This is the tale of two brothers and their 150 Bugattis. Plus almost every brand of luxury car that was ever manufactured until mid 1970s.
While visiting friends that moved back to their native Alsace, we came upon the Cité de l’Automobile, a wonderful museum full of classic luxury cars. When our friends, both natives of Mulhouse where the museum is located, told us the story behind it, I was enchanted. It was like a classic Hollywood movie of race cars, hidden treasures, a bitter class struggle and a well organized ‘escape’.
In short, it’s such a delicious, irresistible story that is impossible not to share. So here it goes :
The Schlumpf brothers, Hans and Fritz were born in the 1900s as Swiss nationals. Their mother Jeanne was from Mulhouse, France and moved back to her native Alsace after her husband’s death.
The boys grew up at Mulhouse. The elder, Hans became a banker and Fritz was a salesman. He was also into cars and racing. He bought his first Bugatti just before WW2, as the brothers started acquiring textile manufacturing companies and mills in Alsace and Rhine.
After the WW2, there was an economic boom and the Schlumpf Brothers became seriously rich. 1950s also saw a big change in the car industry, with almost every brand offering modern and affordable cars to the public. Nobody was interested in keeping their old car and Schlumpf Brothers bought them for a song. The oldest car in the collection is a 1893 Panhard-Levassor.
Their main passion was in collecting luxury and racing cars, especially Bugattis. Fritz was still a serious racer, but this came to a halt when in 1957, his workers and his mom whom he adored, asked him to stop racing, in fear of his safety. Fritz complied and started to buy cars. A lot of them. Later this will be known as the Schlumpf Obsession.
By the middle of 1960s, the brothers had accumulated over 40 fine automobiles.
Fritz was determined to bring together the most interesting cars ever made. In his heart he had a special weakness for Bugattis. Not only because it had been his first car but he admired the genius of Ettore Bugatti and his son, Jean.
He wrote to all the Bugatti owners offering to buy their cars. He started to visit the car owners, often sans-rendezvous, and after a brief inspection, offered to buy their cars immediately, with cash.
1963 proved to be a pivotal year for the brothers. The Schlumpfs purchased the 30-strong Bugatti collection of John Shakespeare in the USA that included a Type 41 Royale. The total price was $85,000.
The brothers also acquired the assets of the bankrupt Bugatti factory. This 18-car collection included Ettore Bugatti’s personal Royale plus a mass of spare parts and technical drawings.
By the mid 1970s, the Schlumps had nearly 600 cars in their possession including 151 Bugattis. The total purchasing price for the cars are estimated to be around 3 million euros. All these cars and parts were secretly stored in the converted Mulhouse mill. The car enthusiasts were of course aware of this collection but nobody suspected its sheer scale.
Not all the cars were in good condition. So Fritz recruited 40 master mechanics to restore the cars, all of whom had to sign a confidentiality agreement not to disclose their work or the scale of the collection. Fritz was visiting the Mulhouse workshop daily, choosing the colors and type of restoration each car would receive.
During that time, he came up with the idea of displaying his treasures in a more impressive setting. So, the workers removed the mill’s interior walls and laid a red tile walkway with gravel floors for the cars to rest upon and lovely Pont Alexander III lamps at the main hall to illuminate the cars.
The brothers were planning to open the world’s largest private car museum. Fritz visited Monaco and had meetings with Prince Rainier of Monaco, who also was a car enthusiast and even had a small private collection himself. With him they discussed the possibility to establish the museum in his Princedom.
In the end, the brothers decided to keep the collection at Mulhouse, the town that their beloved mother came from, the town that helped them to become millionaires. I believe the clever Hans saw the potential revenues that would come from tourists that the museum would surely attract and wanted to keep them in their company’s headquarters.
Obsession was the most suitable word to define Fritz. For the opening of his museum, he ordered Hermès to design special scarves, showing him with his cars and family. A total of 1475 of these Hermès scarfs, in eleven different color combinations, were exclusively produced for the Schlumpf Museum.
1970s were also the years that China started to become a major competitor in global markets. In light of the unrelenting global shift of textile manufacturing to Asia, by 1976 the Schlumpf brothers began selling their factories and eventually declared bankruptcy. In October their largest plant laid off employees, which caused a large scale strike with 400 police holding back the workers from ransacking the factories. After a stand-off, on March 7, 1977, textile-union activists staged a sit-in strike at Schlumpf offices, and broke into the Mulhouse factory to find the astounding collection of cars.
The Schlumpfs fled to their native Switzerland. In fact, I’m not sure ‘fled’ is the correct word. They fled to their villas in the countryside and later escorted by the French police to the Drei Koenige Hotel in Basil, where they took permanent residence. 5 etoile, mais bien sûre. Not bad for a family on the run from the creditors.
With wages and tax evasion accusations outstanding, the factory was occupied the next two years by the textile-union and renamed “Workers’ Factory.” To recoup some lost wages, the union opened the museum to the public, with some 800,000 people viewing the collection in two years.
Today, the Cité de l’Automobile is a national museum which contains the largest and most comprehensive collection of Bugatti motor vehicles in the world. In addition to the original Schlumpf collection, there are modern race cars from Formula 1, Nascar and Dakar.
And a dreamy Bugatti Veyron is on permanent display.
It is really a car enthusiast’s dream museum.
There are also two separate ‘mini’ collections, the Jammet Collection, which consists of 101 toy cars and the Mascots Collection, which I loved.
Mascots are the figurines that decorate radiator caps. Mercedes Benz’s star in a circle or Rolls Royce’s “Spirit of Ecstasy” are some of the best known designs by carmakers. Other manufacturers allowed their customers to select their own mascot until 1958. They could choose from thousands of models representing humans or animals, and thus choose the message they wanted to convey to other motorists.
In case you’re wondering what happened to the Schlumpf family; Fritz successfully sued the French Government for indemnity and after a lengthy legal battle his widow Arlette received the sum of 40 million francs (around 250,000 euros). The court also instructed return of the ownership of the 62 cars in the so-called “Malmerspach collection” including 17 Bugattis that she further sold to private collectors.
But Fritz only saw his beloved cars one more time before his death, when he visited the museum as a tourist and had to pay an entrance fee.