On both the French autoroute and the German autobahn drivers whiz by the exit to Mulhouse, an Alsatian city in northeastern France.
Germany is next door to the east and Basel, Switzerland, just 30 auto minutes to the south. Why stop in Mulhouse which is an industrial hub?
Museums — that’s why. After Paris museums, the museums in Mulhouse are the most frequented in France. Here visitors come to admire cars and trains, not masterpieces from the art world. The car museum is to cars what the Louvre is to art, states the museum literature.
The prestigious automobile was an obsession of two brothers, Hans and Fritz Schlumpf, born in 1904 and 1906 respectively to a Swiss father and a mother who was from Mulhouse where they lived. Their story is as intriguing as the museum which houses their collection.
Mulhouse was a center of textile firms. Fritz initially worked as a wool broker while Hans worked for a bank.
They began buying shares in spinning mills, and then acquired various companies, including a textile factory in 1957. Fritz, who had a Bugatti, began buying vintage cars. Hans joined in and together over a 20 year period they amassed a secret collection of classy cars, including two of only six Bugatti Royales, the masterpieces of Ettore Bugatti.
Rumors circulated in the auto world about the mysterious collection. Some said the brothers were out to buy every Bugatti in the world with intentions of destroying them all to prevent them from ending up in the hands of the “wrong people.” A newspaper article in 1965 revealed the size of the hidden collection. The Schlumpfs were silent. They maintained the cars were for their personal purposes and of no business to others. However, they did take steps to prepare part of the collection for display.
In 1976 their world crashed. The textile industry in Mulhouse was dying. The Schlumpfs were broke. All their money had been spent on cars. Workers at the textile mill went on strike. They were infuriated at learning where much of the factory profits had been spent.
The brothers tried to sell the factory, but there were no buyers. It was closed in 1976. Fritz and Hans fled to Switzerland and never returned to France, leaving behind the priceless car collection — 427 cars in mint condition including 122 Bugattis, and another 150 cars in workshops awaiting restoration.
Fritz Schlumpf had part of a factory warehouse refurbished where the cars were stored and which he had planned to open for exhibition. In 1977 trade unions occupied the warehouse, called it the “Workers Museum,” and opened it to the public.
The French government listed the collection as an historic monument in 1978. It was purchased by the National Motor Museum Owner’s Association in 1981, and opened as the National Motor Museum in 1982. Culturespaces, a private organization managing French monuments and museums, took over management of the collection in 1999.
The museum is vast, an area of four hectares. Audio guides are provided with plenty of detail on many of the 437 cars representing 97 different car manufacturers that are on display.
There are three main sections to visit: Motor Car Experience, Motor Racing and Motorcar Masterpieces. For a quick overview, hop on the museum “train,” which makes stops at some of the most noteworthy cars while the driver provides informative commentary. Then, wander at leisure.
The piece de resistance is no doubt the Bugatti Royale which Ettore Bugatti designed for his mother in 1933. She loved luxury, hence velvet seats. She wanted to be able to see the stars at night, hence a glass roof and the first car to have a panoramic roof, according to the guide. The car is valued at 40 million euros.
Check out some bizarre cars, such as the Arzens convertible, a car from 1938 nicknamed the “whale,” due to its size, seven meters in length, and shape. The “tank,” a Bugatti race car from 1923, indeed looks as if it belongs on a battlefield, not a race track. Yet, it was clocked at 189 km per hour in the 1923 tours Grand Prix.
The oldest car in the museum is a Jacquot from 1878 with a steam engine. It needed two hours to heat 40 liters of water so it could travel seven kilometers. The audio guide provides a surprising fact on the 1913 Peugeot Torpedo BB, 3,000 of which were produced, including one for a customer in China.
A long avenue lined with race cars, from a 1908 Panhard-Levassor two seater, to numerous Mercedes, Maseratis, Porsches, and Bugattis, gives a fascinating view of the changes in these speed machines over the years. Wind up the visit with the latest from Bugatti, the mind boggling 16.4 Veyron, displayed on a moving pedestal which slowly turns as spotlights highlight the beauty.
A large screen behind shows details and the car in action. It is the fastest car in the world with a top speed of 407 km per hour. Experts in the fields of aeronautics and astronautics have produced an incredible braking system. From a speed of 400 km per hour, the Veyron will come to a complete stop in just 10 seconds when the brakes are applied. It takes three weeks and eight technicians to make a Veyron, only one or two are made per week, and there are just 300 in existence.
You could spend an entire day admiring — and learning — about all these fascinating vehicles with a break at one of the museum’s lovely restaurants, including the gourmet, L’Atalante, for fine French cuisine.
But, don’t neglect trains. After a morning of cars and a tasty French lunch, we went on to the Cite du Train (French Railway Museum), another marvel of a museum in Mulhouse. Here you can see some 100 trains all displayed on 1,350 meters of track. And, here too, an audio guide provides background information and facts.
A delightful and convenient place to stay in the city: Guest house Mondrian, www.maison-mondrian.fr
Alsatian cuisine and ambiance: Auberge au Vieux Mulhouse, Place de la Reunion, Tel. (00) (33) 3 89 45 84 18
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