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Paris, Musee Les Arts Decoratifs, April 28th – August 28th 2011

There are few collections in the world that could match with Ralph Laurens both in quality and quantity. Although it is not a secret collection (as many of the cars are known) the cars are rarely seen by the public as they do not often leave their stable.

So back in 2005 it was quite a sensation when the Boston Museum of Fine Arts featured an exhibition with a selection of 29 cars named “Speed, Style, and Beauty”. The exhibition was very well visited and people in this side of the Atlantic were wondering whether they will ever have the opportunity to see the cars in person. Now, 6 years later the time has come and when the exhibition in Paris was announced the news spread like wildfire in the print media and the internet. Many publications as a preview were seen in March and April but since the exhibition is open to the public it became more quiet. As many people tend to go at the last minute and as with an exhibition that long one might always think that there is still plenty of time to go we think it is now a good time for a reminder as we are now in the last month.

The exhibition is located at the Musee Les Arts Decoratifs that is part of the large complex of the Louvre, it is either accessible by the Parc des Tuileries or the Rue de Rivoli. When entering one passes the foyer to the first hall through a huge wrought-iron double door to be welcomed by the highlight of the collection, the Bugatti T57 S(C) Atlantic. With just 4 cars build (including the prototype) this is officially the most expensive car in the world since the only other remaining original was sold recently at a record price in the US. Ralph Laurens example is in his collection since 1988 and won the prestigious concours d´elegance in Pebble Beach back in 1991 looking still superb 20 years after its restoration. With its exceptional position within the collection it is not a surprise that this car stands alone in this small hall with the sign of the exhibition proudly hanging behind it. This might be the first time for years that this car was seen in Europe as rumours appeared ever year that the car might be displayed at the Villa d´Este concours but unfortunately that never happened. The car is not just the climax of a Bugattis chassis before WW2 featuring the supercharged T57 engine in the low S-type chassis but also the most radical design with its riveted body and the fin both on top of the roof and the fenders. This was necessary as the prototype was build in unweldable magnesium-alloy (called Electron) and became a feature of the three production cars build in standard aluminium.

From the small entrance stairs lead up to the main hall where 11 cars are standing on white platforms on black carpet, a concept that is already known by the Boston exhibition and recent pictures from Ralph Laurens own garage. Compared to the Boston exhibition with plain white walls the Paris building gives a more luxurious surrounding with its stone ornaments that contrast to the pure design of the cars without diverting the sight. In the middle of the room 4 tubes of white fabric are hanging down from the ceiling to prolong the top lights and visually reducing the height of the room that would overwhelm the cars without them. The walls are plain without paintings or posters with the exception of a portrait of the owner and a picture of the (not present) Bugatti T57 Aravis on a forest road at the end of the room. One could see that the cars are not just placed there but that it is a complete concept that was well planned in advance.

The first two cars when coming up the stairs are the two oldest of the exhibition, the 1929 Blower Bentley and the 1930 Mercedes- Benz SSK. The Bentley is one of just 4 Team Blowers build for Henry Birkin to compete in Le Mans against the supercharged Mercedes SS. The car on exhibition is one of two short chassis cars (the other owned by Bentley themselves) and this was the one Birkin brought home second at the French GP just behind a Bugatti leading Ettore Bugatti to the famous sentence that “Mr.Bentley builds the fastest truck in the world”. Although the Blower Bentley was the least successful of all Bentley Le Mans entries it is today the most desirable type to the make, especially being one of the original team cars.

The Mercedes-Benz SSK was build as chassis only and was then sold to Count Felice Trossi who commissioned Willie White to build a body to his own design. This famous car was bought by Ralph Lauren together with the Atlantic and took Best of Show in Pebble Beach just two years later, again after a comprehensive restoration by Paul Russel and Company. With its streamlined fenders and tail this car looks very advanced in design compared to the standard SSK whose design is more simple with a short back to keep the spare wheels and the cycle-wings. This car was at Villa d´Este in 2007 and won Best of Show again.

Whenever people talk about the cars of Ralph Lauren you often hear the word “over-restored” by the meaning that they might be to shiny but the exhibition shows that this is very much a question of the surrounding. No car shows this better than the next car in the row: the 1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 B MM Roadster. This cars is one of the works cars entered at the 1938 Mille Miglia and came home second in the hands of Pintacuda, it was later owned by Phil Hill before ending up with the late Bill Serri. When the car came in the possession of RL it was immediately restored to Pebble Beach standard and won its class at Pebble in 2005. Being a race car not few had the opinion that the car never looked that way when new and when seen in Goodwood at the Revival in 2006 for the tribute for Phil Hill it looked indeed a little foreign between all the race-battered cars surrounding it. But when now standing on a podium in the exhibition the car just looks great showing that the approach of Fashion Mogul Ralph Lauren is more from the design than from the driving point. Although all the cars are kept in driving condition they are looked at as a piece of art making it no surprise that the exhibition is again in an art museum rather than a car museum, the choice of Paris being the centre of the fashion world is even more obvious. Next to the 2.9 is a 2.3 Litre Monza of the same make and a Bugatti T59, both driven by Wimille in period.

The next podium makes the step to the post war years of racing with a Jaguar D-Type and a tiny Porsche 550 Spyder, the first one being one of the works cars before being entered twice by Duncan Hamilton in Le Mans. The Porsche shows the preference of the compilation as the cars should be either of significant race history or very original (if not both). As the Porsche was not entered in serious racing in period it is likely never crashed and therefore very original.

It is well known that the collection features several important Ferrari of the 1950s and 1960s, five of the are on show in Paris. The oldest one is the 1954 375 Plus (0398TF) that was raced in Argentina in period and the last of 5 PF spyders build. The car found a new home in RL garage in the heyday of the market in 1990 and stayed there ever since showing that not all buyers bought at that time purely for speculation reasons.

The other 4 Ferrari are of the later 250 Series and represent all the icons of the Colombo engined era. The first is the Testa Rossa (0734TR) that was never raced and today is one of the few remaining examples still wearing its original body. The next is the 250 GTO (3987GT) that has an all American race history when ordered new by Luigi Chinetti for his N.A.R.T. (North American Racing Team). Few cars are more synonymous for the successful cooperation of Ferrari and Scaglietti and the 250 GTO will feature several events for his 50th anniversary starting with an own class in Pebble Beach this year. The displayed example was a sensation at the 2002 Cavallino Classics when it was exhibited unpainted showing the skills of the panel-beaters of this time.

The last car in the main hall is the 250 LM (6321), the second to last car build and raced in Australia in period.

To the left and the right of the main hall are two longish room, the left one features 4 more cars in a completely different concept. The room is painted all in black and the cars are rotating on turntable in front of a lighten back-wall serving as a huge softbox giving the cars a different illumination with every rotation. Here is the forth of the Ferrari 250, this time a 250 GT SWB (2035GT) with rare all alloy competition body. This car was raced with success in Portugal becoming GT Champion in 1963. Next to it is a Jaguar XKSS that was born as an “ordinary” D-Type with a very short racing career before it was sent back to the factory to be converted to XKSS specification. The two other cars in the room are a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing and a Jaguar XK120 Roadster. These two cars might look minor on the first sight compared to the other cars but both of them are rare all alloy versions, the Jaguar was even one of the works cars entered by Jaguar themselves with Biondetti at the Targa Florio and the Mille Miglia were it finished 8th overall.

The other side features the “multimedia” section of the exhibition. In 5 small rooms you can listen to the sound of the cars at speed illustrated by the catalogue images by Michael Furman, and you can watch period racing films showing the cars in action the way they were intended for. A further room shows a portrait of the man himself, Ralph Lauren. Beside the Atlantic in the entrance just one other car has a room for itself, the McLaren F1 GTR as this is completely different from all the other cars on display showing that RL taste is not just restricted to classic cars but also to the lines of modern supercars.

If you have not visited this spectacular exhibition yet then you should head for Paris within the next days as this is not an exhibition to be missed. It might be the last opportunity for years to see this cars in Europe and due to the superb layout you can walk around the cars and experience every detail of them, something that is hardly possible on a normal car show or meeting.

We were there on a normal Thursday morning and when the gates opened at 11 o´clock there was already a queue of people waiting at the entrance so do not expect to be there alone. One reason why this exhibition is still visited by a large number of people might be the good public relations as you could see placards everywhere in Paris.

The exhibition is open until August 28th from Tuesday-Sunday 11h-18h (until 21h on Thursday).

For more informations visit: www.lesartsdecoratifs.fr

Report&images: Peter&Wolfgang Singhof www.ClassicCarPhotography.de

Musée Les Arts Decoratifs Collection Ralph Lauren (2011-08-04)
1929 Bentley 4 1/2 Litre SC s/n HB3976
1930 Mercedes-Benz SSK s/n 36038
1931 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Monza s/n 2111043
1933 Bugatti T 59 s/n 59122
1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 B MM s/n 412030
1938 Bugatti T 57 S(C) Atlantic s/n 57591
1950 Jaguar XK120 Roadster s/n 660043
1954 Ferrari 375 Plus s/n 0398TF
1955 Jaguar D-Type s/n XKD601
1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL s/n 5500386
1955 Porsche 550 Spyder s/n 550-0061
1958 Ferrari 250 TR s/n 0734TR
1958 Jaguar XKSS s/n XKD533
1960 Ferrari 250 GT SWB s/n 2035GT
1962 Ferrari 250 GTO s/n 3987GT
1964 Ferrari 250 LM s/n 6321
1996 McLaren F1 LM s/n LM3
Bugatti T57 Engine