Mulhouse isn’t the typical city most tourists usually visit. Located so far in the East of France that it’s almost in Germany (in fact it was a German city in semi recent history), it’s a lovely town, but with the famous Champagne producing regions on the Paris side and Switzerland on the other, it’s typically skipped by most travelers for its more scenic neighbors. But for over fifty years Mulhouse has been home to the largest automobile collection in the world, and for me it was one that simply couldn’t be missed.
The Schlumpf Collection is probably most well known for housing two of the world’s six Bugatti Royale’s, however its chequered history is arguably more interesting than those two large cars. The Brother’s Schlumpf, Hans & Fritz, were an odd pair. Their interest in cars was only beaten by their almost obsessive dedication to their mother, and the boys worked hard before the second world war building their textile empire, with Fritz finally acquiring his first Bugatti which he used in local races. All of that was put on hold with the outbreak of war, and once the war finished the brothers put everything they had into further building their textile empire in Mulhouse. By the time of the swinging 60’s, the brother’s had enough spare capital to acquire a couple of cars.
The term ‘a couple of cars’ is of course used very loosely as they built their collection at a fanatical rate from the early 50’s through the mid 60’s. The brother’s contacted the likes of Enzo Ferrari offering to buy cars, and with a particular penchant for the local Bugatti brand (located just down the road in Molsheim), they struck up a friendship and bought direct from Ettore himself. They famously sent a letter to every member of the Bugatti owners club with an open offer to buy their cars, which in 1963 resulted in the acquisition of an entire 30 Bugatti American collection in one hit along with several individual cars.They bought ten racing cars from Gordini, three Lotuses from racing driver Jo Siffert and several cars from the Mercedes Benz factory museum. With new prosperity after the war people were looking to upgrade their 1920’s and 30’s automobiles, and the Schlumpf’s used this wholly to their advantage.
Even as their textile business began to falter in the 70’s as cheaper production emerged in Asia, the boys kept building their collection in total silence. They employed 40 staff to work full time restoring and maintaining the cars, who were each sworn to secrecy and forced to sign non disclosure statements about their work. The collection grew as production at their factory further declined, so the Brother’s converted one of the disused warehouses into a museum to house their now 400 strong private collection. They employed yet more staff to lay red tiled floors and create grey gravel display areas and installed thousands of replica Parisian lamp posts. All of this was just for themselves – the collection was still top secret.
Well, it was top secret until March 7, 1977. Following an industrial dispute in October 1976 caused by laying off many of their staff, the brother’s were forced to flee to Switzerland where they lived out the rest of their days in exile. In 1976 it took 400 police to stop union activists from ransacking the factory, but in 1977 they were successful and activists progressively went through the factory, until one group broke into just another disused warehouse and discovered the secret collection in disbelief. An Austin 7 was reportedly pushed outside and burnt before the crowd, but the rest of the collection was spared. The union opened the collection to the public for the first time as the Worker’s Museum and used the entry fees to repay unpaid wages to the factory staff. 800,000 people came in the first two years, and in 1978 it was declared a French National Monument to save it from being split up.
During the 80’s ownership of the collection sea-sawed, and in the late 90’s the building and collection was acquired by a public/private consortium and the money used to repay the Schlumpf Brother’s creditors. Since then the original collection has been expanded to 600 cars, some of those on loan from other museums around the world. It’s a sad fact though that whilst some of these cars are exercised on the newly built on-site roadway (you’d struggle to get out of second gear it’s that small) and the current restoration team are working to recommission the collection in the abandoned restoration workshops, most of these cars are the victim of years of neglect and can’t be driven.
The first section is about the Schlumpf Brother’s and includes a large memorial to their mother. Interestingly it speaks volumes about their passion for cars, and completely skips over what happened in the years 1976 to 1997.
From the newly built area you then step into the original warehouse, which looks exactly as the Schlumpf Brother’s left it. And to be honest, the main museum has a strange energy about it. It’s hard to describe, but it feels like no museum I’ve seen before, and I’m not sure if that’s a compliment.
At least two thirds of the vehicles in the primary collection are pre-1940, with some genuinely old gems dotted about. This Panhard-Levassor is from 1894, making it 119 years old!
This 1905 Mercedes 28/50 features a separate brake that can be operated by the rear passengers, just in case they think the driver is going too fast. You can see the lever just behind the front seats – can you imagine what life would be like if we still had that feature today?
It soon became readily apparent that this collection has so much untapped potential. An indication of this was the information sheets alongside each car. Some were just plain wrong, and some simply had comments bearing little or no relevance to the car. The paragraph on this 1901 Renault Type D simply said “At the first motorshow, President Felix Faure made this comment to the manufacturers: Your cars are extremely ugly and smell awful”.
Volkswagen Beetle – seems legit. Well, kind of. In his younger days Ferdinand Porsche was a contract engineer, and designed this 130H for Mercedes Benz in 1937. It even featured an air-cooled, rear mounted flat four engine. The idea was never seriously used by Mercedes Benz and only a handful of these were produced, so Porsche further developed this idea into the ‘people’s car’ when he was contracted by Adolf Hitler to design an affordable car for the masses, and the rest is history.
… or the row of Italian open wheelers, mostly various Maserati models including a few 250F’s, Ferrari’s and Alfa Romeo’s. It was interesting to see that none of these cars really had a famous history – they were mostly cars bought from the factory by wealthy privateer teams and campaigned with moderate success.
And right next to it, in a dark room on the way to the small cinema, is the 1986 Paris-Dakar Rally winning Porsche 959. I literally almost walked past it, and had to use the camera flash to actually see much of the detail.
…the two Type 41 Royale’s steal the limelight. I never really understood these cars; I’d heard rumors of their extreme value but to me they were just big, old Bugatti’s. That all changed the moment I walked through that door and saw the two of them on display. Without a doubt, the Royale is the most stunning and jaw dropping car I have ever seen. I just stood there for about thirty seconds in awe, and I can’t imagine what it must have been like to see one of these in the early 30’s in the height of the Great Depression.
At 6.4m long and over 3 tonnes in weight, the sheer size alone is staggering. Ettore Bugatti planned to build 25 Royale’s, but launching them just before the Great Depression at an unheard of price meant only 6 were built, with only 3 being actually sold. The current value today is difficult to estimate. Chassis 41.141 was sold for $9.7million in 1987, and chassis 41.111 was reportedly sold to Volkswagen for $20million in 1999.
The Schlumpf Collection has chassis 41.131, the Limousine Park Ward which was sold new to Cuthbert W. Foster in 1933. It was purchased by the Schlumpf’s in 1963 as part of the 30 car Bugatti collection they acquired.
The arguably more impressive car is chassis 41.110, the Coupe Napoleon. This was one of the unsold cars, used personally by Ettore Bugatti and was originally fitted with the prototype 15 liter engine. It was re bodied and fitted with a standard engine after Ettore crashed it badly when he fell asleep at the wheel coming back from Paris one night, and then sold to the collection in 1963 due to financial difficulties.
The Royale was reportedly conceived when someone dared to compare a Bugatti to a Rolls Royce. And sitting alongside the Royale is a model of Rolls Royce from the same year, and you can clearly see that there is no comparison. The Rolls looks like an economy car compared to the Royale.
In the exit hall sits a replica of chassis 41.111, the Coupe de ville Binder, more commonly known as the Edsers car. The Schlumpf Brother’s liked the Edsers car so much that they had a replica constructed from genuine Royale parts.
The rumor goes that the entire collection is not actually on display, and up to a hundred or more unrestored cars, chassis and piles of rare parts lay hidden out of sight in the reserve, or Malmerspach Collection. A quick Google search reveals several images.
But the true tragedy of the Malmerspach collection is that because the Schulmpf is a French National Monument, none of these cars can be sold. And because the collection only has the funds to restore one or two a year, these priceless cars will sit covered in dust for many more years to come.
On one hand it’s great that this collection even exists and that it is open to the public. But it’s somewhat sad to see all of these beautiful cars stuck in this building, and I couldn’t help but think that these brilliant creations should be out being used and showed in the sunlight.
But this is probably more of a reflection on museums in general rather than the Schumplf Collection. If you’re in the area with four or five hours to spare, the Schlumpf is a fantastic way to spend an afternoon.
Words and photos by Andrew Coles
In my research I found this fantastic story of what it’s like to drive a Royale in the real world. Well worth a read.