The Museum: Yesterday and Today
The Schlumpf family settled in Mulhouse just after the births of their two sons, Hans (1904) and Fritz (1906). Their father, Carl, worked as an accountant in the Becker horticultural company. He did, in fact, marry one of Becker’s daughters, Jeanne, who came from Mulhouse and was the mother of his two children.
Carl Schlumpf’s health deteriorated and he died in August 1918. Their eldest son, Hans, was sent to a private school in Switzerland and graduated in business studies. He subsequently worked in the banking sector. His brother Fritz attended the secondary school in Mulhouse until the age of eighteen. After working in various textile companies, he started his own wool brokering business in 1928.
The two brothers founded the SAIL (the Société Anonyme pour l'Industrie Lainière, a public limited company in the wool industry), bought their first shares in the Malmerspach spinning mill, and took control of various companies in 1940, and subsequently in Erstein and Roubaix in 1956.
In 1957, the Schlumpf brothers bought the HKD textile factory, a former wool spinning mill in Mulhouse. As a leading businessman, Fritz made almost all the decisions. His elder brother followed his lead and their empire continued to grow.
Between 1961 and 1963, Fritz Schlumpf secretly bought large numbers of vintage cars. To make these purchases, he established contact with ‘buyers’ in France, Switzerland, England, Italy, Germany, and the United States. Some of his contacts were extremely fruitful, because half of his collection—more than 200 cars—was acquired from only thirteen of them. The rich industrialist relentlessly acquired classic European cars, while shunning American models.
Fritz Schlumpf only allowed a few privileged people to access the factory warehouses where the cars were stored and kept his collection secret. In May, the first article was published in Alsace that revealed the sheer extent of this hidden collection. Fritz Schlumpf began to seriously consider a project to establish a museum.
Work began to showcase the collection. This major project took several years to implement: all the partition walls in the large warehouse building were removed. The new open exhibition area of 17,000 m² was subdivided into 23 ‘areas’, each comprising ten to twenty cars and surrounded by three kilometres (or two miles) of wide, tiled walkways, which were named respectively ‘Avenue Carl Schlumpf’, ‘Avenue Jeanne Schlumpf’, ‘Rue Royale’, and so on.
At the same time, the pace of the restoration work on the cars increased. This required the participation of seven assistant mechanics, two upholsterers, two bodywork specialists, an assistant bodywork specialist, and five painters. To acquire and exhibit the cars in his collection, Fritz Schlumpf spent around 12 million francs in ten years. But the museum conceived by Fritz Schlumpf was never opened.
On 7 March 1977, the warehouses were occupied by the unions. The ‘Musée Schlumpf’ was renamed and became the ‘Musée des Travailleurs’ (Workers’ Museum). Placed under the management of the CFDT trade union, admission to the Museum was free. A collection, aimed at covering the expenses for its opening and the continuation of the action, was organised at the exit. ‘I earned 1,400 francs a month, and this is where the rest went’, declared one of the many signs placed on the grille of a racing car.
The Colmar Appeal Court upheld the liquidation of the property of the two brothers, including the collection of cars restored with the factory’s capital. Several hours after the court ruling, the CFDT union gave back the factory keys and decided to put the collection up for sale.
In October, the Court of Cassation authorised the sale of the collection. The following year, the Association du Musée National de l'Automobile acquired it for 44 million francs. This fixed-rate settlement was contested by the Schlumpf brothers, who won their case twenty years later and were awarded an additional 25 million francs. The Association du Musée National de l'Automobile comprised the city of Mulhouse, the Haut-Rhin Département, the Alsace Region, the Mulhouse Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Automobile Club de France, the Société Panhard, and the Comité du Salon de l'Automobile.
On 10 July 1982, the Musée National de l’Automobile opened its doors to the general public. Substantive work began to improve the display of the collection and attract visitors.
The Musée National de l’Automobile – Collection Schlumpf
Following the rulings of the Paris Court of Appeal, the Musée National de l'Automobile was obliged to add ‘Collection Schlumpf’ to its name and on any documents mentioning part of the collection.
The company Culturespaces was entrusted with running the Museum. On 25 March 2000, after extensive work, Culturespaces opened the doors of the world’s largest automobile museum—which had been partly renovated and modernised—to the general public. The choices relating to the Museum’s renovation were based on three objectives: the preservation of its identity, showcasing the collection, and the conception of a modern and dynamic project. While preserving the original spirit of the Museum, new scenography gave it greater dynamism by using the latest multimedia innovations.
In July 2011, Culturespaces inaugurated new areas designed by Studio Milou Architecture. The primary aim of this project was to shift from being a showcase collection to a museum that embraced the general public, where neophytes and automobile enthusiasts could discover the entirety of the former spinning mill, extending over more than four hectares. The designers’ intention was to highlight the old factory’s exceptional architectural heritage. The Museum was organised specifically around this new itinerary that included various period buildings (1880–1930) and the industrial courtyard. The Musée National de l'Automobile became the Cité de l'Automobile.
Wishing to break away from the static image of an exhibited collection, Culturespaces created a racing track called the ‘Autodrome’. The cars were being driven once again, to the delight of the visitors and collectors. The racing track could accommodate 4,500 people in its stands. It extended the Cité de l’Automobile from four to eight hectares and added an open-air theatre to the museum complex.
The Autodrome hosts the show ‘En Piste’, along with many other events throughout the year.