Tucked away on a side street in a nondescript block of industrial buildings in southeast Oxnard is a museum that’s less a gallery than a vast and glittering tribute to the pinnacle of automotive consciousness.
The Mullin Automotive Museum, founded by insurance magnate Peter W. Mullin, is at any given time filled with dozens of impossibly scarce examples of cars that represent the apex of automotive design. The unearthly silver sleekness that is the 1938 Hispano-Suiza Dubonnet Xenia. The scarlet Art Deco Delahaye, built to represent France at the 1939 World’s Fair. The 1939 Delage D8 120 Chapron, blood-red and elegant, that once belonged to Howard Hughes.
And the best car in the world, if there is such a thing.
It’s the teardrop-shaped 1937 Talbot-Lago T150C S, borrowed occasionally for exhibition by the Guggenheim Museum and shown all over the world. The first item in Mullin’s collection was a 1948 Talbot Record, and his love for collecting grew exponentially from there. The cost to do it was the least of his concerns.
“Numbers are not nearly as interesting as passions. Passions don’t have any boundaries,” he said, noting he wasn’t sure exactly how many cars he has in his collection. “I’m not a numbers guy — a lot. My wife says too many.”
When first entering the Mullin and experiencing all these cars in their totality, the superlatives flow in geometric progression, the quantity of automobiles boggling the mind until speechlessness gets the last word. Seeing these cars is, in many cases, like seeing a revenant from days when ghosts held power and awe in equal amounts.
One such specter here is called the Lady of the Lake.
A 1925 Type 22 Brescia Bugatti, its road to becoming a legend started with its owner René Dreyfus, the world’s most famous race car driver at the time. One night in 1934, Dreyfus thought he had an outstanding hand in a game of poker. Having no money on him, he put up the pink slip to his Bugatti — and promptly lost it to his opponent, Swiss bon vivant Adalbert Bodé. As Bodé continued to gamble for the next few weeks — losing money all the way — he decided to cut his losses and head back to Switzerland. A guard stopped him at the Swiss border near Lake Maggiore and, recognizing the car, checked its paperwork. The car’s original owner had bought it from the Italian Bugatti plant, brought it into Switzerland and, unfortunately, neglected to pay 11 years’ worth of import duties or taxes. The guard tells a broke and understandably dejected Bodé that he has to pay off the tax — four times what the Bugatti was then worth — to bring the car into the country.
So the Bugatti was confiscated. The guard was ordered to destroy the car.
As enterprising as he was thorough, the guard decided to sink the car in Lake Maggiore on the Italian-Swiss border, put some chains around each of the wheels, run them up on cinderblocks and secure the car down there. He’d wait for the heat to die down, retrieve the car, take it to Italy, get it restored and have a car that was once owned by notoriously poor gambler René Dreyfus.
But the chains he used were frail and, after about a year and a half, broke. The car slid 177 feet down an incline in the lakebed and remained there for almost 77 years.
It became a myth among the locals, who called the Bugatti the “Lady of the Lake.” There were arguments over the years as to whether there was even a car down there. A local scuba diving club decided to voyage to the bottom of the lake, and discovered the Bugatti there in the icy cold waters. On its left side. Just waiting.
The legend became a tourist attraction. For dive certifications, people dove to the bottom of the lake to see the Lady. Sometimes they took parts of the car as souvenirs.
Then tragedy struck: One of the sons of the men from the Ascona dive club was murdered in gang-related violence. His family wanted to establish a trust in his name, and the scuba club wanted to donate, so they got the idea to raise the Bugatti out of the lake, auction it off and give the proceeds to the Tamagni Family Trust. In 2009, after a lot of planning and much fanfare, they were able to lift it from the depths.
Mullin — the largest private collector of Bugattis in the world, second only to the French National Automobile Museum— saw the Lady of the Lake come up for auction at Bonham’s. He figured the maximum amount he’d bid would be about $30,000. It came down to two bidders: Mullin and someone who’d just sold his business for $7 billion and had decided to go into the antique restoration business. He wanted to buy the car and restore it, to learn everything about what it takes to fix up a Bugatti. Mullin argued that the Lady was a piece of art created by two of the greatest artists in the world: Ettore Bugatti and Mother Nature. His goal was preservation — not restoration. A philosophical argument raged between the two men as money was bid back and forth.
The final bid? $377,000.
“Once I knew that the Lady of the Lake was brought up to solve a humanity problem, all those factors weighed together, excellence, elegance and humanity,” Mullin said that cost became a nonissue.
A self-made man with a B.A. in economics from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and roots in La Habra, Mullin’s love for these classic cars began when he was living in Brentwood. One of his neighbors — and future buying partner Jim Hull — had a French car. A reporter was coming to photograph it for a magazine. The photographer went over to Mullin and asked if they could take pictures of the car in front of his house. Not knowing what kind of car Hull had in mind, he agreed. One Saturday morning, Mullin looked out the window and saw a Delahaye in front of his house.
“The Delahaye was the first car that gave me inspiration,” Mullin said of the post-World War II vehicle. “It was maybe the most drop -dead gorgeous piece of automobile sculpture that kind of got me hooked.”
Mullin fell in love with the art, design and streamlined nature of these cars.
“My passion is artistic things, sculpture or painting or photography,” Mullin said. “The reason is, that is what touches me. I started off in life at UCSB in my earlier days. I started off as an art major and early on I realized that everybody in class was more talented and everyone was starving. At 17 I was aware that I shouldn’t pick a path I would not likely to do well at.” He switched his major to economics — which thus began a career path that would prove to be exceptionally lucrative.
As Mullin began his car collection, it was the Bugatti that caught his eye.
“I fell in love with Bugatti,” he said. “Most think they are Italian, but Bugatti are all French cars. I started collecting them 30 years ago. I absolutely fell in love with the speed, engineering, artistic styling, sculpture, performance.”
Carlo Bugatti, the family patriarch, was a furniture maker, oil painter and silver craftsman; his furniture helped launch the Bugatti family’s fortunes. The furniture was so ornate that Bugatti needed artisans and a worldwide market where he could ply his wares. Consequently, he moved the Bugatti family from Milan to Paris. Carlo had three children — Ettore, his oldest; Deanice, his daughter; and his youngest, a son named Rembrandt. Ettore and Rembrandt both went to art school; Rembrandt at 14 was considered a genius. Ettore started designing cars on his own, bringing the parts home for assembly in his basement. A family friend gave him enough money to work for a year designing a car.
There’s a vast and valuable collection of Carlo Bugatti furniture gracing the Mullin Museum, as well as the artwork of Rembrandt Bugatti, striking in their fluidity and natural power. A sculpture of a stalking panther has such presence and grace that it seems as if it could leap off its pedestal at any moment. It’s the same lithe spirit that informed the Bugatti automobile designs. These sculptures are also the only remaining representations of the animals that Rembrandt sketched: During World War I, the Antwerp Zoo was forced to start killing its animals because it could not feed them. This must have exacerbated the depression that began after Rembrandt volunteered for paramedical work at the military hospital, which was further aggravated by financial difficulties. The artist committed suicide in 1916 at the age of 31.
Showing his designs to every car manufacturer in France, Ettore finally settled on Peugeot — but instead of selling the company the designs, he took the risky and unheard-of step of asking for a royalty on each car sold. The monies from these royalties were promptly plowed back into buying factories to manufacture automobiles. The early designs, beautiful as they were, admittedly sacrificed a certain amount of practicality: Bugattis were infamous for having brakes that seemed almost an afterthought. “I don’t make cars to slow down,” Bugatti once remarked, “I make cars to go fast.” With that in mind, it’s a wonder that these cars survived in the amazing shape in which they currently exist at the Mullin.
Despite all the many makes and models that populate both levels of the museum, not all the cars in Mullin’s collection are here. The most expensive car in the world, which Mullin picked up for a mere $30 million, is currently visiting Phoenix at the Arizona Concours d’Elegance on a mission to raise funds for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The 1957 Bugatti 57SC — originally intended to be made out of volatile magnesium — has been on loan previously at the Petersen Automotive Museum in L.A., on whose board Mullin also sits.
Mullin knows a good thing when he sees it. He set up a foundation to preserve these cars for the next 50 years. Once they’re under his roof, it’s unlikely they’ll be changing hands anytime soon. And yet it’s not only pragmatism that’s fueled and filled the museum. Collecting also takes a keen eye for a lucky break. Mullin has found cars everywhere, from the depths of Lake Maggiore to the shed in which a rare Delahaye was being used as a playground by neighbor kids to the hoarded cars of the Schlumpf family in France.
Lords of a European textile empire, the Schlumpfs squirreled away over 750 French cars in a massive secret building complete with its own racetrack. Wiped out by the advent of synthetic fabrics in the ’70s, their fortunes waned to the point that they stopped paying their workers’ salaries — even while they continued to buy more cars. The secret was accidentally revealed in 1977 by some of the Schlumpfs’ better-paid employees, at which point an angry mob stormed their secret garage and started setting cars on fire. One thing led to another, the authorities confiscated all the cars for unpaid taxes, and the Schlumpfs escaped to Switzerland. Mullin got word of the offer from the lawyers for the Schlumpf estate after the family members died. In one swift move, 65 of the cars formerly belonging to the late Schlumpf family were his. Several of these are at the museum in unrestored, original condition — a testament to the ravages of time and shadowy dealings, stuck in a barn like treasures that perhaps no one can completely understand or appreciate in quite the same way that Peter Mullin does.
In addition to Mullin’s many Bugattis, there’s also a new exhibition of Mullin’s Citroëns, those long, sleek French cars that look more like spaceships than automobiles.
“All of these years, I had been walking by Citroën and never really paid proper attention to them,” he said. “One day it dawned on me, Citroën is celebrating in 2018 100 years of styling and engineering in France. It caused me to focus on finding the greatest examples of Citroëns. That was three years ago.”
Over 40 different Citroëns representing over nine decades of tireless devotion to style and design are here in the largest North American Citroën retrospective ever undertaken. As with all the cars at the Mullin, the designs are stunning. And if all these cars were turned on at once, it would sound like a symphony.
The exhibition “Citroën: The Man, The Marque, The Mystique” runs through Spring 2018. Reservations to enter the Mullin can be scheduled at mullinautomotivemuseum.com or call 385-5400.
Michael Sullivan contributed to this article.