THE SCHLUMPH COLLECTION by bill orth
As reported last month, after leaving Ferrari’s gigantic 60th Anniversary celebration in late June, The Stewarts and Orths drove from Maranello through Switzerland to France to visit the famous Schlumph Auto Museum. As you can imagine, a summer road trip through the Alps is pretty scenic—actually looks a lot like Colorado—and represents a great driving experience. On the Italian side of the mountains is a profusion of castle remnants left over from the middle ages, perched on seemingly every hilltop. The French barons evidently had larger fiefdoms, as fewer fortresses are evident on that side. After conquering the mystery of French road signage and the humor of our Garmin’s Anglo-based voice synthesizer trying to pronounce Gallic (and Swiss, Italian and German) names, we arrived in the provincial little city of Mulhouse—itself a survivor of the middle ages, with narrow twisty little streets and period architecture.
The Alsace region of France includes roughly the southeastern segment of the country, up against the borders of Germany and Switzerland. Mostly rolling farmland, it quickly segues into the foothills of the Alps. Given its arable land and abundant water, Alsace has always been a strong producer of textile fabrics. Following WW II, this lucrative industry attracted two German-born brothers, Hans & Fritz Schlumph. With a gift for business acumen, they rapidly gained control of the region’s productivity and began amassing a fortune. While Hans was the real business genius and attended to buying up competitors and increasing their holdings, Fritz was a Car Guy. He bought a Bugatti Type 35 with which he began competing in hillclimbs and quickly became enamored with these cars, which were built just up the road in Molsheim. By the 1960s, the brothers had decided to create the world’s finest collection of significant automobiles—particularly Bugattis—and set about doing so.
They had centered their business in Mulhouse, and among Hans’ acquisitions there, was a huge 3-story factory building that had been a textile plant, but was now vacant. A Perfect Storm! Give any Car Guy unlimited money and vast storage space and what does he do? He buys cars! The Schlumphs launched a crusade to buy up every Bugatti they could find plus examples of all the other worthwhile European automobiles and brought them together in Mulhouse. While their overriding madness centered on Bugatti, they didn’t miss fabulous examples of Isotta Fraschini, Hispano Suiza, Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Ferrari, Talbot, Delahaye, Voisin, Delage, etc etc. Cars that were complete and show-worthy were displayed in the second-floor museum area. Those that were in need of restoration queued up on the ground floor, waiting their turns in the restoration shops that had been established on the premises. Even many damaged or dismantled cars were bought so their bones could be picked to restore more worthy examples. This was not a half-baked effort, and by the 1970s over 500 cars were in the collection.
The Ferraris are relatively few, except for numerous F-1 cars described later. There is a 250LM with Boranni wire wheels that has been there since it was nearly new, a one-off, long wheelbase 410 SuperAmerica with a unique tdf-styled Berlinetta body and a standard 250 pininfarina coupe. It would be impossible to even try describing the many, many noteworthy cars, quite a few of which were made by once-grand builders that have been gone since the 1930s. The best thing is to do a Google search for the museum—or “Cite de L’Automobile”—and you’ll find several sites that show pictures of the collection. Believe me, its well worth the time.
A well-known book, The Schlumph Obsession, was published years ago about the collection, and that term is very apt: the project truly did consume their lives and actually led to its eventual downfall. At some point, Hans added up the enormous sums they were paying out in obligatory taxes and workmen’s benefits…and realized that if they stopped honoring those annoyances, they could buy more cars! This new-found treasure made possible the accumulation—among other things—of what must be the world’s largest collection of Formula One cars on the planet. Multiple examples of Bugattis, Ferraris & Maseratis from the 1950s, Alfas from the 1930s and even one of the all-conquering Mercedes W154s from 1939…and a post-war W196. The rows of racers go on and on through the years up to the mid-80s, including another whole double-sided aisle of just Bugatti Grand Prix cars. The GP portion of the collection alone must be worth more than Rhode Island. Filling out the other end of automotive history, the brothers found important early “horseless carriages” from the late 1800s and practically everything in between. The museum floor was illuminated with 900 elegant cast-iron street lights patterned after those on the elegant Alexander III bridge in Paris—because Fritz happened to like those lamps— with wide walkways between the cars, which are displayed on pads of white gravel. This room is so large, that when standing at one end, looking down the rows is like looking down railroad tracks—you can see them converge.
What are considered the jewels of the collection are two of the six Bugatti Royales that were ever made, including Ettore Bugatti’s personal one, and a recreation of a third that was built on a spare chassis they found. Personally, I was more fascinated by the overall enormity of the collection, particularly the race cars and the art-deco masterpieces of long-gone manufacturers, than by two cars the size of locomotives. But I’m an iconoclast. The museum is considered one of the world’s most diverse and important automobile collections and is well worth the effort to visit. Other cars that were of particular interest to me included one of the 1955 Mercedes 300 SLRs, like the one Sterling Moss won the Mille Miglia with…and like the one Pierre Levegh flew into the crowd at Lemans that year. There are several varieties of the Porsche 908-917 family, each with race history, Alfa 8Cs and Mercedes 500Ks—few, if any—of which are in museums in this hemisphere.
Just about the time there weren’t any more great cars to buy, the French government and the labor force woke up and realized what was going on. The workers, finding out that their benefit packages weren’t being funded, rebelled and took over the museum, locking the Schlumphs out! The French government started looking for years-worth of back taxes and things were not looking good. Hans & Fritz took off for Germany and the party was over. Simply stated, the end result was that France took over the collection for the back taxes and declared it a national treasure. The unrestored cars and duplications were sold off so that a more cohesive collection could be displayed on the single floor of the museum. This has been recently remodeled and is more nicely presented than it was originally, but is still in the original brick factory building. Revenue from the sell-offs went to benefit the workers and everyone but the Schlumph brothers wound up pretty happy. No doubt they had plenty of money squirreled away in the Fatherland and lived out their days pretty comfortably, but they could never return to France to see their fabulous cars.
There are two other national museums in Mulhouse that were not part of the Schlumph legacy. One is a renowned fabric & textile collection and the other is a prominent railroad museum. While our wives spent the day at the textile center—and even took a course in medieval fabric decoration—after Bill & I visited the cars, we shot over to see the train place, too. This would be fascinating to anyone interested in trains in general and European ones in particular. All are indoors and there were nicely restored examples of many different varieties and all sorts of railroad-related equipment. Bugatti had even gotten into the rail act by designing and building an experimental high-speed one that was capable of 196KPH over fifty years ago. The only one ever built was on display, and this streamliner (which looks just like an elongated version of the Cyclops cartoon car once seen in Road & Track magazine) utilized four of the gigantic engines left over from the short-lived Royale production. I told you I thought those cars were locomotives.
-- Bill Orth –