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C'est si bon: Mullin Automotive Museum celebrates the best of the Art Deco era

Tue, 30 Mar 2010 00:00:00 -0700

The French supposedly have a word for everything, but we couldn't muster any in English let alone the remnants of high school language lab upon first entering the new Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, Calif., just west of Los Angeles.

All we could do was grin giddily at the sparkling array of Bugattis, Voisins, Delages, Delahayes and other unique examples of French automotive masterpieces from the 1920s and 1930s in an exhibition hall evocative of the salon that housed the 1936 Paris motor show and similar exposition halls of the Art Deco era.

The collection is an immersion into the excitement and optimism of Art Deco design, especially in terms of automotive design. A red-and-black 1938 Bugatti 57C Atalante Coupe greets visitors. It's a car that could monopolize your attention but instead introduces you to its spectacular companions, about 100 or so, occupying the 50,000-square-foot exhibit space.

It is not just one or two standout cars but a spectacle that includes a two-tone blue Figoni et Falaschi pontoon-fendered 1937 Delahaye 135M Roadster, a long and lean silver 1951 Delahaye Type 235 Roadster with coachwork by Saoutchik, and a gorgeous yellow 1934 Voisin C27 Grand Sport Cabriolet purchased by the Shah of Persia at the 1934 Madrid motor show.

Sitting on a low turntable is Peter Mullin's favorite, a burgundy 1938 Talbot Lago T 150 CS once owned by Bentley Boy and CEO Wolf Barnato. The rare fastback coachwork by Figoni et Falaschi is nicknamed Goutte D'eau for exemplifying the teardrop streamlining that is one of the major attributes of Art Deco design as applied to automobiles, trains and aircraft of the era.

"It's my absolute favorite," said Mullin, "because it merges perfect engineering with raw beauty in the shape of a raindrop. I don't think there is a bad angle on this car."

Mullin said he has always been a car nut, but "didn't even know how to say 'Delahaye' let alone know what it was" until he OK'd the use of his house as the backdrop for a calendar shot of a 1948 135 MS nearly 30 years ago.

"I just knew it was the most gorgeous piece of rolling art I'd ever seen," he recalled.

That started a passion for French cars that, spurred on by the artistic as well as automotive talents of the Bugatti family, led to a passion for industrial and artistic designs of the Art Deco period.

That led to the Mullin Automotive Museum, which in addition to autos features examples of Art Deco period art, photography and furniture.

The latter makes up a lounge area in the mezzanine that also pays tribute to 100 years of Bugatti innovation. The rest of the upper level includes an homage to the 24 Heures du Mans with a 1930s style pit lane and race car display including, of course, grand prix Bugattis, a patina-coated 1911 Hispano Suiza Type 15 and the so-called "million franc prize" 1937 Delahaye Type 145 V12 driven to victory by Rene Dreyfus.

Downstairs, on the rear wall, are cars from the legendary Schlumpf Reserve Collection, most of which now belong to Mullin, including 17 unrestored Bugattis.

Then there is Mullin's "$50,000 car with a $300,000 story"--the 1925 Bugatti Type 22 that, because of a customs duty dispute, sat on the bottom of Lake Maggiore on the Italy-Switzerland border for 73 years before being salvaged last year to raise funds for a local charity. The car sits in its own room, battered and water-ravaged, resembling the remains of a prehistoric amphibian.

"Bugatti designed it in 1925, and Mother Nature finished it," Mullin said when asked why he has no intention of restoring it.

He does, though, plan to finish the Type 64 Coupe that Jean Bugatti designed as the successor to the Type 57S Atlantic. Mullin established a scholarship program at the Art Center College of Design, where an eight-student design proposal inspired by Bugatti's original sketches will be crafted in aluminum and mounted on the chassis.

Carrying the past forward is important to Mullin. The building that houses his eponymous collection once housed the impressive muscle-car and motorcycle museum of the late Otis Chandler. The building has been updated to fully green Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified specs.

The museum will open to the public later this year; check for more information. The museum will be a must-see for automobile, design and art lovers.

By Patrick C. Paternie