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.
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.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’ 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”.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.
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.
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.”