Imagine for a moment you are a rich French industrialist. The war is over and your textile mills are humming at full speed. It is the 1950s and European car manufacturers have finally started producing exciting sports and racing cars again. Everyone wants what's new, leaving the used-car market awash in pre-war Bugatti, Hispano Suiza, Delage and Mercedes-Benz models. So you and your brother, indulging in whimsy, begin collecting cars. It would become an obsession and ultimately would be your downfall.
Fritz Schlumpf as a youngster dreamed of owning a Bugatti. He was able to do so just before the war with the purchase of a Type 35B. Becoming with his older brother Hans, a wealthy industrialist by the mid fifties, Fritz dabbled in sports car racing until being requested by the textile union to "abstain from this competition which could endanger your life and deprive us of our esteemed director." Autocratic and severely disciplined, Fritz Schlumpf was nevertheless generous to his workers, providing employee trips, installing an employee theater and driving expectant mothers to the hospital in his own car.
Deprived of racing as an outlet for his automotive passion, Fritz and Hans turned to car collecting. During the summer of 1960, they acquired ten Bugattis, including two Type 57s and one Type 46 5-liter model. In addition the pair found three Rolls-Royces, two Hispano Suizas and one Tatra. By the end of the summer, they had purchased a total of 40 cars.
Mr. Raffaelli, a Renault dealer from Marseilles and the owner of several Bugattis, assisted them in their search. Raffaelli was astounded at Fritz Schlumpf's single-minded approach when he offered ten times the asking price in order to secure a car he wanted. The word went out that Fritz Schlumpf was buying, and cars came available in England, Switzerland, Italy, Germany and the United States. Fritz never sold, he only bought, and then only European cars of the finest pedigree and quality.
Sometimes Fritz Schlumpf dealt directly with manufacturers. Gordini sold him ten old racing cars in one sale. Ferrari sold him a racing single seater. Mercedes-Benz sold spare cars from its collection. Racing driver Jo Siffert sold three Lotus racing cars for a pittance. Schlumpf sent a form letter to all Bugatti owners on the club register, offering to buy all of their cars. In 1962 he bought nearly 50 Bugattis. In the spring of 1963, he acquired 18 of Ettore Bugatti's personal cars. Later in 1963, an American collector named Shakespeare offered his collection of 30 Bugattis, and Fritz bought all of them. By 1967 an inventory showed 105 Bugattis in the Fritz Schlumpf collection.
To keep all of his cars and to restore many of them, Fritz Schlumpf decided in 1965 to transform one of his mills into a restoration shop. He visited the 200,000 sq-ft shop in Mulhouse daily, choosing the colors and type of restoration each car would receive. He tore down the mill's interior walls and laid a red tile walkway with gravel floors for the cars to rest upon. But the Schlumpf brothers remained very secretive about their car collection, only rarely showing it to a few favored guests and visitors.
Trouble in Paradise
The money that fueled the buying spree came from the Schlumpf brother's textile mills. But by the late 1960s, the textile business was moving to Asia, and profits began to fall. In 1971, Fritz Schlumpf succeeded in buying the mills of one of his beleaguered competitors. Almost immediately there was trouble as the workers went on strike. Word spread of a fabulous secret collection of automobiles, and the strikers stormed Schlumpf's converted mill. Several windows were broken, but the police pushed back the 400 or so demonstrators. In 1976, the Schlumpf brothers were forced to give up their newly acquired mill. But their own business continued to suffer and on March 7, 1977, textile union members staged a sit-in strike at the Schlumpf offices and at the secret museum in Mulhouse. The workers were torn between the desire to ransack the obvious abuse of power and misuse of corporate money the collection represented and complete awe at the beauty of the classic cars.
The strike lasted nearly two years, and the Schlumpf brothers were forced to declare bankruptcy and flee to their native Switzerland. The strikers decided to open the collection to the public, and over two years more than 800,000 visitors were recorded. In 1979, a bankruptcy liquidator ordered the building closed and sold it and the collection to an owner's association that includes the City of Mulhouse, the Regional Board of the Alsace Region, the organizers of the Paris Auto Show and the Automobile Club de France. The museum is now safe, as it's listed by the French government as a National Heritage and cannot be exported or dispersed. Fritz Schlumpf filed a lawsuit claiming he is entitled to a portion of the proceeds of the sale. He never saw the result, as he died in 1992, but in 1999 a French court found in his favor and the balance of a 40 million franc indemnity was paid to Fritz Schlumpf's widow in Switzerland. The collection gradually fell into decline until a new company took over its management in 1999. The museum was completely renovated and reopened in March 2000 as the largest automobile museum in the world.
The Collection Today
Nothing can quite prepare you for a visit to The Schlumpf Collection at the National Automobile Museum in Mulhouse. There are 400 cars on exhibit and another 120 on reserve. A further 20 cars are on loan to other museums around the world. Although Bugatti is always associated with the Schlumpf collection, and there are 123 cars of that hallowed make on display, there are also many other famous carmakers represented. For example, there are 31 Mercedes-Benz vehicles and a further eight early Benz automobiles in the collection. Maserati, Panhard-Levassor, Darracq, Clement-DeDion, Serpollet and George Richard automobiles share space with Renaults, Peugeots, Porsches and Ferraris.
The cars are arranged in rows on gravel pads placed between Fritz Schlumpf's red brick walkways. Each row roughly represents a different age of the automobile, from the earliest horseless carriages through European cars of the '50s and '60s. There is a separate room for racing cars where a magical grid of Type 35 Bugattis, Maserati 250Fs and Mercedes-Benz W125 and W154 pre-war Grand Prix cars stand ready to do battle with a hoard of light blue Gordinis. Descriptions of the cars are available over audio receivers in French, German or English. Other language translations are planned. Sadly, museum director Alain Schiede admits that only a small number of the cars on display are actually running. But he also mentioned that the restoration shop, long abandoned, is now being revived to begin working again on the museum's cars.
Objects of Desire
Above all else, however, there are Bugattis here. They were the true objects of Fritz Schlumpf's obsession. There are early Bugattis and late Bugattis. There are open Bugattis and closed Bugattis. There are Bugattis that are breathtakingly beautiful and a few that are unimaginably ugly. There are two of six monstrous 12.7-liter Type 41 Royales ever built. There are numerous light blue Type 35s and 37 racing cars that established Bugatti at the top of the motorsports world. There is the spectacularly unsuccessful 1955 Type 251 Grand Prix car, a last-ditch effort that was abandoned in 1956. Bugattis are not like other cars. They are the single-minded reflection of Ettore Bugatti's individual vision of sports and racing cars. Fritz Schlumpf's collection is one man's obsession with another man's obsession.
Located in the Alsace Region of France, the town of Mulhouse is easy to get to by French rail or by flying into nearby Basel, Switzerland. From the outside, the big converted textile mill doesn't look like much, but inside it is an automotive enthusiast's dream of heaven. The museum had more than 200,000 visitors in 2000, and expectations are high that the number will increase dramatically now that it has been completely renovated. A new restaurant and a gift shop worth drooling over are also on the premises.
The Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week and is only closed on Christmas and New Year's days. Adults pay a very reasonable 65 F for admission, while children get in for 29 F. The Schlumpf Collection at the National Motor Museum can be reached from the United States on 33-3/89-33-23-23 or at its website at www.collection-schlumpf.com