Located in eastern France near the German and Swiss borders, Mulhouse played a pioneering role during the time of the industrial revolution. Today, the city is home to a unique collection of technical museums including the Museum of Printed Textiles, the Museum of Electricity, the French National Railway Museum and the Cité de l'Automobile (English: City of the Automobile).
Housed in a sprawling converted woolen factory, the Cité de l'Automobile showcases 400 vehicles representing 98 different marques, including the collection's crown jewels, more than 120 Bugattis. Born in Italy in 1881, Ettore Bugatti was trained in the fine arts and engineering. After working for several Italian automobile firms, he established his own workshop, Automobiles E. Bugatti in the Alsatian town of Molsheim. During his thirty-eight year career, Bugatti created 6,000 competition, sports and luxury automobiles considered by connoisseurs to be the zenith of automotive art.
How this assemblage of mechanical excellence ended up in a woolen mill in Mulhouse is a story as strange as the cars are exquisite. It is known as the "Schlumpf Affair."
The son of a wealthy Swiss textile merchant, Hans Schlumpf was born in 1904, his brother Fritz, two years later. After growing up in Italy, the brothers moved to Mulhouse and lived with their mother. In 1935, Hans and Fritz pooled their resources and purchased a woolen mill. After World War Two, they began to acquire additional mills and their business prospered. In 1972, Fritz Schlumpf was listed as the "sixth richest man in the French Republic."
An amateur sports car racer with a passion for Bugattis, Fritz was asked by the textile union to "abstain from racing competitions which could endanger your life and deprive us of our esteemed director." Unable to race, Fritz began to collect. During the 1960, he bought three Rolls-Royces, two Hispano-Suizas, a Tatra and ten Bugattis. Fritz's mania for Bugattis came not only from his belief they were the finest cars in the world, but the fact that they were built in Alsace and "they all should come back to France."
In 1962, Fritz obtained a register of all Bugatti owners and sent a letter to each one, offering to buy their cars. At one point the Textile King's avarice -- he would pay any price, sometimes going so far as to hand a car owner a blank check, had auto enthusiasts up in arms. No additional cars should be sold to Fritz, they suggested, or it would be impossible for anybody else to own a Bugatti.
A crew of Fritz's "secret agents" combed the world, buying cars for his growing collection. In 1963, the remaining cars belonging to the Bugatti estate went on the auction block. Fritz purchased fourteen vehicles and a treasure trove of engines, molds and parts. Among the cars, a magnificent Bugatti Royale Coupe was one of only six in the world. Twenty-one feet long and weighing 7,000 lbs., the magnificent leviathan was Ettore Bugatti's personal car.
American John Shakespeare, the eccentric heir to the Shakespeare fishing tackle fortune, sold his entire collection of thirty Bugattis to Fritz for $85,000. The New York Times described the transaction as possibly the used-car bargain of the 20th century.
As the collection grew, numbering almost 450 cars by 1966, Fritz converted one of the company's four mills into a museum/restoration shop and hired 40 specialists, including several mechanics and body finishers who worked at Bugatti, to restore the vehicles. All of this work was done in complete secrecy and only those associated with the collection knew the magnitude of Fritz's obsession.
A perfectionist, Fritz was personally involved with the restorations. Cars were often painted several times until Fritz was satisfied with the result. Although Fritz preferred Bugattis, the collection includes Mercedes, Maseratis, Gordinis, Feraris, De Dions, Renaults, Rolls-Royces, Maybachs, Peugeots, countless works prototypes and one-offs (one-of-a-kind, specially ordered). Fritz was not a fan of American cars and only a handful found their way into the collection.
Fritz's non-stop collecting came with a very high price tag and he had to use the textile mills as a cash cow. Hans, a more practical fellow, tried to curtail his brother, but to no avail. Obsolete equipment, neglected maintenance and competition from Asia soon had the company's balance sheets bleeding red, but Fritz not only continued to buy cars, he went ahead with grandiose plans to build a museum.
Behind the mill's unassuming facade, an astonishing showplace was created. The entrance hall features a huge chandelier and a baroque organ that originally graced an Austrian castle. In the grand hall, row upon row of cars are separated by wide gravel "streets." Illumination is provided by 845 baroque reproductions (rumored to cost more than $1 million) of the street lamps that line the Pont Alexandre III Bridge in Paris. A shrine, dedicated to the brother's mother features a large gilt-framed photograph of Jeanne Schlumpf tending to her knitting surrounded by a group of marble nymphs and maidens.
October 1979, marked the beginning of the end for the Schlumpf brothers' empire. Mill workers, who had heard rumors of Fritz's expensive hobby, while enduring layoffs, dismal working conditions and low wages, went on strike. Five hundred strikers surrounded the brothers’ estate chanting, "Schlumpf en prison, Schlumpf en prison." After a three day siege, a troop of gendarmes managed to get Hans and Fritz out of a side door and escorted them to the train station where they quickly departed for Basel, Switzerland.
Although outraged when they discovered their employer's disregard for their welfare, the workers realized the importance of the collection and renamed the "Schlumpf Museum" the "Workers Museum." Admission was free, but donations raised from more than 800,000 visitors during the next two years were distributed to needy worker's families.
To thwart any attempt to sell the collection (rumors suggested the Schlumpfs were planning to smuggle the cars out of France) the collection was declared a historical monument. Enlarged and modernized, the Cité de l'Automobile - Musée National -- Schlumpf Collection opened in July, 2007. Three years later, the Autodrome, an outdoor exhibition track with seating for 4,500, was built to provide visitors with the opportunity to watch the museum's cars in action.
Hans and Fitz Schlumpf spent the rest of their lives living in "exile" in Switzerland. Both were tried in absentia for a multitude of transgressions, including tax evasion and falsified accounting and were sentenced to four years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. Neither spent a day in jail. Hans Schlumpf died in 1989. A year later, Fritz visited the museum for the first time since he fled to Switzerland. After strolling among the cars, he spent some time gazing at his mother's photograph. Fritz Schlumpf died in 1992.
Nothing stood between Fritz Schlumpf and the machines he lusted after. His addiction led to tragedy and scandal, but the ultimate outcome was the creation of one of the world's most amazing museums.
The Cité de l'Automobile - Musée National - Collection Schlumpf is located at 192, Avenue de Colmar, Mulhouse, France. For more information visit the museum at www.citedelautomobile.com