A black and white blow-up of Mother Schlumpf—knitting— graces the entrance to the Automobile Museum in Mulhouse. It was to honour her that the Schlumpf brothers founded a car museum and bankrupted their business in the process.
Fritz and Hans Schlumpf were autocratic Swiss wool industrialists, who collected Bugattis like little boys collect dinky toys. How did the Schlumpfs amass enough riches to furnish their private museum with Bugattis, Ferraris, Mercedes Benz, Maseratis and Porsches— to name but a few?
One of the ways Hans, a former banker, siphoned off funds from the business, was to pay the mill workers poorly, dock fifteen minutes off their pay if they were late or signed out a minute or two early and not pay bonuses or increments.
The brothers set about refurbishing their cars by hiring and swearing to secrecy saddlers, body workers and mechanics. These employees worked in a sealed off a portion of the mill with direct access to the railway tracks. It was in this mill building that Fritz displayed the restored cars to private and select viewers. All went well for a few years with Fritz buying whole lots of cars, often paying much beyond the market price. When in the late sixties the textile industry began to move to Asia, the Schlumpfs’ enterprise started to falter. With strikes in the offing, the brothers laid off employees and sold part of the business. Rumours of their secret car collection persisted to circulate until 1977 when some union workers broke into the museum. Amazed and enraged by their discovery, they destroyed the shell of one not yet refurbished car, then occupied the museum and ran it for two years.
Meanwhile, unlike Robert Maxwell (who jumped ship) or Kenneth Lay (who died ‘prematurely’) Hans and Fritz, both survivors, ducked their debts by beating a hasty retreat to Basel, where they lived in self exile (and some comfort) in the Drei Koenige Hotel.
After much political wrangling, the French state did not sell or disperse the Schlumpf collection to other museums and private collectors all over the world but ultimately classified the collection as a historic monument. Thereafter, private individuals and public authorities purchased the land, the collection and the buildings that housed it. They transformed the Schlumpf collection into a world class museum that houses the biggest and finest collection of vintage cars in the world. Renovated, refurbished and reopened in March 2000, the museum still maintains the character of the original private museum with its brick walkway, white gravel aisles and Pont Alexandre III lamp posts. There’s also a long hall stuffed with Bugatti racing cars and filled with the appropriate sound effects of cheering crowds and racing cars.
Off in one corner (I missed it, but my husband said it was terrific) are two robots and a film showing how cars are assembled today. Sometime during your visit, you may want to squeeze into an old racing car to have your photograph taken, or if need be, you can take a spin in a rotating Peugeot—cheaper than a fair ride and more sick-making too, judging by the wobbly-kneed green-gilled teenagers I saw topple out.
If you think Bugattis are world famous Italian racing cars, think again. Although invented by Milan-born Ettore Bugatti, they were and still are manufactured in the Alsacian town of Molsheim. If you’ve seen the billboards advertising the Bugatti Veyron Exhibition and been tempted to ogle the car —touted as the most powerful in the world and the machine Jeremy Clarkson is itching to drive —go. You still have until November 5, 2006.
Clearly not a ‘car person’ I’ve focussed more on the Schlumpfs’ story than their museum in this article, but I can agree with the Guide Vert Michelin rating of three stars; the exhibition really is worth the trip.
Open every day of the year except Christmas and New Year’s day, the Musée National de l’Automobile, Collection Schlumpf accepts the Museumspass but does charge a little extra. An audio guide, in six languages, comes with the entrance fee and there’s a restaurant and a cafeteria on site.
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