Ralph Lauren’s new Automobile Watch was presented to the watch community as a by-product of his love for cars. As is well-known, he owns around 70 magnificent vehicles, which inspire him through their details and their execution. Such is their beauty – even to those who care not about cars – that they were the subject of an exhibition in Paris, held from 28 April–28 August 2011 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.
Although they are irreplaceable, functional works of art, Lauren is almost reckless in his generosity, as these vehicles are displayed around the world with heart-warming frequency. He is not, like art collectors who hide their treasures away for personal pleasure only, remotely selfish. One can only imagine the logistics (and the insurance coverage) of transporting 17 of his finest from New York to Paris.
Included were vehicles that certainly feature in any arbitrary “Top 100” of the world’s all-time greatest cars, a testament to Lauren’s knowledge, judgement and impeccable taste. Many have ‘ten-figure’ values, the pride-of-place 1938 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic now believed be the most valuable car in the world. One of four, of which three are believed to have survived, it is the most original and the last to be made. Considering that a “lesser” example realised $43 million this year in a private sale, this T57 Atlantic could be valued “north” of $50 million.
You do not need any car knowledge to know that you are in the presence of a masterpiece when you gaze upon its astonishing curves, as you take in the details that inspired the Ralph Lauren Automobile Watch, the sculpted wooden dash, the caramel-coloured leather luggage straps, the rivets down the distinctive spine, the spindly steering wheel. It is as much an icon of Art Deco as a painting by de Lempicka, the Chrysler Building or a Parker Duofold pen.
As this is the first vehicle one sees upon entering the exhibition, one is justified in fearing that anything else will be an anti-climax. True, perhaps, for one such as I who has worshipped the T57 Atlantic since first seeing a photo of one in the back of Road & Track 40 years ago, and having seen this particular car in 1981 in a London exhibition. But even that monomania could not resist the charms of other cars of equal pedigree and desirability.
For many, the star of the show might be the 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO. One of 36 (or 39 made, depending on the source), it is valued at between $30-$40 million. What is not in dispute is that Ferrari tifosi regard the 250 GTO as the quintessential and definitive road/racing Ferrari model. Its siblings at the Paris event included a 1960 250 GT Berlinetta SWB, a 1958 250 Testa Rossa, a 1954 375 Plus (of only five built) and a 1964 250 LM.
Three Jaguars – all as spectacular as the Ferraris – were featured, including a 1955 Jaguar ‘long-nose’ D-Type, a model that gained three consecutive victories between Le Mans 1955 and 1957, one of only 16 examples of the 1958 XK-SS and a sublime 1950 XK-120 – Ralph Lauren’s aluminium-body model being one of only six.
And the rest? Even calling them ‘the rest’ borders on heresy. Reverentially displayed in a suitably Olympian hall were a 1929 Blower Bentley, two priceless Alfa Romeos – a 1931 8C 2300 Monza and a 1938 8C 2900 Mille Miglia, a 1933 Bugatti 59 Grand Prix car, a 1955 Porsche ‘James Dean’ 550 Spyder, a 1955 300SL Gullwing and an orange 1996 McLaren F1 LM, one of only five made to honour Bruce McLaren.
Ralph Lauren speaks not in terms of the acquisitiveness of an automobile connoisseur fortunate enough to afford dream cars, but of one who has applied the lines and details of monumental vehicles to “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-stylised 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.”
One look at his Automobile Watch proves these to be words spoken from the heart. For anyone who loves automobiles, however unfashionable that may be in this green era, it’s reassuring to know that this bevy of masterpieces, at least, is in good hands.