"You can’t drive a painting," says Ralph Lauren of his preference for Mercedes over Miro that has seen him build one of the world’s finest private collections of automobiles. “Cars are to me works of art.” And just as one might exhibit art in a gallery, so to is Lauren presenting highlights of his car collection at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris.

In a show entitled The Art of the Automobile: Masterpieces of the Ralph Lauren Collection, which opened on April 28, 17 of his over 60 strong garage of some of the rarest, most valuable vehicles in the world are on display. They range from the world’s only 1930 Mercedes-Benz SSK “Count Trossi” roadster and the iconic 1955 Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing to more unusual designs such as the 1955 Jaguar D-type, with its striking shark fin that rises from behind the driver seat. Joining these are sculptural chassis by Bugatti, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Porsche and McLaren, all of which have been meticulously restored to their original states (or, in some cases, improved as per Lauren’s vision) and were shipped to Paris from their usual home, a museum-like private garage in Westchester County, New York.

Artfully placed within Les Arts Décoratifs and accompanied by a roaring soundtrack of their engine sounds, Lauren has attempted to conjure the experience of driving his masterpieces. For as he explains of his passion: “I never thought of myself as a person who was going to buy cars to put them out there; I thought of myself driving them. I thought of myself living and experiencing them as they were part of me, not possessions or artistic beauty for someone else to look at, but for me to drive and drive my kids around in, and ultimately become the character of the car.”

Ralph Lauren reveals to Rodolphe Rapetti what fuels his passion for cars

How and when did you start collecting cars? What was your initial motivation when you first started collecting? Has it changed over time?
I don’t think of myself as a collector of cars. In my mind, they are like parts of me. Cars are fun, like toys, and when you start to experience different kinds, especially when you can’t afford them, you look at them and dream about them. Each car offers a different experience. It doesn’t matter if it’s a brand new Bugatti or a 1961 Morgan. I have that variation in my collection. I never thought of myself as a person who was going to buy cars to put them out there; I thought of myself driving them. I thought of myself living and experiencing them as they were part of me, not possessions or artistic beauty for someone else to look at, but for me to drive and drive my kids around in, and ultimately become the character of the car.
Some of the cars in your collection go back to an era when the craftsmanship of car manufacturing was more similar to a work of art than mechanical engineering. Is there a relationship between this distinction of craftsmanship and the work you do in your world of fashion?
Very definitely. The cars are to me works of art. Many of the older ones from my collection were actually handmade. The details, the metal work was done by artisans. I’ve always loved machines that are the product of someone taking his passion for building and using it to create beautiful shapes or sounds that give pleasure. Ettore Bugatti was an artist like that. His cars were built by a team of real craftsmen. I love that craftsmanship. It gives one a sense of personal connection to the maker. Today there is so much more technical sophistication involved in the creation of cars, but the ones that I love and collect and drive are still special and maintain an artistic integrity. Handwork is what my design process is all about. Many of the products we create, like our handbags and timepieces, are handmade by real artisans around the world. These things are very desirable because they have an enduring timelessness that makes the owner feel like a collector. To own something that is handmade, handcrafted is very desirable today.
You’ve underlined on numerous occasions that your cars are a source of inspiration when creating your clothes, objects or accessories. Could you explain that in more detail?
My day-to-day life, my work, the things I enjoy and the people I meet continue to be my library of inspiration. I am constantly seeking ideas to impact my creative vision. Cars have always been a rich source of that process. I look at a car and love its highly stylized air vents, a row of steel rivets, a hubcap or a gas cap, a perfectly crafted steering wheel, soft buttery leather upholstery, a richly polished burl-wood dashboard or the beauty of a leather strap over the hood. I take those details and integrate them into everything I design from a watch to a chair to a woman’s evening dress. A few years ago I was inspired by the carbon fiber of my McLaren. I was struck by the thought that these fifty-four layers of carbon tissue once found only in high-performance jets and racecars would make an incredibly sleek yet durable chair. We introduced the RL-CF1 carbon fiber chair in 2003, the first of its kind. When we launched our Ralph Lauren Timepiece Collection last year, many of the shapes and styles were inspired by icons from our design archive. The newest one is directly inspired by my Bugatti Atlantic. I call it “The Dash” because its face is a direct representation of the car’s burl-wood dashboard. It has the sleek sculptural design spirit of the car itself. I look forward to wearing it behind the wheel of its namesake.

The restoration process of old vehicles is a delicate procedure which requires a great deal of preliminary studies into the history of the car and how modern techniques are adapted to the model in order to respect the most specific detail of the original state and characteristics of the car. Could you describe the main guidelines involved in the restoration process of your vehicles? Have you confronted any specific dilemmas during the restoration process of your cars? Which restoration brought you the most satisfaction? Which would you refer to as the most difficult one and the most delicate one? The most important thing about restoration is to go to the experts— the people that really know. There are different experts for Ferrari, for Mercedes, for Mercedes Gullwings, for Bugattis. You look for authenticity. All my cars have been restored because I never wanted to get stuck on the road. Restoration, to me, is all about quality and restoring a car to as it was with all the original details. I am not a restorer, so early on I was lucky enough to find Paul Russell, a car historian and restorer from Boston who has worked with me for over twenty years. Restoration is a sensitive job. For me, there’s no cheating in the process. Once we restored a 2.9 Alfa Romeo with so much care and so much detail. The original color, a bright red, was found after uncovering five layers of paint. When the car was shown some people thought the color was so bright it couldn’t be right. Though I would have preferred a darker red because it looked older, I respected the restorer’s decision and commitment to the car’s authenticity and history.

Would you like to create a car?
Designing a car and designing a fashion collection both require a certain craft and vision, but they are totally different. Though I know what I love in a car, I would never consider myself a car designer. Choosing the color for a car is not designing a car. I have tremendous respect for those that do it. They live their career like I live mine. When I was growing up I would look at a Bentley or an old Mercedes and say, “Wow, that car is so beautiful. Look at the leather interior, the burl-wood dashboard.” Then, comes along a Porsche that is totally spare and minimal. And you might ask, “Which one is more beautiful?” I would make a case for either. I don’t think I would ever have conceived of the Porsche or the Bentley. But I might have conceived of how to make them the most beautiful Porsche or Bentley.

On Driving: The famous racing driver Stirling Moss wrote in his memoirs: “For me, racing is similar to painting. The car is just an instrument, like colors to an artist. One car is better than another, more beautiful, just as one color is better than another. But that’s not what really counts. The artist can create with anything, with children’s coloring crayons if need be. Give Picasso a box of broken coloring crayons and he’ll hand you back something worth £2,000. I really think that driving is an art.” This comparison, which must have surprised many an artist, as well as many a racing driver, is in fact unusually profound. A car is indeed a kinetic object and it is therefore impossible to separate its beauty from the movement for which it is made. Nevertheless, in addition to this obvious observation, there is a close link between a car’s design and racing driving. It is seen in the line. For those with any knowledge of racing, the link between a racing driver and an artist is obvious. They both combine knowledge and intuition, to differing degrees, in sketching the perfect work or the perfect circuit, with respect to material constraints which themselves are sometimes determined by chance. Racing—the spirit of which imbues most of the cars in this exhibition—is an art where speed is sought through design and trajectory, which, in some cases, is tantamount to a signature.

On “the line” of a car:
The notion of line in a car echoes that of the perfectly harmonious line of trajectory. The design is never far from this line, even in those coachworks designed without drawing boards, of which some of the most marvelous examples are seen here. It is interesting to see that in the French language at least, cars have taken on board the concept of ligne (or “line”), a word with many meanings. Yet the term ligne, taken in the sense that it is used nowadays in reference to coachwork, is classified by French lexicographer Littré within the sphere of fine art, and defined by him as: “the general effect produced by the coming together and combination of different parties of either a natural object or a composition.” The natural development of language thus shows us the relationship between cars and fine art.

On beauty in car design:
While the external envelope of a car is what draws the most obvious parallel with a work of art, it would be wrong to limit the beauty of a car to that alone. The appearance of the Bugatti 57 S engine matches the coachwork of the Atlantic perfectly, with its clean design, beautifully shiny sharp-angled block, and pleasingly rounded exhaust pipes designed to avoid turbulence. Once again, the search for maximum efficiency leads to an economy of line which is a tell-tale sign of outstanding engines, providing an elegance of design and boldness of solution that has been, or will be put to the test in racing.

On early aerodynamics:
When vehicles were designed without computers and the ensuing sophisticated projection systems, an intuitive or imaginary aerodynamism developed to which we undoubtedly owe some of the most beautiful coachwork ever produced. Car designers were aware early on that the raindrop shape was the one that produced the most efficient air penetration, but it took more than half a century for this fluidity to be found in most racing cars, with ovoid or elongated forms—the predecessors of the present bio-design—totally integrating the mechanical organs in an outer sheath that unified the various parts of the vehicle with its aerodynamism. Only five years separate the Jaguar XK 120 from the Porsche 550 Spyder, which, thanks to its flat-6 engine placed at the rear, has a central cockpit that make its proportions very similar to those of today’s racing cars. The XK 120, on the other hand, was the final interpretation of a typically 1930s line, in which previously unconnected elements were at last incorporated into the overall form like an organic development, with bonnet, boot, side panels, cockpit and lights—hitherto designed as separate, juxtaposed entities—being brought together in a single design without completely eradicating all trace of their recent history. In its early stages, the aesthetic appeal of the car developed from fragmentation to unity.

On car designers versus car stylists:
Unlike most things created as a result of design, cars, like all kinetic objects, exist in isolation. Designed for themselves, they do not, in theory, have to fit in with a static ensemble, forming part of an overall harmony, even if their design, if sufficiently subtle, should always blend in perfectly with the layout of the racetrack and all its twists and bends, as well as the surrounding landscape, vegetation and architecture. Which is why some famous car designers refute the name of designer, opting instead for stylist or master carrossier, thereby reinforcing the gap between cars and industrial aesthetics. This aesthetic idiosyncrasy is all the more apparent in models that are more or less closely linked with racing, as is the case for all those displayed in this exhibition. But this in no way implies that these models are less representative of their era than more commonplace models.

More info:
The Art of the Automobile: Masterpieces of the Ralph Lauren Collection April 28 – August 28, 2011 Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris