View Slideshow

BOSTON — Ralph Lauren tours Montauk in his Morgan Plus Four, tools around suburban Westchester, N.Y., in his Aston Martin Vanquish, and lets rip in his Ferrari Testa Rossas at his ranch in Telluride, Colo., with the roar of the exhaust ringing off Rocky Mountain passes.

A slice of the designer’s private, high-octane utopia — 16 racing gems from his collection of rare automobiles — is going on display for the first time at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Their grip on his imagination has been evident for years. The vehicles appear in his advertising campaigns and in publicity portraits of Lauren and his wife, Ricky. Their sinuous lines inspire product design. Lauren’s fall runway was partly an homage to his cars, with tributes to his 1955 Gullwing Mercedes in curve-hugging silver cashmere and satin.

“Whether it’s a Ferrari or a siren evening dress, I have always appreciated beauty that has a purposefulness,’’ Lauren said. “My cars were all created to race. My clothes are created to be worn….I connect with the car designer’s point of view — that their aim was not only to make the car look good, but to make them even faster. That’s why I am so passionate about my designs and my cars. They both satisfy my appetite for craftsmanship and creativity.’’

The exhibition, “Speed, Style, and Beauty: Cars From the Ralph Lauren Collection,” opens to media and insiders today, kicked off by a proclamation from Boston Mayor Thomas Menino declaring it “Ralph Lauren Day.” Lauren operates three stores in the city and recently chose Boston for the debut of his newest retail concept, Rugby.

The public gets its chance to see some of the vehicles starting March 6. The exhibit ends July 3. Car aficionados with a yen to ogle a V-12 have already snatched up most of the tickets for the monthly “hoods up” evenings.

“The objects are just stunning, as works of design, of style, of craftsmanship,” said museum director Malcolm Rogers, who pushed to develop a car exhibition over the sniffed objections of some art-world purists. “Secondly, they are from the collection of a master stylist himself. These are objects that have influenced his works.”

This story first appeared in the February 25, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Ticket sales have been twice what had been projected, Rogers said.

“Everybody thinks of cars as boys’ toys, but they pull at the heart strings, the fantasies, of both sexes,’’ he said. “They were created to impress women, to conjure up riding off to gorgeous places with great luggage. Remember, there are two seats in every car.”

Like the pared-down racers themselves, the display is sleek and stark. Black carpeting frames white platforms. In this setting, each car gleams as if wet. In Lauren’s famously ordered world, the Italian cars are red (Ferraris and Alfa Romeos), the British autos are racing green (Bentley and Jaguars) and the German vehicles silver (Porsche.) Only the catlike silver McLaren, a British car whose top speed is 240 mph, breaks ranks.

The jewel of the exhibit is the 1938 Bugatti Type 57S/SC Atlantic Coupe, a whale of a car with enormous teardrop fenders, which dominates the middle of the gallery. One of only three ever made (two still exist), the Atlantic pairs a gigantic snout with a tiny, curved cab that a motoring journalist likened to driving “in the hood of a parka,” according to the catalogue. It won best-in-show at Pebble Beach’s Concours d’Elegance, the annual gathering of billionaire car enthusiasts, in 1991 and is worth millions.

The Atlantic juxtaposes flowing curves against riveted, fin-like seams that evoke both Frankenstein and a cracking chrysalis. The effect is magnetic and unsettling.

Lauren drives the cars as regularly as a man who owns 66 autos can. Among his first memories is one of coveting a firetruck with pedals like the one neighbor boys owned, Lauren recalled in the exhibition’s 240-page catalogue. Somewhere along the line, he recalled in the foreword, his appetite was whetted “to have something special someday.”

And have it, he does.

A self-made man, Lauren began purchasing cars to mark milestones — a 1971 Mercedes convertible for the year he founded his company, for example.

The cars have glamorous pedigrees, having passed among playboys, racers and royalty. Museum patrons can watch flickering footage of the Bugatti Type 59 Grand Prix zooming around a Monaco track in 1934. There is a 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder, the limited-edition model in which James Dean was killed. There is the Count Trossi Mercedes-Benz SSK, custom-designed by the racing legend count himself with enormous, faceted metal hoses that give off a disco glitter. It is automotive “bling” that predates hip-hop artists’ obsession with rims. Toward the end of the exhibit is the Ferrari 250 TR 61 Spyder Fantuzzi, one of two built and considered the ultimate collector’s Ferrari.

This morning, when Lauren and his family are scheduled to privately tour the exhibition, he may linger at the Alfa Romeo Mille Miglia (one of four built), which he will see for the first time since its major restoration.

“I’m not sure how we’re going to get him past this,” joked museum curator Darcy Kuronen.

Kuronen, whose training is in musical instruments, has been contemplating the care and feeding of rare automobiles. Among the challenges: how to get the vehicles inside the museum (workers removed the doors of one entrance), how to get them up a soaring atrium and into the gallery (a custom-designed hoist), and how to handle the oil dribbling from undercarriages. Two days before opening, the oil stains were an open issue. Automotive “diapers” were considered and rejected.

Car shows are a rarity in major U.S. art museums. In researching the topic, Kuronen studied New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s groundbreaking “Eight Cars’’ exhibit from 1951. More recently, the Guggenheim Museum in New York featured “The Art of the Motorcycle.’’

“If this were just Joe Smith’s car collection we would not be doing this,” he said, in a bit of understatement. “The collection is assembled from a design perspective even when [Lauren] is shooting from the hip and just buying something he loves.”

If a designer’s job is to see life in a new way, these cars are rife with inspiration. Nothing is commonplace. Some have doors as large as dining tables, others as small as a unfolded dinner napkin. Some fasten with aggressive, talon-shaped hinges, others have no exterior hardware. In the case of the Gullwing and McLaren, the doors open up, not out.

The Bentley Blower, a rugged boot of a car, has a platter-sized, rope-clad steering wheel and yet a strangely delicate windshield that’s perched like a pair of glasses on the hood. The 1933 Bugatti Type 59 features an exterior shift that puts the driver’s elbow dangerously close to the wheel. The ultra lightweight carbon-fiber McLaren has its steering wheel smack in the middle of the car.

“Ralph is fascinated by experience of driving — what does it sound like, what does it smell like,” said Mark Reinwald, who curates Lauren’s collection and regularly accompanies the designer on drives. On weekends, Lauren will motor with Reinwald in the morning and wife Ricky in the afternoon. “These cars are such an experience — flying down the road with the wind in your face. You need a helmet and goggles. Sometimes earplugs.”

Conservationist Paul Russell, whose relationship with Lauren goes back more than two decades, puts it another way: “Ralph wants to know about the history. What does the world look like from behind the windshield of a 1938 Bugatti?”

The exhibition is also major nod to Russell, who introduced the the Museum of Fine Arts to Lauren and who painstakingly restored eight of the 16 cars displayed. That involved, among other things, microscopic analysis of fabric tufts he discovered under nailheads stuck into the Bugatti Atlantic’s wooden framing.

Russell contracted with mills to reweave lining fabrics and replace horsehair padding. He found a tanner in upstate New York who would process hides in the vegetable-dyeing techniques used in the era.

“He likes almost a nude leather,” Russell said. “It takes a patina very quickly and shows the natural elements of the hide: the hair pores, the grain structure and tiny little things that happen in nature like scars or insect bites.”

When he learned that Lauren presented Gullwing-inspired shades of gray as his major fall statement during fashion week in New York, Russell recalled the day when the designer chose the hue off 12 tester panels.

“Silver is not silver to Ralph Lauren,” Russell said. “He arrived in the morning and spent hours taking the panels back and forth so he could see them in sunlight. He sensed I was getting agitated and he said ‘Relax, I do this all day.’”

In the end, “he chose a certain silver with tan interior that looks beautiful. Whenever that car is here [in Russell’s workshop], people ask me for that combination.”

Are more auto-inspired designs on the way? Could be.

Reinwald is already preparing body-panel “swatches” of all the paints.

“Designers at Polo are always calling me asking about the color of a car Ralph is talking about,” he said. “I think they need this in their files.”