decision was made to build this third Schlumpf Royale from the spare parts—with additional parts fabricated from scratch—on the model of the actual Esders Royale. The actual Esders Royale (serial number 41111) was sold to its original purchaser, Armand Esders, with a two-seat cabriolet body designed by Ettore Bugatti's talented son, Jean. A later owner, Henri Binder, had the car rebodied as a coupe de ville, and the car, now known as the Royale Coupe de Ville Binder, belongs to Volkswagen AG, parent company of the revitalized Bugatti brand. (According to Wikipedia, VW bought the Royale Coupe de Ville Binder in 1999 for $20 million.)
What strikes many visitors about the Esders Royale reconstruction is that it doesn't appear quite as large as it actually is (Wikipedia cites 169.3 inches as the wheelbase of a Royale and 21 feet as the overall length; weight, by the way, is seven thousand pounds, and its 12.7-litre straight-eight engine produces 300 hp). The roadster body of the Esders Royale is beautifully proportioned, in a style not unlike that of sporty two-seaters of the 1930s, like the classic Alfa 6C 1750.
Only a period photo on the wall showing Mr. Esders standing in front of the door of his Royale gives an idea of just how large the car really is. By contrast, in the "masterpieces" display room, a visitor immediately grasps just how big the Museum's two, genuine Royales are compared to cars of the same time period displayed next to them.
The Bugatti immersion at the Museum, however, does not end with the Bugattis collected by the Schlumpf brothers. In a small, separate space, next to where the original museum visitors entered the, then, single, large exhibition hall, a modern Bugatti Veyron, on long-term loan from Volkswagen, revolves on a turntable.
Behind the turntable, the darkened wall shows a short but interesting video about the Veyron. For many—myself included—this is the one opportunity to see a Veyron in the flesh, and the car looks much more attractive in actuality than it appears in photos.
The only Bugatti omission at the Museum is a type 57 Atlantique, which is recognizably different from the equally lovely type 57 Atalante
thanks to its pronounced and riveted seam running along the roof and rear of the car. Some AONE members will recall having had the privilege of seeing up close Ralph Lauren's Atlantique during a visit to Paul Russell's shop in Essex more than a decade ago. Perhaps Mr. Lauren will take a hint from the Hong Kong collector of Hong Qi limousines and bequeath his type 57 Atlantique to the Museum?
If French cars in their Gauloise-cigarette-pack shade of blue are not exactly your cup of café,
you can still find much to delight you in bright red, as the Museum's collection boasts eight Alfa Romeos,
eight Maseratis, and eleven Ferraris (as well as four Fiats, three Lancias, three Isotta Fraschinis, and a Cisitalia). And the Alfas aren't just any Alfas. Seven of them are 1930s cars: one is a 6C 1750 roadster, and another is an 8C 2300 with a cabriolet body.
There is an 8C roadster with a 2.6 litre engine,
and three other 8Cs, all legendary 8C 2900s: a 1936 8C 2.9A and two 8C 2.9Bs, from 1937 and 1938.
The Museum's 1938 8C 2.9, also known as a P3, won the 1938 24 Hours of Spa. The 1936 2.9A is a street car which, in profile, gives one a clear sense of the length of that 2900 cc straight-eight engine.
This was what an Italian supercar looked like in the late 1930s (and Alfa Romeo didn't have to give it an odd name, like Alfa Romeo La Alfa Romeo, to make the point).
The other 1930s Alfa is also a 1938 car, the 12C that won the 1939 Antwerp Grand Prix. Late in the decade Alfa was struggling to compete with the monster Mercedes and Auto Unions that Hitler's Germany built for Grand Prix racing, so Alfa designed a 370 hp V-12 to replace the 2.9 straight-eight. Four 12Cs were built, and two survive; the other survivor is in the Alfa Romeo Museum in Arese. (Museum visitors can have a look as well at one of those Alfa rivals: a 1937 Mercedes W125 Grand Prix car, powered by a 600 hp, 5.5 litre, straight-eight engine.)
The eighth Alfa at the Museum is also a unique car; it is a 1953 C52 Sport.
This roadster is part of the Disco Volante series, according to the Museum's information, but its gorgeous body is (comparatively) conventional looking by contrast and is supposed to be far more stable aerodynamically. The car is powered by a 158 hp, two-litre, four-cylinder engine and would be the perfect ride for an Indian Summer Sortie.
The Ferraris include both race and street cars. The oldest one is a 166 from 1948. The most recent one is the F1 312B in which Mario Andretti won the 1971 Grand Prix of South Africa.
Also notable are a lovely 1964 250 LM (a mid-engine coupé designed for the 24 Hours of Le Mans),
a 1959 250 GT with a Pininfarina body, and the 156B in which John Surtees became the 1964 Formula 1 champion.
Another unique Ferrari once belonged to Bao Dai, the last Emperor of Vietnam.
Half of the Museum's eight Maseratis are from the 1930s (a 2000, an 8CM, a 6CM, and a 4CL). One Maserati is a 1948 4CLT; the other three are from the 1950s: two 250Fs, the model in which Juan Manuel Fangio won his fifth Formula 1 championship, and a 300S sports racer.
German cars are not exactly a neglected part of the collection: there are seven Maybachs, six Porsches, one VW (a 1951 1200), eight Benzes, a 1924 Audi, but no BMWs. There are, though, thirty-one Mercedes, including a 300 SLR like the one in which Stirling Moss won the Mille Miglia and a 300 SL gullwing. One Pegaso represents Spain. There are no Japanese cars and very few American machines: three Fords, two Harleys, and one Indian. Britain is not too well represented either, for other than the fourteen Rolls Royces and four Bentleys, there is only one Aston Martin and one Jaguar—albeit a 1964 DB5 and a 1966 E-Type. Lotus, though, is represented by four 1960s cars: a Super Seven, an 18, a 24, and a 33.
The lion's share of the collection, aside from the Bugattis, remains French, including historically significant, relatively modern cars, like Citroën's Traction Avant, 2CV, and DS23, and numerous Peugeots and Renaults (including a 4CV and an R16). There are also French cars an enthusiast may have heard of, like Gordinis,
Hispano-Suizas, Talbots, and Delahayes. There are nineteen Panhards, ranging from 1894 to 1964, and the Museum makes a strong case for the argument that Panhard and Levassor, not Daimler and Benz, are the true pioneers of the modern automobile. But the collection also includes French cars with whose names few will be familiar, like Monet-Guyon, Mathis, Fouillaron, Barre, and Baudier.
Even with its French emphasis, the collection is so rich and varied that a visitor only moderately obsessed with fine European cars and lucky enough not to suffer from sore feet after too much time in a museum could spend a full day there (the cafeteria and restaurant help make that possible) and still want to return. The Museum's web site includes photos and videos, as well as a schedule of events. One compelling reason for wanting to return is that outside the building is a small track,
and the Museum partners with www.myclassicautomobile.com, a local renter of classic sports cars (an E-Type, a Gullwing Mercedes, and a Lamborghini Urraco are among the offerings), to make it possible on certain pre-scheduled dates to lap this track in a classic car. At 55 euros for seven laps (or over 700 for a full day's rental), participation in these events is not a bargain. But the days of finding thirty Bugattis for $85,000 or a Royale for £3,500 are long gone, and come to think of it, 55 euros is not so harmful a way to indulge an automotive obsession.