Art Deco on wheels: The extraordinary Mullin Automotive Museum
Peter Mullin made his fortune in insurance, but has spent much of it building an absolutely stunning collection of cars from his favorite era: the Art Deco period of the 1920s and 30s, when French coachbuilders were making some of the prettiest cars in automotive history.
Mullin, co-founder of the M Financial Group, has long been a fanatical collector of cars. He's the current President of the American Bugatti Club, a member of the Bugatti Trust, and a board member at both the Autry National Center and the Guggenheim Foundation, among many other philanthropic works, most of which have aesthetic beauty of some sort or another at their heart. Since 2010, the Mullin Museum has been open to the public.
Mullin Museum docent, David Buchko, explained the focus of the current exhibition: L'Epoque des Carrossiers / The Art and Times of the French Coachbuilders.
"We're focusing here on coachbuilders," says Buchko, "because back in the day, if you were a person of means, you wouldn't just go to a company like Delahey or Delage and just buy one of their cars. What you'd do is go to the showroom, figure out what manufacturer you wanted to work with, and then turn to one of these coachbuilders, whether it was a Labourdette, Figoni et Falaschi or Henri Chapron, and they would design a body for you, to go on the chassis from the manufacturer of your choice.
"Some months later, you'd get your car. That's how it was done. Usually one-off or very limited production. Generally not assembly line, although we do have some examples of cars that were. So that's why the museum looks the way it does."
The Mullin Museum in Oxnard, California
"This building actually has been the Mullin Museum since about 2010," says Buchko. "But before that, this space belonged to Otis Chandler, the late publisher of the LA Times, and this is where he housed his collection of cars, motorcycles and such. After he passed and his collection was liquidated, Peter bought this space, and now it's a museum and event venue.
"One of Peter's passions is the Art Deco era and movement. One of the things I learned coming here and working with these folks was that there was an event in Paris called l'Exposition des Arts Decoratifs. If you truncate that down, what you get is "Art Deco" - so that name we recognize and connect with that period of design, aesthetics and philosophy, it all came from that exhibition in Paris in 1925. The movement didn't start then, obviously, but the name was coined there.
"As we can see through the museum, that Art Deco aesthetic didn't just affect the automotive world. It affected everything, from architecture to furniture to fashion, everything you could possibly imagine. So this exhibition isn't just about cars by any means.
"But there are a lot of influences that go into car design. Obviously, aircraft design was a big influence, like it was here in the 1950s with the big fins and all that sort of thing. But also boatbuilders."
Notable in its absence from this collection was a stunning US$40 million dollar Bugatti Type 57 SC Atlantic, owned jointly by the Walton family and the Mullin museum, which recently won the 2018 Best of the Best award at the Peninsula Classic in Paris. This award takes the winners from eight of the most important concours events globally, and pits them against one another to choose a 'champion of champions' - the greatest concours car in the world. Such is the storied magnetism of the Atlantic that even against the world's top competition, the contest was almost universally acknowledged as being over the minute this car was entered.
Of course, there's still a plethora of fascinating vehicles on display, and when it comes to historic machines like these, each has a story behind it.
The 1925 Bugatti Type 22 Brescia Roadster above is a case in point. Yes, it got a little wet. This astonishing piece lived 173 feet down, at the bottom of Lake Maggiore on the border of Italy and Switzerland, for almost 75 years, becoming a bit of a local legend to folk who couldn't believe such a priceless car could possibly be down there. It had been deliberately dropped there by the Swiss police when its driver, playboy Adalbert Bode, had tried to cross the border without bringing any cash to pay customs on it. No taxes, no car, he was told, and he abandoned the car there for the police to deal with it.
This 1924 Bucciali Type B6 was destroyed in a crash in the Spanish Grand Prix of 1927 after three years of racing, but was painstakingly and precisely restored by collector Uwe Hucke over a period of 13 years to become the only original B6-C24 in existence. That gearshift pattern was likely written on the dash in 1999, when this beauty was driven at the historic hill climb in Gallion.
The lightweight duralumin chassis of this 1939 Bugatti Type 64 Coupe bounced around between several collections before ending up with Peter Mullin in 2003. Working with Stewart Reed Design and the Art Center College of Design, along with sketches Jean Bugatti made before his death, Mullin commissioned and built the extraordinary bare metal coachwork it wears today. The completion of the bodywork is one of Peter Mullin's proudest achievements: "I cannot imagine a greater token of respect to the Bugatti family than to help finish Jean Bugatti's beloved final masterpiece."
Another of the many highlights is this 1911 Hispano-Suiza 45CR (15-45CV) Type "Alfonso XIII" Voiturette. Named after the Spanish king of the day, this is widely regarded as being one of the world's first sports cars, since its chassis and engine placement gave it impressive performance capabilities both at speed and in the corners.
That's just a sample of the storied and beautiful automobiles on display in "The Art and Times of the French Coachbuilders" at the Mullin Museaum – there's many more in our terrific photo gallery.
Source: Mullin Automotive Museum