3 December 2008

Ettore Bugatti and the Schlumpf Brothers

The Schlumpf brothers, Hans and Fritz were as different as the two Alsacian cultures. Hans was a clear-minded, teutonic banker and Fritz a romantic, entrepreneurial dare devil. While the former toiled at his desk and stockpiled his resources, the latter made a fortune taking risks in the woolen markets and eventually having ownership in a number of local mills. Hans finally joined his brother as a business manager and together they became very wealthy, indeed. When Fritz, the car nut, was required by his company directors to cease his racing adventures, he redirected that automotive passion into collecting. The goal was soon focused on returning every Bugatti to its home in Alsace. He made an impressive start.

Their long-secret collection remains in its original woolen mill warehouse an hour south of Molsheim in the industrial city of Mulhouse. From the new Bugatti atelier proceed due south on the A35 for 98 kilometers. Merge onto A36 west only a few kilometers from the center of Mulhouse. Exit at “Centre Ville Mulhouse” and follow the signs to “Cité de l’Automobile-Collection Schlumpf.”

The beautiful new entrance is not visible until you have entered the grounds. It is a striking concept; a matched set of copper-colored, half-scale, Ferrari-like sports car forms are suspended from cables and appear to pass through the vast glass museum face. The foyer is enormous and friendly. Once into the collection, the cars set on white gravel and the isles created of red brick as Fritz intended. The cars were hidden in this facility as the collection grew. The first ten Bugattis arrived during the summer of 1960. By the end of that summer there were 40 cars and the obsession was unrelenting. The cost of buying more collections just to have access to Bugattis and employing a secret restoration staff began adversely affecting the financial well being of the mills.

Finally, in 1977, with some mills sold and the remainder creeping toward trouble, the secret collection was discovered and spawned a labor revolt. Bankruptcy resulted by 1979 and the brothers were forced to leave Alsace and retreat into Grandhotel Les Trois Rois in Basel. France finally assumed control of the collection and in 1981 sold the entire facility and its contents to the National Motor Museum Owner’s Association who opened it to the public in July of 1982. A court of appeals in Paris required “Collection Schlumpf” be added to the name in 1989. Ten years later management of the museum was contracted to Culture Spaces and a complete renovation and new façade were accomplished.

Your reporter has visited the collection twice before, the first time shortly after the revolt. The building still looked like a warehouse on the outside, with the inside full of dusty cars and the roof already supported by hundreds of recreations of Paris lamp posts—another costly element of the Schlumpf legacy. Now display panels act as walls to break up the expanse and real walls separate exhibit areas from work and entertainment spaces. Climate control has eliminated the dust caused by the hundreds of square meters of white gravel.

Included in what is arguably billed as the world’s largest public automobile collection is an area devoted to the pioneers. It is dominated by French machines, of course, many powered by the nearly ubiquitous pre-1900 De Dion engines. Examples of Bollee and Darracq (Darracq was licensed to Italian group and became the foundation of Alfa Romeo) are the second phase of auto development just after the turn of the century. It was exciting to see the Bugatti-designed De Dietrich horseless carriage and the Mathis racing machine with which Ettore Bugatti’s earned his advanced degrees in innovative engineering. After Mathis, while developing the large SOHC Deutz, now recognized as Type 9, Bugatti built a scaled down version in his home shop, which became the first Bugatti, the 1200 cc Type 10. It was on the road in 1909, when he was 28. That prototype now lives in a U.S. collection. It would be nice to have it as the beginning of this fabulous tribute to Bugatti someday.

The most popular stop in the museum is the long row of Types 35, 37 and 51 iconic grand prix cars; all in the matching Gauloise bleue as required by Madam Bugatti. Legend has it, she would simply stroll through the shop and hold her cigarette pack next to the racing cars to verify the accuracy of the color. While every car is worthy of a book, the one Type 35A (SOHC unsupercharged 2-liter straight eight) shown with full fenders, belonged to Czechoslovak champion Elisabetta Junek. She attained stardom when she drove her Type 35B (supercharged SOHC 2.3-liter) to fourth place after 540 rock-strewn kilometers of the 1928 Targa Florio in Sicily.

There is a room of grand classics and two vast grids of grand prix cars, one each from before and after World War II, with priceless Bugattis in each. There are pedal cars, toy cars, and large-screen televisions showing dozens of automotive documentaries. It is an impressive trove of automobile history. If it were only the Bugatti collection it would be worth the flight to France. With a century of Bugatti history just an hour north in Molsheim and that same automotive century expanded in Cité de l’Automobile – National Museum – Collection Schlumpf in Mulhouse, it is every car nut’s dream and not to be missed.

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