Next time you're floating about the Mediterranean looking for a suitable spot to dock your yacht, consider a port call in Cannes--preferably before or after all those pesky film stars invade the place in May. Rent yourself a set of wheels--the sportier the better--and rouler up the Autoroute deux pas (two steps) to the suburb of Mougins. There, in an elaborate highway rest-stop-park, you'll find the Musée de l'Automobiliste.

Okay, I admit it. I've never even been on a yacht, much less afloat along the Riviera. But I have been to Mougins and discovered what any budget-minded traveler likes to know: this hilly 'burb makes a good base for a visit to the Côte d'Azur, since everything down along the coast costs a good deal more. So, whether you're yacht-bound or touring in a rented econo-box, the museum at Mougins should be on your itinerary. (One cautionary note: Don't try to find the entrance from the local roads--the only entrance is off the Autoroute.)

Once you've arrived at the modern, purpose-built museum, you'll think this is a government-funded enterprise. Indeed, a whole wing is devoted to an exhibit of ESCOTA, the quasi-governmental organization that runs France's Autoroute du Soleil (Highway of the Sun), the direct route from Paris to the summer playgrounds of the Med. This collaboration is a late addition, however, to what started as one man's car collection.

Back in 1975, Adrien Maeght loaned 25 cars to a classic car show at Paris' Bastille. The display impressed auto lovers Andre Binda and Antoine Raffaëlli, who helped Maeght work out a deal with the government to build the showcase at the "Aire des Bréguières" in Mougins (Aire is the fancy name the French give their highway rest stops). It opened in 1984. The grand cement plaza in front regularly hosts car-related events like swap meets, rallyes and concourses d'elegance. Inside the museum, the bookstore has gained fame as one of France's best for auto classics and posters--Maeght is himself a publisher and art collector, and his passion for the visual history of the automobile is evident in the shop's ample inventory.

Maeght and Raffaelli (Binda has since retired) are careful in their choice of vehicles: "The best, the most beautiful, the most prestigious, or the most representative, whether vintage, military, popular, sporty or competition." The full-time staff includes mechanics who keep all the cars ready to run, whether it's the 1958 Silver Wraith Rolls-Royce rented out for weddings or the Matra 670 B (1972 Le Mans winner with Pescarolo-Hill) for a running at the retrospective Grand Prix d'Avignon. French TV channels regularly call up Mougins for automobile extras, as do film directors and exhibition organizers. Sometimes, the exhibit's Volkswagen Schwimmwagen even takes visitors for an amphibious frolic around the lake in front of the building.

The downstairs exhibit features the permanent collection (though not all cars can be displayed at once), while the upstairs hosts a rotating theme. At the time of our visit the theme was rally cars. Serious competition cars were the first things we saw when we walked in--the '87 Nissan MSA GTP 3000cc Turbo, the '83 Renault RE30 BF1 (Alain Prost's car for the African and Brazilian Grands Prix), an '80 Alfa Romeo 179-02, and a 1986 Lola Beatrice created the first tableau on our right. An IMSA Ford Probe from '86 and a late-model Lancia Martini Racer flanked the escalator leading up to the rally cars.

Resisting the call to ascend, we rounded the escalator and found a sampling of race classics--a '24 Bugatti Type 35 Grand Prix, a '34 Fiat 508 S Ballila Coppa d'Oro, the '30 Alfa Romeo 6C 1750, and a '37 Peugeot Darl Mat. A full-size diorama of a working garage contrasted with more hard-core racing machinery across the aisle, this time the Matra 670 already mentioned, a '78 Renault A442 Le Mans winner, another Ford Probe IMSA GTP, and a '74 Alpine Renault A441 that had earned that year's European Championship.

The racing theme then gives way to history. The earliest vehicles include the '04 Gladiator and a '06 Omnibus from the Hotel Delaunay-Belleville. Suspended above is a Bleriot airplane, identical to the one that first crossed the Channel in 1909. A '10 Rochet-Schneider "Torpedo" and '11 Delahaye fire truck join a '26 Renault Fourgon (panel truck) with sides painted to advertise the museum. The obligatory Ford T begins a long line of important autos from the luxurious '20s and '30s--a '29 Pontiac and '38 Lincoln Zephyr, a gorgeous creme-colored '36 Lancia Belna (bodied by the French Carrossiere Pourtout), a '30 Bugatti Type 50, a row of impressive Rolls-Royces and three gorgeous Hispano-Suizas.

Next stop is the war room, a desert diorama featuring the Schwimmwagen already mentioned, a VW Kübelwagen and two cycles--a BMW R 75 and a Zundapp, both tagged "Russie." The beautiful wood hull of the long sleek "Sagritta" is next. This 1913 vintage speed boat featured a 320-hp Fiat motor that set the world speed record in 1924.

Upstairs, evidence of France's love affair with rough-road Rallyes fills several halls, though one is reserved for Italian exotica--a '57 OSCA S, '65 Lamborghini Miura and seven Ferraris, including a '62 250 GT. Les Voitures de Rallye include something from every important event, though the emphasis, naturally, is on the French marques: Renault, Peugeot, Alpine, Talbot and Gordini. A few Fords and Tony Pond's '86 Champion Austin Rover Metro give a touch of international flavor.

Back downstairs, if you're not captured by the bookstore, you can examine the new Lamborghini and Bugatti by the exit, or the special room filled with sculpted hood ornaments and cases of miniature working motors (as well as some full-size examples).

Then when you leave, you can drive down the hill, dump your rental car, pop back on to your yacht and cruise on over to the next port of call on your Riviera cruise--Monte Carlo. See you there!

Musée de l'Automobiliste
Autoroute A8, Aire des Bréguières
06250 Mougins, France
Tel (from U.S.): 011-33-93.69.27.80
Hours: Open every day, Winter 10 a.m. to
6p.m.; Summer 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Entrance:
Adults, 40 Francs; Children12-18: 25 Francs

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