By Paul Duchene, Special to Tribune newspapers
June 9, 2011
You're an internationally known fashion designer and you have one of the best classic sports car collections in the world, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. You're thinking of putting on a show … where would you go?
It's a short list, but since fashion is a key factor, how about Paris? Better yet, how about the Louvre? This summer, that's what Ralph Lauren is doing. He sent 17 of his classic sports cars to an equally elegant setting. "The Art of the Automobile: Masterpieces from the Ralph Lauren Collection" is on display through Aug. 28 at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs (ralphlaurencarcollection.co.uk).
With a Bugatti Atlantic coupe to greet visitors at the entrance, attendees climb a massive marble staircase to three rooms where the other cars are displayed below vintage films of them racing when they were new.
Visitors can also hear the sound of each car being driven at Lime Rock racetrack in Connecticut. "Like chamber music," said Rapetti.
The rare sports cars range from Alfa Romeo to Porsche and they date from 1929-96.
Ralph Lauren's cars were restored by 25 craftsmen at Paul Russell & Co. in Essex, Mass. Longtime sales manager Alex Finigan brings a unique perspective to the collection, as he's driven almost all of Lauren's cars and the iconic Count Trossi Mercedes-Benz has been parked outside his showroom office for 10 years.
Finigan estimates the value of the 17 cars in the Ralph Lauren exhibit at "around $200 million, though the Bugatti Atlantic is the wild card. If it ever comes up for sale, it could bring $30 million-$50 million," he said.
Here's a rundown on the magnificent cars and observations from Finigan in italics.
1929 Bentley Le Mans 4½-liter 'Blower'
This was the car W.O. Bentley never wanted to build. He always said "there's no replacement for displacement" and had the 6-cylinder Speed Six ready to go in 1928. But Sir Henry "Tim" Birkin, one of the Bentley Boys racers, convinced the company to build 55 supercharged 4½ -liter cars. They were never successful on the track, but today blowers can bring from $1.5 million to $4.5 million at auction. This is Birkin's own car, which ran at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1930, '32 and '33.
"It's staggering. Like looking at a freight train. It's hard to imagine driving it flat out," Finigan said. "Birkin's son and grandson were at the opening. The family hasn't owned the car for years but they loved seeing the car that grandfather raced."
1930 Mercedes-Benz SSK 'Count Trossi'
After a stormy start, when this SSK was sent to Japan in 1928 and — unsold — sent back, it was bought by racecar driver Count Carlo Trossi. As legend has it, Trossi sketched this body on a cocktail napkin, and English coachbuilder Willy White built it. With a thundering, 7-liter supercharged 6-cylinder engine and outside pipes, it defines a generation.
"This car's got this roar, this exhaust note that's second to none. It must have seemed like a spaceship in Milan in 1930, where there were still donkey carts. One seat, no luggage, one purpose."
1931 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Monza
One of the top must-have pre-war Alfa Romeo racers, this 2.3-liter, supercharged 8-cylinder dominated European tracks in the early 1930s. Fenders and headlights were added for road races. This factory-entered racer was driven by Jean Pierre Wimille at Pau Grand Prix and Monaco in 1933 and by Giovanni Battaglia in the Targa Florio in 1934.
"This is a fantastic car with just the right amount of patina. In its time, there was nothing faster or more advanced — it was the equivalent of a McLaren F1."
1933 Bugatti Type 59 Grand Prix
Touted as the most beautiful race car of its time, only eight Type 59s were built. It was powered by a 3.3-liter, 250-horsepower, twin-cam straight-eight engine and rode on complicated Bugatti-developed spoked wheels. This car raced in the Belgian and Spanish Grand Prix in 1933, at Monaco and Monthlery in 1934, and was driven by Achille Varzi, Tazio Nuvolari and Robert Benoist.
"Although it has great history, the Type 59 came along when technology ramped up 10 years in one year. Their fuels were so volatile they had to be mixed at the track — in the car. At the end of the races, the drivers were lifted out of the car because of the fumes."
1938 Bugatti Type 57S(C) Atlantic coupe
This is the ultimate in 1930s French Art Deco automobile design, derived from the 1935 Aerolithe show car. It's the last of only four Atlantics built. Powered by a 3.3-liter, supercharged straight-eight engine, it is notable for the riveted spines on the roof and front fenders.
"If this car ever comes up for sale I believe it will be the most expensive ever. It's stunning from any angle. The riveted spine was a wild thing to do. The original Aerolithe body was magnesium, which could not be welded and had to be folded or riveted. It was such a popular styling cue that when the other cars were built of aluminum, they kept the spine."
1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 Mille Miglia
This was the first of four Alfa Romeos designed by coachbuilder Carrozzeria Touring to compete in the 1938 Mille Miglia. Powered by a twin-cam, supercharged straight-eight engine, it was capable of almost 120 mph, with a rear-mounted 4-speed transaxle and hydraulic brakes. Driven by Carlo Pintacuda with mechanic Paride Mambelli (who won in 1937), this car finished 2nd in 1938, behind a similar Alfa driven by Clemente Biondetti with mechanic Aldo Stefani. Biondetti would win three straight Mille Miglias after WWII.
"Without a doubt the best pre-war sports car; nothing to top it and you could drive 120 mph all day. Every part of this car is a work of art and you could admire engine components, or even brake backing plates in your office all day long. If money were no object, any car enthusiast would have to have one of these."
1950 Jaguar XK120 Alloy Roadster
Launched at the 1948 Earls Court Motor Show in London, Jaguar's XK120 roadster took everybody by surprise. Powered by a 3.4-liter twin-cam 6-cylinder engine, it was such an eloquent statement that the basic shape endured — as the XK140 and XK150 — until 1961 and the launch of the E-Type. Only 240 alloy-bodied XK120s were made and this is one of six factory cars. Driven by Clemente Biondetti, it competed in the 1950 Mille Miglia and Targa Florio.
"In a survey conducted by Classic and Sports Car magazine, this car came out in the top 10 of the best alloy XK120s, in terms of condition and competition history."
1954 Ferrari 375 Plus
Designed by Pinin Farina, the 375 Plus was the biggest hammer in Ferrari's stable in 1954. The Aurelio Lampredi-designed V-12 engine was punched out to 5-liters, and top speed rose to almost 180 mph. Only five cars were built but they won the first race of the season at Agadir in North Africa, at Silverstone, the Le Mans 24 Hours and the La Carrera Panamericana Mexican road race. This car went to Argentina where Carlos Valiente was very successful with it.
"I've had the pleasure of driving this car. It's fabulous. The body is all rivets and bumps and bulges and the exhaust has tiny tailpipes which make it sound like tearing a sheet."
1955 Jaguar D-Type "Longnose"
The D-Type Jaguar had big shoes to fill after the C-type, but aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer started with a clean sheet, designing a three-piece monocoque hull with dramatic stabilizing fin. The cars won Le Mans in '55, '56 and '57 and the Nurburgring in 1956. This is one of only 10 longnose cars, which raised the D-Type's top speed to 160 mph.
"This car has a dual identity as XKD505/601. It was rebuilt by the factory after crashes at Le Mans. The factory combined parts from both cars to create a longnose D-Type, a sensational piece with real provenance."
1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing coupe
Mercedes-Benz planned their return to racing in 1951 and the 300SL was developed with a multi-tubed "birdcage" frame and 3-liter, fuel-injected, six-cylinder engine. The frame required very high sills, so the gullwing doors were developed to open upwards, like wings. The 300SL was very successful, winning the 1952 Le Mans 24 Hours and the 1953 La Carrera Panamericana road race. It was also driven by Sophia Loren, Elvis Presley, Zsa Zsa Gabor and many others.
"This is one of 29 alloy-bodied 300SLs. We did the restoration in the late 1980s, painted silver with green leather and green plaid. There was plaid just like this woven in Massachusetts and we found a woman who milled the exact fabric and weave of the original."
1955 Porsche 550 Spyder
Developed from the 356 and introduced at the Paris Motor Show in 1953, the 550 proved the old adage "if you want to go fast, go light". The combination of light weight, power and handling often outstripped more powerful cars and it won the Targa Florio in 1956 and finished third overall in the brutal 1954 La Carrera Panamericana, easily winning its class. Sadly the 550 is remembered as the car in which James Dean was killed — on his way to a race.
"Ralph has owned this car since the late 1970s. I think it's the purest of all the Porsche Spyders. It has a modest tubular frame and the body shape is so clean and pure. It weighs 1,200 pounds, has 130 horsepower and it has great performance."
1956/58 Jaguar XKSS
After success at Le Mans in 1955 and 1956, Jaguar developed a road-going version of the D-Type, which was renamed the XKSS. It was aimed at the American market, with a civilized cockpit that would resemble the E-Type but a blunter nose and no wing. Only 16 XKSS's were built between December 1956 and February 1958, when the factory burned down. Two more cars were created from existing D-Type racers in 1958 and this car is one of them, originally being XKD533. Steve McQueen drove an XKSS for several years.
"I love the look of this car in silver, which you never see. The Pebble Beach Concours lined up 16 of the 18 cars last year. They were such great cars, a racing car you could drive on the street every day. I prefer the shorter nose on the XKSS; it looks more purposeful."
1958 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa
The ultimate 1950s Ferrari is an ageless design, which owes its "red head" name to the color of the valve covers. Built by Carrozzeria Scaglietti from a Pinin Farina design, it's characterized by a long hood, pontoon fenders to cool the brakes and its streamlined headrest. The Testa Rossa won Le Mans in 1958, 1960 and 1961 and this car is the 14th of 34 built.
"This is the Count Volpi car. I think it's the only car to win (12 Hours of) Sebring back-to back. Volpi saw it when Ferrari was racing it in 1961. He was only 24 years old, but he had money, so he walked across the track and bought it. He came back and won the next year."
1960 Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta SWB
Another Pinin Farina design built by Scaglietti, the Ferrari 250 GT SWB (short wheel base) is considered to be the last great sports racer that you could drive to an event and win. It was available with a steel body and luxury interior or aluminum body, like this one, stripped for racing, with no bumpers and disc brakes. The SWB dominated the Tour de France race from 1960-62 and the GT category of the Le Mans 24 Hours. This car is the 31st of 165 built.
"The 250 SWB symbolizes the grand tourer par excellence. The alloy-bodied competition SWB was the precursor to the GTO but much more user-friendly. You could hop in your car in Milan, drive to Le Mans, win your class and drive home."
1962 Ferrari 250 GTO
Considered to be the ultimate Ferrari, the GTO was designed in secrecy and is one of the most expensive Ferraris, with sales reported around $30 million. It was extremely successful in competition, winning the manufacturer's championship in 1962, '63 and '64, with a top speed of 180 mph. Only 39 GTOs were built and this car is the 21st of 36 Series 1s produced, and won numerous races in the hands of Pedro and Ricardo Rodriguez, Roger Penske, Augie Pabst, Richie Ginther and others.
"This is the pinnacle. I had my first opportunity to drive this car in the 1980s. It was brought to Ralph in Montauk. 'What's it like to drive?' I said. 'Here,' he says and throws me the keys. So I'm doing about 100 and I see a speck in the distance. It's a police car and I've got no plates — nothing. They go by, frantically waving hello at me. This car deserves all its accolades."
1964 Ferrari 250 LM
The 250 LM was designed to replace the 250 GTO, as the change to mid-engine design was sweeping through the racing world in the mid-1960s, with the engine directly behind the driver. Never built in enough numbers for GT racing, the LM competed as a prototype and won Le Mans in 1965. This car is the 31st of 32 LMs built and was raced widely in Australia, driven by future Formula One World Champion Jackie Stewart.
"I think this shape is the best-looking Ferrari. It was Ferrari's first mid-engine car and it was very successful. It's one car I just don't fit in. I had a customer who wanted one, but whatever we did with the seat, he just couldn't get into it."
1996 McLaren F1 LM
Five McLarens finished the 1995 Le Mans race and McLaren decided to mark the event with a special prototype. Five LM — for Le Mans — cars were built, weighing 165 pounds less than the road cars, with aerodynamic changes and unmistakable Papaya Orange color, in a nod to Bruce McLaren's Formula One cars. The BMW V-12 produces 691 horsepower.
"The LM is so fast that the central driving position makes you feel like you're piloting a spaceship. It's the top of the heap in technical development and it's not that large an engine. I think this is one of the few cars built in the last decade or so that will be collectible forever. It's already worth $3 million-$5 million."
WHAT: The Art of the Automobile: Masterpieces from the Ralph Lauren Collection
WHERE: The Arts Decoratifs Museums, 107 Rue de Rivoli, 75001, Paris
WHEN: Through August 28. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m Thursdays
ADMISSION: 9 Euros ($13)
SPECIAL TOURS: In-depth tour with experts: 6:30 to 8 p.m. June 9 and 23, July 7, Aug. 25. Reservations: firstname.lastname@example.org
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