In the Alsatian Town of Mulhouse, on the French side of the Rhine, sits a sprawling converted woolen factory that has become the Louvre of automobiles and the Chartres of Bugatti lovers. The tale of the creation of this collection is as bizarre as the 500 vehicles themselves are astonishing. They gleam and glow and shine, row upon row, in a space as large as three football fields under 900 baroque lampposts, copies of the lights that line the Pont Alexandre III in Paris.
Visitors to the Musée National de l'Automobile first pass through a courtyard that is frequently filled with a rank of visiting cars belonging to members of some rallying auto club—classic Mercedes or Citroens, Porsches or Bugattis—on a pilgrimage to the grandest assemblage of vintage automobiles in the world. Inside is another kind of shrine, a large, gilt-framed photograph of an old lady at her knitting, surrounded by a kitschy group of marble statues of nymphs and maidens and a plaque dedicating this museum to Jeanne Schlumpf, NOTRE CHÈRE MAMAN, HANS IT FRITZ. Next to this group, in weird juxtaposition, sits a Bugatti 35B Grand Prix, with two miniature versions of this famous racer: electric-powered children's cars, one made for the young crown prince of Morocco in 1927, the other for a son of the carmaker Ettore Bugatti.
The 35B was the beginning of all this and the personal car of Fritz Schlumpf, one of two eccentric brothers who, before World War II, began their obsessive collecting with this superb edition of perhaps the most famous racing car of all time. From their headquarters in Malmersbach, France, Fritz and his older brother, Hans, amassed an empire of woolen mills, buying factories throughout Alsace in the 1940s and 1950s. They were viewed during the postwar years as strict but benevolent employers, building housing for their workers and taking them on holiday outings. Children of the factory towns would race to the side of the road when they heard the distant roar of the Bugatti's engine, yelling, "Schlumpf! Schlumpf!" as Fritz, in white racing coveralls and goggles, came roaring through their villages in his blue machine. As the Schlumpf textile business expanded and became more profitable in the 1950s and '60s, Fritz, in particular, began a serious search for fine old cars. Throughout Europe, gas-guzzling classics that owners could no longer afford to maintain or drive sat on blocks, rusting away in garages. All the world wanted the efficient little Citroen 2CV's, Renault 4CV's, Volkswagens and Fiats that were pouring off assembly lines.
Fritz was especially enamored of the work of Ettore Bugatti, who had, from 1909 to 1939, created the world's fastest, most stylish and most luxurious ears in his workshop in the Alsatian town of Molsheim, south of Strasbourg. In the summer of 1960 Fritz bought 16 automobiles: three Rolls-Royces, two Hispano-Suizas, a Tatra and 10 Bugattis. including several models of Type 57, the glorious sports roadsters that—with their two-toned bodywork and powerful curving lines—defined the high life on the Riviera in the 1930s. These cars were soon joined by an ancient steam-powered Serpollet, a Bentley and a 1933 Delage saloon.
In 1962 Hugh Conway, president of the Bugatti Club of England, published a register of all Bugatti owners, and Fritz sent a letter to each one, offering to buy all their cars. Conway estimates that this mailing produced 50 Bugattis for the collector, but still he wasn't satisfied.
The Bugatti factory had been bought by Hispano-Suiza, a ear manufacturer, and had been converted to aircraft-engine production after World War II. Ettore died in 1947. His son, Jean, who designed some of the most splendid ears of the epoch, had been killed in 1939 while road-testing a race car, so there was no one to carry on the father's work. In the spring of 1963, with the blessing of the Bugatti heirs, the remaining cars in the estate went on the market. Fritz was the highest bidder, and he got the works, 14 finished automobiles plus the inventory of engines, molds and parts. But the prize was the most valuable—and some think the most beautiful—car in the world: the Bugatti Royale Coupe Napoleon that had been Ettore's personal car, an elegant leviathan capable of 124 mph, with a sweep of "wings," or fenders, floating along a massive, polished chassis, masterfully designed by Jean Bugatti when he was only 20. Dancing on its radiator cap was the crowning symbol of all Royales, a silver elephant sculpted by Rembrandt Bugatti, brother of Ettore.
Fritz paid about $200,000 for the lot. There are only six Bugatti Royales in the world. In 1986 Tom Monaghan, the Domino's Pizza mogul, paid $8.1 million for a Royale that was in the now-dispersed Harrah's collection, based in Reno. Last May the same car was sold to dealer Don Williams of California for an undisclosed price, thought to be around $10 million.
To the dismay of many Bugattistes who believed that these thoroughbreds of the road were meant to be driven, not stabled, the word got out that the Schlumpfs would buy any Bugatti they could find. And in 1962 they found a treasure trove. John Shakespeare, a retired fishing-tackle manufacturer in St. Louis, had begun racing Porsches and Ferraris in the mid-1950s and bought an imported-car company, which he renamed Shakespeare Motors. The Bugatti bug bit him when he saw an ad for a Type 55 in a sports car magazine and bought it by phone. By the time he decided to unload his collection—he found that it took up so much time that he was getting out of shape—he had collected 30 Bugattis. He sold them all to Fritz for about what he had paid for them, an estimated $100,000.
The closed freight cars that arrived at the Malmersbach factory from St. Louis that summer held a collection of sports roadsters, coupes and limousines with Jean Bugatti's signature sweeping wings and two-colored chassis—yellow and black, deep blue and red, two shades of blue. All had the distinctive chrome, horseshoe-shaped Bugatti radiator with the red lozenge BUGATTI mark. And there was another prize of prizes: a second Royale, an imposing black limousine that had originally been owned by a Brit, Capt. C.W. Foster, with coachwork by the distinguished English firm of Park Ward.
By 1966 the Schlumpf collection numbered almost 450 cars, 105 of them Bugattis. There were a dozen racing Gordinis, 10 Ferraris, Benzes that dated back to 1893, Mercedes and Daimlers, a Rolls once owned by Charlie Chaplin, and more. To warehouse and restore these cars, the brothers had bought a textile factory on the Rue Colmar in Mulhouse. Forty specialists—leather-and metalworkers, cabinetmakers, together with mechanics and body finishers who had worked at Bugatti—were hired. Every car was returned to pristine condition. Paint finishes were done over and over until the color was perfect, the surface impeccable. No one was allowed to touch a car or open a door, a hood, a trunk without wearing gloves.