The internet has wrecked most new discoveries. At the swipe of an index finger, or a few well placed key strokes, arguments are settled, knowledge is instantly gained, and facts can be quoted by the instant expert. Just add Google. Notwithstanding my Luddite rant, I am nonetheless grateful that I live in an age where research is easier, but there is a part of me that craves those new experiences, revelations and stumbling upon new things.
As a youngster I had read the story of the Schumpf brothers and their amazing car collection. That infernal idiot Google tried to be helpful by letting me know that the word Schlumpf is the German word for Smurf. Go home Google, you’re drunk….
In a nutshell, Hans and Fritz Smurf were a pair of Swiss brothers who amassed a bloody big fortune in the textile industry in the war years and immediately after it. With that wealth, these two hoovered up every Bugatti, Edwardian car, vintage cars, prototypes, one offs, racers, and just about anything interesting on four wheels. They wrote to Bugatti owners everywhere and bought up everything they could get their hands on.
Apparently, Fritz was a good bloke, treating the workers in his factory well, and Hans was a bit of a Scrooge. That came back to bite them on the arse later. Between them they acquired and traded up cars throughout the post war era up to the mid sixties, factories sold them spares, Jochen Rindt sold them Lotus racers, somehow they got an entire collection of Gordinis, and many of Ettore Bugatti’s personal cars. But the big focus was Bugatti – at one point it got to over 100 of them.
The cars were squirrelled away in Mulhouse (pronounced Mooloose – like stray cattle) in a wing of their factory site, where mechanics and restorers were covertly employed to build a museum the likes of which had never been seen. In the days before paparazzi, the ‘barn find’, social media and ubiquitous hype, this was a genuine secret that was planned to be unveiled to a bedazzled public in the mid seventies. Unfortunately, this was going to be a case of flying too close to the sun, and with a prolonged downturn in the textile industry forcing the brothers Schlumpf to sell up factories, lay off workers and sell assets to stave off bankruptcy. Well, this being France, this was not a workforce that played that game in resigned defeat. In 1977 it all came to a head and a big stand off between the creditors, unions and the brothers ensued, which was never going to end well. After some more layoffs, a strike broke out, more tension and eventually the riled up workers broke in to the factory site where this Aladdin’s cave left them all slack jawed.
Eventually, with the brothers fleeing to their native Switzerland, a conglomerate of local and state government, and car club interests bought the collection for a song and sort of finished the job. The museum opened in 1982.
You drive through the back of a pretty nondescript part of Mulhouse, into a large car park (another fight with a foreign vending machine), walk cross a high bridge and past the life size stack of suspended cars jutting out of the glass fronted building. Weird but really cool too. Inside, you pay your entry, and wander expectantly across another footbridge and are greeted with a sit down screening of the story of the collection…in French. Not that this is a problem for a bloke whose French starts and ends with one swear word, please, thank you, and the assumption that saying “le” before every word kind of makes it French anyway. “Where’s the Le Dunny maaate”? Got real far with that one.
You are then lead past Fritz’s personal blown Type 35 Bugatti, a mid 70’s Ferrari F1 car, and into a huge hall filled with chronologically ordered cars dating back to the earliest of horseless carriages. I can’t adequately describe how overwhelming this experience is. It depends on what kind of a person you are – do you savour every moment or do you gorge yourself in the experience? In this case I was definitely the former. Armed with my trusty lanyard earpiece information thingy, I typed in the number of the display and was given an aural description of what I was looking at – mercifully in English. I needed it.
The above shot is some Aussie lout trying to impersonate pioneering motoring. I have been fending off calls from modelling agencies since. Eventually, you get through the tiller phase, chain drive cars, lots of early Fiats, Peugeots, Renaults, and lots of long extinct car makers, and onto the more immediately recognisable forms of the twenties and thirties.
That folks, is a genuine SSK Mercedes.
This Bugatti Type 35C is about as close to perfect as it gets for automotive styling in 1927. Next to what Ford was producing at the same time, this car has looks that would stop a clock.
This is Pinin Farina’s take on the 8C Alfa in 1936. Its something out of a Jules Verne novel, with twin superchargers, evoking images of Captain Nemo leaping from it to fight off a kraken with his rapier…or something like that. Almost 80 years later, seeing this car in the flesh seems no less impactful as when it first broke daylight three years before war broke out. Makes you wonder what would have happened to car design if these craftsmen weren’t drawn into making machines of war. Maybe we could have dodged that particularly dark period where lots of cars looked like the North end of a Southbound cow…..
An artist grabbed a Buick in 1938 and turned it into this, affectionately called “The Whale” – in French “Le Whale”. It’s seven meters long, and probably impractical for anything other than scaring small children, or not looking out of place in an LSD trip.
Who says that an engine can’t be a thing of beauty? Seems a shame to cover these up with a louvered bonnet.
I would like to have written a description for this Bugatti Type 57 variant but the batteries went dead on my lanyard thingy and telling the the guide that “me le lanyard voice thingy is sans juice mate” wasn’t cutting it. By now however, the cars became more familiar to me and I felt more confident about what was in front of me.
That’s a set of Rudge knock offs on the Gullwing. Nice touch Fritz.
And that’s a customer Ferrari 250 LM, like the one that won LeMans for Masten Gregory and Jochen Rindt in 1965.
Just as I got to the end of the ‘civilian’ cars, there was a Bugatti Veyron spinning slowly around in its own little room. Yawn…. every other cashed up gold Rolex wearing Hollywood producer type has one of those.
Turn another corner and I am in a long hall filled with the greats. Blood pressure goes up, slight intake of breath, and walking slowly up and down a long room of Grand Prix Bugatti’s, Gordini’s, Silver Arrows, Lotuses, Maserati 250F’s, Maserati 4CLT’s, and a 300SLR Merc just to top it all off.
The urge to jump the velvet rope and climb into a car or two was rather strong, and in some ways I felt a great pity that in all probability, I would never see these cars being whipped around Monaco, Spa, through Brescia at 100mph, or blasting down the long straights of Reims past the Raymond Sommer stand. Still, there are small pockets of hope as can be seen in this video http://www.motorsportretro.com/2015/01/maserati-250f-monaco-onboard/
This Ferrari 500 TRC once belonged to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s…son. That is until it was flogged off to Hans. It’s pretty in the flesh too.
I had never expected to see this car in the flesh. It’s possibly the most evocative car in the collection for me. In 1923, Ettore Bugatti embarked on one of the first aerodynamic experiments on a car and entered four of these in the French GP held in Lyon that year. One finished third, but they handled poorly and were never seen again. This is one of the survivors, left in it’s post race condition and pretty much priceless. A side note – when you won a GP at Lyon, you didn’t get an outlandish blingy sculpture to wave around while you wore a cap from another sport, you got an enormous pork sausage, a huge bottle of booze and a laurel wreath. And you definitely didn’t spray the bubbly around like a drunken fireman.
Once through the racing collection, you found yourself in a darkened moody display of the Bugatti Royale range. These cars were the standard choice of the plutocrat, aristocrat, industrialist, and for those who could afford to have servants quarters for their servants who looked after their hunting rifles. You know, the kinds of people who had more titles than Muhammad Ali, and in all likelihood weren’t prone to shyness.
Even if you hate cars, and don’t get why a sane person would get excited about a car that doesn’t have an iPod input, this is a museum with everything. It’s got a dramatic back story, it’s lavish in its presentation, eclectic, random, and reflects the best of the eccentricity that the automotive world has had to offer since its birth some 120 years ago. For car lovers, give the Louvre a wide berth (only so many Rubenesque statues and bowls of fruit you can take anyway), and head East. You won’t regret it.