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France’s national car museum

Musée national de l’automobile

In my book, French License, I detailed in the chapter on Car Culture how little France cared about the automobile. I contrasted French attitudes toward motorised vehicles with those of their neighbours and the USA, where I come from. The differences are stark and plentiful.

So, on a trip to Alsace this week, I was stunned to learn that France claimed the world’s largest, most prestigious and valuable car museum, the ‘Musée national de l’automobile’ in Mulhouse. I just had to see it. Perhaps I had sold the French short, and this place would be the exception to the rule.

First of all, where’s Mulhouse? It’s so far East, it’s almost in another country. You could throw a rock one way and hit Switzerland. You could throw a rock another way and reach Germany. Their international airport serves the three countries. When you land at EuroAirport, you can literally walk to exit in Mulhouse, France or Freiburg, Germany or Basel, Switzerland.

In fact, Mulhouse was a part of Germany from 1871 to 1919, and a couple times before that. During this period, in the 1890s, the automobile was born. Many French manufacturers participated in creating the industry. The Peugeot factory in Mulhouse is still running.

Pulling into the parking lot of the museum, we saw license plates from Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Italy and a few from France. Mind you, this is just after deconfinement from Covid-19, and the French plates were still a minority.

The brothers Fritz and Hans Schlumpf were brought up in this heyday of personal motor vehicle invention, and they never lost their passion for it. Swiss nationals, born in Italy, they moved to Mulhouse, Germany in 1908. They took over their father’s textile business in Mulhouse in the 1930s and became very rich. Neither ever married nor had any children, so they could consecrate their vast fortune on buying rare automobiles. They focused exclusively on European brands, especially those from the very early days of creation. Their greatest affinity was for the maker of the most luxurious and powerful vehicles in-between the two wars: Bugatti.

Ettore Bugatti was an Italian immigrant who worked for several car manufacturers before establishing his own factory in Molsheim, Germany, in 1909, now in the Alsace region of France. He obsessed over every detail, seeking perfection in both engineering design and style. While Rolls only ever aspired to luxury and Ferrari only to speed, Bugatti wanted it all for his models: class, power, beauty, sophistication and innovations galore. Bugatti vehicles were winners of races at the highest levels in the ‘teens 20s and 30s. Bugatti customers were royalty and heads-of-state across the world. Even when the depression, and war hit, he refused to make concessions, continuing to build the most exclusive cars in the world.

During WWII, his factory was requisitioned by the occupying Nazis. Ettore got back his factory, but never recovered, and died three years after the war. His brand and company changed hands several times since, today owned by Volkswagen. You can visit Ettore Bugatti on my first Chairfather tour of Père Lachaise: 

A buddy of mine from the area got to ride in several of the Schlumpf cars as a youth, including two Bugatti’s which were the most luxurious, and the fastest of their age. His parents were friends of the Schlumpfs, and Fritz would pop by and offer a trip to Seppala. The boy only found out years later just how lucky he was.

At the end of the museum tour, you’re invited to cruise in a classic car on a closed circuit. There are several Italian, German and French makes to choose from. Count minimum €40 for 7 trips around the track.  

So, to summarise, what I wrote in the Car Culture chapter about French disdain for cars still stands. The ‘Cité de l’automobile…’ 

  • is located in a border town that’s almost in Germany
  • represents the personal collection of two brothers from Switzerland
  • contains a large majority of cars from an Italian builder, whose brand is now owned by VW
  • attracts most of its visitors from outside France

I rest my case about the French attitude toward cars.

But the museum has a very, very good case to be made as the biggest and the best. More than 400 classic cars are on display, and more than 150 others are in storage, allowing the curators to rotate in some others from time to time. Nobody else has so many which can be seen at once. But what about prestige? Here’s just one example. The most priceless vehicle on the globe is the Bugatti Royale type 41 released in the late 1920s. Just one of these cars is worth at least €40M and probably closer to €100M. Nobody really knows because they hardly ever change hands through purchase. No matter which Rolls Royce or Ferrari you pick, you’d need to trade several Silver Ghosts or 250 GTO Berlinettas to get just one Bugatti Royale. They only ever made six of the Bugatti Royale. This museum has three. Oh, and 120 other Bugattis. And 14 Rolls, including Silver Ghosts. And 13 Ferraris including GTOs.

It’s well worth a visit. I came expecting to spend an hour, and ended up lingering for four hours… on an empty stomach during lunchtime. That’s how captivating I found the exhibits. I’m certain you will, too.

To plan your visit, here’s some practical information:

Cité de l’automobile

192 ave de Colmar, Mulhouse


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