Nestled in the city of Mulhouse, France, near the borders of Germany and Switzerland, is an old textile factory containing an astounding collection of European automotive history. If you ever find yourself in this part of the world you must experience it.
The story of the Musée National de l’Automobile is the story of the Schlumpf brothers, Hans and Fritz, shrewd businessmen and car nuts. After WWI they started brokering in textiles and by 1957 they’d purchased a gigantic factory in Mulhouse. As the factory began to generate massive amounts of capital Fritz started acquiring cars. Lots of cars.
The initial spark for the collection may have come from living in the same region of France as Bugatti, possibly the most revered name in automobiles. Ettore Bugatti, the Milanese son of an Art Nouveau furniture and jewelry designer who moved to Molsheim (then Germany, now France) and started Bugatti in 1909, would build around 8000 of the most beautiful, well-built and high-performance automobiles the world had ever seen before his death in 1947.
In the 1930s Fritz bought a Bugatti Type 35 and raced it locally. By the early 1960s he got serious about collecting Bugattis going as far as contacting every member of the Bugatti club and offering to buy their cars. One member, John Shakespeare from Illinois sold Fritz Schlumpf 30 – yes thirty! – Bugattis for around $2000 a car. This kind of bulk buying helped to quickly grow the collection to several hundred cars.
Before long they were expanding the factory and dedicating more and more square meters of space to the growing and very secret collection. They had a staff of restorers and care-takers that they kept separate from the rest of their operation and began plans to turn it all into a museum. By the mid-1970s they’d amassed over 500 examples of European automotive history including some of the most rare and valuable cars ever made.
Unfortunately a decade of car collecting with company funds and pay cuts at the factory caught up with the Schlumpfs and in 1977 striking workers took over the factory and discovered the incredible collection. Fritz and Hans escaped to Switzerland and the collection was ‘sold’ to a group of organizations to turn into a National Museum.
Visiting the Cité de l’Automobile is a curious experience. Because of the size of the collection and importance of the cars some patience and detective work is needed to begin to appreciate what you’re seeing. The placards are small and often inaccurate and certainly don’t come close to telling the stories behind what makes these cars so special.
Here are a few of our favorites.
British racer Captain George Eyston modified this 1926 Panhard & Levassor with a dual-ignition, tuned engine, removal of the front brakes and this stunning body. He set new records in 1934 travelling over 133 miles in a single hour.
In 1935 he visited the Bonneville Salt Flats with his ‘Speed of the Wind’ car and would set more land speed records during the ’30s in his ‘Thunderbolt’ racer.
He was also a bad ass who earned a Military Cross fighting in WWI.
Ettore Bugatti designed by intuition and was evidently not afraid to boldly push convention. This car was built and raced in 1923 and features hydraulic front brakes in addition to it’s extremely innovative bodywork. The Type 32’s short wheelbase and primitive aerodynamics kept it from being a GP winner and it was replaced after one season with the revered Type 35.
Details on this Alfa’s exact history are difficult to track down but it seems it was one of the 2900A Alfas that won the Mille Miglia in 1936 and 1937. It was then rebodied as a convertible spyder by Pininfarina, then brought to Switzerland and converted to a coupe by a Swiss coachbuilder named Martin. It’s certainly a stunner but we can only imagine how delicious the Pininfarina spyder version would’ve been.
The Mercedes-Benz 38/250 SS is the legendary 1929-1934 production model that became a Grand Prix winner. This is a very nice example.
The third of the five Disco Volantes bodied by Touring for Alfa Romeo. This one was outfitted with less extreme side bulges – “fianchi stretti” (Italian for “narrow hips”) and actually raced.
The incredible W196S – the machine that was crushing all motorsports competitors in 1955 – until one killed 83 spectators at Le Mans prompting Mercedes to quit racing for over 30 years.
Panhard & Levassor started making engines in 1889 and made possibly the first production car in 1891.
This is what their ’32 roadster looks like.
Jean Albert Grégoire was an interesting guy. He was a racer and engineer who developed the CV joint and sold the patent to Bendix. He was also a pioneer of front wheel drive engineering. He collaborated and worked for several French automakers and in 1955 built fewer than 10 of these Sport vehicles incorporating many of his innovations like cast aluminum alloy structure, homokinetic joints, independent suspension, supercharged boxer engine and front wheel drive. These were styled by Carlo Delaisse and the bodies crafted by Henri Chapron.
Unfortunately they came with a huge price tag and barely any sold.
Cité de l’Automobile has 14 of these rare Gordini race-winners in their collection. Amédée Gordini only built around 50.
The rear (‘heck’) engine version of the 170, looking very VW beetle-like thanks to contributions from former Daimler-Benz chief engineer Ferdinand Porsche, who borrowed from Tatra’s Hans Ledwinka…
Czech automakers Tatra built the 87 from 1936 until 1950. The initial design by a team headed by chief design engineer Hans Ledwinka was quite revolutionary. The streamlined body continued their leading-edge aerodynamic innovation that began with the Tatra 77 with help from Zeppelin designer Paul Jaray. This car has a rear-mounted, air-cooled 8-cylinder engine that helped make it perfect for the new autobahns in Germany, and greatly influenced future German automobile design.
One enormous roadster. Bugatti built 7 Type 41s between 1926 and 1933 as the ultimate sport luxury car designed exclusively for royalty or the extremely rich. 3 tons, 20 feet long, 12.7 liter 8-cylinder overhead cam engine. 6 survive and 2 of them can be seen here. This one is actually a third, a recreation of the Royale Esders Coupe that the Schlumpfs had built from extra parts. One of their originals was purchased as part of the Shakespeare sale. The other, Ettore Bugatti’s personal Royale, was purchased from the Bugatti factory shortly after it was bought by Hispano-Suiza (who were desperately in need of money). The Schlumpfs also acquired a trove of additional parts and patterns in that sale, which were used to build this replica.
1948 concept car designed by Louis Bionier and built with a very aerodynamic body made from an aluminum/magnesium alloy called Duralinox. Drag coefficient of just 0.26.
First shown at the 1948 Paris Auto Salon.
This Delahaye has an interesting history. Delahaye debuted the Type 135 in 1935. These were popular cars, the competition model even winning Le Mans in 1938. After the war 135 chassis resumed production and were bodied by the best French coachbuilders as the golden age of coachbuilding came to a close. This car was bodied by Jean Antem (born Juan Antem in Barcelona) of Carrossier Antem in Courbevoie. Purchased by honeymooning Americans in 1951, the car was shipped to New York and then driven to San Francisco.
Gabriel Voisin applied lessons learned from the early aviation industry while creating some of the most interesting cars of the early 1930s. Daring angular lines and low chassis height make these easy to identify. Hints at future Citroen designs can be seen as this is where a young André Lefèbvre got his start.
This is the same type of car seen as Norma Desmond’s great symbol of golden-era hollywood greatness in Sunset Boulevard.
These would have cost about $500,000 in today’s money.
Type 8A. Chassis 1512. Landaulet.
The road going version of the Type 51 Grand Prix car. This coupe is one of eleven bodied outside of the Bugatti factory. You can tell because it has doors! It’s running a supercharged straight-8 motor.
Ettore Bugatti’s son Jean designed the Type 57s starting in 1934.
The SC’s were lowered (‘S’) and supercharged (‘C’).
Jean died in 1939 at only 30 years old in a Type 57 after hitting a tree near the Bugatti factory in Germany.
I’m not sure if they were Schlumpf acquisitions or not but there some nice examples of regular folks cars among the glitzy big-shot vehicles at the museum. Also some examples of French design and innovation over the years.
One thing I loved about the museum is the equal respect afforded to both performance and beauty. Speed and style. For every rare coachbuilt sedan was an equally exquisite old Grand Prix car. The motorsports areas are a real mind blower with literally acres of European speed history on display.