Ralph Lauren's Stylish Cars on Display

A sleek batch of cars has arrived at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, where fashion designer Ralph Lauren is offering the public a glimpse at one of his private passions.

While building up his brand name and commanding attention in the fashion world, Lauren was also using that eye for style in selecting Ferraris, Bugattis and other rare cars.

When museum staffers caught wind of these rare European automobiles, they invited Lauren to park his wheels in their galleries as examples of great modern design.

"You're just showing a selection of some of the best that have ever been done," said curator Darcy Kuronen. "These aren't assembly-line cars -- they're very much purposefully built for racing or for a particular client -- handmade like a sculpture."

The curved doors, swooping fenders and leather interiors will remain displayed on platforms in the exhibit "Speed, Style, and Beauty: Cars From the Ralph Lauren Collection" through July 3, 2005, at the museum. At special Thursday evening events, the cars' hoods are propped up to give visitors a peek at the engines.

The Appeal of the Ride

Some businessmen may collect Renoirs, Picassos or even rare furniture, but Ralph Lauren became interested in objects with a little more speed.

In the exhibition notes, he describes buying his first notable car in 1961. He says he didn't plan on building a collection -- he just liked driving them and kept on shopping.

In some instances, the history of the car is as dazzling as the exterior. Before embracing Humvees, SUVs and more recently the hybrid car, Hollywood stars of a different era were seen cruising around in the kinds of roadsters Lauren now owns.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall enjoyed a version of the 1950 Jaguar XK 120 Alloy Roadster displayed, while Sophia Loren and Zsa Zsa Gabor each owned a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing Coupe. James Dean fans will take note of the 1955 Porsche 500 Spyder on display; sadly, that is the vehicle in which the actor suffered his fatal car crash.

The most recently produced of the 16 cars on display would be tough to spot on the highway -- the 1996 McLaren F1 with gold wing doors can clock 230 mph.

From the Garage to the Gallery

Placing a group of black and red cars in a big room could easily have made the museum look like an exclusive parking lot, frequented by some extremely wealthy car owners.

To highlight the artistic aspect of the vehicles and help convey their impeccable design to audiences who might balk at the idea of cars as art, the vehicles are generously spaced across 10,000 feet of the museum, just like a group of sculptures.

The curator left plenty of leg room and encourages guests to walk around and examine every last detail of these handcrafted vehicles. "In fact if you look there's some asymmetry," said Kuronen. "One fender might come out a little higher than the other."

Each car was created out of a vision from its designer, and often from the client's desire to customize his ride to suit his tastes. One such client, Italian race car driver Count Carlo Felice Trossi, actually sketched ideas for his 1930 Mercedes-Benz SSK and asked for an elongated teardrop fender and a pointed tail.

In other cases, the designers made all decisions. Kuronen said Enzo Ferrari worked with the builders and stylists and had a "heavy hand" in how the fenders would look. "Designers were driven, they were going to make this amazing car no matter what," said Kuronen. "It's the highest level of artistic expression in the automotive world that you could find."

And that expression is delivering new energy to the galleries. Kuronen joked that while it's always exciting to put on a new show, he definitely noticed the "testosterone level" going up when the cars arrived. They were hoisted into the museum via a balcony since they did not fit in the elevators.

After the cars were arranged properly, Kuronen said Lauren toured the exhibit. "This was one of the best days of his life and he was really taken with it … I think if he wasn't happy we would know," said Kuronen.

He's also been paying attention to the reactions of the lower-profile museum patrons. In addition to the covetous comments from the gearheads and car aficionados who visited, Kuronen said he heard an older woman exclaim as she left the gallery with a group of friends: "I've got to get a better car!"

And why not add some style to your own driveway if you can afford the hefty price tag? "You can drive it to the grocery store if you want," said Kuronen. "It's hard to imagine, but you'd get there pretty fast!"

Exhibition Details:

"Speed, Style, and Beauty: Cars From the Ralph Lauren Collection" is at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston through July 3, 2005.

Adult tickets are $22 with reduced rates for children, students and seniors, and can be ordered in advance through the museum's Web site, http://www.mfa.org. The charge is waived on the first Friday of every month.

"Hoods Up" evenings are the last Thursday of each month -- a selection of cars will have their hoods open.

The museum is located at 465 Huntington Ave. in Boston.