The Schlumpf Collection

The name of 71-year-old Fritz Schlumpf has been known in the world of old cars for many years, though his 74-year-old brother Hans is not so well known. The Schlumpf family had a thriving textile industry in the Alsace part of France, not far from the German and Swiss borders, and since the mid-thirties the Schlumpf brothers have been interested in old cars, especially Bugattis, which is not surprising when you realise they lived at Malmerspach, a couple of hours drive from the Bugatti factory at Molsheim. It was like living in Norfolk and not being a Lotus enthusiast it would not be reasonable.

They came to the notice of the outside world somewhere around the middle nineteen-fifties, when they started buying Bugatti cars and paying quite high prices (for those days) so that the used car dealers were delighted to have an outlet for old cars that would not sell on the open market. For about ten years after the 1939-45 war you could still use vintage and PVT cars in open competition and as everyday sporting transport, but the revival of the motor industry and an awakening in sports cars like Jaguar, Triumph, Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz and so on, meant that things like 1932 Type 55 Bugattis, or 1938 Type 57S Bugattis had reached a low level on the secondhand market. The way that the Schlumpf brothers started to gather Bugattis, before the dealers had promoted an artificial value to them, caused many rumours to spread. One was that they were Bugatti fanatics and were setting out to acquire every Bugatti in the world, and this was enlarged into a fantasy that they were then going to destroy them all and so prevent any Bugatti getting into the hands of unsuitable people. While everyone knew that they were buying all the Bugattis they could find, no-one took any notice of the other things they were buying, which encompassed pre-1900 veteran cars, right through to fairly modern things like 1965 Lotus and Ferrari racing cars.

An air of mystery surrounded the name Schlumpf, for they made it very clear that they were collecting cars for their own purposes and were not interested in letting anyone else see them. They were being stored in the textile factory in Malmerspach, which is at the foot of the Col du Bussang on the N66 road between Mulhouse and Epinal. One or two very favoured people were allowed into the factory and the stories that came out were very mixed, but what was clear was that many of the cars were being nicely restored and made to work. All the signs indicated that they were preparing to form a proper museum for public consumption, and Daimler-Benz lent them a 300SLR racing/sports car on indefinite loan, on this assumption. That they had hundreds of cars there was no doubt, though the figure varied according to who was telling the story, while the number of Bugattis was estimated (wildly) as hundreds. When the Bugatti factory finally passed from the hands of the Bugatti family it was known that the Schlumpfs acquired all that was left in the way of cars, though no-one seemed quite sure of what there was. Similarly, when Amedee Gordini closed his factory, all the works cars went to the Schlumpf collection, though there was still no sign of a museum being opened, nor were people encouraged to go on private visits, especially anyone connected with the Press.

The family textile business spread with the acquisition of factories in Mulhouse and Roubaix, and the brothers appeared to be wealthy industrialists, and Fritz was often seen at the Monaco GP or the Italian GP, but was very uncommunicative about the collection of cars. Some ten years ago the cars began to be moved from Malmerspach to a factory in Mulhouse, though little was known of what was going on inside the factory. Over the last two years the textile industry in France, and in Alsace in particular, has fallen on hard times and the markets have been dwindling. It was frequently reported that the Schlumpf textile industry was crumbling, along with many others in that part of France, and the crunch came early this spring when the factories closed down, putting about 1,800 employees out of work. In the subsequent investigation it was disclosed that there had been a Government grant to the industry a year or two ago, and the Schlumpfs had spent it on their cars, so were liable for “misappropriation of public funds” and promptly disappeared over the border into Switzerland, leaving all their property and cars behind them. Since the beginning of March they have been living in a hotel in Basle and refusing to see anyone, while their lawyers work on the problem. Meanwhile the factory workers were trying to get a “workers co-operative” going, in order to keep their jobs. They commandeered the main factory in Mulhouse, and it was then revealed that tho Schlumpfs had been constructing a magnificent museum within the factory grounds, in what used to be one of the textile shops. The workers took possession of the museum and opened it to the public for a couple of hours a day, taking the opportunity to canvas for their cause and take a collection from visitors on the way out. Everything was done in a very correct and orderly manner and the spokesman for the workers was insistent that the Museum should remain and be taken over by the town of Mulhouse, though at the time of writing the whole future of Alsace, the steel industry, the textile industry, the Schlumpf factories and the collection of cars is in the French National melting pot, controlled by the Government in Paris.

By a series of strokes of good fortune twos able to visit the collection and make a complete study of it, and it was a remarkable experience. There are 427 cars housed in a single building, most beautifully laid out with stands and walkways like the Earls Court Motor Show, and this single room covers two or three acres of floor space and has a low “saw-tooth” factory roof with southern-lights. The ornate swing doors leading into the Foyer are like a great theatre entrance, while the carpeting, lighting, cloakrooms, and decoration could well be for the Theatre Royale. The whole thing looks to have been a few weeks away from being opened to the public, and obviously catering for very large numbers, and everything is done in impeccable good taste and very French. Of the collection of cars much of it is unexciting and there is a great deal of repetition, but none-the-less it is a remarkable sight to see over 400 cars in one room. As a museum it does not compare with the Biscaretti Museum in Turin, or the Daimler-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, but it does make all the other French museums look very amateurish and pathetic. By our standards it makes the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu look a little tatty, and the Donington Collection look a bit plastic.

The whole thing has been dedicated to Mother Schlumpf, by her two doting sons Fritz and Hans, the old lady having died in 1957 at the age of 79. From the moment you enter you are assailed by blue Bugattis almost as far as the eye can see, for the first two stands concentrate on variations on Grand Prix Bugattis and sports Bugattis but then as the blue haze disperses you see Bugattis of every shape and colour ranging from 1900 right through to the last dying gasps from the factory in 1956. All told, I counted 122 Bugattis (including two of the electric-model Type 52 cars) but the other 300 cars cover just about everything from pre-1900 times with steam cars, to Mercedes-Benz 300SL “gull-wing” and 250GT Ferrari. One third of the hall is devoted to Bugatti and you can follow the history of the marque right the way through, each stand being devoted to one aspect and a lot of thought has gone into the layout, to say nothing of tho work of mounting all the cars on four small pedestals with gravel surrounding them so that they look as though they are standing on the ground. From the racing point of view there is one stand that made me distinctly week about the knees. It contained ten “gems” from the Bugatti racing department, starting with a nicely restored Type 47 (1929) which has a 16-cylinder engine, in two rows of eight, with two superchargers, in a Grand Prix type chassis frame. This particular example does not have any bodywork, but was clearly meant as a road car for it has a full-width petrol tank hung low between the rear dumbirons and a mounting for a spare wheel on the rear chassis cross-member. Alongside is a Grand Prix version of this car, Type 45 as raced by the factory in 1928/30. Then comes a very rare car in the form of a 1939 sports/racer, with streamlined separate mudguards. It is a Type 50B, and would appear to have been derived from the 1935 Grand Prix car featured in Motor Sport last year in our “From the Archives” series. Based on a Type 59 Grand Prix chassis, this car had the much larger Type 50B engine fitted. In 1939, when it was used by the factory for sports-car racing, with Jean-Pierre Wimille driving, it had a most peculiar radiator cowling in elongated horseshoe shape with a wire grille that looked like a spider’s web or lace. It is still in this form, in very fine condition, and wears special rear wheels with twin tyres like those used by Wimille on the big 4.7-litre single-seater Type 50B when he brought it to Prescott hillclimb in 1939. It is this actual car which is next in line, again looking exactly as it last raced in 1945 when Wimille won the Coupe des Prisonierres in the Bois du Boulogne in Paris mere weeks after the end of the war.

From these delectable special competition Bugattis on the same stand we come to a very nice example of the Type 51 GP car; 2.3-litre straight-eight, twin cam, supercharged, of 1931, and then a mouth-watering sister car complete with full road equipment, wings, lights, spare wheel, aero-screens etc. Next to these two Type 51 cars is yet another, but it is a peculiar single-seater version with a cowl over the radiator and stub exhausts. It was not possible to ascertain the exact history of this car, nor whether it was a 2.3-litre or a 1.5-litre, the latter version being the Type 51A. To Bugatti enthusiasts the next exhibit was something most of them know about, but few have seen, for it was a Type 53 chassis, complete less the engine and gearbox. The important thing about the Type 53 was that it was 4-wheel-drive. In just the same way that firms like Lotus dabbled in 4-wheel-drive in 1969 with cars that were a complete sidestep train the normal line of design of Lotus racing cars, apart from the engine, so did Bugatti in 1931 with his Type 53. The Schlumpf collection contains this chassis with all the drive mechanism complete, which makes for interesting study. Finally, on this remarkable stand, are the two Type 251 Grand Prix cars of 1956 which appeared at Reims for the French GP and then were never seen again. One car is complete and just as I recall seeing it when Maurice Trintignant did his best pour la patrie with a car that was quite hopeless, and the other one has all the bodywork panels removed so that you can see the transverse-mounted at engine, and the strange de Dion axle layouts front and rear.

While this particular stand was the high-palm of Bugatti material for the racing enthusiast, there were other stands with an equal amount of interest for any other aspect of Bugatti you care to mention. There were the last two experimental road cars made at Molsheim, the Type 252 saloon which is really ugly, being rather short and having a forward-mounted horseshoe-shaped radiator and a very mid-thirties body, even though it was created in the mid, 1950s, and alongside it a very pretty open two-seater sports car with all-enveloping body, looking like a petite and slim Sebring Frazer Nash. This car has been referred to as a Type 252 in various Bugatti books, but the label on the car in the Schlumpf collection reads “Ettorette Bugatti”. Also in the collection of post-war experimental projects is the sister chassis of the Type. 73C to the one in the Donington Park collection, which is the strangely old-fashioned single-seater t+’-litre, 4-cylinder supercharged model designed during the war and exhibited at the Paris Salon immediately afterwards. With this, and using the same type of engine, is a modern (for the early nineteen-fifties, that is) chassis, with i.f.s. by wishbones and coil springs and using bolt-on disc wheels, a purely experimental test car with the unusual feature of the exhaust silencer mounted transversely ahead of the front axle assembly.

On one stand alone there are thirteen versions of the classic Grand Prix Bugatti of the vintage years, of Types 35 and 37 and 39 in supercharged and unsupercharged form. Star among this lot for rarity must surely be the 1923 Type 32, the straight-eight “Tank” Grand Prix car with all-enveloping body, albeit somewhat crude in construction. Other stands contain selections of production cars, such as eight Type 43 Gran Sport tourers, seven Type 55 open roadsters and coupes, thirteen touring Type 49 models, fifteen versions of the touring Type 57 with various body styles, and the 1940 prototype Type 64, which was a 4 1/2-litre version of the Type 57, which normally displaced 3.3 litres. There are also two post-war versions of the Type 57, known as the Type 101. Very desirable are the nine versions of the sports-coupe Type 57S, some of them no doubt supercharged, thus becoming Type 575C which was surely the ultimate pre-war production Bugatti sports car.

Other Bugatti lore is shown in examples of the 16-cylinder aero-engine built in 1918, three Railcar engines of 13 litres, as used in the Royale and an experimental straight eight Bugatti steam engine, as well as dozens of superchargers from all the various production cars. In the centre of the collection are a trio of Bugattis that are almost beyond value, these being two of the six Royales that were built, and a very elegant Type 50 coupe. The two Royales are the black limousine that spent its life in England, and a magnificent Coupe de Ville that was the property of the Bugatti family all its life. This car must be the ultimate in exotic Bugattis and was the first Royale to be built, in 1927. It was subsequently fitted with various bodywork, the splendid Coupe de Ville (or Coupe Napoleon, as it is called by some people) body being fitted about 1931, though it also is referred to as a Sedanca de Ville. In the workshops, in another part of the factory, the Schlumpf brothers were having another Royale built up by their mechanics. This was being built using spare parts and new parts made using original Molsheim patterns, and was being bodied in two-seater sports form, but the collapse of their empire stopped work when it was about 2/3rds complete.

For non-Bugatti enthusiasts (if there are any!) there is much to interest in the Schlumpf collection and Italian-car enthusiasts are quite well catered for with a variety of Maserati competition cars, from a 1930 Type 8C-2500, through 8CM, 4CL, 4CLT to 250F, while Alfa Romeo is covered by 1,750 c.c. Zagato two-seater, 2.9B Mille Miglia coupe and a 2-litre Disco-Volante among others. The Ferrari confection is a rather miscellaneous lot, though it does include a 1964 1 1/2-litre V6 and a 1970 Tipo 312 Grand Prix car. French racing enthusiasts have much to interest them, with a 1921 Ballot 3-litre racing car, a vintage supercharged Amilcar 6, a pair of Talbot-Lago 4 1/2-litre single-seaters of 1950 and the whole collection of Gordini racing cars from the factory. On display are the two 8-cylinder Grand Prix cars of 1957, a pair of 6-cylinder cars of 1953/54, and as examples of Gordini sports/racing cars.

On the Mercedes-Benz stand there are two (yes two!) 1939 Grand Prix cars, the 3-litre, V-12, two-stage supercharged Type W163, both in immaculate condition, and also a 1937 W125 straight-eight 5.66-litre Grand Prix car, which looks like the hill-climb version used just pre-war and similar to the one that Colin Crabbe acquired some years ago, which is now owned by Neil Corner. Among the sports cars on the Mercedes-Benz stand are four SSK models of the vintage years, 540K roadsters from the mid-thirties, 1951 Type 300 coupes and a 300SL “gull-wing” coupe.

No matter what aspect of motoring or motoring history you are interested in the Schlumpfs seemed to have covered it, some adequately, some sparsely. Whether it is pre-19oo solid-tyred Panhard or Benz cars, earlier steam cars, Edwardian popular cars like 2-cylinder Renaults, or vintage light cars like Amilcar, Salmson, Citroen and so on, they are all there, including very rare rnakes and some obscure makes, while ‘here were some that were completely unidentifiable from the 1908 to 1924 period.

It is said that the collection totals something like 582 cars, which is more than likely, having actually counted 427 on show in the one building. Just what is going to happen to them all is not known at the time of writing (mid-April) but all the portents are that the collection is going to be kept intact and run as a national museum, and I sincerely hope this is the case, for it would be heart-breaking to see the cars dispersed. The collectors and dealers are all worried lest the whole lot are sold off or auctioned, for they feel that a glut alas least 122 Bugattis on the market at one time will spoil the racket of “old car prices” and lower the value of those already in the outside world. The investors can see their investments crumbling! For the motoring enthusiast who just likes old cars, and wants to use one for fun, this would not be a bad thing. A Bugatti for it £1,000 instead of £35,000 would make more sense and would spread the fun around a bit. – D.S.J.