Thirty-five-years ago someone parked a Delahaye outside Peter Mullin’s house for a photo shoot. ‘I had no idea what it was and I had never heard of Delahaye, but I did know it was the most beautiful car I had ever seen.’
It was a fateful day for Peter – a chance meeting with a car that was to ignite his passion for collecting French cars of the 1920s and ‘30s. He began with a Talbot-Lago and has been adding cars ever since, and today has a mere 165 in his collection – including many Delahayes. Where French cars of the Art Deco period are concerned, Peter Mullin just can’t say Non!
It is a passion that has even earned him official recognition in France: with an Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for his contribution to preserving French culture, Peter really is a knight in shining armour in French eyes.
You’d need a museum for a collection like this and Peter has one, the Mullin Automotive Museum, 60 miles north of Los Angeles. Around 65 cars from his collection are on display there at any one time – well, maybe 60 now that five of the most special are heading for Sussex…
Talbot-Lago, Delahaye, Bugatti and Voisin – truly les grandes marques françaises – will all be represented at the Festival of Speed this year in what will be a spectacular special display on the lawns of the Cartier ‘Style et Luxe’ concours d’elegance. Few cars ever made epitomise style et luxe quite as well as these cars, all featuring carrosserie by Figoni et Falaschi.
‘I am a great fan of Giuseppe Figoni’s work so when Lord March suggested a special tribute to his cars I quickly accepted,’ recalls Peter. The famous five – among the best known Figoni-bodied cars in existence – are the 1937 Talbot-Lago T150-C-S ‘Teardrop’, the 1928 Bugatti T43/44 Grand Sport, the 1934 Voisin C27 Roadster, and two Delahayes: the 1937 Type 145 and the 1939 T165.
What is it about them that so appeals to Peter Mullin?
‘To me, cars just don’t get any better than late 1930s French. They represent the pinnacle of 20th century art and design. When I saw my first Delahaye outside my house I was blown away by its rolling sculpture. Cars like this are a passion for me and the more I study them the more interested I get. I am hopelessly besotted by French cars.’
Peter says it is not just their Art Deco style – think voluptuous fenders, two-tone colour schemes, wheel spats and French curves aplenty – but also their performance that sets them apart.
‘Bugattis won 70 per cent of motor races in the 1920s, the Delahayes beat the might of the German Silver Arrows before the war, and Delage, Talbot-Lago and Voisin all have significant racing histories.’
Peter’s museum is a shrine to many things Art Deco with cars of the period as the centrepiece. They are virtually all French with the odd exception, such as the very Art Deco Tatra from the former Czechoslovakia, and a brace of Hispano-Suizas. The museum is open to the public (mullinautomotivemuseum.com) and thoroughly recommended for a visit.
Where does Peter get his cars from? ‘Most are barn finds, some in good shape, others not so good,’ he says. As you can imagine, there’s quite a restoration operation here, but it is all outsourced to marque specialists in Europe and the US. ‘There aren’t too many people around who know how to work on, say, a Wilson pre-selector transmission, so we try to find the people who have the experience.’
One car never made the restoration workshops. This was the Bugatti Brescia that was pulled out of Lake Maggiore in 2010; Swiss customs had put it there, on the end of a chain, at the outbreak of WWII, the intention being to pull it out again at the end of the war.
‘The chain rusted away and the car sank 170ft where it laid on its side in the mud for 75 years,’ says Peter. It is now one of the museum’s most famous exhibits – unrestored, one half preserved (by the mud), the other half just a rusted skeleton. ‘What Bugatti started as an art form Mother Nature finished as an art form – this car is very special to me.’
Another Bugatti holds an equally special place in Peter Mullin’s heart: the Type 64, complete with ‘papillon’ doors, that Jean Bugatti sketched out just before his death in 1939. A rolling chassis had been made but no body. Peter bought the chassis and so, with the help of the original sketches, some period-correct tooling and the students from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, he did what any enthusiast would do. He made his own.
‘It was a real thrill – a chance for us to finish what Jean Bugatti started and a way to respect and pay tribute to his great vision.’
All the cars are driveable and do get driven (apart from the Brescia!), says Peter, who also races some of them in vintage grand prix events. There are road rallies, too, this year by Voisin and Bugatti in events in France and Scotland. ‘I love driving them all. When I am racing I have a couple of favourites – they are the cars I know what I can get away with.’
An overall favourite from the collection? That’s a car we will all be able to admire at FoS this year – the simply exquisite Talbot-Lago coupe, the Goutte d’Eau, or Teardrop.
‘To me it’s the most gorgeous car ever designed. Even the most beautiful cars are a little awkward from certain angles. Not this car. There’s not one bad angle on it. It’s not only beautiful but also quick, and ran at Le Mans.’
For Peter Mullin, the quest for ever more grand French automobiles of the 1920s and ‘30s goes on. ‘There’s always a few things out there that will fit the collection and one day I will add them,’ he says.
One car that doesn’t come near fitting the collection is his everyday driver. It’s not old, not big and far from French. ‘But it’s quick and a lot of fun,’ says Peter. The car? A Mini Cooper S…
He might be a great enthusiast (along with being chairman of an insurance company, landscape gardener, pig farmer, olive grower and wine-maker!) but for Peter Mullin enthusiasm is not worth much unless it is shared.
‘You can have two points of view as a collector. You can collect cars for yourself, tuck them away and show them to your friends at weekends. Or you can accept that you are not really the owner at all, that the cars were built a long time before you were born and will be around a long time after you are gone. Your role is to be a good caretaker.
‘The key to this for me is to be able to share them with the public, use them for education, and give people the chance to see something beautiful up close they would never otherwise see. That’s my view. I am the caretaker, not the owner.’
Peter Mullin’s fabulous five will be on display on the Cartier lawn all through FoS – a must-see if ever there was one.