Wonderfully weird French classics from the Mullin Automotive Museum

Citroens and Bugattis, Delages and Delahayes, the Mullin Automotive Museum has an incredible collection of classic French cars.


Geoffrey Morrison

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Mullin Automotive Museum

In Oxnard, California, just northwest of Los Angeles, is the Mullin Automotive Museum, a showcase for classic French cars like Citroën and Bugatti. 

For the story behind this tour, check out Quirky French classics at the Mullin Automotive Museum

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Currently the majority of the Mullin is dedicated to the quintessentially French automaker Citroën.  

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One of my favorite cars, and definitely one of the strangest, the Citroën SM.

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A front-wheel drive Maserati?

With a Maserati V6 mounted behind the front axle, but driving the front wheels, the SM's engine layout was only one of its quirks.

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Low slung

The hydro-pneumatic suspension was auto-leveling and height adjustable. This, I assume, is the low setting.

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The SM had a low, even by today's standards, coefficient of drag. Various outlets reported it as low as 0.26, or you can go by the gold one's licence plate, at 0.28. 

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'70s style

A single-spoke wheel and, if you can make it out, no brake pedal. There's a mushroom-shaped button mounted on the floor to let you modulate the braking system.  

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Land speed

Designed by SM World to break speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats, the car on the right has been highly modified, but keeps the aerodynamic shape of the SM. Speaking of modified, the tow car was assembled from a wrecked SM. Also, the trailer itself has a hydro-pneumatic suspension because of course it does.

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The V6 has been modified to put out 530hp, which was enough to push the SM over 200 mph (322 kph). 

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Back in time

Citroën dates back nearly 100 years, and once you get past the SMs, you step much farther back in time. 

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The '20s

On the left is a Type A, first introduced in 1919. That's its original licence plate. It also has its 1920 registration, and when purchased by Peter Mullin, they were able to get it started after only 30 minutes worth of work. On the right is a 1923 Type C, also known as a 5CV, that has a 0.9L inline-4 that developed 11hp.

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Front-wheel drive

The Traction Avant was the world's first mass-production front-wheel-drive car. This, which came out a year later in 1935, is the Cabriolet version.

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Look at that speedometer! And the console mounted shifter for the three-speed manual.  

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This B14's unique paint job was based on a design by Ukrainian artist Sonia Delaunay for the 1925 Paris Exposition, also known as the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. The expo is more famous for the style it helped launch, which was later named after it: art deco.

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Though its development nearly ruined the company, the Traction Avant was very successful, being built for 23 years over many different models until the late '50s. This 1937 hardtop coupe is one of the rarest types.

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Faster 6

This "15CV" is essentially an Traction Avant 11B but with a longer hood housing an inline-6 that could get the car up to a respectable 81 mph (130 kph) while still getting decent fuel economy.

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When it comes to famous, cheap, small cars, there's the Beetle, and there's the 2CV. Cheap and easy to repair, Citroën made them for 42 years! 

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Yacht celebration

This example, looking almost identical to the early models, is actually from 1984. It was one of a special run to celebrate the France 3 yacht that competed in the America's Cup. Why they thought celebrating a multimillion-dollar yacht with a paint job on one of the cheapest cars of all time was a good idea, I'm not sure.

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2CVs had an air-cooled, flat-twin engine. In this 1952 example, it was 375cc and developed 9hp. 

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50's and beyond

Citroën's most famous design, at least from an aesthetic beauty standpoint, has to be the DS from the '50s. 

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The DS was launched in 1955, looking unlike anything else on the road. It still does.

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It was front-wheel drive, like the Traction Avant, and for the first time, a hydro-pneumatic suspension on all four wheels.

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The DS was in production for 20 years and had many different variants, both more and less expensive than the original.

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The hydro-pneumatic suspension was said to offer great handling, but also a comfortable ride.

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Single spoke

There is just something about a single-spoke steering wheel that just sets a car apart.

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DS is pronounced "dayESSE" (déesse), French for "goddess." This DS21 Pallas was a luxury version, more than doubling the price of the standard car.

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Only 38 examples were built of the DS19 Concorde, shown here. The Mullin has 2 of them. They were handbuilt custom bodies using the DS19 as a base.  

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Pack light

Apparently all of these suitcases can fit inside one DS. Personally, I think you should just pack less. But that's me.

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While comfortable and stylish, the DS was always underpowered compared to its rivals. Early models had an engine based on the one from the already-old Traction Avant, putting out only 75hp. The final models had a reasonable 141hp from a fuel-injected 2.4L inline-4.

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To improve sales, Citroën introduced the ID line, which had the same look as the DS, but less power, a traditional gearbox, no power steering, and so on to keep the price down. This, the ID21F Break was a station wagon variant. 

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Beyond the DS

It's not all ID and DS. Here's a handful of Amis. The orange one is a Dyane, which was based on the 2CV.

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The last Citroën

The CX series (the two on the right) was the last series created by Citroën before they were bought by Peugeot. It replaced the aging (but still beautiful) DS and ID line.

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This is a 1975 CX2200. The CX carried over the engines from the DS, used the steering from the SM, and had a simplified hydro-pneumatic suspension.

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Modern era

A C6, Citroën's modern big car. Though previewed at the Geneva Motor Show in 1999, it would be another 6 years before being sold to the public. It didn't sell well, and was discontinued in 2012. It featured an evolved version of the DS's hydro-pneumatic suspension.

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Fritz Schlumpf built a textile empire in France, and used the money he made to build the largest collection of Bugattis in Europe as part of a collection that numbered over 450. When the business went bankrupt, the cars were impounded, left to rot for decades. Peter Mullin bought the majority of the collection in 2008, including 17 Bugattis. The museum displays them in their as-found condition. 

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A 1937 Type 57 Ventoux, sporting a 3.3L, 135hp inline-8.

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This is a 1934 Type 57, with basically the same specs as the '37 in the previous slide. This one was purchased in January of 1935, sold 3 years later, sold later that year back to the original owner, eventually ending up in the US in the '50s. Then in the '60s it went back to France to end up sitting as part of the Schlumpf collection for a few decades, before heading back to the US in 2008.

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Off road

On the right, a 1966 2CV Sahara, designed for North Africa. It's four-wheel drive... thanks to a 12hp engine in the front driving the front wheels, and a 12hp engine in the back driving the back wheels. The extra fuel tank is under the front seats, which you can see the filler cap for in the door. 
On the left is a Citroën Méhari.

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The Méhari was Citroën's take on a Jeep. It was a variant of the 2CV, using the 2CV6's an air-cooled flat-2. The body was plastic inside and out.

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Upstairs are dozens of race cars from the '20s to the '50s. 

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Rolling lab

This 1923 Avions Voisin Type C6, which Voisin called "Laboratoires" in that they were rolling test beds for new ideas to get the most power and reliability out of a race car. The look is... unique, to say the least. This is the only one in existence, built from period parts in 1992. 

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Grand Prix

A 1950 Talbot-Lago T26C, with a 4.5L, 250hp inline-6. Looks like it was built yesterday.

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You're practically sitting on the four-speed transmission. The cockpit looks like some steampunk fan built a car interior, except it's real.

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Racing Bugatti

A Type 59/50S, built out as a recreation of Robert Benoist French Grand Prix car from 1935. Under the long hood is a 4.9L inline-8.

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Running hot

In the upper left is a radiator. How many times do you think someone accidentally touched that while getting in and out of the car? Also, you're sitting next to the fuel tank. Old-school race cars were bonkers.

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Au revoir

The Mullin is open to private tours, or to the public on most second and fourth Saturdays.

For the story behind this tour, check out Quirky French classics at the Mullin Automotive Museum.   

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