If you think going to a car museum sounds like it might not be fun – when it comes to Mulhouse, in Alsace, northeast France, you couldn’t be more wrong.
You absolutely don’t need to be a petrol head to enjoy the Cité de automobile, it is extraordinary, extravagant and extremely fascinating.
History of the Car Museum of Mulhouse
The collection was once the pride and joy of two brothers, one of whom was totally obsessed with cars. They were known as the Schlumpf Brothers, Hans and Fritz. The full name of the museum is Cité de L’Automobile Musée National Collection Schlumpf, but we’ll just call it the amazing Car Museum of Mulhouse!
They founded a successful wool company in Mulhouse and began buying vintage cars in 1957. Fritz Schlumpf had taken part in rallies since 1939 in his Bugatti 35B, his special addiction was for the Italian cars. The love for cars snowballed and by 1963, there were more than 200 cars stored in a former textile factory, kept out of sight. It had become an obsession – only vintage cars and particularly Bugattis, a very expensive habit.
In 1966, Fritz Schlumpf decided to show the collection in public and had part of the warehouse converted, essentially creating the Schlumpf museum. A fortune was spent on the conversion and on buying more cars.
But all was not well in the textile industry and the Schlumpf business went under. The brothers fled to Switzerland in 1976 and never returned. Workers occupied the museum and let people in for free but collected money to give to employees who’d lost their jobs. Eventually after much legal wrangling the collection was purchased by the city and National Motor Museum Owner’s Association. It is the largest car museum in the world – a colossal and mind-boggling collection, priceless and unique. It is, say those who works at the museum the Louvre of the car world. I don’t think they are wrong.
What to see at Mulhouse Car Museum
There are more than 450 cars in the collection. The vast majority of them date from the first days of car production to the 1970s. More recent additions include a series of grand prix racing cars.
The museum itself is incredible. Nothing prepares you for the sheer enormity of what is essentially a show room of car history from its beginnings. There are lampposts on every “street” based on those of the Alexander III bridge in Paris, a design feature chosen by Fritz and costing a fortune.
It’s impossible to price this collection but the second most expensive car was recently valued at +60 million Euros. The most expensive, a Bugatti Royale, one of only six in the world, just doesn’t have a price tag.
Though buying cars was an obsession, their history was of no interest to Schlumpf. So, for the main part, there’s no detail on where the vehicles came from. That Bugatti Royale for instance has brief purchase history notes, just that it was bought from a British owner in the 70’s for next to nothing. In those days these types of car had little value.
The cars are displayed in chronological order started in with a Jacquot 2 cylinder steam engine car from 1878.
There are children’s cars, classic cars, modern cars (post 1945), racing cars and masterpieces. All of the racing cars have taken part in races, many of them are the winning vehicles from the early days to the present. Charlie Chaplin’s 1924 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost is wonderful and there’s a large collection of Bugattis including Ettore Bugatti’s own Buggati 41 Coupé Napoleon. There’s also a collection of mascots, a car which spins so you can see underneath it and 3D film. And there are regular temporary exhibitions from military vehicles to classic car collections. There’s a kids space too, with go kart track and a garage so that they can plat being an apprentice. And there’s a video car game area. Plus there are cafés and restaurants onsite, including the gourmet restaurant Le Fangio.
Private track at the Mulhouse Car Museum
There are regular weekend parades of the cars which are superb (31 April – 30 September. You can spot which ones in the collection take place in the drives as they have Mulhouse registration plates. The arena can seat up to 4,500 people.
In the outdoor show space there are regular get togethers of classic cars from around the world, and one recent event saw more than 1000 cars of plus 30 years or more. (Details of events on the website below).
I absolutely loved that there are classic cars available for driving by the public. From end March to beginning of November, you can drive on the track. You can actually pick from a selection of awesome cars. It does cost extra to do this (from 40 euros) but I went for the Ferrari. I never ever thought I’d get to drive one for real and for me it was an incredible experience. The speed you can go is restricted (of course). But, I have to admit, when I turned that engine on and it roared, it was something else. I did though have a bit of a Driving Miss Daisy moment and refused to go over 50km per hour (a fact I omitted to tell my friends!). I was grinning from ear to ear the whole time.
Visiting the Mulhouse Car Museum
Though it was my first time, I don’t think it will be my last because I’d go back to this museum in a flash (and have in fact talked about it so much my other half wants to go). If you do the ride, you can take your friends, family in the car with you (included in the price).
I’d say you need to allow a minimum of three hours for this one. Frankly I could have spent the whole day there and I’m no petrolhead. One of the museum staff told me that recently a visitor spent three days there after coming from Russia to see this famous collection.
There’s plenty of parking spaces (no surprise), and you can also reach it by tram from the centre of Mulhouse.
Absolutely brilliant museum, and great for families.