Among the many things Otis Chandler left behind when he died in 2006 was a nondescript building in the heart of Oxnard called “The Vintage.” There, he housed a collection of automobiles, along with various works of art and trophies, calling it The Chandler Vintage Museum of Transportation and Wildlife.
Whatever success the museum did or did not enjoy, it was purchased by Peter Mullin, a collector of exceedingly rare vintage French automobiles, who has remade it from the outside in. Architect David Hertz was hired to revamp the space and create a green environment (think solar panels and a rooftop garden) for Mullin’s collection—which, in addition to some of the world’s finest, most beautifully styled French-built automobiles, includes similarly streamlined furniture, decorative art, and photography from the Art Deco period.
Now open to the public, The Mullin Automotive Museum is anything but nondescript, housing Bugattis, Delages, Delahayes, Hispano Suizas, Talbot-Lagos, and Voisins—a collector’s passionate homage to the automobile as art.
Curator Andrew Reilly joined in the conversation as we spoke with Mullin, who can occasionally be seen driving one of the cars at Concours d’Elegances throughout the world.
VENTANA: This is the sort of museum you’d expect to see in a major metropolis like L.A. or New York. Why Oxnard?
PETER MULLIN: Well, there are two reasons. The first one, which is very practical, is that the Otis Chandler Automotive Museum already existed there. After Chandler went off to the big car show in the sky, we realized that it was an ideal size and had already been fitted out as an automotive museum. It had second floors that could carry the weight of cars, car lifts to take cars up there. So that’s the kind of practical answer.
The second answer is more romantic, and that is that I think Oxnard is a great, unfound coastal city in California that is on the verge of some major development. We might just be on the wave of the popularity of Oxnard. As Santa Barbara moves south and Los Angeles moves north and other beach cities are really crowded, it’s a beautiful place.
Where does your interest in vintage French cars come from?
PM: It’s mostly focused on the late ‘20 and ‘30s, which was the Art Deco movement, and the car was the centerpiece of the Art Deco movement. I didn’t know anything about pre-war French cars, and I saw a couple of them and was basically blown away by how gorgeous, sculptural, beautiful, and elegant they were. So I restored one, and interest leads to commitment, and commitment leads to stronger interest. It’s kind of like a circle. I got interested in a Talbot Lagos first, and then a Delahaye, and then all the French Marks. Most people don’t think of Bugatti as a French car, they think of it as Italian. But all the Bugattis were made in France. So France had this plethora of cars with extraordinary design, performance, and engineering: Voisins, Hispano Suizas, Delages. I don’t think the automobile was any better. Ever.
The design of those cars was an amazing achievement for the time.
PM: When you wanted one of these great French cars, you didn’t go to the factory and buy it. You bought a rolling chassis. And then you went to what was called a carrossier and he would build, or sculpt, the body for you. He would question you to see what you liked, what kind of guy you were, a sportsman or businessman, in the city or do you like the country… What are you like as a person? Kind of like an architect interviewing you to find out what kind of house to build for you. Then he went away for six weeks or two months, designed and built your car, and then would call you and tell you it’s ready. Hopefully you were in love with it, but if you weren’t it didn’t matter because you owned it.
ANDREW REILLY: Interestingly, coachbuilding was an art, a craft that dated all the way back to 1450, so this was a sort of modern application of an ancient craft.
Where do you find the cars for your collection?
PM: Well, I’ve been collecting for over 30 years and I come across them in ones and twos all over the world, actually: Europe, Australia, England, the U.S. The car world is like a club, and most of the people in the car world know that this is our passion. So it’s not unusual for me to get a phone call from someone who says, “Peter, we just found a car in a barn in the north of France. It’s been sitting there for 50 years and we’re calling you first.”
Was it always your goal to put these cars in a museum, to have something open to the public?
PM: Well, in the beginning my dreams weren’t as big as a museum. It was collecting for collecting’s sake. But over the past 20 years, I’ve had the vision of having a museum that would care for and display these cars and be open to the public, to charity groups, to car groups. I have a very strong opinion that car collectors shouldn’t have their cars in some dark hole where no one else can see them.
Do you still look for cars when you’re traveling in Europe?
PM: Very much so. I keep a car in Europe so that I can do rallies when I’m there, and we rotate things around a little bit. But essentially, we bring them back to California to display, restore, or preserve. Sometimes we see a car that is in great shape and we want to keep it that way.
So at times it’s best to leave a car as-is rather than restore it?
PM: Absolutely. If I find an unmolested original great car and it’s all there, unless it’s a wreck, it’s interesting. It’s more valuable to leave it in that condition than to spend Lord knows how much money restoring it. The car world increasingly values untouched cars, rather than trailer queens that never get driven.
AR: I would say that this is a way in which the car world emulates the fine art world. There is much more acceptance of cars, like fine art, with conservators and restorers—it’s really a close connection.
How is the Oxnard building unique?
PM: We’ve modified the exterior substantially to give it an Art Deco flavor. And then on the interior, we completely changed what the inside of the building looks like. It now looks like the ’36 Paris Auto salon. In France, the buildings were thoughtfully and elegantly designed, and that was the look we were looking for.
AR: The building is an integral part of the display, not only in terms of its decoration, but the building is a kind of machine, with skylights and a green roof and all of that.
PM: The building generates its own energy and creates no pollution at all.
Discuss the connection between cars and art.
PM: Increasingly, museums are displaying automobiles as art. The Phoenix Art Museum did a fabulous show with 20 cars. There’s an art museum and car show in Atlanta at the High Art Museum.
AR: And it will continue next summer at the Portland Art Museum. When you’re talking about the Art Deco movement, the automobile is at the heart of that movement. It was fascinated with speed and automation and streamlining and new materials.
PM: The whole Art Deco movement was taking utilitarian objects and making them art, so that a toaster looked like a little piece of sculpture. They’re beautiful.