After an exciting Australian Grand Prix on Sunday, I was still in the mood for a little more F1. Perhaps a bit more sedate, but F1 nonetheless. So we slipped into the two-seater and headed off to France (which is only 30 miles away, it’s not like going on holiday) and set the coordintes for the Musée Nationale de l’Automobile in Mulhouse. I’d been a couple of times before, but was keen to see what the recent facelift was like.
The museum has an incredible story behind it, so I’ll assume it must have been covered in a TV programme recently, but if it hasn’t, here’s a brief rundown. Two brothers, Hans and Fritz Schlumpf (the name is even funnier when you know it is a direct translation of “Smurf”) were two industrialists with a passion for cars, especially Fritz. After the war, their business boomed and they were able to indulge their hobby of collecting fabulous cars; however, in the Seventies times began to get hard as the Asians started to deliver much cheaper textiles forcing the Schlumpf brothers to rein in their business. In 1976 they decided to close the Mulhouse factory, which was a terrible blow to the workers, who went on strike and occupied the factory.
All normal 1970s stuff, until a group of strikers decided to break into an unused building and discovered something simply amazing. Approximately 600 cars were inside, displayed in street-like rows, with specially commissioned cast iron street lights to provide illumination. And not just any old cars, these were incredible – and approximately a quarter of the collection were Bugattis. Well over a hundred of what are essentially the most desirable cars ever built.
Forget the Veyron, which is just a marketing exercise by a company (Volkswagen) that bought the rights to the name (it’s comparable to the Team Lotus/Caterham/Lotus Renault – Green Lotus/Black Lotus debacle). These cars are beautiful, light and fast, and let’s not forget that that one of the Type 35 derivatives (a 35B?) won the very first Monaco Grand Prix. And you could drive it home afterwards. Incidentally if you want to know the story of “Williams”, the driver who won that race, and the role that he and other racing drivers played in the espionage industry in the Second World War, I can’t recommend Joe Saward’s excellent The Grand Prix Saboteurshighly enough.
These days you could probably pick up a Type 35 for about the price of a brand new Veyron. And it would be a much better deal. In the museum, I lost track of how many they have. There must be at least 15. And when you consider that in 2008, a 57 SC Atalante Coupe sold for over $8 million, and they have four of them, you start to get the idea. But perhaps the most famous of them all is the Royale. And yes, we did say “Royale with Cheese” a few times.
The Royale, or Type 41 to give it it’s proper name, was Ettore Bugatti’s masterpiece. It was intended to be the most magnificent car ever built, but announcing it in the middle of the Great Depression of the late 1920s was not a great tactic. Precisely none were sold in the first four years it was on offer, although Bugatti did use one as his own personal car. In the 30s, sales picked up a bit, and six were eventually purchased. The Schlumpfs ended up with two of these cars, and made a copy of a third from correct spare parts they had bought from the factory. Their value? It’s rather difficult as no two are the same, but reports of $15-20 million have been seen for two of the chassis known to have been sold. It’s very hard not to like the copy too (although I’d go for Ettoré’s Coupe Napoleon) as it’s such a great shape, and has no headlights; apparently the man who commissioned it did not wish to drive it in the dark!
But back to F1. The Schlumpfs also collected historic and racing machinery, and both the Veteran section (1895-1918) and the racing section (up to about 2002) are well worth looking at. The racing area is flanked by a massive photographic rendition of the Le Mans Grandstands, and while this doesn’t exactly give the same feeling as standing on the grid, it’s about as close as most of us will ever get, especially as the F1 cars are lined up in a modern two-by-two formation.
There’s a strong French presence, headed by Panis’s Monaco Ligier, and Schumacher’s 1995 Benetton. It had a Renault engine that year, remember? And So it goes on, McLaren and Jordan Peugeots, Damon’s Williams Renault, an Elf Renault Turbo etc – until we get back into the Schlumpf-bought era, when we start to see early Lotuses and Ferraris and the like. It’s incredible how small the 1.5 litre cars from 1961 to 1965 were – nothing like their modern day counterparts, the only concession to aerodynamics being a slight flip-up on the Plexiglass screen.
There’s a great selection of F1 cars from the 50s, and just by looking at them you can see that the blue cars (French) were slow. If you’re an anorak, you’ll like comparing the different versions of the Maserati 250F, and imagining what it must be like to drive one, with the steering wheel virtually in your chest. In all, there must be at least 50 F1 cars in the collection, including a 70s Ferrari 312B that’s located in the shrine to the mother of the two brothers.
On the other side of the “Le Mans straight” the focus is more on two-seaters, lots of Bugattis, and a spattering of later cars (I loved the Porsche 908 Longtail, a precursor of the 917) laid out in pre-1970 Le Mans start style. I was surprised not to see a Rondeau (the first driver to win in a car of his own construction) and the Bell/Ickx 936 is no longer there, although there is a 935 and the Sportscar version of the Renault Turbo.
The most recent car in the collection is, of course, a Veyron, but the 2002 Le Mans winning Audi is much more interesting. But somehow it is the Bugattis that stand out, although you cannot ignore the Alfa Romeos, Mercedes, Hispano Suizas (amazing!) and many, many others. It’s an incredible collection of cars, and the brothers must have been gutted to be parted from it. They didn’t starve though, choosing to live out their days in a 5-star hotel in Switzerland, and the French government finally agreed to pay some compensation to the state after taking the collection over from the workers who had opened it as an unofficial museum to raise cash.
At 11€, entry struck me as very reasonable, so if you’re passing, make sure you stop off there. If you’re not intending to pass by any time soon, make a special trip.