Schlumpf Collection – Profile and Photo Gallery

Entrance to the Schlumpf Collection

Story and photos by Leigh Dorrington

The Schlumpf Collection in Mulhouse, France has been described as the most prestigious automobile collection in the world. Without doubt, no other collection in the world has a history more filled with intrigue.

The public learned of the collection of automobiles assembled by brothers Fritz and Hans Schlumpf in 1977 when workers striking against the Schlumpfs’ woolen mills seized the collection.

No less than automotive journalist Denis Jenkinson—who rode with Sir Stirling Moss in his famous 1955 Mille Miglia victory for Mercedes—first documented the secretive collection, writing with Peter Verstappen and assisted by noted Bugatti historian Hugh Conway who at times expressed his dismay at ever becoming involved with the Schlumpf brothers and their obsession with dominating the world market for Bugattis.

By then the Schlumpfs had fled to their native Switzerland and would never again see the collection that had in turns dominated their lives, doomed their business empire and sent them into a permanent exile.

But already, we are ahead of the story.

EARLY DAYS

Fritz and Hans Schlumpf were born to a Swiss father and an Alsacian mother—a native of the Alsace region that passed back and forth between French and German control following frequent conflicts. Coming from a reasonably ordinary background the brothers, a salesman and a banker respectively, earned their fortune through the clever accumulation of stock in woolen mills in the Alsace region.

Brothers Hans (left) and Fritz Schlumpf

Brothers Hans (left) and Fritz Schlumpf

Their first acquisition was completed in 1940. ‘Jenks’, as Denis Jenkinson was known to his legions of fans, reported that Fritz and Hans Schlumpf maintained a balance between their adopted homeland and the German-backed French Vichy government throughout WWII, showing neither open resistance toward the occupying force nor war profiteering.

Schlumpf assets eventually grew in the post-war years to include a substantial estate at Malmerspach and four spinning mills. The Schlumpfs’ relationship with their workers was initially paternalistic. Housing, transportation and other benefits were available to loyal employees although the character of the relationship turned acrimonious over time, particularly under the vindictive control of the former banker Hans Schlumpf.

The change may also have begun with the unwelcome intrusion of trade unions immediately following the war. The entreaties of the Communist trade union, CGT, was first met with indifference as the brothers simply paid shop stewards and workers more as they sought to maintain their own luxurious lifestyle. The Schlumpf brothers became more secretive during this period, spying on employees and withholding benefits.

But while the Communists—and later, Socialists—were looking out for the welfare of French workers, the acquisitive Schlumpf brothers were looking out for their own. Their ever-increasing holdings included over 60% of the town of Malmerspach, as well as personal extravagances such as the private label champagne they served to guests although they owned no vineyards. Jenkinson reported, “as the 1940s ended (the brothers) had begun to assembled a wide variety of objects”. These included automobiles.

Fritz purchased a Bugatti Type 35B grand prix car immediately before the war and added a Type 57 shortly after the war. A small collection in a shed at Malmerspach was also noted as early as the end of the war. Fritz was also an enthusiastic racer, driving the Bugattis and other automobiles.

Fritz Schlumpf - Bugatti Type 35B

Fritz Schlumpf's Bugatti Type 35B

Fritz’ racing came to an end in 1957 when, again according to Jenkinson, “a workers’ delegation asked”–-(Schlumpf’s mother, who exerted an unusually strong influence on her sons)—“to see that he retired from racing on the reasonable grounds that if he went up in flames so would their jobs”.

This became the tipping point for the creation of a private automobile collection that rivaled any in the world, including the Harrah Collection in the U.S. at its prime.

Except that only a very small few even knew of the existence of the collection, and far fewer were ever granted admission by the Schlumpfs.

A COLLECTION TO RIVAL ANY IN THE WORLD

The Mulhouse woolen mill was purchased in July 1957 to house the collection, with an adjacent building converted to a restoration shop employing ten workers at the beginning.

The methods employed by the Schlumpfs to build the collection were as secretive as their business affairs. As the existence of the collection and the brothers’ interest in acquiring automobiles—particularly Bugattis— became known in the collector world, significant cars were often brought forward to a network of dealers that emerged to funnel cars to Mulhouse.

The Schlumpfs demanded, “cars must be in perfect working order from mechanical and bodywork point of view”, and they were often prepared to pay well. They appeared to be less discriminate in the quantities of automobiles they were prepared to purchase. In the summer of 1960 alone, ten Bugattis, three Rolls Royces and a pair of Hispano-Suizas were added to the collection, now numbering 40 automobiles.

Historians Jenkinson and Conway recalled how “many Bugatti devotees reviled the name Schlumpf”. Post-war collectors, by and large, worked on their vintage automobiles themselves and drove them. They were outraged that the Schlumpfs appeared to be interested in neither, but only in filling space with an unprecedented collection of early automobiles.

When Hugh Conway published a Bugatti Register in 1962, Fritz Schlumpf obtained a copy and promptly sent letters to each owner with an interest toward purchasing every Bugatti! Fritz Schlumpf sent a personal letter to Hugh Conway stating, “I confirm that I am always a buyer of Bugatti and beg you to put me in touch with anyone in your acquaintance who is likely to sell”.

John Shakespeare

John Shakespeare

The Schlumpfs purchased nearly 50 Bugattis in 1962. From late 1962 into 1963 a stunning negotiation was ongoing between the Schlumpfs and American John Shakespeare who had assembled an extraordinary collection of more than 30 Bugattis, including one of the six Bugatti Royales.

Conway communicated between both parties, although he always made clear that he profited in no way other than finding good homes for the beloved Bugattis. Shakespeare’s asking price was $105,000 to sell all of the Bugattis as one lot, said to be the same amount he paid for the cars. It is simply incomprehensible today to imagine that an agreement was reached for a lesser amount and only after “horse trading, angry words, changes of mind and threats” according to Hugh Conway.

Also in 1963 the Schlumpfs acquired 14 more Bugattis directly from Ettore Bugatti’s Molsheim factory, recently purchased by Hispano-Suiza who were desperately in need of money. The lot included Ettore Bugatti’s personal Bugatti Royale and the rear-engine Bugatti Type 251 grand prix car that was meant to restore Bugatti’s racing fortunes in the 1950s. The Bugattis were purchased with many original spares and patterns—over the strong objections of the managing director and Roland Bugatti, Ettore Bugatti’s surviving son.

Fritz Schlumpf with Bugatti Type 41 Coupe Napolean Royale

Fritz Schlumpf with Bugatti Type 41 Coupe Napolean Royale

Still the acquisitions continued. The assortment of other automobiles in addition to Bugattis was astonishing. These included racing cars and well-known luxury marques such as Hispano-Suiza, Rolls Royce, Mercedes-Benz, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Maserati and Ferrari, as well as marques that contributed significantly to French automobile history including Panhard-Levassor, De Dion, Peugeot, Renault, and Citroen. The earliest automobiles included a profusion of names seldom if ever known even to historians, including an 1878 Jacquot tonneau à vapeur, Menier and Georges Richard.

A 200,000 sq ft space was prepared in the Mulhouse mill for a museum to house the collection. The space was as opulent as the automobiles to be displayed. Vast areas were prepared with gravel to exhibit the automobiles, while broad tile walkways separated these areas in anticipation of visitors who would one day enter the museum. Three restaurants were constructed, with seating to accommodate 1,200 people.

But the crowning touch—aside from the automobiles—was the 800 gas-style lamps modeled after the elegant lamps lining the Pont Alexandre III bridge in Paris. This extravagance was at once characteristic of both the best and the worst of the Schlumpfs’ obsession.

Schlumpf Collection - Early Display

Schlumpf Collection - Early Display

Few other than the brothers and workmen were allowed to view the collection. Even esteemed editor and publisher L. Scott Bailey of Automobile Quarterly was told that it was not possible. One notable exception was a private invitation in May of 1965 to a guest list that included, among others, Prince Bertil of Sweden, Prince Louis Napolean, Prince Metternich, Juan Manuel Fangio, Pininfarina and Louis Chiron.

Denis Jenkinson wrote of this time: “By now, opening the museum had become an obsession with the Schlumpfs. Fritz spoke of it often. He announced that, ‘(the museum) will be in memory of my mother.’”

“But the museum had also become an obsession with the union. Men were constantly being seconded to it from union-defined duties, and items as various as tools, concrete and wood were diverted to Mulhouse. So concerned had the union become that during the general strike of 1968 they put out a list of complaints relating directly to the museum. The brothers ignored it.”

Comments

  1. Marc Lunde says

    Marvelous piece by Leigh Dorrington. Enjoyed learning about the Schlumpf brothers, ie the story behind the story. The only downside is that I have yet another addition to my bucket list of automotive to-dos.

  2. says

    This collection sucks because it does not have a Bandini or Stanguellini, JUST KIDDING! I think I’d drop dead upon entering this shrine from heart failure. It looks like they have made many upgrades to the facilities since my Father first visited there in the 1980’s. This museum is my Mecca and I will visit there some day!

    • says

      Hey Cliff, Only an hour north is Molsheim and all the original Bugatti property, plus the fabulous glass atelier where the Veyrons are constructed. That is certainly worth a visit too. Permission to visit can be obtained from Julius Kruta, a charming, cosmopolitan young man who speaks several languages brilliantly. julius.kruta@bugatti.com

  3. says

    Not far from the Cité de l’Automobile – National Museum – Schlumpf Collection is the French National Railway Museum. This museum is loaded with wonderful European trains. One WW1 era flat car has a large WW1 artillery piece mounted on its bed. Unfortunately it is adjustable for up/down only and not for left or right. I am no artillery expert but this does seem to present a few problems. Another museum in Mulhouse is the Wallpaper Design Museum. The museum illustrates the history of wallpaper. Don’t laugh there are enough interesting samples to make an interesting afternoon visit. The drive down through the Alsace region on the way to Mulhouse is one loaded with wonderful restaurants, wineries and Absinthe distilleries. All in all a wonderful place to spend a week.
    Enjoy.

  4. Bruce in Italy says

    Great article.
    Has anyone ever tried to assess what their investment into this collection was and the possible collection value today?
    Truly astounding.

  5. Charlie Webster says

    Fascinating article, but what a shame the racers in particular are stuck in the museum and not out doing what they built for.

  6. says

    Magnificent article. There are so many Bugattis in that museum that the most exotic becomes almost commonplace. I thought that Mulhouse was rather far off the usual tourist trails of France, but the journey from south to north over near the Swiss border leading to Strasbourg was magnificent. I bet Cliff Reuter will go out of his mind when he gets to this Mecca.

  7. says

    Visited museum this summer, took the wife to Basel to see the paintings but the real art was in the Cite de Auto. I’ve never seen so many significant cars in one place. The shop at the end of the tour was filled with so many cool things we just don’t see here in america. If memory serves me right every winning bugatti from the pre war era was there. I became a big fan of Bugatti blue and will always remember my experience at Shlumph as the greatest day of my car guy existence. If Sunday morning at pebble beach is the zenith than this place is the Mecca of all car collections.

  8. Babadawv says

    Both thanks and kudos to Leigh Dorrington: until I can get there this is a fine substitute.

    I respectfully question Carig Zinn’s “if memory serves me right every winning bugatti from the pre war era was there”: did he mean that every *type* that won was represented, or that all the actual cars that won pre-war were present. If the latter, I respectfully disagree in that two winning Bugs belong to a friend and an acquaintance respectively.

    Still, I share with Craig a loyal affection to Bugatti blue, even though my personal taste runs to the cars across the English Channel.

    Thank you again, Leigh for a wonderful evocation of a distinguished collection.

  9. Erik Koux says

    Interesting article. The Schlumpf collection ie really worth while visiting. The Schlumpf brothers are usually described as monsters but maybe they were not as bad as that. One can wonder who has done more harm, the Schlumpf brothers or the communist unions. After all they saved a lot of now valuable cars from the scrap yard with an investment that was not at all enormous. just look at the less than $100.000.- for the 30 Shakespire Bugattis and Shakespire even had to pay for the shipping.
    And then to a few corrections to the article: the recreation of the Esders Royale was begun by Schlumpf but only finished after the seizure by the French state. The body was built by Carosserie Lecocq in Paris. The illustration showing a blue car with the Coupé Napoleon in the background is not a T50 but a T57.

  10. says

    Thank you for sharing an extreemly fascinating account of the Schlumpf brothers, there history & legascy,..and of course,there ‘world-renouned’ immpeccable collection of
    exotic vintage vehicles.I look forward to a visit.
    I enjoy ‘documenting historical’, rhedundant, rhetorical details on individual components and modifications to such,
    in such rare vintage vehicles regularly, with very private
    collectors,daily;Professionally & confidentially.
    Thanks for sharing. It’s always inspiring to all.
    Kurt Stoops SFGI./VAA.Inc.President,Senior Appraiser.USA.

  11. Auntie Loch-Braiques says

    Greatly enjoyed both text and photos even though the information and the cars are familiar to me.
    A book about the Collection by Jenkinson and Verstappen mis-identifies the beautiful gas lights that stand along the aisles of cars. Your article states the obvious correction: the lights are based on those from the Pont Alexandra III in Paris, not Venetian lights. By the way: it’s redundant to say “bridge” after Pont Alexandre III.

  12. Obster says

    I have always been amazed by this collection…so large and such rare cars. Also the setting they created. Gravel beds-wonderful ides for leaks!
    Thanks for another great article.

    • David McArthur says

      Cannot argue with your list, although for my tastes there are as good or better collections in the States…private though.

  13. Jim K. says

    I got to see the collection in 1985 as part of the Porsche club Treffen tour that year. It looks like they’ve really expanded the facility. My main memory was row after row of blue cars on gravel surfaces, and the light fixtures.

  14. lazarus says

    not quite correct,Fritz Schlumpf DID see his beloved collection again.But only in a wheelchair many years later shortly before his death at the invitation of the new managemant.Arlette Schlumpf [his wife] eventually won her case for compensation for the theft of the collection.

    • Erik Koux says

      I did not dare to mention theft, but this is actually what it was. The fact that Arlette Schlumpf won the case and that Collection Schlumpf was added to the name of the museum is prrof enough.

  15. says

    as a member of the Association Internationale des Amis du Musée National de l’Automobile de Mulhouse – Collection Schlumpf the article was very welcome. we not only support the Museum financially but also have on going projects to restore cars in the museum. we also work 4 saturdays in the year cleaning the cars. please have a look at our web site for more information. membership costs €40 per year and the member has unlimited free visits to the museum. http://www.amisdumusee.org . basically we are French and German speaking but any English speaking readers can contact me for further information. if you decide to join the club always wants to know who “brought” you to the club, so please give my name Lawrence Sufryn. my skype id is LEO68130

  16. says

    It’s a real shame when you think the U.S.A had a similar collection of great cars ( including 2 Royales ) but when Mr Harrah passed away they were all sold off by Kruse , why wasn’t that collection kept intact as a National Treasure ?
    Even today when one comes up for sale the ad always reads “Ex Harrah”

  17. yank says

    What a great article and story. One car that Fritz Schlumpf tried to buy in 1963 resides here in the USA at the Simeone Museum, Philadelphia, the 1936 Bugatti Type 57G “Tank” that won the 1937 Le Mans. This car is on display and runs on the 3 acre parking lot next to the building for the enjoyment of the museum visitors on demo days that are held once per month. Thank goodness this car stayed in the USA!!

  18. Auntie Loch-Braiques says

    Correction to my post: There is a typo. It should read Pont Alexandre III, not ‘a’ at the end. Sorry.

  19. Frank Foster says

    Totally mind bogeling collection but a pity never to see any out and about or better still on the race track. My Grand Uncle, Cuthbert Foster, was the origonal owner of one of the Bugatti Royales, which I think is in America. My father went in it once and told me it was massive, after his Hotchkiss engined Bullnosed Morris Cowley! Cuthbert was killed during the war. I seem to remember a tale about Briggs Cunningham obtaining two Royales, off a member of the Bugatti family, after WW2, in exchange for some fridges and freezers made by General Electric. True or false anyone?

  20. Richard Reina says

    I was privliged to visit the museum in 1982; even though that was over 30 years ago, the images are seared into my mind. I also took many photos; in an attempt to portray the size of the Royale, I posed my girlfriend next to the car. I saw the lamp posts, walkways, and gravel pads. It looks like there’s been a significant upgrade to the museum, so a return visit is in order.

  21. Jimmy Millar says

    One of my regrets is that I missed an opportunity to visit the collection in the mid 70s when it was really going through the changes and what you see now were just being formulated. I can well remember in the 60s up until the take over the stories that were floating about. Good article by the way

  22. Russell Jacobs says

    I was a GI stationed near Heidelberg in 1953, and on returning from a trip to Paris, a rear spring broke on my rented Taunus. I went to the Ford place in Strasbourg to have it repaired and noticed they had for sale a type 57 Bugatti which I looked at even then with a sense of awe and desire. It was pristine and truly a beauty. When my wife and first visited the Schlumph museum in 1977, I found that car along with so many other Bugattis and mostly other French makes the brothers were so infatuated about. At that time the brothers had fled back to Switzerland and the museum was in the hands of the union. They allowed people into the museum after listening to about a half hour fiery harangue of the brothers by some of the workers. After they opened the gate, you simply walked in and browsed around, no guides, guards or any apparent observation. Many of the cars were partially covered with paper and very dusty.There was no electricity, so no lights, etc. After about two hours, they simply rounded up all the visitors and escorted people out of the building. As you left the place they had a small barrel you could toss in whatever donation you wanted to make to the union. As with the Harrah collecton in Reno, the collection is smaller and much more elegantly presented today. I have visited auto and air museums in several countries, and I am so grateful that so many are preserved with such care. As with children, I’d not choose one to be more valuable or beautiful than another.

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