NATIONAL MOTOR MUSEUM FRANCE (Cite de L’Automobile – Better known as the Schlumpf Collection)

Our third and final Motor Museum indulgence turned out to be the ‘crème de la crème’ of motor museums, the French National Motor Museum more commonly known as the Schlumpf collection. Various car enthusiasts had mentioned if we were travelling to Europe the Schlumpf Collection is a ‘must see’. Leaving Stuttgart, we caught the intercity express to Mulhouse in France, which is about a 3-hour train journey located just over the border from the Swiss city of Basel.  

Keen to start our visit to the museum we left our Mulhouse accommodation early to ensure we arrived as the doors opened at 10:00am. Entering the museum and walking into the main display area we were immediately staggered at the size of the building and the long rows of this amazing collection of vehicles with the lighting provided by replica late 19th century Paris street lamps along each of the rows. As you can see from the photos on the Club’s web site this is an extraordinary collection of vehicles from the late 1800’s through to the mid 1950’s, with marques mainly from France but including German, Italian, English, Belgium, Swiss (yes, the Swiss did produce some cars) as well as a very impressive collection of Grand Prix cars. The overwhelming theme of the French marques is the number and different models of Bugatti (127), which besides being the world’s largest collection also contains two examples of the famed and extremely expensive Type 41 ‘Royale’.

Judy and I spent almost 6 hours viewing the collection, however this was broken up by a visit to the café for a coffee break and lunch. Also, there is an interactive display where at set times throughout the day you can climb into the seat of a late model Peugeot 205 which is on a rotisserie where the adventurous can simulate a rollover.   A lap sash seat belt is the only restraint and after ensuring your pockets are empty of everything and you no longer have your spectacles on, the attendant pushes the button and the car spins two complete revolutions. This is not for the faint hearted and certainly gets the heart rate pumping. For those keen and eager to drive some of the classic vehicles there is a small track beside the museum where they offer a range of selected cars that visitors can drive, the cost ranging from 40 to 90 Euros depending on the type of car.

History of the Schlumpf brothers:

Prior to the Second World War the Schlumpf brothers together with their mother established a textile mill (Mulhouse at the time was a renowned textile processing centre) and with the growing success of the mill, especially after World War II, the brothers covertly set out to indulge their passion i.e. collecting classic automobiles.  It initially started out with the acquisition of a Bugatti Type 35B, but before too long it became an obsession where the number of vehicles acquired increased exponentially. Facilitating their classic vehicle purchasing was the post-war modern 1950’s car designs coming on stream, and people wanting to exchange classic 1920’s through to 1930’s cars for the new models.

Listed below are a number of examples of how passionate their collecting classic cars was becoming:

  • During the summer of 1960 they acquired 10 Bugatti’s, 3 Rolls Royce’s, 2 Hispano Suizas and 1 Tatra.
  • Gordini sold them 10 old racing cars
  • Ferrari sold them a racing single seater
  • Mercedes Benz sold spare cars from its collection
  • Racing driver Jo Siffert sold them 3 Lotus racing cars

The brothers’ passion for acquiring Bugatti’s is demonstrated by the fact that they sent letters to every member of the Bugatti owners club offering to buy all their vehicles. In 1962 they bought 50 Bugatti’s and in the spring of 1963 acquired 18 of Ettore Bugatti’s personal cars including a Bugatti Royale Coupé Napoléon. Later in 1963 they purchased from a wealthy American collector his entire collection of 30 Bugatti’s.

Not only were the Schlumpf brothers collecting an astonishing number of vehicles but they also engaged a team of 40 carpenters, saddlers and master mechanics to carry out the restoration work.  These artisans were under confidentiality agreements to keep their work, and the scale of the collection, a secret.

Like a lot of obsessions, the Schlumpf brothers never got to fully realise their dreams.  By the mid 1970’s the textile industries of Mulhouse were in steep decline with the rise of the Asian textile industries. The obsession of acquiring classic vehicles had run their textile mill into financial ruin and unable to pay their mill workers the brothers fled to Switzerland – never to return, leaving behind an extraordinary 600 plus classic vehicle collection. It was at this point when the French government stepped in to resolve the unpaid worker’s issue that the astounding collection of cars was uncovered. The government quickly came to the conclusion that this historical collection was too valuable to fall into private collector’s hands, so established the French National Automobile Museum on the mill site, turning it into the world’s largest (and I would suggest the best) automobile museum.

If you are travelling to this part of France, or even if you need to make it a special trip, we can thoroughly recommend a visit to the Schlumpf collection as you will be rewarded with a stunning display of the automotive development in Europe from the late 1800’s through to the mid-1950,’s. The lay out of the museum is excellent and has all the appropriate facilities to make the visit a memorable experience, including the inevitable merchandise shop at the exit.

Phil and Judy Barnard

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One Response to NATIONAL MOTOR MUSEUM FRANCE (Cite de L’Automobile – Better known as the Schlumpf Collection)

  1. Geoff says:

    An amazing collection – and the story behind it. We saw it November ’77 while the workers were occupying it. Knew when we’d located it by huge graffiti on the outside wall … “behind these walls is the blood and sweat of the workers” (trans.) Don’t blame them for being pissed off really. Many of the cars had signs contrasting the value of the vehicles with the yearly wage of individuals. However when they burnt a car from the collection as a protest they chose …. an Austin 7 (!). Saw it again in ’07 – very different, but no less impressive. Great photos – thanks for posting.

    ps for all the steam train fans, Mulhouse also has the fabulous French National Railway Museum.

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