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The world’s biggest automobile museum

Imagine racing along a track in a Formula 1 Ferrari, a sleek, powerful racing machine, taking the lead from a dozen other drivers, all with one goal in mind: Winning the F1 Monte Carlo race.

Perhaps, you would prefer riding in the country at a respectable speed, in a 1902 Serpollet Phaeton, with your significant other, enjoying a bright sunny day. The trilling songs of birds are in the background, while squirrels and rabbits scamper beside the dirt road you are on. A canopy overhead protects both you and your companion from the warm sun as you enjoy an idyllic spring day.

Maybe you would want to be with Charlie Chaplin, discussing one of his films as he describes to you his adventures in Hollywood as you ride around Los Angeles in his 1924 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud.

Ultimately, perhaps all you want to do is impress a friend in a Bugatti Type 32 from 1923, as you cruise down Fifth Avenue in New York City, on almost deserted streets. The Mayor is a personal friend and decided to allow you and your friend to cruise the town without any traffic!

All those scenarios are possible to imagine in the Musée National de l’Automobile, in Mulhouse.

All roads lead to Mulhouse

Driving past vineyard after vineyard in Alsace, my friend Frank and I followed road signs to Mulhouse. Here the German alpine influence is obvious in the architecture of the homes and businesses… like something from The Sound of Music. To me, it appeared as the quintessential Alpine town. Homes and buildings with peaked gray slate or red metal roofs. Stone or heavy timber sides. Large windows facing the sun and securely seated on the mountainside while overlooking a lush green valley below! A few grazing cows and sheep made the image complete.

Arriving at the Musée National de l’Automobile, the building appeared plain, bulky and rather uninteresting. However, once inside an expansive lobby lit by sunlight filtering through massive windows, we saw, suspended by cables overhead, automobiles from the earliest days in the later nineteenth century to current models. We paid the modest fee to enter. And I was stunned to see the almost infinite variety of automobiles, ranging from early models to those of today. It is one of the most extraordinary places I’ve ever been to.

I stood there, amazed, gazing at nearly 500 cars of various ages, models and colors. A better word would be automobiles: many were showroom quality vehicles and not everyday street cars. Yet, some of the older one did require restoration. In their own time, the automobiles had been owned and driven by ordinary people, as well as by members of the wealthy, privileged classes…and also racing car drivers.

The largest automobile museum in the world

I walked along each of the lanes separating the vehicles by time periods and models. I saw automobiles I recognized and many that I didn’t. The Ferraris and Lamborghinis and Bugattis were easy, as were many of the Formula 1 cars. There were early roadsters, luxury models and cruisers. It is the largest Automobile Museum in the World.

More than 100 different manufacturers are exhibited there, in three primary sections: Motor Car Experience, Motor Racing; and Motorcar Masterpieces.

Motor Car Experience has three subsections. Forerunners and pioneers, covering roughly 1895 to 1918. Classic Cars including the years 1918 to 1938, a period of innovation with the merger of Mercedes and Benz. And Modern Period – begun in 1945.

Motor Racing is in a separate area, where visitors can study classic racing cars such as Bugattis, Mercedes-Benz sports models, Maseratis and others.

Motorcar Masterpieces – the highly prestigious automobiles, are showcased in a separate room. Included are Charlie Chaplin’s 1924 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. The 1930 Bugatti 41 Coupe Royale which was owned and raced by Ettore Bugatti, the owner of the Bugatti line, is also displayed there. According to one attendant, the priceless Bugatti automobiles are the ones most loved by visitors.

There is also an area where kids can ride models of some of the cars on a small track. Watching them, I was taken back to my childhood, when I first became fascinated with automobiles, reminding me of rides in my grandfather’s touring convertible.

An outdoor track allows visitors to put cars through their paces. And there are two restaurants, plus a memorabilia area related to automobiles and events: racing, political, social or entertainment. Plus there is a multi-media room showing videos describing the history of the museum as well as that of some of the famed automobiles: their origins and owners.

The museum has unusual beginnings. The Schlumpf brothers, Hans and Fritz, purchased a discarded wool mill in 1957, as the location for their extensive collection of rare and classical automobiles. Unfortunately, various financial and political factors led to near bankruptcy, forcing them to sell the museum to the National Automobile Museums Association (NAMAoM). The Musée National de l’Automobile, Collection Schlumpf is now listed as a National Heritage Site by the French Government.

It’s a museum that is fascinating, enlightening and enriching.

By John Pekich  producer, director, actor and writer, especially of original Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Mysteries in Cape May, New Jersey, USA

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