Discovering the World’s greatest collection of automobiles at the Cité de l’Automobile in Mulhouse
On my quest for the ultimate automotive overdose, this summer I have visited the Cité de l’Automobile, that is often cited as the greatest auto museum in the world. Having seen some of the best Museums in Europe, I always read these claims and statements with a bit of disbelief. Given their variety in terms if size, concept and purpose, it would be quite bold to call one the greatest. Thus, I planned a visit to the Peugeot Museum in Sochaux for the same day, in order to best use the time available, as Mulhouse is about an hour drive from there.
I arrived from Sochaux to the Cité by noon, and left with a completely egzosted exhausted body and overloaded mind. I have no doubt now, that the Cité is the greatest car collection in the world. But it’s more than being excessively huge, it excels in every area, from interactive and educational sections to children’s corner, race cars from all ages and sports, modern and even some contemporary cars, great design and consistent architecture, all the boxes are checked. I could find single aspects where the Louwman or Mercedes Museum can beat the Cité, but the credit for overall excellence goes to Mulhouse.
The Cité was built on a solid foundation, the private wealth of the Schlump family. The Museum was established on the basis of the Schlupf Collection, in the former site of the Schlumpf Textile Factory. The Schlumpf brothers (Giovanni “Hans” Schlumpf and Federico “Fritz” Schlumpf) were Italian born Swiss industrialists who settled in France to establish a major textile enterprise in the 1950’s. As from the 60’s, the younger brother Fritz Schlumpf secretly started buying a large number of vintage cars. While the industrialists devoted evermore time to their collection, the factory began to fade against the global competition, and when the upset workers of the factory in dire found the cars, their wrath chased the Schlumpf brothers away to Switzerland. Instead of letting the invaluable collection scatter around the world, like in many middle east dictatorships, an association was established to curate the collection, that continuously developed throughout the decades.
The two industrialists relentlessly acquired classic European cars in their craving, while shunning American models (for Duesenbergs, you have to travel to the Hague, the Louwman Museum has an impressive collection of them). If you ever thought of curing your Bugatti-mania with an overdose, this is the best place. But it’s easy to get an overdose of anything related to automotive here…
The sheer size of the Museum is astonishing. The defunct factory complex is now entirely in use as a Museum complex. The extensions of the massive main hall are indicated by the endless lines of hundreds of lampions 2-3 illuminating each car. Each row holds at least 30-50 cars.
There are fairly extensive dedicated rooms detached from the main hall (like the race cars segment, the pre-WW II luxury section, and the temporary Porsche 70 exhibition), in addition to many smaller rooms and stage corners.
There are endlessly long corridors, and a private race oval, where you can try out supercars (from Gen 1 Mustang to Ferrari 458, I personally went for the Viper), but expect an overload of your planned budget (seven rounds cost between 50 and 100 EUR). From July to September, there is a parade with 18 emblematic cars to tell their story, on weekends and on bank holidays.
There is a small train departing every half an hour with a guided tour, that I recommend taking, as I only discovered the most impressive hall (the one with dozens of pre-WW II Bugattis and other luxury cars), once I was brought there by the train. I also really liked the idea of sitting down after four hours of walking/admiring cars, the small train was a refreshing change for both body and mind.
The Cité has an extensive programme for children with arcade simulators, junior go-kart track, and educational installations. Just to give a few example: there is a Peugeot factory segment, than, there is a machine that rolls over a Peugeot 206 to illustrate the importance of wearing seatbelts and videos to illustrate Rallye racing or the history of the local hero Bugatti Veyron.
There are classic machines that are regularly started during opening hours (the hours are indicated, as for the train too), so its worth to plan a little bit. There is a segment on classic (sometimes really high class) children toys, that fits well to the size and style of the museum.
The overall design is superb, it is a really well kept and well-furbished complex, there are parts whose design could be outperformed by other Museums, but again the Cité has all the ammo to fight back in many different fronts.
The Museum’s main attraction is the motor car experience area. Basically most of the factory area was converted into a gigantic 17,000 m² hall, lit by 800 art nouveau lamp posts identical to those on the Alexandre III bridge in Paris. About 250 cars from 1878 through to the present today are parked in this endless hall following a timeline, where each row illustrates a different era. In practice, this results in endless lines of cars reaching so far, that one cannot recognise where the lines end.
The first two lines are dedicated to the forerunners: the period from 1878 to 1918 features dozens of Panhard, Peugeot, De Dion, Darrcq and Benz models.
The exhibition starts with steam cars and horseless vis-à-vis carriages (like the 1893 Benz Victoria), that resembles more of the horse carriages than today’s cars.
Only a few years later, this period already marked the arrival of the Panhard design that defined the essentials of the modern motor vehicle with an engine, clutch, gearbox and rear-wheel transmission, already in the 19th century.
The Museum’s website provides interesting background for about a dozen cars from this period, and in the hall, each exhibit is accompanied by printouts of useful information sheets.
Most cars are still luxury items in those times, by the 1910’s however, more accessible mass production cars arrived at the market, such as the 1913 Peugeot BB. In 1910, Ettore Bugatti had just started production in Molsheim but was struggling for money. He turned to the big car-builders of the time, offering a license to manufacture a small, efficient automobile for a broad market. The project was eventually taken on by Peugeot. Apart from the Peugeot-style radiator, the compact two-seater follows the Bugatti design. The BB, was a real commercial success, with Peugeot selling over 3 000 cars across the world. BBs were used as lightweight liaison vehicles during the Great War. Production came to an end in 1916, but the royalties paid to Bugatti by Peugeot made a significant contribution to improving facilities at the Bugatti plant.
The rows continue to enumerate bigger, better, more advanced vehicles, with a bonnet, a cover then a roof, with purpose-built bodyworks that lay the groundwork for today’s car categories. Sporty coupés, small cars, minivans even SUV’s can find their ancestors in the first four line of vehicles here.
By 1910, motor vehicle production was built around construction. Ranges from the largest manufacturers like Renault or De Dion-Bouton incorporated up to ten different models, assembled using three or four different chassis sizes, and made available in different bodywork styles as required.
The AG1 type, a derivative of another successful model, was famous for its Taxi variant, as it perfectly met cab companies’ requirements of that age.
While the Renault’s Landaulet body seemed fit for purpose at that time, when horse carriages were the common means of transport, the 1911 Panhard & Levassor Type X5 showed most features of today’s cars. The bodywork is fully closed, there are three doors, two at the back for the passengers, and just one at the front for the driver. The car also has a useful new feature: the windows can be rolled down. With its metal chassis, its cardan shaft transmission system – no longer using a chain – and its four-speed clutch, the car was also very modern at its time from a mechanical point of view.
Now it is time to take a rhetorical break, as both the amount of experience and the size of visual material seems to explode the framework of a single post. The next part will continue with the extravaganza of the roaring 20’s and beyond. Stay tuned…