Even the most die-hard car lover can suffer sensory overload during a walk around the massive Cite de l’Automobile museum in Mulhouse, France. From early steam-powered carriages to modern Le Mans machinery, the world’s biggest collection of Bugattis, dozens of Formula 1 cars, and plenty of weird and wonderful creations from over 130 years of motoring, the fabled Schlumpf Collection provides the bulk of the machinery found in the world’s most well-endowed car museum.
With so many automotive gems to see and appreciate, you’d be forgiven for only casting a cursory glance at the blue and grey Ferrari 250 GT Tour de France (s/n 0450AM) in the middle of the largest hall, parked between a 250 MM Spyder (s/n 0230MM) first owned by film director Roberto Rossellini and a wedge-nosed 1960 Vuillet Coupe. The scant few words on the TdF’s information plaque don’t reveal much of the car’s fascinatingly convoluted history, which is likely why its story has never been told in a magazine—until now.
In reality, this isn’t a story about a car, but one about two men. The first is Fritz Schlumpf, the collection’s creator. The second is s/n 0450’s original owner: Prince Nguyen Vinh Thuy, the 13th and last Emperor of the Nguyen dynasty of the Kingdom of Annam.
BORN IN 1913 into a life of wealth and privilege, Prince Thuy, better known as Bao Dai, became Emperor at the tender and not particularly world-wise age of 12. Unfortunately for him, the 20th century was a very tumultuous time for the Indochina region, and Annam, the central part of what is now Vietnam, was first taken over by French colonialists, invaded by the Japanese in World War II, then subject to a postwar Communist uprising that eventually led to American intervention in the 1960s.
Bao Dai didn’t rise to the occasion as a champion of the people. Instead, he’s famous for almost single-handedly wiping out the country’s tiger population and for popping out to buy the world’s most expensive Rolex watch while in the middle of negotiations that would split his country into North and South. Bao Dai was then exiled in 1955, when a referendum abolished the monarchy, and lived most of the rest of his life in France. After he died in 1997, the New York Times wrote, “He played almost no role in his homeland thereafter, choosing instead a hedonistic life in Paris and along the Riviera that centered around golf, bridge tournaments, and women.”
In Vietnamese, Bao Dai means “Keeper of Greatness,” and while many of his former subjects would likely not agree with that accolade, he did have good taste in Ferraris.