Thursday, April 28, 2016

The French Collection

1930 Bugatti Type 46 Cabriolet

Alma-Rose - PDFSure, you’ve been to a few automotive museums. You love the Petersen and its diverse collection of hundreds of cars in more than 100,000 square feet, plus its semi-exclusive basement vault.

This is not that kind of museum.

In fact, this may be unlike any other
car museum in the country. The Mullin Automotive Museum, established in 2010, is borne of one man’s passion for a specific subset of cars. The good news is, it’s a spectacular subset.

Peter Mullin’s collection consists largely of French automobiles from the Art Deco period of the 1920s and ‘30s, though the museum is actually about more than just cars. The interior décor of the Mullin reflects the aesthetic of this glamorous age, with even the elevator festooned in period-reflective ornamentation – though the building happens to be fully modern, with solar roof panels and a LEED Gold certification. 

And the collection even includes period art and furniture, plus a bar reclaimed from 1920s-era Chicago, so you can imagine the barkeep sliding an illicit cocktail across it toward Al Capone himself.

This commitment to the many aspects of the era led Autoweek magazine to rate the Mullin as one of the top five automotive museums in the country in 2012. 

The museum unveiled its Cars & Carriages exhibit two weeks ago, high- lighting the transition between horse power and “horsepower,” including a celebration of the commonality between the two eras that stems from the coach-building tradition of early automobiles. The very same craftsmen who assembled horse-drawn coaches before motorization lent their workmanship and styling touch to the new “horseless carriages.”

In light of this occasion, I headed down to Oxnard with my friend Jason Austin, a Santa Barbara-area farrier (he gives horses their fancy footwear), for a tour of the museum led by head docent Warner Hall.

Hall started with a little background on Mullin and his collection. While there are only around 50 cars on display in the building, Peter Mullin’s assemblage comprises more than 150 cars, many stashed in various storage facilities around the county. He also chairs the board of directors at the Petersen, so Mullin – the man is one of the leaders of the community of enthusiasts who strive to protect the world’s automotive heritage. 

This extensive collection allows for some great variety, even within the narrow category that he has embraced, so Hall says that whenever he’s away from the museum for any period of time, he always looks around for “what’s left and what’s new,” after regular collection rotations.

The first car that he chose to highlight is the oldest motorcar in the Mullin collection, a 1902 Panhard & Levassor Type B1, which Hall called “the Start of the Art.” This car, and its “Système Panhard”, provided a new formula for automotive layout, with the front-mounted engine driving the rear wheels. It also had a steering wheel rather than a tiller, and a pedal and gear level layout that would make it much more familiar to modern drivers than other cars of its age. 

This particular car was restored about a quarter-century ago, and it won the prestigious Charles A. Chayne Trophy at Pebble Beach last year, which celebrates vehicles with the most advanced engineering for their particular era.

Hall pointed out many of the other cars in the collection from various historic French brands, such as Voisin, Delahaye, Talbot-Lago, and Hispano- Suiza (this one doesn’t sound French, but the company started producing its most extravagant models in Paris in the early 1900s). Many of the most valuable models, however, hail from that most storied Italian-cum-French brand, Bugatti. 

In fact, Mullin has a great relationship with the Bugatti family, says Hall. The company itself is, of course, now under the control of the Volkswagen empire, but the family are still stewards of their own legacy.

From the salon, one can survey the entire museum
That legacy extends beyond cars, with the Bugatti clan originally making its name in the art world. Ettore Bugatti’s father, Carlo, was a prominent designer of furniture, jewelry, and even musical instruments. The museum has on display many pieces from Carlo’s workshop, including some furniture with captivating inlay work. It also has some sculpture from Ettore’s brother Rembrandt Bugatti. 

That artistic family tradition drove Ettore to incorporate into his cars some of the most beautiful design in the automotive world, and the marque is still celebrated for its stunning aesthetics. 

One of these stunners that Hall pointed out was the Type 46 Cabriolet, ornamented with such detail that even its powerplant is adorned with an engine scraping technique that, he says, required “a bazillion hours” of work, despite being a relatively invisible part of the design. 
This car is a great example of Mullin and his wife, Merle, not only restoring their cars to full glory, but also customizing them with flourishes that, while not original, are in keeping with the type of design work that would have been executed in their heyday. The couple had the T46 upholstered with a custom woven deerskin that complements the wood-festooned dash beautifully. 

And the Mullins will go to extremes sometimes to realize their design vision on a car. Hall even recounted a story of Mullin buying an entire herd of buffalo to be able to upholster one of his Hispano-Suizas with the rare hide.

Some of the more stunning sights in the museum are cars for which the word “patina” is a vast understatement. Tucked into the rear of the hall is a row of unrestored cars from the Schlumpf reserve collection, a haul of vehicles seized by the French government from a couple of bankrupt textile magnate brothers.

Around the corner sits “The Lady in the Lake”, a 1925 Bugatti Type 22 Brescia that had resided at the bottom of an Italian lake for 75 years. Much of the car had melted away by the time it was raised, but when they drilled into the engine to ensure there wasn’t water sloshing around inside, they found a crankcase full of the original oil, said Hall. 

I could fill countless more pages with the wonders that abound at the Mullin, but instead I advise you to check it out yourself. Although make sure you plan ahead. The museum is open only two Saturdays per month, and you must buy tickets ahead of time. The tickets are $15 – with various discounts available – and the views are priceless. 

Visit for schedule information and to buy tickets.

Let’s Get Ready to Rally

Diana Starr Langley, Monte Wilson, Jeff Henley, and Michael Hammer at last year’s Rally

Alma-Rose - PDFTwo years ago, 30-some cars participated in the first Rally4Kids; last year, there were 50. This year, more than 70 cars – classics, sports cars, racers, muscle cars, fancy cars, and everything in-between – have signed up for the 3rd Annual Rally4Kids, a fundraiser for the United Boys & Girls Club of Santa Barbara County.

One of the vehicles, being driven by Steve Hughes, may draw the attention not only of car lovers, but of cinephiles as well: it’s a little scamp called the Alfa Romeo Spider, aka Duetto. This is a car made famous by the movie The Graduate, starring a fresh-faced Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock memorably drives his 1966 Alfa down from Berkeley to Santa Barbara to intercept Elaine Robinson’s wedding, running out of gas along the way.

Fun fact: Hoffman drives through the Gaviota Tunnel on his drive down, where we hear the engine echoing off the walls. This was actually the northbound tunnel, since there is no southbound tunnel along the Gaviota Pass. There is, of course, no Vernon Avenue exit here in town, nor an Allan Street where the church was located, so best of luck replicating this famous journey.

Steve Hughes’s 1967 Alfa Romeo Spider Duetto
But you can see what is essentially an identical car if you say “hello” to Steve at the rally. Hughes’s Alfa is a 1967 model; it has different mirrors, but the other details are the same, down to the color. I talked to Hughes about the car and the movie, and he had some other interesting tidbits to share.

“You know why they used that car in the movie?” he asks, and answers, “Because Dustin Hoffman’s uncle was the Alfa importer.” This was a stroke of luck for the brand, because it put Alfa on the map in the U.S. and would ultimately sustain sales of the Spider model through four generations to more than 100,000 units.

While Hughes has only owned this car for a couple of years, it’s not his first Alfa Romeo. He had a 1957 Giulietta, which he says “was really nice but it was original paint, and we figured it was too valuable to drive in rallies. “And also,” he adds somewhat ruefully, “every time we drove it, it broke down.”

Hughes then offered to let me drive the car, so I eagerly headed back up to Santa Barbara and took him up on it. It was a rainy day, but a window of time opened up for my friend Jason Austin and I to take a quick run around Mission Canyon, just as the sun was peeking out.

Luckily, the top is an easy affair, and you can throw it back from the driver’s seat when the chance suddenly presents itself. It’s something that a modern-day Mazda MX-5 Miata is celebrated for as well.

Hughes has been in the car business for 30 years, since moving to the U.S. from England. It was one of the clas- sic stories of coming over on vacation and deciding this is where he should be.

“I don’t know, I just came and never went home.”

Hughes will be at the Rally with his wife, Micheline, and we talked a bit about what the event means to them.

Peter Sperling and Sean McHugh
“Well, we were surprised how important it is, what a good charity Boys & Girls Club is. It really does great work,” he said. “It’s nice when you do something and it goes locally.”

While there are tons of great activities for the kids, including sports, arts & crafts, and even a fully functional recording studio run by nonprofit Notes for Notes, one of the most impactful programs involves serving hot dinners to kids who otherwise might often go hungry.

The drive will again kick off at software company QAD in Summerland. Last year’s route was beautiful and fun, with a great lunch stop at Calamigos Ranch near Malibu, and no doubt the rally masters will again guide drivers and their navigators on a great adventure.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. The after-party at the Nesbitt Estate, also in Summerland, is a grand soirée, and this year the entertainment includes The Tearaways rocking the night with music redolent of the British Invasion, and even wandering magicians from the Magic Castle giving impromptu performances throughout the crowd.

Eric Phillips, Lynda Weinmann, and Charles Ward in 2015
Another big highlight of the after-party is the auction, both silent and live. They’ve gotten some amazing packages donated this year. Some of the best live-auction items include a 4-night villa stay in one of 17 cities worldwide through Exclusive Resorts; Caribbean and Mediterranean cruises aboard a SeaDream mega-yacht; two nights for a big group at the Sunstone Winery Estate; and VIP tickets to any Beach Boys show in the country, which includes backstage passes.

As of press deadline, there were still a few spots left if you have a car you’d like to drive and want to get in on the action. For information, visit rally or contact Kristi Newton at (805) 681-1315.