EXCLUSIVE: Why Peter Mullin, President Of The American Bugatti Club, Parked His Automotive ‘Mona Lisa’ In Saratoga Springs

Mullin and his wife, Merle, discuss their collecting 'bug,' generous philanthropic work and what they think of Saratoga (don't worry, they love it!).

Peter Mullin
Peter Mullin, at the wheel of the priceless Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic, he co-owns, which was on display this past weekend at the Saratoga Wine & Food Festival. (Katie Dobies)

I’m not going to lie: I was a little nervous—and I normally don’t get nervous too easily—going into my interview with Peter W. Mullin. He’s not the type of person guys like me normally get to spend the better part of a Friday afternoon with. Not only is he a highly successful businessman and über-generous philanthropist, but he’s also a legend in the world of automobile collecting. For one, he’s the name behind California’s renowned Mullin Automotive Museum (and he’s planning a second one in England). He’s also the President of the American Bugatti Club, a collective of Bugatti enthusiasts who own some of the most sought after and expensive automobiles in the world. And of course, he himself owns a panoply of priceless autos—including one which he co-owns, an ultra-rare 1936 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantics, one of just two in existence (the other one’s owned by Ralph Lauren). The latter was to be on display this past Saturday, September 8, at the Saratoga Wine & Food Festival at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, where my magazine, saratoga living, was set to be the title sponsor. In short, there were a lot of reasons to be nervous.

I was set to meet Mullin and his wife, Merle, who’s also his racing companion, a fellow philanthropist and artist/designer, in their suite at the Marriott on Excelsior Avenue here in Saratoga Springs, where the entire American Bugatti Club was staying for its first-ever tour of the city (and New York State, for that matter). At around 4pm on Friday, the hotel was a madhouse of activity—and from the way the Marriott’s staff kept mentioning the Mullins’ names, I knew I was going to be meeting nothing short of American royalty. Again, another reason to be nervous. Thankfully, all my nerves were completely unnecessary; the Mullins were incredibly charming people, who welcomed me and saratoga living photographer, Katie Dobies, into their suite as if we were old friends. We ended up spending two hours with the couple, discussing everything from their collections to their philanthropic work.

Peter, who’s tall and has a quiet demeanor, made his fortune in the financial services and insurance industries through his company M Financial Group, which he founded in 1978. (He’d been a consultant in the industry since ’69.) He’s also the Chairman of Mullin Barens Sanford Financial, an executive compensation consulting firm. But Mullin plays just as hard as he works. His other greatest passion has always been collecting classic automobiles, specifically those produced by the French automaker Bugatti. He has one of the world’s largest privately held collections of rare, classic autos, including 35 Bugattis (you don’t become President of the American Bugatti Club by accident—though he tells me that he did accidentally miss the meeting where his top title was announced). Peter’s collection is so expansive, in fact, that in 2010 he founded the aforementioned Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, CA, not only so he could house all of his priceless automotive works of art, but also so that he could display them to car enthusiasts the world over. And then there’s that Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic. One of automaker Jean Bugatti’s final creations—he died in a car accident at just the age of 30 in 1939—the Atlantic is nothing short of the car collecting “Holy Grail”—or Mona Lisa, as he puts it. To that end, Peter tells me that the sleek, opalescent blue Bugatti is one of his personal favorites in his collection (it’s only eclipsed by his love for his 1937 Type 150CS Teardrop Talbot-Lago, but that’s another story).

Peter Mullin, with his wife, Merle, flanked by his co-owned Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic (blue) and Ralph Lauren’s (black) at the Saratoga Wine & Food Festival. (Katie Dobies)

You’d think that someone with this kind of priceless automobile and collection, valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars, would want to keep them under lock and key, with 24/7 surveillance, somewhere safely off the grid. But Peter has an altogether different philosophy about his collection. “[They’re] valuable collectibles, for sure, but they were made to drive,” he says. “They were made to be seen rolling through the streets.” Peter’s even been known to purchase cars that are tabbed for others’ private collections that he knows will be kept out of sight, so that he can do the opposite with them. “I think that cords around cars and alarms that go off if you get too close [to them] are just not the way we think about [cars],” says Peter, who was advised to install these kinds of security measures at his own automobile museum but refused. “Our experience is that the public has been very careful and respectful [of the cars],” he says.

Given that spirit of sharing, Peter and Merle came to Saratoga to help oversee the International Bugatti Tour’s debut visit here and the Club’s first time in the US in a decade. The Tour is a weeklong rally—a sort of scenic road trip for classic car enthusiasts—which includes daily excursions and pit stops at important locations and businesses throughout Saratoga, the Adirondacks and surrounding areas. For instance, the day I interviewed Peter and his wife, the Tour had driven to Utica to see Phaeton Motors Limited, a collectible and classic car trading company and museum, and the previous day, had made the trek up to Blue Mountain Lake to visit its Adirondacks-focused museum. “Our drive through the Adirondacks was just spectacular, so enchanting,” says Merle.

This year’s International Bugatti Tour includes more than 80 Bugattis from 14 countries, as well as a number of special events celebrating the timeless beauty of the Bugatti brand. One such event took place this past Saturday, as the Club paraded their Bugattis from the Saratoga Spa State Park through Downtown Saratoga. Earlier that day, the Club also put on an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime showcase of their automotive wares during the Grand Tasting at the Saratoga Wine & Food Festival, which ran from September 7-9. And that 1936 Atlantic? It’s normally on display at Mullin’s museum in California, but it was brought to Saratoga and the Festival, parked right beside the reflecting pool at the Hall of Springs, along with its jet-black, Ralph Lauren-owned counterpart, the first time in 15 years the two autos have been displayed anywhere together. The International Bugatti Tour chose Saratoga because of the Festival itself, says Mullin—classic car collectors love wine, too—and for the Spa City’s proximity to the 10th US Bugatti Grand Prix, which ran from August 29 to September 3 at Lime Rock Park in Lakeville, CT. Peter says he had passed through Saratoga before, but this is the first time he and his wife have really had a chance to soak it in and experience Saratoga’s elegance (from what they tell me, they’re loving it). Peter, who’s also a collector of Art Deco antiques—whether that be furniture, fixtures or works of art—particularly enjoys the diversity of architectural styles along North Broadway and throughout the city, the restored homes with their manicured lawns and gardens and lawn jockeys. “It’s just a whole different slice of Americana, and you never see anything like it on the West Coast,” says Peter, who was born in Pasadena and still lives, at least for part of the year, in California.

Peter tells me that he caught the car-collecting “bug” at a young age from his father, who was a chemical engineer for Mobil. But maybe not how you might imagine it. “My father would drag me along to car- and boat-related [shows], not really to look at the cars and boats but to look at the viscosity of the oil,” Peter says, with a laugh. “And I would say, ‘Dad, why are you talking about that? Look at this gorgeous thing here.’ So I maybe helped him appreciate what we were looking at, and he helped me appreciate how they worked. So that was a good trade.” Merle got the bug after meeting her husband in ’94. “I liked pretty cars, but I thought cars were to get you from point A to point B,” she says. Though she hasn’t had it quite as long as her husband has, Merle’s got the collecting bug bad now—so much so that she’s organized a women-only classic car rally for enthusiasts called “It’s All About The Girls!,” which held its first rally in 2011 in Tuscany, Italy, where the Mullins own a home. “I was one of the few women among this whole group who drive—I actually co-drive with Peter a lot,” says Merle about what spurred the idea for the rally. “So when we came up with this idea—when our husbands were all sitting in a corner, nose to nose, talking about cars—we said, ‘Why don’t we do one ourselves?’” Peter was very supportive of the idea from the start, and why wouldn’t he be? He loves driving with his wife. To wit, for their first wedding anniversary, he bought her a white 1957 Thunderbird, the car Merle used to drive in her teens (talk about romantic!). So far the It’s All About The Girls! rallies have been a massive success, regularly bringing in 60-plus women with either their own car collections or partner collections. The women then drive 30 collector cars across some of the most beautiful and relaxing countrysides on the planet. Last year’s rally was in Provence, France.

Peter Mullin, maybe the car world’s most famous collector, is the founder of the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, CA. (Katie Dobies)

However, the Mullins’ interests aren’t just limited to classic car collecting and the thrilling cross-country rallies that come with it. That philosophy of sharing Peter mentioned earlier extends into his and his wife’s philanthropic work. “We both have a strong interest in giving back to our community and beyond it, because we feel very appreciative of the blessings in our lives,” Merle says. “And so it’s very important to keep on returning the blessings.” In this spirit, the Mullins have a long list of charitable organizations, museums, hospitals, schools and universities that they’ve supported and even chaired over the years. Peter continues to serve on the board of prestigious institutions such as the Guggenheim Foundation, UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and the Music Center Foundation, the fundraising arm of the Los Angeles Music Center where Peter has served as Chairman for 27 years now. Those are just the tip of the iceberg.

The Mullins never stray too far from the world of automobiles, though, even when it comes to philanthropy. The Mullins have invested heavily in ArtCenter College of Design in Peter’s hometown of Pasadena (he made a substantial monetary gift to ArtCenter in 2013, the largest in the college’s history). A number of the auto industry’s leading designers, who currently work for top luxury automakers such as BMW, Mercedes and Volvo, are ArtCenter alums. The Mullins are even in the planning stages of opening up a new school within the college—the Mullin School of Transportation—a program focusing on the future of transportation design. They’re hoping to bring in students from around the world to learn how to develop new generations of cars and other modes of transportation.

With so much on their plate, it’s a wonder the Mullins have any spare time to relax. And yet, they keep rolling along to the next project or destination, and I can imagine this won’t be the last time we see them in Saratoga. I’m hoping that they come back next summer—or even sooner. Who knows? Maybe that Atlantic (and its friend) will be guests at many more Saratoga Wine & Food Festivals to come. I’ll be there to marvel at them—and catch up with my new friends, Peter and Merle.

Jeff Dingler
Jeff Dingler

Jeff Dingler is saratoga living's Senior Writer. He's a graduate of Skidmore College and a professional musician.

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