The Year of Schlumpf

Everyone loves to browse used cars on ebay or Craigslist; for some car collectors, it is the chase which attracts them to the hobby in the first place, finding just the right car. Me, I have always been amazed at how much car can be had for how little money. The teenage me dreamed of 500 pound Jaguars like Withnail’s.

Heaven would be to be free of the normal constraints of space, functionality and practicality – to go and look at the interesting cars you saw, kick the tyres, and if you liked it, be able to just buy, right ?

All my life I had wanted to do that. Last year, I did it.

There are places in Africa where you can go out for a stroll, and pick up diamonds right off the beach. When I first came to California, the world’s largest car market, and realized that cars here never see the salt of winter, so they survive, with faded paint and tired interiors, in copious quantities at low prices….well, I realized I was on that beach, looking at F Scott Fitzgerald’s Diamond as Big as the Ritz. The way I thought about cars changed – I became a collector, a collector adamant he would find the funds and space to bend over, pick up and safely pocket my automotive diamonds.

And the time to do this is now. The success of the Prius, which was tied to $4 gas in the US, made me realize, forcibly, that these are the very twilight years for mass gas powered transit; if you like these kind of cars and bikes, now is the time to get out and drive and own. Today we have the Leaf – and surely this is the milestone posterity will remember, erroneously, as “the first electric car”. Realistically, in ten or fifteen years, only us hobbyists will have gas powered cars.

The Mullin Automotive Museum
These ideas took shape at the same time as I was involved in a project for one of the world’s foremost car collectors, Peter Mullin. Peter’s collection is themed around the very best in French cars ( e.g. Bugatti, Delage, Delahaye, Voisin ) and the museum he has recently opened in Oxnard, just west of LA, on the way out to Santa Barbara, is well, well, worth a visit. Bluntly, my opinion is that in both conception and execution The Mullin Automotive Museum has moved the business of how to explain, preserve and display great old cars on a step – just as Lord March did a few years ago with his Goodwood events.

The Curator, Andrew Reilly, speaks about the collection being Art Deco; how he likes to compare Rembrandt Bugatti’s sculpture, his “attention to surface” with the turned aluminium engine block of one of Ettore Bugatti’s cars, since both speak to the same type of artistry and craftsmanship. The museum avoids both cheesy dioramas ( how often do you see fifties cars displayed in a “drive in movie” diorama ? ) and the issue common at car shows, and many museums, of the vehicle floating in an ahistorical context – a Model T Ford between a Mustang and a GT40, but saying nothing of the Model T’s role in mobilizing the world, or the dustbowl migrations of the thirties. A plaque about confusing epicyclic gears and the production line system does not explain the car.

Instead, Mullin’s space is laid out like an interwar Paris Auto Salon – the setting allows twenty first century eyes to see the cars in the context most contemporaries saw them – dazzling at the motorshow, often slightly elevated from the ground, with plenty of room so you can look at the car from all angles. There are separate areas introducing specific cars – for example, the Lake Maggiore Bugatti and for the furniture and sculpture on display. The narrow focus allows spectacular opportunities to compare and contrast between models/marques but also to see the cars in the broader context of the “jazz age”. The overall experience is akin to a visit to an art gallery, with every aspect of the viewer experience considered. In essence then, the Mullin Museum reflects the values of the designers of the exhibits themselves.

The Schlumpfs
Mullin’s work stands in sharp contrast to the Schlumpfs. Hans and Fritz Schlumpf were brothers who ran textile mills in the Alsace region of France near Strasbourg. During the fifties, the brothers began car collecting. Alsatians tend to have a keen sense of identity, and I think it was this, plus the obvious attractions of the cars themselves that led the Schlumpfs to specialize in Bugatti, since Bugatti’s factory was in the Alsace, although he himself was Italian. A notice appeared in the Bugatti Owners Club journal offering to buy any Bugatti at above market value. Stories abounded of Fritz’ aggressive negotiation style; he would offer far above market value often having barely glanced at the car. At one time, the Schlumpfs owned 120 of all the Bugattis ever made ! At Peter Mullin’s during filming for the project, I picked up a book written by the Marseille based Renault dealer whom Fritz worked with to buy cars; I will never forget the photographs of his back garden in suburban Paris one winter in the sixties; jammed in nose to tail, covered with a thick blanket of snow, nestled Hispano-Suizas, Edwardian Renaults, and three or four Ventoux Bugatti, with the Eiffel Tower in the background. It was that image, more than any other which made me feel NOW, right NOW is the time to collect, because now is the time the diamonds are strewn, almost valueless, at your feet, as these Bugattis were in the sixties for the Schlumpfs.

The scale and style of the Schlumpf’s collection provoked the ire of many classic car enthusiasts. The most famous book on the Schlumpf’s, The Schlumpf Obsession, written by Denis Jenkinson of Motor Sport fame has a negative tone throughout; in the introduction, the Canadian Bugatti officianado, Hugh Conway, goes so far as to call the collection “vulgar”. The issue seems to have been partly that the Schlumpfs bought on a grand scale – for example thirty cars belonging to US collector John Shakespeare – but more that the cars then disappeared, with the Schlumpfs neither driving, showing or racing cars. This suspicion was not universal – for example Amedee Gordini left the Schlumpfs his collection of Formula 1 cars – but there was a sense that here were wonderful works of art being kept hidden in a darkened room.

The textile business was not the industry to be in during the 70s in Europe. As the business failed, it seems the Schlumpfs, Fritz in particular, focused on his cars. During an industrial dispute, workers broke into one plant, and were astonished to find hundreds of classic cars, many spectacularly restored, hundreds more awaiting their turn. Given the dispute was over wages, and that the Schlumpf’s were pleading poverty ( probably true, we all know how cars have a way of emptying even the healthiest bank account ) they were not amused, and symbolically burned an unrestored Austin 7, the Union leader saying “There are six hundred more where that one came from”.

Eventually the business was closed, the cars seized by the French government, and the Schlumpfs went into exile, living in a Basel hotel. The collection was re-organized by the French government, eventually emerging as Cité de l’Automobile, Musée national de l’automobile, Collection Schlumpf. I for one have to compliment the French for this – the result is a national treasure, worth infinitely more than it would have been broken up and sold to individuals.

The story should end there, but Arlette Schlumpf, Fritz’ widow, won a court case she brought claiming the cars were illegally seized. She was awarded the reserve collection – that is to say, the cars which the Schlumpfs had acquired but had not yet restored, and these in turn were sold, all together, to Peter Mullin, who, in a stroke of genius, plans to keep them unrestored. This has created a spectacular window into the used Bugatti market in the sixties. Looking at them in the museum, one feels something of what the factory workers must have felt – individually the cars are interesting, but together, their numbers and the story make them awe inspiring.

Scuderia Dilettante – my Collection, and Your Collection
In the coming months I’ll post stories relating to each of the additions to my Scuderia, bought in the spirit of Fritz Schlumpf; if I liked it, I bought it. Learning from these uber wealthy types, it occurred to me that to show good taste, to preserve historically significant cars, wealth is less important than thinking carefully about what is bought, and how it fits into the collection as a whole.

Keith Martin, in his book on car collecting, says that each collection should have a theme – this can be year ( cars of 1957) the marque or the model – for example, Peter Mullin chose French cars, and shoots to have at least a racing car, a closed car and an open car for each marque. At first I thought needing advice on what cars to collect was similar to needing advice on which girls to find attractive – if you aren’t feeling it, forget it. But the reality is that buying simply on your gut leaves you with many of the same type of cars, and that makes the collection boring/repetitive; pick a theme, and you ensure variety and pieces which reflect well off each other. I think I accomplished this quite well with muscle cars – my ’63 Pontiac Grand Prix is a neandethal muscle car, having the styling and the motor found in the GTO ( traditionally, the ’64 GTO is considered the first muscle car), and the fuselage styling I so love from the early sixties; it is in sharp contrast to my ’71 Camaro, with its 70’s swoops and curves; the Pontiac is an automatic, for cruising; the Camaro a manual with no interior with the look and feel of Mad Max.

What’s my theme ? I want to build a collection which shows the breadth of the motoring experience – and that the breadth can be had at ridiculously low prices. Everything I buy looks its age – tired and faded, looking like the cars did towards the end of their lives on the road, not looking showroom fresh. To me, there is majesty in the decay, and far too many old cars with shiny new paint look like an old woman with too much make up – “mutton dressed as lamb”, in my Mother’s words. The next additions to my collection will be a dirt bike ( I have to ride the Pony Express trails ! ) a BMW 2002, an Alfa ( probably and Alfetta sedan or a GTV ), a two stroke motorbike, ideally a three cylinder Kawasaki or a Yamaha RD, and an ex-police Kawasaki KZ1000 – surely the ultimate solo cruising bike. I am keen that what I have should work – given my mechanical ineptitude, I already have something of a challenge on my hands with that 😉

So, by the power of Schlumpf, Go Forth And Collect !