1950 Jaguar XK120

Originally, Jaguar produced just 200 models of this stunning car -- innovative for its time with a straight 6 cylinder 3.5 liter engine and twin overhead camshafts. But the car was an unexpected smash, especially among Hollywood stars, so it went into mass production as the xK140, then the xK150, until 1961. Lauren’s aluminum-body model was one of six factory cars belonging to Jaguar. It was driven several times by Clemente Biondetti, the famous Italian racecar driver.

1930 Mercedes-Benz SSK "Count Trossi”

The archetypal Mercedes of the 1920s, the SSK is defined by its massive, tapered hood, which stretches more than half the car’s length and has a radiator projecting from its front as a windbreak. It’s a villainous-looking thing and has an explosive temperament to match. With a seven liter straight 6 cylinder engine, it can reach speeds up to 146 miles per hour. Lauren’s model was built for the aristocratic industrialist Count Carlo Felice Trossi.

1930 Mercedes-Benz SSK "Count Trossi”

A sideview

1938 Bugatti 57 S(C) Atlantic

Celebrated car designer Paul Bracq calls the Atlantic "a monument in the history of French coachbuilding!" With its classic teardrop shape and detailing reminiscent of an aircraft -- note the ellipsoidal windows -- it looks like it could motor off into some '30s version of intergalactic space. The body is aluminum alloy and, as a result, couldn’t be shaped and soldered, so Jean Bugatti built the thing by hand, creating the wings and the roof in two parts, then assembling them with rivets. The model shown here was the last of four originally produced.

1958 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa

This Ferrari was designed for performance more than aesthetics. It introduced a novel, torpedo-shaped body with a protruding headrest and wing-like pontoon fenders that kept the wheels partially uncovered, allowing for a blast of cold air to the drum brakes. The 300 CV engine, capable of reaching speeds up to 169 mph, carried the car to victory three times in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, one of the world’s most famous car races.

Jaguar XKD – 1955

The Jag D-Type’s fearsome shark-fin tail helped catapult the car to victory three times at Le Mans, in 1955, 1956, and 1957. The fin stabilized the car, providing greater stability at high speeds. Just 10 of the models, including Lauren’s, exhibited a long nose, which added nearly 10 mph to the car’s top speed for a total of 161.5 mph.

Jaguar XKD – 1955

Front view

1996 McLaren F1 LM

McLaren built five F1 LMs in honor of the five McLaren F1 GTRs that finished the 1995 24 Hours of Le Mans (LM is for "Le Mans"). Whereas the classic F1 was designed for the road, the LM was designed explicitly for the racetrack. It weighs approximately 155 pounds less than the classic road version, has a powerful V12 BMW engine, and accelerates like mad, revving from 0 to 81 mph in 5.9 seconds.

The exhibit

McLaren built five F1 LMs in honor of the five McLaren F1 GTRs that finished the 1995 24 Hours of Le Mans (LM is for "Le Mans"). Whereas the classic F1 was designed for the road, the LM was designed explicitly for the racetrack. It weighs approximately 155 pounds less than the classic road version, has a powerful V12 BMW engine, and accelerates like mad, revving from 0 to 81 mph in 5.9 seconds.

The exhibit

McLaren built five F1 LMs in honor of the five McLaren F1 GTRs that finished the 1995 24 Hours of Le Mans (LM is for "Le Mans"). Whereas the classic F1 was designed for the road, the LM was designed explicitly for the racetrack. It weighs approximately 155 pounds less than the classic road version, has a powerful V12 BMW engine, and accelerates like mad, revving from 0 to 81 mph in 5.9 seconds.

1962 Ferrari 250 GTO

Enzo freaks will be the first to tell you that the 250 is the ne plus ultra of vintage Ferraris. Designed in the utmost secrecy, it features an ultra-light aluminum body, a long hood, and a foreshortened rear, and can motor up to an incredible 174 mph. Apparently, when the car was first released in the 1960s, buyers had to be personally approved by Enzo Ferrari and his North American dealer.

1933 Bugatti 59 Grand Prix

The Type 59 is the stylistic icon of pre-war grand-prix cars, what with its dazzling spokes (not pictured) and Tonka truck-like wheels, a Bugatti invention. All that beauty didn’t translate to much performance, though, and the model was a notable failure on the racetrack, despite that it was driven by some of the most talented drivers of the era, including Achille Varzi, Tazio Nuvolari, and Robert Benoist.

Co.Design

8 Priceless Cars From Ralph Lauren's Legendary Collection [Slideshow]

On view now at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

It's hard to believe that Ralph Lauren, a guy who's lasting legacy will be as clothier to Sigma Chi's everywhere, has one of the world's most enviable car collections. Bugattis, Alfa Romeos, Jags, Porsches, Ferraris: He's got them all, the majority of which he stores at his private estate in Katonah, New York. Every now and again, though, he likes to parade them in front of a slobbering, slack-jawed public, as he did in 2005 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and as he's doing again this year at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

Aerodynamics weren't entirely understood back then, which freed car designers.

The exhibit, The Art of The Automobile: Masterpieces of the Ralph Lauren Collection, gathers 17 gleaming exemplars of classic European car porn. There's the 1930 Mercedes-Benz SSK, a long, flamboyant roadster that's all hood and wicked curves and could've been custom-built for Cruella De Vil; the 1996 McLaren F1 LM, one of the most important race cars in history (this baby roars from 0 to 131 kph in 5.9 seconds); and our favorite, the 1950 Jaguar XK120 in racing green, with a buttery leather interior and a body like a crouching feline (above). We'd give a pound of flesh just to sit in that thing.

Curator Rodolphe Rapetti selected the models both for their beauty and functional innovation — qualities that, it's worth noting, did not always walk hand in hand. As Rapetti writes, "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." In other words: Aerodynamics weren't entirely understood in the pre-digital age, so car designers more or less made things up as they went along, and what they lacked in technological savvy they more than made up for in style. It's not a stretch to say that the influence of old cars like Lauren's extends beyond the rarified world of elite racing to visual culture at large: all those stylized Batmobiles and Cruella de Vil Caddies of silver screen fame had to come from somewhere.

The influence is not lost on Lauren, who says cars inform his own design process:

"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."

If only he put a little more Jag in his men's wear. Sigh.

[Images courtesy of Musée des Arts Décoratifs]

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