Tuesday, May 27, 2014

#empoblognov03 The backstory about the car museum in Mulhouse, France

Over ten years ago, on November 4, 2003, I wrote a post entitled Revving Automobile Sounds.

Part of that post referenced the Musee National de L'Automobile de Mulhouse, as well as the fact that I had visited that museum in 2000.

Well, the name of the museum has changed; a few years after my visit, it was renamed "La Cit̩ de l'Automobile РNational Museum РSchlumpf Collection."

The name Schlumpf only hints at the bizarre history of the museum, for while the Schlumpfs collected the automobiles, they weren't able to keep them.

The brothers were Hans and Fritz Schlumpf, who arrived in Mulhouse, France in 1906. They eventually went into business together, founding or acquiring various companies in 1929, 1935, 1940, 1956, and 1957. (As an aside, I'm sure that there's an entire story concerning the acquisition of a French business in 1940, which I should explore at some point.)

One of these acquisitions was a textile factory, known at the time as the HKD textile factory. But Fritz Schlumpf was using the property for things other than textiles:

Between 1961 and 1963, Fritz Schlumpf secretly bought large numbers of classic cars. To make these purchases, he linked up with various buyers in France, Switzerland, England, Italy, Germany and the USA. Some of these contacts were particularly fruitful - half of his collection (over 200 cars) came from just 13 of them. These included Mr Rafaelli, a Renault dealer who owned several Bugattis and agreed to be his buying adviser – a collaboration that lasted several years. Fritz Schlumpf continued to use his industrial wealth to buy up classic European cars, while avoiding American models.

Eventually the secret leaked, the existence of the car collection was revealed, and plans were made to display the cars.

But as Fritz Schlumpf spent ten years and millions of French francs preparing his car display, the French textile industry entered a downturn. Don't forget, all of this was taking place at a working textile factory. Well, sort of working:

By 28 June 1976, the textile factory was in crisis and its employees were on strike. The unions condemned the Schlumpf brothers for “lack of consultation” and “illegal acts”. The brothers tried to sell their factories for a symbolic one French franc. But when no offers were received, they quit and took refuge in Basel. They would never return to France.

At the end of 1976, the 20 remaining workers at the HKC factory (the renamed HKD factory) were made redundant and the building was sealed.

It's important to note that all of this was taking place in France. This not only explains why Fritz Schlumpf wasn't that eager to acquire American cars, but also explains what happened to the car collection in 1977.

On 7 March 1977, the warehouses were occupied by the unions. The “Schlumpf Museum” was renamed the “Workers Museum”. It was overseen by the CFDT union and entry was free. A collection was taken on the way out to cover both running costs and the costs of ongoing legal action. “I used to earn 1,400 francs a month: here’s where the rest went” read one of the many placards placed on the grill of a racing car.

Meanwhile, the French government stepped in and determined that whatever happened, the car collection could not leave France. The Schlumpf brothers, just across the border in Basel, Switzerland, obviously were not pleased with this turn of events. By 1979, the Schlumpf brothers' assets were liquidated and sold (with some modifications after continuing court battles, but at least one of the brothers was dead by the time everything was sorted out).

By the time that I visited the museum in 2000, the courts had ordered that the museum had to include "Schlumpf Collection" in its name, and a new company (Culturespaces) was hired to manage the collection. The result, after all of the legal entanglements, is one of the most impressive car collections in the world.

Well, if you like Mercedes Benzes that look like Volkswagens.
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