The Canal du Rhône au Rhin: Mulhouse, Cité de l’Automobile

The entrance to Cité de l’Automobile

On the outskirts of Mulhouse is Cité de l’Automobile, also referred to as the “Musée national de l’automobile” or the “Collection Schlumpf”. The museum claims the largest displayed collection of automobiles in the world. Notable is the number of cars made by Bugatti, said to be most comprehensive anywhere. Indeed many call Cité de l’Automobile the “Bugatti Museum” for that reason.

The origin of the museum starts with a collection of cars acquired by the Schlumpf brothers, owners of several of Mulhouse’s textile mills. Using the profits from their business the brothers discretely acquired an extensive collection of automobiles. Inside an unused wing of a spinning mill the brothers employed a team of workers to quietly restore the cars. The workers were sworn to silence, all being required to sign confidentiality agreements.

By the late 1970’s the nexus of the textile industry had shifted to Asia. The combination of market forces and the costs of car collecting pushed the brothers towards insolvency. Ultimately they were forced to flee France for Switzerland in financial ruin. In the process they left behind their collection automobiles in Mulhouse.

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With time, pressure grew to sell off the Collection Schlumpf piecemeal to pay down the brother’s debts. But before this could happen France’s Council of State intervened and classified the brother’s collection as a Historic Monument. A few years later the collection, including the buildings and land, were sold to the National Automobile Museum Association. And with that transaction the Collection Schlumpf became the core holdings of what was to become the Cité de l’Automobile.

Together with the post-Schlumpf additions the collection now totals over 520 vehicles from 98 manufacturers, with 400 on display. Of these there are 123 Bugattis, by far the most heavily represented automobile manufacturer at the museum.

It should not be a surprise that there are so many vehicles made by Bugatti in the collection; the car manufacturer is based in Molsheim France, just an hour to the north of Mulhouse. So clearly geography informed the Schlumpf brother’s collecting proclivities with a preference for the Bugatti brand. With that the original Peugeot factory is far closer to Mulhouse than Molsheim and it produced more cars. Yet at the museum there are more than four times as many vehicles produced by Bugatti than by Peugeot. The brothers clearly preferred Bugatti. It’s easy to see why. They are beautiful cars.

Judging by the oil leaking from the underside of many of the cars on display at Cité de l’Automobile it is more than just a static car museum. Indeed there is an autodrome out back where some of the cars in the collection are driven during public shows. It is also possible for visitors to drive some of the collection’s cars around the track themselves, for a price. When we visited sitting on the side of the track was black Ferrari 458 Italia just waiting to be driven. As tempted as I was I passed, this time.

The weight of this Mercedes Double Phaeton from 1905 made braking difficult. Mercedes solution: Add an extra brake lever so the back seat driver can help stop the car.

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There’s a separate option to drive a car marketed at the museum. In this case it is an opportunity for “enlightened amateurs” to drive a 1001 horsepower Bugatti Veyron. The drive is under the supervision of an instructor trained by a Bugatti testing pilot. Participants can reach speeds in excess of 150 mph on the nearby German Autobahn, seemingly a pedestrian speed for a car with a claimed top speed of over 250 mph. The advertisement goes on to say that this drive can be done in “complete safety”, an assertion that seems a dubious at best. This offer is called the “Nothing is Too Good Pack” and costs a mere $13,000 for a 48 hour experience. At least the price covers lunch and dinner too.

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Cité de l’Automobile is accessible by a tram, which stops at Mulhouse’s gare across the canal from the port de plaisance. The museum is open every day except Christmas. It is one of Mulhouse’s must see attractions.

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