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Musee Nationale de l'Automobile

Updated on January 30, 2012

The Best Auto Museum in France - And Coincidentally The Only French Auto Museum Worth Visiting

There are a few other automobile museums in France, but the Muse Nationale de l'Automobile is, to be blunt, the reason for petrolheads to visit France. Forget that goofy old EiffelTower; this auto collection is the real national treasure.

Also known as the Schlumpf auto collection, the pieces you see on display at France’s premier auto museum began humbly with the Bugatti Type 35B, one of only forty five made, and the last of the Bugatti 35s. The Italian born Fritz Schlumpf bought this car shortly before the start of the Second World War, having fallen in love with the Bugatti brand in early childhood. He became a serious car collector and racer shortly after the end of the war.

Bugatti Type 35B
Bugatti Type 35B

Fritz had founded a woollens company with his brother Hans, and had been a director for the textile union, who strongly discouraged his new found obsession, worrying that the danger involved in racing might rob them of their leadership. If you're wondering what made them so protective of their boss, well, he had installed a theatre for his employees on the grounds of the factory, he paid for them to take trips around the country, and would even drive their expectant wives to the hospital in his own car. Meanwhile, his brother Hans had become a banker who would dock employees pay severely over such matters as leaving work a minute early, and who would deny bonuses for long-time workers. It's a safe bet that Hans was strongly encouraged to start racing cars.

Despite their differences in management philosophy, the brothers Schlumpf worked together to purchase a collection of automotives in post-war Europe that would eventually grow into France’s finest automotive museum. The world was experiencing a renewal of wealth, and many Europeans were looking to sell their 1920s and 1930s model cars at a low cost in order to obtain newer models. The Schlumpf brothers capitalized on the opportunity, and throughout the 1950s would develop a reputation for being incredibly selective purchasers of older vehicles, focusing heavily on the Bugattis. They struck up a working relationship with a Renault dealer from Marseilles, and quickly amassed one of the most elite and most impressive auto collections in Europe.

As the collection expanded, it soon became clear that this obsession had gone beyond being simply a hobby, and the Schlumpfs hired a team of carpenters to renovate a wing of the Schlumpf's struggling woollens factory in Mulhouse, where their collection would be housed and restored.

The cars were actually kept in relative secret for some time, and it wasn't until the seventies, during problems between the Schlumpfs and the workers union, that the sheer scale of the collection was made public. In 1977, a group of angry teamsters broke into the factory and discovered hundreds upon hundreds of classic automotives. A Ferrari suffered fire damage during the incident, and a union representative famously remarked "There are six hundred more where that came from!"

Sadly, the Schlumpfs wound up going into heavy debt during the economic crises of the period, and creditors were eager to seize the collection in bits and pieces as recompensation. Luckily, the Council of State knew better than to let France's most prestigious car collection be broken up, and they gave the collection status as a French historic monument in hopes of housing the cars all in one place in an automotive museum. The cars, along with the building and land, were sold to the National Automobile Museums Association. The former woollens factory was opened to the public in 1982 as the Muse Nationale de l'Automobile.

Fritz Schlumpf

Luckily, Fritz won a lawsuit that allowed him to earn a portion of the proceeds generated by the auto museum, as well as having several of his favourite cars returned to his possession.

Today, the automotive museum houses too many pieces to even begin to count, including more than one hundred twenty Bugattis. To list only the most important pieces on display at the Schlumpf collection car museum would alone take several pages, but if you do get an opportunity to visit, don't miss out on the Type 41 Royale Bugattis. Ettore Bugatti built forty five of these with the intention of selling them to royalty, but during the recession, even royalty could hardly afford such cars, and Buggati only managed to sell six of them. Three are on display at the auto museum, with two being of the original six sold, and one being a replica built from parts salvaged from the old Buggati factory. The Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 Berlinnita is another showstopper, designed by Pinin Farin.

The Schlumpf collection comprises certainly the most prestigious automobile museum within France, and depending on who you ask, perhaps the most prestigious car museum in the world in the world, though few would dare say that this is not, at the very least, one of the world’s ten best automobile museums. Consider it the Louvre of car museums; No petrolhead should go their entire life without visiting the Muse Nationale de l'Automobile.

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