But in 1968 the general labor unrest that swept across France inflamed discontent among the 2,000 Schlumpf employees who were fighting for wage increases as inflation eroded their earnings. Hans and Fritz continued to divert their time and their profits to the car collection even as the mills became increasingly outdated and were threatened by new technology and synthetic yarns. "The owner has a right to do anything he wants with his business," Fritz maintained. The brothers bought the best hotel in Mulhouse, with the idea of converting it into a tour center to bring automobile enthusiasts from all over the world to their museum—when it was ready to open.
In 1971 the Schlumpf workers struck, but even the uneasy settlement that followed failed to get the owners' attention. Instead the brothers turned more of their attention and resources to readying the cars and transforming a bare factory into a suitable museum.
In June 1976, with the collection installed and the museum ready to open, the brothers made a stunning announcement: They were putting their textile business into receivership. In response, outraged workers seized all four factories. With the protection of riot police, Fritz and Hans fled to Basel, Switzerland, and took up residence in the Hotel Trois Rois. Their father had been Swiss, and they had dual citizenship. From exile they fought to keep the automobile collection. But in February 1977 the Schlumpfs were charged with criminal embezzlement for diverting the proceeds of the wool works to the auto works.
The collection was seized by the workers before dawn on March 7. "Scandal!" they shouted upon entering the museum. "So this is where our money went!" But cars were different from chandeliers and hunting lodges and royal châteaus. They were the work of people like themselves. One in every 10 workers in France was, and still is, employed by the automobile industry. So the union took over and ran the museum for two years, welcoming 800,000 visitors, collecting more than 3 million francs—roughly $700,000—and distributing the difference between the daily costs and the proceeds to needy worker families. The mayor of Mulhouse persuaded the French government to declare the treasures in the collection "historical monuments," preventing them from being sold to pay the enormous debts the Schlumpfs had incurred and from being smuggled out of France, as the brothers had been rumored to be planning.
In April 1981 the bankruptcy court allowed the collection to be sold to pay Schlumpf creditors. A not-for-profit association was formed, made up of the town and the chamber of commerce of Mulhouse, the department of Haut-Rhin, the region of Alsace, the Automobile Club of France, the Paris auto salon and the company Panhard et Levassor, the car manufacturer based in Paris. For 44 million francs (less than $8 million) the association became the owner of the buildings and their contents and was charged with the mission of turning what Bugatti expert Conway had described in 1977 as a "nouveau riche extravaganza with no message" into a true museum.
In 1982 the National Automobile Museum opened with a director, Jean-Claude Delerm, who came from a successful career as the CEO of a textile-machinery firm. Ten years later it has become a true museum, the third-most-visited in all of France, after the Louvre and Versailles. This year 600,000 visitors are expected. With an admission fee of 52 francs (about $10), it is one of only a handful of the 2,000 museums in France that are self-supporting. By its charter, all profits are funneled back into expanding exhibits, adding educational programs and buying a few cars to help round out the collection.
As one walks the broad, bricked aisles beneath the fin-de-siècle lampposts, nostalgia permeates the atmosphere. "We have a relationship with the car in every part of ourselves," says Delerm, "the closest of any of man's possessions." And as one enthusiast has written, only a stately, beautifully furnished home has the nostalgic impact of a glorious classic car. Passing the open phaetons of De Dion-Bouton, one conjures up dusters and veils, and top hats and egret plumes seem to inhabit the high, closed Panhard coupes de ville. A 1908 Delage Grand Prix that once raced from Paris to Dieppe recalls a Lartigue photo, pilot and mechanic leaning into a turn. And then the Bugattis! A phalanx of French-blue racers stretches the length of the hall.
Even silent, they seem to be straining at their traces. No Bugatti was ever built with left-side steering. A driver sitting on the right more clearly saw how closely he shaved the car he was, of course, overtaking. Only 6,000 Bugattis were made, fewer than an hour's production at GM.
Under Delerm, signage, photographs, and tableaux vivants of early garages and Indy pit stops have been added to bring these idle machines to life. A very special exhibit of 20 Panhard-Levassors was given to the museum by board member Jean Panhard. It traces the social history of the first century of the manufactured French car from 1891, the first year of Panhard, in vivid clarity. Porsche, realizing that more Germans go to the Mulhouse museum than even to the Porsche museum in Stuttgart, placed on permanent loan the cream of its gallery of competition cars, including the Type 936, in which Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell won Le Mans in 1981.
There are only two American cars in the museum, a 1930 Model A Ford Cabriolet, representing 26,000 of its kind, and a 1986 Ford Model RS300. In perfect shape, it was recently donated by a family from Marseilles. Delerm hopes to add other American models to his collection—not only examples of the mass-produced car, but also Duesenbergs and Cords, Stanley Steamers and Packards.