The Mullin Automotive Museum
My dad was born on 80 acres outside of Bennet, Nebraska in 1922, while my mom joined four older siblings near Ohiowa, Nebraska in 1930. Both were as far removed from Paris, the Bugatti headquarters at Molsheim or Le Mans as was possible in that part of the 20th century. In the early ‘20s my dad’s family had a Model T and tractor, while in the ‘30s my mom’s folks had enough car to get their family to Idaho – and then back to Lincoln in that same Depression-riddled decade. All of which is a long way of saying that a tour of the Mullin Automotive Museum and its celebration of French cars and Art Deco design is as far removed from my family’s history as Joe Biden is removed from Joe Stalin. And the ability of a great museum to move you is an invaluable piece of transport, on its very own.
To be sure, Oxnard, California is located more than a few zip codes from the Salons of Paris, but that distance is made considerably shorter when stepping into Peter Mullin’s museum, located – in a building designed by architect Vincent Dyer – on a commercial strip in Oxnard. At one time housing the automotive passions of Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler (andsold after Chandler’s death in 2006), Mr. Mullin moved his collection of French cars and Art Deco furnishings into the facility in 2010. And while it is neither a large building nor expansive collection, its contents could as easily be labeled ‘National Gallery of the French Automobile’ as the Mullin Automotive Museum; this is a gallery of automotive art, transportation – if you will – of the heart.
You’ll know that from the git-go. At the museum’s entrance you’re greeted by a 1:1 sculpture of a competition Bugatti, which is placed immediately in front of a Citroen DS reimagined for – I’m guessing here – the Jetsons. Those, of course, are only the opening lines for Mullin’s compilation of coachwork and competition, with Bugatti as its centerpiece – which includes a sidebar sampling of the Schlumpf Collection – and a supporting cast featuring the aforementioned Citroen, Delahaye, Peugeot, Talbot and Voisin.
In the same way that Bugatti melded competition design with elegant coachwork in his road cars (and as both Ferrari and Porsche do today), Peter Mullin created a similar mélange in his displays. While most of the collection celebrates the (quite literally) Roaring ‘20s and prewar ‘30s, there are a few examples of turn-of-that-century vehicles that make the automotive advancements after World War I an even more dramatic contrast. As in aviation, automotive design’s take off after World War I must have stretched the imagination of the industry’s founding fathers.
Although Bugatti takes center stage, the museum’s supporting cast provides a revealing look at the extended reach of automotive architecture between 1930 and Hitler’s march into France at the end of that decade. It also gives us a glimpse into a social divide that saw the commissioning of coachbuilt this and one-off that while most of the French population continued to walk or ride bicycles. It is a world of social polarization that would set a Bernie Bro’s hair on fire – but then, no Bernie bumper stickers are in evidence.
Beyond the beauty of Bugatti is the authenticity of the barn find. At the Mullin it’s a 1948 Delahaye T135MS, parked within a barn-like setting that has seemingly everything but chickens and mice. As you’d guess, the Delahaye is not a thing of beauty, but does serve as a completely authentic reference for other restorations.
Taking an even deeper dive into automotive history is the Mullin’s Lady of the Lake, a Type 22 Bugatti Brescia retrieved from the bottom of Italy’s Lake Maggiore. The circumstances of its submersion and (much later) recovery are well documented, but its current display speaks to both Mullin’s affection for the form and very real interest in historical preservation. You could liken it to the recovery of the Titanic, in a much more accessible, of-this-century form.
Surprises, of course, don’t stop at the lake. A 1937 Hispano Suiza K6 Break De Chasse is a pre-war take on the family wagon; one assumes its family came with a royal connection. And further evidence of Peter Mullin’s commitment to both historical design and today’s craftsmen is the creation of a Type 64 Bugatti, its design a collaboration with Pasadena’s ArtCenter College of Design and its bodywork hand-formed from aluminum. It is stunning.
Regrettably, as with the death of Otis Chandler and the selling of his collection, with the passing of Peter Mullin in the fall of ’23 the Mullin Automotive Museum will close; the last date open to the public is Saturday, February 10th – and then the collection will be dispersed.
Four examples from the Mullin have been donated to the Petersen in Los Angeles, where Mr. Mullin served as a founding board member. The memory of the Mullin Automotive Museum should serve as a reminder to all of us identifying as car enthusiasts: If you see an automotive museum, go in and buy a ticket. And tell your friends. In all likelihood, it won’t outlive its founder or foundation.