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Day at the Museum - The Schlumpf collection

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We spend a day at the remarkable “Cité de l’Automobile”

As monikers go, “Cité de l’Automobile” is pretty self-explanatory. There are more than 400 cars and 90 different marques on display at the National Automobile Museum in Mulhouse and around 60 per cent of them are French. It’s vast, more than a little daunting and at time palpably strange: we can think of no other establishment that has both a gift shop (itals) and (end itals) a shrine to the founder’s mother near the entrance. But as we all know by rote, this isn’t just another motor museum. It’s chock full to the rafters with Bugattis with only a few random dogcarts and long-forgotten Edwardians to break up the monotony.

Which is what most citizens of Albion anticipate when first visiting the remarkable “Schlumpf Collection”. We’ve all heard stories of row upon row of Type 35s, punctuated only by 30 or so Type 57s. You’ll soon become blasé, we’re told. Except this lends an entirely incorrect picture. You could lose (itals) days (end itals) just wandering around the first hall. This extraordinary institution has undergone a major overhaul of late and as a place of pilgrimage for car lovers, it doesn’t get much better.

‘It was not a museum to begin with,’ explains director Emmanuel Bacquet. ‘The collection was started by Fritz Schlumpf who together with his brother Hans dominated the textile industry in the region. In the 1950s Fritz began buying the elite cars of his youth. He also bought ten cars from Amédée Gordini when he closed his race team, but Bugattis were the main point of interest and he wrote to everyone in the Owners’ Club offering to buy their cars.’ Successfully so as he amassed a scarcely believable 124 examples of the marque. Such was his voracious appetite for Bugs that he purchased entire collections, most famously John Shakespeare’s 30-strong hoard in 1964.

‘The brothers were known for their cutthroat business practices and they didn’t invest enough in moving their enterprise forward, in modernizing’ Bacquet continues. ‘Instead, the domineering Fritz spent everything on his cars. At one point, he employed more than 40 restorers and coachbuilders to work on them but no outside visitors were allowed access. People knew about the collection, at least locally, but nobody was aware of its size. This only became clear when conflict arose between the unions and the brothers.

‘“The Schlumpf Affair”, as it became known, occurred in June 1976 when 2000 people were made unemployed. A year later the collection was discovered by redundant workers, which led to its occupation until 1979. The brothers fled to [their native] Switzerland and the workers began allowing media access to the cars.’ Some 800,000 punters paid up for impromptu visits, too. ‘In front of each vehicle was a panel which explained how much Fritz had paid for it and then how much Monsieur Martin, or whomever, had earned in a month. The Schlumpfs were capitalist pigs and so on. The protesters were ready to burn the place down. It was only in 1981 that all of the various parties got together and agreed that a non-profit association would take ownership of the collection.’

More than four million visitors flocked through the turnstiles within ten years of the museum officially opening in 1982. Even now, much of the grand, 18,000-meter main exhibition hall remains the same as Fritz Schlumpf originally envisaged. Which means lots of gravel, 900 lamps modelled after those found on the Alexandre III bridge in Paris and subdued lighting. Oh, and a memorial to the brothers’ mother, Mme Jeanne Schlumpf, complete with a glitzy Mortier automated organ. We didn’t ask…

Elsewhere, however, changes are manifest. What strikes you are the number of interactive displays aimed at children of all ages, be it the carousel of historic pedal cars (there are 162 in the collection) to the footage-heavy area highlighting rallying’s Group B era. ‘If you have only old cars, it becomes quite boring for young people. We make deals with manufacturers, different collections and other museums,’ smiles Bacquet. ‘Right now we have quite a few cars from Porsche.’ These include the ex-René Metge Paris-Dakar 959 and a March-based Indy 500 veteran.

The latter is housed in a separate themed hall dedicated only to competition cars. Aside from the obligatory Gordinis, here you will find variously the good (Mercedes-Benz W125), the bad (Prost AP02) and the ugly (Bugatti Type 32 “Tank”) in a spellbinding collection with a collection. While not quite in the same league as Tom Wheatcroft’s Donington cache, there’s plenty of the good stuff to drool over despite the obvious gaps. Formula One’s “cigar-tube” era is well represented, the Lotus 33 being an obvious standout. Fritz Schlumpf bought it off wheeler-dealing F1 ace Jo Siffert shortly after it appeared in John Frankenheimer’s (itals) Grand Prix (end itals) flick. It doesn’t appear to have been touched in decades, save for some light dusting, and is all the more compelling for that.

A sense that is evident throughout the entire building. These days it’s all too difficult to find a pre-war Alfa that wasn’t bodied by Zagato, or a fixed-lid Bentley 41/2-litre for that matter. Here the cars in the main hall wear their original bodies with pride, even if some of them are all kinds of wrong (the overblown Kong-bodied Bentley MkVI is particularly heinous). Conversely, it’s a real – and rare - treat to see older cars that received coachbuilt updates in-line with changes in fashion - ’30s cars with ’50s makeovers and suchlike – that haven’t since been got at. The sort of classics that might not be particularly desirable in their current configurations but ones that nonetheless represent an unvarnished view of how obsolete luxury cars were viewed – and treated - long before the term ‘numbers match’ ever appeared in ads.

That said, restoration and maintenance are clearly taken seriously. At the time of our visit, a French-built Ford Model T – a more recent addition and the sort of proletariat device you imagine the Schlumpfs would have abhorred – was being reassembled in the museum’s workshop. Alongside it, a delicious ’49 Delahaye 135M with unusual hatchback coachwork by Jean Antem was receiving minor fettling. Bacquet is particularly keen that the facility becomes self-sufficient but is altogether more worried by a future lack of skills. ‘Right now there are professionals who know about these cars. It’s relatively easy to find someone to work on a Bugatti but what about in 20 years time?’ he queries. ‘There are young people being trained as mechanics who understand modern technology. We’re trying – hoping – to attract them into learning about older cars and earning a diploma at the end of it. You need people with skills if there is to be a future for machines like these.’

Bacquet is especially proud of a ’29 Mercedes-Benz 710SS, the most recent car to be restored in-house. Shiny but commendably free of the chrome everything approach, it’s awaiting only its windscreen wipers. ‘We are very careful when restoring cars,’ he nods. ‘We have to decide whether or not a car should be returned to running order and indeed if it is desirable to do so. Our principles are much the same as those found in the art world: things become degraded over time and there are instances when they should be left that way.’

Restoring no more than four cars per year, the museum’s workshop patently has quite a backlog for its services: at the time of our visit, there were 422 cars on display, in addition to the 160-odd in storage of which many are of the ‘project’ variety. Most remarkable of all the cars to pass through this modest facility is a recreation – the Bugatti Royale “Esders” roadster. Commissioned by Fritz Schulmpf, it was completed under the current regime. This extraordinary machine, built using some original parts, is currently displayed with all the constituent tools and bucks used during its construction. It’s truly, really, magnificent.

Despite more commonplace cars being added into the mix over the last decade or so, this remarkable collection remains a curious amalgam of the exotic and the arcane. And is all the better for it. Tellingly, there is only one commercial vehicle in the entire collection. Predictably, it’s a Bugatti; the Type 40 used by Captain Loiseau to cross the Sahara in 1929. Ultimately, it’s this sort of automotive eccentricity that draws you in. Stare in disbelief at the ’23 Tricar, marvel at the weirdness of artist Paul Arzen’s (itals) La Baleine (end itals) and ponder how you might snaffle a Cisitalia D46 and make it past security without anyone noticing.

All too often motor museums resemble mausoleums; a place where cars to die. While there’s undoubted repetition here, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sadly, the collection’s custodians aren’t in a position to sell duplicates and spend the proceeds on further widening the museum’s scope: the covenant governing it simply won’t allow this to happen. Yet judging by the numbers visiting during mid-week in the off-season – from the obligatory school trip to a bunch of scarily keen SMART owners – getting people to visit is the least of their problems.

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