Car Crazy.

The French National Car Museum in Mulhouse

Mulhouse, near the German and Swiss borders, has a total of seven museums. One of them, popularly known as "The Car Louvre", is the biggest automobile collection in the world. Since its recent renovation the museum has become the most modern of its kind.

The French National Car Museum has something for everyone. Four hundred cars are exhibited in an area of 1,700 square metres, among them a hundred Bugattis - a make the collection's founder, the Swiss manufacturer Fritz Schlumpf, had a great fondness for. Visitors can also admire the first Panhard & Lavassor racing car with the biggest engine of the whole collection - a vast 12831 cc. In 1908 the car achieved 150 km per hour, an astonishing speed for that time. Next to it is the Bugatti Royale 41 Coupé Napoleon (left), a magnificent six-metre-long limousine weighing over three tonnes and boasting a twelve-litre, 300-horsepower engine. This car is one of the biggest treasures of the collection, with an estimated value of eighty million French francs. Among numerous Rolls-Royces you can find the rare and mysterious "Silver Ghost".

The exhibition is arranged in such a way that as you walk through the museum you pass through the eras of car design and technology. Starting from the oldest automobiles powered by steam engines you are led through subsequent technological advances, among them Gottlieb Daimler's first water-cooled engine, to an Alfa Romeo driven in the 1930s by Enzo Ferrari himself, finally arriving at a Porsche 936 which can reach 360 km per hour. From here it's straight up to the Formula 1 start lane. You can try on a helmet, sit behind the wheel and, by watching a real race on a huge video screen, experience how it feels to be a Formula 1 driver.

Schlumpf's tragic loss

The museum began as a private collection belonging to the Swiss industrialist Fritz Schlumpf, whose success in the textile business in the 1930s enabled him to indulge his great passion for cars. As his collection grew he was forced to transfer it from his private mansion to an old cotton mill. In the 1970s an economic crisis led to the firing of a large number of workers and caused a conflict between Schlumpf and his staff. The workers' union announced a strike and Schlumpf fired 2,000 more people. Resigning from his position as director he decided to return to Switzerland. At the factory the unionists declared an occupational strike which lasted for two years. It didn't take them long to discover the real treasury nearby, which until then could only be admired by a few close friends of its owner. Schlumpf had planned to take his collection with him to Switzerland, but in the heat of the moment had been unable to. When the strikers seized the buildings containing the collection, Schlumpf must have known it was unlikely he would see his prized automobiles again. In 1978 the French government named the 285 cars an "historical monument" and took the collection into the state's possession. Fritz Schlumpf received forty-two million francs compensation - a very small amount of money considering the total value of the cars.

Switzerland sued France in an effort to regain its citizen's possessions. The trial dragged on for several years and Schlumpf died during the proceedings. Switzerland failed to get the collection back, but Schlumpf's widow was granted another forty million francs by the French government. France had gained this extraordinary collection of technology for the price for a single Bugatti Royale!

A museum of the third millennium

After a renovation which took two years, the National Car Museum in Mulhouse is the most hi-tech museum in France. It combines science, modern technology and fun. At the entrance visitors receive an electronic device with a screen which provides them with interactive information. With it you can choose exactly what you want to look at with descriptions in five languages, as well as films and information about the construction of the exhibits. You are also accompanied by the real sounds of engines and even the smell of fumes. Visitors are allowed to sit behind the wheels of many of the cars, and Formula 1 simulators are there for those of you who need a more intense experience.

The museum is well worth a visit, both from the point of view of what is on show and how the exhibition is presented. However you travel to Mulhouse I can guarantee you'll be wanting to drive back!

Andrzej Geber