For those not familiar with the Schlumpf Collection, this is one of the greatest car collections on the planet. But the story behind it is just as fascinating as the collection itself.

Hans and Fritz Schlumpf were Italian-born Swiss residents who moved to the small French town of Mulhouse, near the Swiss border, when their mother was widowed. In the mid-1930s, the brothers established a company producing spun wool products that quickly grew following the war. Fritz, the younger brother, had a love of engineering, which led to a passion for Bugatti cars, and he purchased his first, a 1929 Type 35B, just before the Nazis invaded France. And it was from here the obsession grew.

In the late 1940s, the Schlumpf brothers began collecting cars as their business also continued to expand. Their primary interest was Bugatti, and they would happily purchase entire collections just to attain the cars they wanted. Very quickly, their hoard also included examples of Ferrari, Maserati, Hispano-Suiza, Rolls-Royce, Mercedes-Benz, and countless other high-end brands. In 1962 alone, the Schlumpf’s purchased fifty Bugatti’s, and by 1967, owned 105 examples.

Despite their love of (obsession for) marque, the brothers were widely disliked within the Bugatti community, largely because the cars they purchased disappeared from public view. Indeed, at a Prescott Hillclimb event in Britain, a tent was erected under ‘The Anti-Schlumpf Club’ banner.

In 1963, the brothers purchased the entire collection of wealthy American John Shakespeare, which included around thirty Bugattis, most notably the Park-Ward Royale (chassis 41131). Shakespeare wanted US$105,000 for his collection. The Schlumpfs offered $70,000, to which Shakespeare grudgingly accepted.

In 1963, the Bugatti company, including its historic collection, was sold to Hispano-Suiza, who were themselves in financial trouble. Fritz Schlumpf offered to purchase the entire historic collection, in which there were fourteen cars including the Coupé Napoleon Royale (chassis 41100), for £50,000. Even Roland Bugatti, Ettore’s youngest son, was against the idea, and despite efforts from various enthusiasts to raise the capital elsewhere and out-bid the Schlumpfs, the collection was soon on its way to Mulhouse. Only six Royales were built, and in little more than a year, the Schlumpf’s had acquired two of them. The Coupé Napoleon, the first built, had been Ettore Bugatti’s personal car, and remained in the Bugatti family until the collection went briefly to Hispano-Suiza.

Although unpopular within the Bugatti community, the Schlumpf’s were highly regarded in other corners. For example, when Amédée Gordini quit racing in the late 1950s to work for Renault, the bulk of his collection went to his friend Fritz Schlumpf.

Mulhouse

The brothers aspired to open a museum to show their collection, to be housed in a vast 19,000 square-meter building they owned in Mulhouse. Within the colossal display area red tiled walkways were laid with gravel floors for the vehicles. Over 800 opulent lamp posts with candelabra modelled on those found on Venice’s Grand Canal were installed. This building also included a large workshop, where a team of around forty highly skilled craftspeople worked full-time on the massive assemblage of over 600 cars, and countless parts and other related artefacts. Of course, they were all sworn to secrecy. Despite the collection being common knowledge among enthusiasts around the world, very few people had actually ever seen it.

The early 1970s saw the Schlumpf empire crumble as cheap textiles from Asia completely changed the market. Hans in particular was apparently something of a tyrant to work for, and when financial troubles struck, the inevitable worker strikes followed, which came to a head in 1976. The company was placed in receivership; the 2000-strong workforce seized the factories, and the brothers, fearing for their lives, fled to Switzerland with nothing more than a couple of suitcases. The French government then issued a warrant for their arrests, on charges of embezzlement.

Then, just before dawn on 7 March 1977, workers stormed the factory building in Mulhouse, where they were astounded to discover the mysterious car collection housed inside.

National Treasure

The French government seized ownership of the Schlumpf’s possessions, and with wages owed, the workers, who now controlled the collection, set fire to an Austin 7, and vowed to keep burning cars until they were paid in full. Eventually, an agreement was met by which the workers would take control of the collection, and open it to the public, from which the proceeds would pay their wages. More than 800,000 people visited the museum within the first two years. Although the government wanted to break up and sell off the collection, the local council saved it by classifying it a French Historical Monument.

In 1979, a bankruptcy liquidator ordered the museum to close, but it opened again in 1982, when purchased by the National Automobile Museum Association. Fritz Schlumpf filed a lawsuit from Switzerland in 1981 claiming he was owed a portion of the sale price. It took until 1999 before an agreement was settled, by which time both brothers had died (Hans in 1989 and Fritz in 1992). Fritz’s wife was given 62 cars as part of the settlement. The brothers never got to see their dream of a vast museum realised.

Today, the collection has grown once more to around 520 vehicles, of which around 400 are on display at any one time.

The Museum

Everything about the museum, including its entrance, is dramatic, and instils a sense of anticipation. Upon entering, a long corridor leads to a small display area, among which sits a magnificent replica of the original Bugatti Royale (chassis 41111), that Jean Bugatti fashioned as a two-seater roadster for French clothing manufacturer Armand Esders – the original was later rebodied as a coupé de Ville by Henri Binder. In 1965, the Schlumpfs ordered their craftspeople to build a replica of the Esders roadster, using many original Bugatti parts from the massive collection they’d amassed. This car was never completed under Schlumpf ownership.

Beyond this room, the corridor leads through to the main display areas, which is broken into five sections, the largest of which is the giant central hall with its red tile floor and opulent lamps; just as it was under Schlumpf ownership. The vehicles are presented in rows, beginning with the oldest, which include very early veteran cars, and slowly works forward through the teens, twenties, thirties, and beyond. When the collection was first viewed by motoring historians in 1977, they were amazed to find vehicles they didn’t even know existed.

Off to one side is a small room is Fritz’s very first Type 35B. During my visit there was a smaller hall that displayed a collection of Corvettes. This is one of the revolving displays designed to modernise the museum and keep it fresh. One wing houses the racing collection, which is astonishing, and includes numerous Bugatti sports and open wheel cars. Amongst the svelte pre-war racers is a bulbous little Type 32 ‘Tank’, and of course, the last Bugatti Formula 1 car, the short-lived mid-engined Type 251. Also here are various examples of Ferrari, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz, Panhard, Lotus, Delahaye, Alfa Romeo, and of course the sizable collection of Gordinis.

At the other side of the main hall is the lavishly presented Le Chefs-D’Oeuvre (The Masterpieces) saved for the very best of the best, in which the two Type 41 Royales take centre-stage. Ettore Bugatti planned to build twenty-five Royales with a 169-inch wheelbase, 12.7-litre straight-eight engine these cars were 21-foot in length. These were to be the most luxurious, most expensive cars in the world, but between 1927 and 1933, only six were produced, and two are housed here. They keep company with other important Bugattis, as well as examples from Maybach, Hispano-Suiza, Voisin, Delahaye, Mercedes-Benz, Bentley and Rolls-Royce.

I spent around four hours exploring this incredible collection, but still needed more time. Multiple visits are required. The museum is so vast, I actually reached a point of overload, as I passed Bugatti after Bugatti; merely glimpsing multi-million dollar Type 55s and 57s before moving on to the next. I really needed to return the next day with a fresh head, but my travels didn’t allow for it.

The Schlumpf story is fascinating, and one that could fill a book. Indeed, it did. Denis Jenkinson wrote a compelling 188-page essay on the subject in 1977, appropriately named, The Schlumpf Obsession. If you plan to visit this collection, now named Cité de l’Automobile, I highly recommend you read Jenk’s book first, if you can find a copy.

It may have taken me nearly thirty years to get there, but it was well-worth the wait.