Editor: Jaap Horst
And so I took, on September 1977, the train from Thun to Basel to change there for the slow train to the French Mulhouse. On my way I thought about the goal of my trip. Vaguely I had read something by Hugh Conway, who was one of the few mortals invited by Fritz Schlumpf to see the collection. He stated in one of his books that the Schlumpfs collected Bugattis as others did with butterflies. The collection was then inaccessible for the public.
Only a few knew exactly what automobiles were in the collection, and how big it was. The papers said that the Schlumpf brothers were now bankrupt, and that they had fled to Basel, in Switzerland. The museum reportedly was occupied by the employees of their textile company and was opened for the public to expose the extravagant lifestyle of the two brothers to the world. The stories sounded sensational and a little romantic, and the description of the collection was nearly unbelievable.
Compared to the luxurious Swiss carriages, the French slow train from Basel to Mulhouse was a creaking and squeaking fossil. It was a relief to arrive in Mulhouse, and in my best French I asked the chief of the railway station for "le musee Schlumpf". To my big surprise almost every inhabitant of Mulhouse knew where the museum was, and patiently they pointed the foreigner the way. I do remember a certain suspicion, even a vague hostility that I could only account for later on.
Apparently I was associated with the madmen that collect automobiles and that had brought misfortune to the entire area. It was in Mulhouse, if possible, even grayer than in the station from where I had left that morning. The gray houses in the textile town smothered every idea of cheerfulness. The controversy with a luxurious automobile collection could be nowhere bigger than in this little town in the Alsace. Old and muddy French cars were waiting for a traffic light, no driver smiled. Disconsolate blocks of flats of a indefinite color contrasted with the old French houses. I walked along the Porte Jaune and a local petrol station, when I saw the red brick building that I recognised immediately from the newspaper photographs. If I wouldn't have, countless banners and signs would make sure that the building wouldn't escape the attention of the unsuspicious passer by. The building looked like an old factory. "Musee des Travailleurs" shouted one of the banners, the local communist workers union CFDT had taken possession of the museum. Three flagpoles were mounted to the old brick wall in an attempt to lighten up the whole sight, but without flags this worked reversely.
In the gatekeeper house by the entrance were the CFDT occupiers who left me outside until long after 14.00 hour, the time that the museum should be opened, according to a sign on the gate. Again there was a certain hostility towards the two visitors (In the meantime an other Dutchman had arrived, whom I knew from a Christie's auction a few years earlier at Louwman in Leidschendam, where a Galibier was on auction) and we were obliged to read a pamphlet of the CFDT about the exploitation of the workers by the Schlumpfs. Only after a quarter of an hour reading could we enter the gate.
With some surprise about the fact that the CFDT didn't ask any entrance fee, I climbed the monumental stairs leading to the entrance of the museum. The CFDT worker brought out an enormous bundle of keys and opened the heavy front door. Once through the next, revolving door I saw a glimpse
of the first row of cars, which were lined up at a lower level: Blue and only Bugatti.
Instinctively I walked down to the glass door, the entrance to the collection, with my coat still on. Speechless I watched the 400, all extremely rare automobiles, displayed in streets with brass lanterns. 800 brass lanterns....
As far as the eye could see there were classic cars, neatly in rows, selected by marque. Like a heavenly parking lot. The first streets were devoted to Bugatti, innumerous Bugatti's that are, with a lot of models of which only one was made, even models I had never seen in my life, like the post-war T73
T73 and T64
and the T64 from just before. And of course the Royale's, with the elegant neat Park Ward made for Captain Foster,
Park Ward Royale and T59/50B
Ettore's Sedanca de Ville and the half-finished Esders replica. The T50B Monoposto was there, with which Jean Pierre Wimille had some successes in 1939.
I remembered the beautiful color movie, as I recall from the hand of George Monkhouse, of the 1939 Donington Grand Prix. The only remaining color moving picture of the best period in motorsport history, where the blue T50B could be easily distinguished in between the many silver Mercedesses and the Auto Union with Tazio Nuvolari in a yellow sweater.
There were numerous T57's with the most magnificent coachwork by Jean Bugatti or Corsica were lined up as if they were not at all special and rare.
T57SC Atalante, and T57SC Ghia post-war coupe
Now we are all more or less accustomed to the beauty of the Schlumpf collection, but then in 1977 it was like opening the treasure room of an Egyptian tomb. I walked along the 16 cylinder T45 Grand Prix and the 4.5 litre Talbot Lago Grand Prix.
16 cylinder T45 and Talbot Lago
There was a 300 SLR Mercedes, the only one in existence outside the factory in Stuttgart. Fritz obtained it by a trade (probably for a W196) from Alfred Neubauer. The Germans still are disgruntled about this, and recently tried to get the car back, in vain.
T59/50B Two-seater and 1956 T252
The great Bugatti failure, the T251 of 1956 was there, as there was an Alfa Romeo 8C2900, a Maserati 250F, a Ferrari 250LM and a Porsche 907. Horch, Hispano-Suiza, Pegaso, Rolls Royce, Talbot Lago, every famous marque was represented by at least on car. A visitor gets the arrogance to see some of the cars as not so interesting, due to the overwhelming amount of highly interesting examples. Unjustly, because every car in the collection is interesting, chosen carefully and with knowledge and an example of automobile history. The brothers collected only European makes, because they found one couldn't collect everything.
The other Dutch visitor disappeared rapidly out of sight in on of the automobile streets, and I felt like in a fairy tale, alone in a richness of automobile history, unequaled in the world. I began taking photographs of all the examples I thought interesting enough, which were more than 250. After a long while of strolling about, and with increasing surprise about what I was seeing, I came to the street dedicated to Mercedes-Benz with an SSK, Fritz's 300SL Gullwing, two Hitlerian "Grosser Mercedes" from the thirties and some other delicacies. But my attention was drawn towards two race cars. Of one the hood and nose was removed, showing the beautiful construction of the chassis with the many holes to spare weight was easily visible. I admired the construction of the fuel tanks, which were placed around the drivers seat, and the magnificent V12 engine placed at an angel in the car. Thus the driver needn't sit above the drive shaft, which went alongside the left side of his chair. Thus the chair could be mounted lower, lowering the line of the car, thus reflecting strength and speed, and of course had low drag. A same car was there complete with hood and nose. I recognised the cars from books and the old movies shown in the Autotron, a museum in the Netherlands. They had reigned over the circuits in the late thirties with famous drivers like Caracciola and Hermann Lang, von Brauschitsch and Seaman. In front of me were two W154 Mercedes race cars from 1939, the first I saw in real life. I am not at all a Mercedes devotee, but I was caught by the magnificent technics of the "opened" car. I would often remember that first impression of the racecar that I got in Mulhouse. I was impressed so deeply that years later I did much research into these cars, together with a Frenchman and a Japanese. In the end we could make a register for the W154 and W125 from thorough research in Stuttgart and Mulhouse.
Mercedes W125 and W154
The cars were of a unique beauty with a technical finish and a love of detail that I had never seen before and that I can only compare with the greats of Bugatti and the Alfa Romeo 158. This car was build to go fast, and was perfectly designed for this by the greatest engineers of the time, under the lead of Uhlenhaut. Without any luxury, it was a purely functional piece of machinery. Not the fine technics of the formula 1 racers of today, which are slender and designed with a precision of hundredths of millimeters and within very strict regulations. The Mercedeses were brute, with an incredible amount of horsepower and crude technics to achieve the same goal. Even in a museum like this on neat gravel the machine radiated power, and I could not withstand it. I walked over the gravel towards the car without the body, clicked loose the steering wheel, and got into the narrow cockpit.
W154 Cockpit and W154 without body
(Do not try this nowadays, because between all posts is a faultless alarm, that makes all unnoticed approach to the cars impossible) On the seat where I was now sitting had probably sat Hermann Lang or Caracciola, to win the pre-war Grand Prix of Tripoli or Bern. The seat was utterly tight, and the tanks with the terrible fuel (methanol with benzene and ether) were build around the driver. Almost 500 HP, tires thick like your elbow, no helmet and no seatbelt.... I kept on musing until I was roughly disturbed by an obviously very angry Frenchman who ordered me to get out of the car at once. The man was small, but gestured like Louis de Funes, and talked even faster. The French was to quick for me, but what the man wanted was very clear, I had to get out of the car. Calmly I climbed out of the silver coloured monster and asked the little man in the blue overalls if he was a member of the CFDT. The man wore a black alpinohat, and at his waist he had a leather belt over his overalls. With his little moustache the man could have been a model for a caricature of "the Frenchman" in the Sunday Times. In thought I saw the man in the morning with a French loaf and a piece of Camembert. He sniffed despicably, "he, member of the CFDT? Never!". "No sir, he was a mechanic and had his pride. Already 12 years he had been working for Schlumpf, and before that he had worked for Hispano-Suiza, in the former Bugatti factory. Relatives of him had worked for Ettore Bugatti in the same trade. They had possibly worked on lots of the cars that are here." I was surprised more and more. Fritz Schlumpf not only had bought the last cars from the Bugatti Factory, together with all parts and small inventory, he had also enlisted former personnel from Bugatti. I explained to the Frenchman that I had come all the way from the Netherlands to see the collection, and that I was so struck by the beauty of the W154 that I could not resist the temptation. The little Frenchman melted under so many sentimental arguments and I thought for a moment that he would burst into tears when he told about the occupation by the CFDT and the uncertainty about what would happen to "his" favourite children. Together with some twenty colleagues he had seen the collection grow, had been restoring, painting, looking for parts, it was part of his life.
On the way back to Switzerland I thought about the Schlumpfs, the French mechanic, the CFDT and the cars. 500 people had worked in that hall, a little more than there were now automobiles in it. Their anger was understandable, although there were probably quite different reasons for the loss of the textile industry of the Schlumpf brothers than the gathering of this collection. Although the collection in 1977 already represented quite some value (in 1989/1990 the value would rise to astronomical heights), Fritz Schlumpf had brought together the cars in an era when an old "Bug" could be bought for the scrap price. He got them together with Rob de La Rive Box from the filed in Chechoslowakia and from the streets of Budapest. He bought the Shakespeare collection in the United States for almost nothing and taking into account the size of his business the collection was nothing more than an expensive hobby. The Schlumpfs fled to Switzerland because of disputes with the French tax inspector and fear for the effects of the bankruptcy and had to see patiently how the politics debated about their life's work. Their company with 1300 workers was bankrupt and it is too easy to see the cause for this solely in the exorbitant hobby of both brothers. Now journalistic research showed that they were hard entrepreneurs with little respect for their workers. But were other entrepreneurs so much different in those days? However, Fritz and Hans Schlumpf saved many cars in their collecting drift, brought them together and thus collected a cultural heritage for the French that stands alone in the world. Therefore it was for me a relief when the French government after endless debating decided to buy the collection so that it could remain together. And thus we can still admire this unique place in the world. I went back many times, just to look, or for research. The friendly management always is willing to help and does its best to preserve everything in good condition, although due to the budget it is difficult to maintain the museum. In the light of the current politic situation, with France having to cope with a heavy task of economisation to comply with Maastricht and the EMU, this won't become any better in the coming years. Lets hope that the French government continues to see the importance of this important industrial heritage, I hope to stroll in it for decades.
Fritz's own Bugatti T35B, and two T52's
I think it is fair that Fritz was allowed to see his collection one more time, shortly before he died. One more time he rode in a wheelchair through the streets of cars and looked at these brilliantly restored unique automobiles. It remained "his" collection, whatever was decided on the collection. And irrespective of the errors the man had made in his life, regardless of the outrage and anger of his employees, despite the hard and unshakable character of the man and his feodal attitude I think that everybody allowed him this last visit. As I said I regularly wander about this paradise for automobile lovers, but never will I forget that first time on the 8th of September 1977, between the 439 dusty treasures of Schlumpf in Mulhouse.