When I first visited the Schlumpf Collection many years ago, it was known as the Musée National de
l’Automobile, and the entrance was in the original 19th century mill building on the Ave de Colmar in
Mulhouse. It was a discreet entranceway in a rather nondescript lofty red brick structure, which gave no
indication of the treasure trove that lay within, Thus, it came as quite a surprise, when I decided to pay a
return visit in December 2008, that there was an enormous modern new entrance complex, accessed
by a pedestrian bridge across the river L’Ill from the car park area, off of Rue de la Mertzau.
Perhaps a little history lesson is in order at this juncture for those who either don’t know, or have
forgotten how the collection came into being. The Schlumpf Collection is almost certainly the most
prestigious car collection in the world, and was built up mainly during the sixties by the wealthy Swiss
born textile industrialist brothers Hans and Fritz Schlumpf in almost total secrecy, Fritz, the younger
brother being the driving force behind the collection. Their large cloth mills were based in Mulhouse, in
the Alsace region close to the Swiss border, which has been the home of the collection all its life. Fritz
was an avid car enthusiast and sometime amateur racer during the fifties, who was also passionate
about the Bugatti marque, having bought his first example prior to World War II. His Bugatti love affair is
not surprising, as the marque was also Alsace based, in Molsheim, about 100kms north of Mulhouse
via the N83 Route Nationale, as there was no A35 Autoroute in those days.
The collection started to develop around 1960, when they had amassed considerable wealth during the
previous decade, and when prices for pre-war cars were relatively low, as the newfound wealth of the
masses meant that the majority of people were only interested in the latest products from
manufacturers, whether it was cars, hi-fi, fashion or furniture. In that year they bought no less than ten
Bugattis, plus a trio of Rolls Royces and a pair of Hispano Suizas, thus the collection started to
snowball, and by the middle of the year they had around forty cars. They converted the mill at 192 Rue du
Colmar into a place to restore and store the cars, which was eventually to become the fantastic art deco
display emporium that largely remains intact today.
Through the sixties they continued buying, sometimes paying well above the market price to prise a
particular car out of the owner’s hands. All the purchases were European cars, and not all were luxury
limousines or gentlemen’s sporting carriages, they ranged from examples from the dawn of motorised
transport, through transport for the masses like the Citroen Light Fifteen, to monoposto and sports
racing cars from the likes of Ferrari, Gordini, Maserati and Porsche. Eventually the Schlumpf brothers
had acquired no less than 150 Bugattis, the largest collection in the world, including two of the seven
Royale models built, in a private museum now housing over 430 cars, spanning 97 different marques.
Unfortunately, all this came at a price, as the earnings from the textile industry in Europe were drying up,
as buyers found cheaper alternatives in the Far East. In 1971 they bought out one of their ailing local
competitors, but trouble started with the workers there who went on strike, and at the same time the
existence of the brothers collection leaked out, leading to the strikers storming the building, although
they were repelled by the police. The trouble with the workers at their recently acquired mill continued,
and they gave it up as a lost cause in 1976, by which time their own business was also failing. They
were beleaguered by strikes by their own employees, who staged a sit-in early in 1977, which lasted for
two years, ending when the brothers declared bankruptcy, returning to Switzerland to live.
The striking workers opened the Museum to the public during their sit-in, and the full extent of the
collection became known for the first time. Fortunately the strikers, had an eye for the historical
importance and value of what they had held to ransom, and none of the vehicles or the décor was
damaged during their occupation. This lasted until 1979, when the liquidator ordered its closure, and
the sale of the assets. The building and its contents were sold to a consortium including the Mulhouse
town council, the Alsace regional government, the Automobile Club de France and the organising
committee of the Paris Auto Show. At the same time the French government listed the collection as a
“National Heritage”, which means that it cannot be broken up or moved out of the country, thus
safeguarding its future as an entity.
However, there was a lack of investment over the years, the cars weren’t maintained, and sometimes
not even cleaned, thus making it a rather sad experience for visitors, to see these once wonderful
automobiles slowly deteriorating. This all changed in 1999, when management of the museum was put
in the hands of Culturespaces, who manage numerous historic sites in France. They closed the
museum for a while to effect renovation and the construction of the new entrance complex, added some
more modern cars, to bring it up to date, and reopened to the public in March 2000. The latest model to
grace the premises is, unsurprisingly, a Bugatti Veyron, named after the racing driver Pierre Veyron, who
was a works driver for them in the thirties, and winner of the 1939 Le Mans 24 Hour Race with Jean-
Pierre Wimille in a Bugatti Type 57C.
The new section of the building incorporates a boutique and bookshop, whilst other facilities added
include an audio guide facility, a children’s area where they can experience Go-karts plus practice being
a mechanic, displays like the robotic welders supplied by the local Citroen Peugeot production plant,
and a refurbished “Grand Prix” restaurant and bar. This museum should be on every motoring
enthusiasts “must visit” list, it is truly eclectic, spectacular, and the story of its foundation absolutely
fascinating, so put a note on your things I must do list now!
Details of opening hours, entry fees, etc, can be found at www.collection-schlumpf.com