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Vehicles
Jun / Jul 2011
Revival of the Fittest

WRITER: Kevin Hackett

In a regional exclusive, Bespoke was invited for a private viewing of Ralph Lauren’s incredible car collection, a masterful assortment of vehicles that are currently being showcased during a special public exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

 

It’s a bit of a cliché these days: man becomes successful, earns lots of money, buys some flash cars. You see it all the time with premiership footballers and pop stars - the dollars burn huge holes in their collective pockets and they’re straight down to the nearest Bentley dealership to spec up a new Continental GT with the wife’s initials embroidered onto the leather headrests. Predictable doesn’t even come close.

Occasionally, however, a successful businessman or media personality does himself proud by doing things a little differently. Ralph Lauren, head of the eponymous fashion empire, perfectly fits both those descriptions (not only is he the founder of one of the world’s foremost design houses, he also appeared on Friends...), and his collection of cars is renowned the world over for being an exercise in exquisite taste. For this man, cars are not mere status symbols (for that would be a vulgarity). On the contrary, his jaw dropping collection is simply art. Art where form also provides function. And he’s kindly opened up his garage doors so Bespoke can have a drool.

“I’ve always had a respect for functional beauty,” he tells us. “I love uniforms and jeans, pick-ups and Jeeps” Anyone with even a passing interest in fashion would be able to see this particular outlook on life in the clothes that bear his name. There’s nothing stuffy about his threads - they’re purposeful and mix both a casual and formal vibe that has captured the imagination of countless millions around the globe. It’s a designer label that nobody turns up a nose to, yet it’s accessible to the masses. A brilliantly managed state of affairs. And while his car collection contains many priceless pieces, it also features vehicles like the 1955 Morgan and the 1948 Ford “Woody” Station Wagon that one didn’t need to be a zillionaire to own, even when brand new.

“The cars I have always loved and collected were the same: purposeful,” he continues. “Their creators had a mission - to make the cars look good, but ultimately to make them faster. The cars I’ve enjoyed were hand-built, limited in production, and always with that sense of purpose. Most of them were created for the racetrack, which means they were built for speed, and that made them look and feel very exciting. All those incredible details, from the curve of a windshield, to the wire wheels, to the strap over the hood, to the vents and grilles were designed with a major purpose in mind: to win the race.”

Indeed, the majority of his collection is made up of rare competition cars, many of which are recognised by connoisseurs as being the finest of their kind. Who could fail to be impressed, for instance, by the magnificent 1929 Blower Bentley? It put Bentley on the world stage after enjoying success in the most famous of all motorsport venues: Le Mans. Mixing unique vintage style with gravitas by the truckload, it’s like an old locomotive for the road.

There’s a one-off Mercedes-Benz “Count Trossi” SSK roadster from 1930, a 1931 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300, a 1933 Bugatti Type 59 and, possibly the most glamorous car in the collection, a 1938 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic Coupe that even the staunchest anti-car environmentalist would surely strain to have a peak at.

Other competition cars kept in the garage are a stunning D-Type Jaguar (along with its roadgoing sibling, the curvaceous XKSS, which looks like a four-wheeled Supermarine Spitfire), a number of highly desirable Ferraris such as the delectable 250 Testa Rossa, a 250 LM and an example of the legendary 250GTO, of which only 36 were produced, all of them seeing action on the world’s racing circuits.

Before you start muttering about this being another bunch of trailer-queens, only being wheeled out for concours shows and being polished within an inch of their lives, it’s worth pointing out that Ralph Lauren actually drives all his cars. In the majestic, pristine showroom where they’re all displayed on white plinths, set against black flooring, there is a workshop facility where they are treated to routine maintenance and minor repairs. Every one of the 60 or so cars in the collection is like new, although he has subtly changed the original specifications of a few, to better suit his personal tastes.

And they’re not all historic racers. Apart from the aforementioned Morgan and Ford Station Wagon, he still has his 1971 Mercedes-Benz 280SE convertible, which he bought when he first made it as an independent designer. This is complemented by newer, more exotic supercars like a Bugatti Veyron, a number of Lamborghinis (including the only Reventón Roadster in the US) and one of only five McLaren F1LMs ever produced. The McLaren is still, despite the Veyron’s record, the fastest normally-aspirated production car the world has ever seen, with a top speed of 362km/h.

Lauren views collecting these wonderful objects in much the same way as those who collect paintings. “I’ve always seen them as art,” he says. “How these cars are put together, the purposefulness with which they were created. Every detail, from the engines to the mechanics, the ornamentation, the designs of the wheels - the whole spirit - is very exciting. To me, the real beauty of owning a rare and magnificently designed car is the fact that you can use it. You can enjoy the visual experience, then get in it and drive it. Cars, for me, are moving art.”

Indeed they are. Lauren’s collection has won many awards at some of the world’s most prestigious events and shows, such as the Concorso d’Eleganza in Villa d’Este and California’s Pebble Beach. That’s how good they are. But unlike a Monet or Picasso that simply hangs on a wall for onlookers to admire in situ, these wondrous automobiles are driven and enjoyed on a regular basis by their fortunate owner. You couldn’t ask for a more appreciative custodian of some of history’s most important and desirable cars.

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