Story and photos by Leigh Dorrington
The Schlumpf Collection in Mulhouse, France has been described as the most prestigious automobile collection in the world. Without doubt, no other collection in the world has a history more filled with intrigue.
The public learned of the collection of automobiles assembled by brothers Fritz and Hans Schlumpf in 1977 when workers striking against the Schlumpfs’ woolen mills seized the collection.
No less than automotive journalist Denis Jenkinson—who rode with Sir Stirling Moss in his famous 1955 Mille Miglia victory for Mercedes—first documented the secretive collection, writing with Peter Verstappen and assisted by noted Bugatti historian Hugh Conway who at times expressed his dismay at ever becoming involved with the Schlumpf brothers and their obsession with dominating the world market for Bugattis.
By then the Schlumpfs had fled to their native Switzerland and would never again see the collection that had in turns dominated their lives, doomed their business empire and sent them into a permanent exile.
But already, we are ahead of the story. EARLY DAYS
Fritz and Hans Schlumpf were born to a Swiss father and an Alsacian mother—a native of the Alsace region that passed back and forth between French and German control following frequent conflicts. Coming from a reasonably ordinary background the brothers, a salesman and a banker respectively, earned their fortune through the clever accumulation of stock in woolen mills in the Alsace region.
Their first acquisition was completed in 1940. ‘Jenks’, as Denis Jenkinson was known to his legions of fans, reported that Fritz and Hans Schlumpf maintained a balance between their adopted homeland and the German-backed French Vichy government throughout WWII, showing neither open resistance toward the occupying force nor war profiteering.
Schlumpf assets eventually grew in the post-war years to include a substantial estate at Malmerspach and four spinning mills. The Schlumpfs’ relationship with their workers was initially paternalistic. Housing, transportation and other benefits were available to loyal employees although the character of the relationship turned acrimonious over time, particularly under the vindictive control of the former banker Hans Schlumpf.
The change may also have begun with the unwelcome intrusion of trade unions immediately following the war. The entreaties of the Communist trade union, CGT, was first met with indifference as the brothers simply paid shop stewards and workers more as they sought to maintain their own luxurious lifestyle. The Schlumpf brothers became more secretive during this period, spying on employees and withholding benefits.
But while the Communists—and later, Socialists—were looking out for the welfare of French workers, the acquisitive Schlumpf brothers were looking out for their own. Their ever-increasing holdings included over 60% of the town of Malmerspach, as well as personal extravagances such as the private label champagne they served to guests although they owned no vineyards. Jenkinson reported, “as the 1940s ended (the brothers) had begun to assembled a wide variety of objects”. These included automobiles.
Fritz purchased a Bugatti Type 35B grand prix car immediately before the war and added a Type 57 shortly after the war. A small collection in a shed at Malmerspach was also noted as early as the end of the war. Fritz was also an enthusiastic racer, driving the Bugattis and other automobiles.
Fritz’ racing came to an end in 1957 when, again according to Jenkinson, “a workers’ delegation asked”–-(Schlumpf’s mother, who exerted an unusually strong influence on her sons)—“to see that he retired from racing on the reasonable grounds that if he went up in flames so would their jobs”.
This became the tipping point for the creation of a private automobile collection that rivaled any in the world, including the Harrah Collection in the U.S. at its prime.
Except that only a very small few even knew of the existence of the collection, and far fewer were ever granted admission by the Schlumpfs. A COLLECTION TO RIVAL ANY IN THE WORLD
The Mulhouse woolen mill was purchased in July 1957 to house the collection, with an adjacent building converted to a restoration shop employing ten workers at the beginning.
The methods employed by the Schlumpfs to build the collection were as secretive as their business affairs. As the existence of the collection and the brothers’ interest in acquiring automobiles—particularly Bugattis— became known in the collector world, significant cars were often brought forward to a network of dealers that emerged to funnel cars to Mulhouse.
The Schlumpfs demanded, “cars must be in perfect working order from mechanical and bodywork point of view”, and they were often prepared to pay well. They appeared to be less discriminate in the quantities of automobiles they were prepared to purchase. In the summer of 1960 alone, ten Bugattis, three Rolls Royces and a pair of Hispano-Suizas were added to the collection, now numbering 40 automobiles.
Historians Jenkinson and Conway recalled how “many Bugatti devotees reviled the name Schlumpf”. Post-war collectors, by and large, worked on their vintage automobiles themselves and drove them. They were outraged that the Schlumpfs appeared to be interested in neither, but only in filling space with an unprecedented collection of early automobiles.
When Hugh Conway published a Bugatti Register in 1962, Fritz Schlumpf obtained a copy and promptly sent letters to each owner with an interest toward purchasing every Bugatti! Fritz Schlumpf sent a personal letter to Hugh Conway stating, “I confirm that I am always a buyer of Bugatti and beg you to put me in touch with anyone in your acquaintance who is likely to sell”.
The Schlumpfs purchased nearly 50 Bugattis in 1962. From late 1962 into 1963 a stunning negotiation was ongoing between the Schlumpfs and American John Shakespeare who had assembled an extraordinary collection of more than 30 Bugattis, including one of the six Bugatti Royales.
Conway communicated between both parties, although he always made clear that he profited in no way other than finding good homes for the beloved Bugattis. Shakespeare’s asking price was $105,000 to sell all of the Bugattis as one lot, said to be the same amount he paid for the cars. It is simply incomprehensible today to imagine that an agreement was reached for a lesser amount and only after “horse trading, angry words, changes of mind and threats” according to Hugh Conway.
Also in 1963 the Schlumpfs acquired 14 more Bugattis directly from Ettore Bugatti’s Molsheim factory, recently purchased by Hispano-Suiza who were desperately in need of money. The lot included Ettore Bugatti’s personal Bugatti Royale and the rear-engine Bugatti Type 251 grand prix car that was meant to restore Bugatti’s racing fortunes in the 1950s. The Bugattis were purchased with many original spares and patterns—over the strong objections of the managing director and Roland Bugatti, Ettore Bugatti’s surviving son.
Still the acquisitions continued. The assortment of other automobiles in addition to Bugattis was astonishing. These included racing cars and well-known luxury marques such as Hispano-Suiza, Rolls Royce, Mercedes-Benz, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Maserati and Ferrari, as well as marques that contributed significantly to French automobile history including Panhard-Levassor, De Dion, Peugeot, Renault, and Citroen. The earliest automobiles included a profusion of names seldom if ever known even to historians, including an 1878 Jacquot tonneau à vapeur, Menier and Georges Richard.
A 200,000 sq ft space was prepared in the Mulhouse mill for a museum to house the collection. The space was as opulent as the automobiles to be displayed. Vast areas were prepared with gravel to exhibit the automobiles, while broad tile walkways separated these areas in anticipation of visitors who would one day enter the museum. Three restaurants were constructed, with seating to accommodate 1,200 people.
But the crowning touch—aside from the automobiles—was the 800 gas-style lamps modeled after the elegant lamps lining the Pont Alexandre III bridge in Paris. This extravagance was at once characteristic of both the best and the worst of the Schlumpfs’ obsession.
Few other than the brothers and workmen were allowed to view the collection. Even esteemed editor and publisher L. Scott Bailey of Automobile Quarterly was told that it was not possible. One notable exception was a private invitation in May of 1965 to a guest list that included, among others, Prince Bertil of Sweden, Prince Louis Napolean, Prince Metternich, Juan Manuel Fangio, Pininfarina and Louis Chiron.
Denis Jenkinson wrote of this time: “By now, opening the museum had become an obsession with the Schlumpfs. Fritz spoke of it often. He announced that, ‘(the museum) will be in memory of my mother.’”
“But the museum had also become an obsession with the union. Men were constantly being seconded to it from union-defined duties, and items as various as tools, concrete and wood were diverted to Mulhouse. So concerned had the union become that during the general strike of 1968 they put out a list of complaints relating directly to the museum. The brothers ignored it.”
DAY OF RECKONING
The issue would simmer for most of another decade even as acquisition and restoration of automobiles and work on the museum continued. The brothers bought the best hotel in Mulhouse, the Hotel du Parc, to host expected museum visitors.
Another workers’ strike in 1971 led to an impasse that would never be resolved. Confrontations took place at both the mills and the estate in Malmerspach. The brothers fled to Switzerland, while the regional government became involved to protect more than 2,000 jobs. An awkward agreement was reached, but the brothers refused to deal directly with their workers any longer. This outcome was eerily similar to Ettore Bugatti’s exile from Molsheim to Paris following a 1936 strike.
Affairs went from bad to worse, hastened by inexpensive textile imports from the Far East that undermined French mills in spite of government support. In June 1976 the Schlumpfs placed their mills in receivership, a form of bankruptcy. This was followed within months by criminal warrants issued for both brothers’ arrests on charges of embezzlement.
The French government refused further subsidies and ordered all Schlumpf assets—including the museum—to be seized. Then, on March 7, 1977 a group of 15 workers approached the darkened Schlumpf mill in Mulhouse. After being refused entry by a single, resolute guard they scaled a ledge and entered the mill through an unlocked window.
Readers of publications around the world—both automotive and other—were astonished by accounts of what the intruders found. UNCOUNTED TREASURE
“It would take the workers some hours merely to count the cars spread over the equivalent of more than three football fields,” wrote Jenkinson and his co-author Peter Verstappen. “When they finished, their tally would be 427 automobiles, virtually all in showroom condition and the majority in superb working order. But while the workers were looking at a completed museum, they were not looking at all the cars. Another 150 were stashed away in the workshops.”
Throughout the day, buses began arriving carrying workers from other Schlumpf factories to see what was declared to be the Workers’ Museum.
Beyond the sheer number of automobiles, the variety and rarity of some examples exceeded any collection ever seen. Over 120 Bugattis alone included examples of virtually every type and multiple examples of many types. Two-dozen examples of Bugatti Grand Prix cars enjoyed pride of place. Twenty-two Type 57s with various body styles were arranged nearby. Two of the six Bugatti Royales, the Coupe Napolean (41.110) which had been the personal car of Ettore Bugatti and the Limousine Park Ward (41.131), were included in the collection as well as another surprising discovery—a recreation of a third Royale, the Esders Roadster, sitting incomplete on stands. A Type 56 battery powered carriage built for the personal use of Ettore Bugatti to travel about the Molsheim works was one of many unique Bugattis. These cars—and others—remain in the collection today, freshened once again and accessible to the visitors the Schlumpfs once planned for.
Other Bugattis in the Schlumpf Collection include examples of lesser-known cars like the Type 40, represented in various body styles including a cut-down Type 40 truck built for a French expedition crossing the Sahara desert. Others represent Type 44, Type 46, Type 49 and Type 50 Bubastis, including one rather clumsy white Type 46 roadster that offers proof that not even every Bugatti was a beautiful automobile.
Then as now the museum included the largest collection of early motor carriages every assembled, including at least one that defied identification during the Schlumpf’s time.
French cars occupy a special place in the collection. Early Renaults stand in ordered lines, identified by their distinctive sloped hoods and cowl-mounted radiators. Other unusual early cars include the Baby Bugatti that later went into production as the Bebe Peugeot with little other than the distinctive horseshoe radiator changed, and a Peugeot Type 161 Torpedo with tandem seating for two. The popular Citroen Type C Torpedo from the 1920s is also well represented. The Type C was an early small car designed to appeal to women. Several incredibly well detailed versions of the Type C built for children stand nearby looking like so many puppies ready to play. Eccentrically French is the Scott Tricar built for transporting canons.
Other significant cars include a 1904 40hp Hermes-Simplex, one of the earliest designs young Ettore Buggati contributed to, remarkably similar to the Bugatti ‘Garros Type’ exhibited nearby with a clear bonnet displaying one of the first Bugatti engines. A 1912 Hispano-Suiza ‘Alfonso’, named for King Alfonso of Spain, was a gift from his wife. A short wheelbase Mercedes-Benz SSK, a model first designed by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche when he was Technical Director at Mercedes, as well as a rear engine Mercedes-Benz 170H also designed by Dr. Porsche and presaging the later Volkswagen Beetle. An S.S. 1 Saloon shows the elegant lines that later became familiar as the first Jaguars. Among Alfa Romeos represented is a unique 8C 2900 streamlined coupe from the 1936 Mille Miglia.
Beatty’s inglorious post-war history is represented as well. Ettore Bugatti never returned from his Paris exile to Molsheim. Control of the estate was lost during WWII and Ettore Bugatti died in Paris a month short of his 66th birthday. A single streamlined white Type 73 coupe in the museum is the remarkable last design drawn by Ettore Bugatti before his death.
Roland Bugatti, younger brother of the Jean Bugatti who was killed in a 1939 testing accident, attempted a revival of Bugatti in 1951 at the age of 25, aided by Marco Pierre whose loyalties stretched back to Ettore Bugatti and Molsheim. The project created the Bugatti Type 101, considered to be the last ‘true’ Bugatti. Eight Type 101s were built, several examples of which in different body styles are included in the museum.
La Course Automobile
And then, there are the racing cars.
While once the Bugatti Grand Prix cars and other significant competition cars were displayed throughout the museum, they are now housed in a separate display wing titled, appropriately, La Course Automobile.
Stepping through the archway to enter this bright, well-lit area is indeed stepping into another world and place. The largest number of automobiles exhibited in the Schlumpf Collection remain in row upon row on gravel bisected by the tile walkways, and others in the subdued blue light of the Motorcar Masterpieces gallery, but the earliest racing cars have been given a stark, white environment where each example can be studied and appreciated.
Further on visitors enter yet another gallery where a pair of pre-war Mercedes Silver Arrow Grand Prix cars give way to a post-war Grand Prix grid filling one side of the hall, with a singular exhibit of Le Mans sports cars on the other side.
The small post-war Bugatti organization also attempted a comeback to Grand Prix racing with the Type 251, which forever occupies the first starting position on the museum’s 1950s GP grid.
Built during 1955-1956, the 251 was a radical rear-engine car designed by Gioacchino Columbo—usually associated with Ferrari—and powered by a transversely mounted 2.5 liter dohc in-line eight-cylinder engine. The Type 251 was entered in a GP only once, driven by Maurice Trintignant at the 1956 French Grand Prix where it retired early in the race.
The Type 251 is flanked on the 1950s Grand Prix grid by the also intriguing Gordini Type 32 from 1956. Amédée Gordini was a fiercely nationalistic tuner, whose cars carried the French blue gallantly at Le Mans and in the new Formula One in post-war years in spite of always being short of funds. Gordini was a close friend of Fritz Schlumpf and all of the remaining Gordini racers became part of the Schlumpf Collection when Gordini joined Renault, where he contributed to the development to Renault Sport and Renault’s later F1 success.
Turning toward the newer GP grid a Lotus 18 and Lotus 25 fill the back row, looking forward in the future toward a Ferrari driven by John Surtees. At the front of the grid are the newer F1 cars including a Renault and Williams-Renault World Champion.
On the sports car side, the cars are angled into their start positions on the Le Mans pit road. What may very well represent the greatest collection of Gordini sports cars in the world fills the small bore end of the grid, which continues past a Mercedes 300 SLR of the type that was leading Le Mans in 1955 before Pierre Levegh’s accident led to the team’s withdrawal from the race.
At the fastest end of the pits are recent Porsche, Audi and Bentley, as well as a Renault-Alpine A442B team car with its radical windscreen cum roof from 1978.
Even in departing the museum, visitors are treated to more unexpected surprises. One special exhibit displays the completed Royale Esders Roadster, together with body and fender bucks used to shape the outsized aluminum bodywork.
Another exhibit is devoted to the Bugatti 57 S, beginning and ending with complete automobiles interspersed and explained with major component groups displayed on a series of hardwood plinths.
Passing finally out of the exhibit spaces, visitors once again encounter the extraordinary bird-like mobile of sports cars majestically crossing through the glass front of the modern welcome hall. Like the spirits of Fritz and Hans Schlumpf—set free from their magnificent obsession.
The Cité de l’Automobile – National Museum – Schlumpf Collection is located in Mulhouse, France. It is open to the public year round, 7 days a week from 10am – 5pm. Admission is € 10.5 per person, with discounts for children, students and teachers. The museum may be visited on your own with the audioguide (available in 6 languages) supplied free of charge to all visitors, with a museum lecturer or with your own personal guide.
For more information, visit www.collection-schlumpf.com or phone +33 (0) 389 332 323.
[Source: Leigh Dorrington]