When does an object cease to be ‘mine’, and become the property of History? The question has ignited a virtual bonfire, over which arrows are slung between detractors of Ralph Lauren’s deliberate tweaking of his stunning auto collection, and those who feel RL has the right to do as he pleases with his property. The occasion for such debate is the ‘L’Art de L’Auto Mobile’ exhibit at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, in the western wing of the Louvre, better known as the home of design brilliance manifested as jewelry, furniture, fashion, interior design, and objets d’art.

The display of 17 brilliant cars in the Louvre was elegant, simple, and digestible. [Paul d’Orléans]
With heavy-hitting media hype befitting the display of a significant automotive collection in a major museum, the news has been mixed about Ralph’s idiosyncratic handling of his amazing cars. Unabashedly prone to altering the original color schemes of his Ferraris, Bugattis, and Bentleys, Mr Lauren feels he can do one better than the factory colorists and fabric designers, and paints his cars to his preference; his Ferrari red being a little less orangey than Maranello thought proper, the Alfa 8C a little more burgundy-red, the Bugatti black warmed up with a little brown in the mix. Fabric or hides are of higher quality than the originals, everything non-mechanical on these machines being, well, an Upgrade, darling, not from Coach to First, but for the man who travels in his own damn jet, thank you very much.

Jean-Michel Wilmotte’s display was intimate, with soft illumination, and included fantastic ‘sound booths’ with films and recordings of these cars being driven hard. The Sound of such machinery is essential to their full appreciation as sensual, erotic objects, utterly thrilling and dangerous. [Paul d’Orléans]
Purists are crying ‘Murder! Sacrilege!’, but in truth, the customization of RL’s cars is a natural outgrowth of PebbleBeachism, the tendency to labor over the ‘restoration’ of a car or motorcycle to far beyond their original specification, in the relentless competition for tin pots at Concours d’Elegance, and the perfect mirror of ego and well-tanned hides between owner and machine. In the broad scheme of history, the demands of the rich to individualize their automobiles started when they were new, with special orders to Bugatti or Bentley or Ferrari for that little something extra, with price no object. Now that the RL’s cars have become Historic, the battle has begun between the Curators and the Collectors for control of that history.

1929 Bentley ‘Blower’, “the fastest truck in the world”, according to Ettore Bugatti, who regularly trounced them with his small, elegant racers. [Paul d’Orléans]
But at what point does Utility end, and History begin? When is a car or motorcycle magically transformed from a beautiful vehicle into a white-gloves display, the subject of preservation, study, and historic accuracy? This is not an abstract question; at this very moment, the ‘Charter of Turin’ created by FIVA, (an international historic vehicle association) is being debated for adoption by UNESCO (the international cultural heritage watchdog, creator of ‘World Heritage Sites’, etc). Thomas Kohler, last seen in The Vintagent as chief judge at the Villa d’Este motorcycle Concours, began the Turin Charter in order to ‘separate the wheat from the chaff and make the whole system of historic vehicles more transparent.’

1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 Mille Miglia; 8 cylinders, two camshafts, two superchargers, one amazing car. [Paul d’Orléans]
To dive a little deeper into the Charter, and the implications for an international ‘code’ for vehicle preservation, the following is taken from the FIVA press release:

“Thomas Kohler, the initiator of the Charter, explained: ‘You have to understand the amount of lying, past and present, in the historic vehicles community, how often people try to bring fakes into circulation as “veterans”. The practice of converting stately town cars or saloons into racing cars by shortening the chassis is not in line with FIVA rules. Article 4.2 [of the FIVA statutes] “…To support and encourage the restoration, preservation, use and documentation of historic vehicles of all kind…” spells out this objective.’ … Fakes or vehicles that suffered extensive changes to their engineering and appearance that their historic reference is lost would not stand any chance of being registered as historic vehicles…The purpose of the Charter is to preserve the historic substance of historic vehicles unaltered and ensure through their active use, maintenance, conservation, restoration and repair that future generations can enjoy these cultural treasures….As defined in the Turin Charter; the collective term historic vehicles includes automobiles, motorcycles, utilitarian vehicles, trailers, bicycles und other mechanically operated vehicles… On a diplomatic level, the FIVA hopes to achieve this with reference to the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 14 November 1970, which is enforced by 120 signatory states.”

1933 Bugatti Type 59 Grand Prix, flanked by a ’96 McLaren F1 LM and ’54 Ferrari 375 Plus. [Paul d’Orléans]
And a relevant passage from the draft Charter: “However, in order to use them, historic vehicles should not be modified more than strictly necessary. Such modifications should interfere as little as possible with the historic substance of the vehicles, they should not alter the vehicle’s appearance and they should be completely reversible.”

Imposing 1930 Mercedes-Benz SSK ‘Count Trozzi’. [Paul d’Orléans]
Thus, Ralph Lauren’s modifications to his cars satisfy half of FIVA’s criteria, for while they alter the vehicle’s appearance, they are reversible with a little re-paint and upholstery work. Unless, of course, as a result of the talented, famous, and powerful Mr Lauren’s input, the modified cars are now Historic in their own right, as ‘Ralph Lauren-modified cars’. Could not RL be considered a worthy ‘coach-builder’, much as the esteemed houses of Saoutchik or Ghia or Bertone?

Bugatti Type 57 engine, with ’55 Porsche Spyder and ’55 Jaguar D-Type lurking behind. [Paul d’Orléans]
Regular readers of The Vintagent know where this is heading… directly to the workshops of the most talented moto-artisans working today, busily modifying precious MV Agustas, Vincents, and even Brough Superiors into new statements of two-wheeled Art [and if Shinya’s and Falcon’s incredible re-imagining of ‘what is a motorcycle’ isn’t Art, then I’ve read Duchamp’s urinal all wrong]. The Turin Charter would exclude any significantly modified vehicle from protection as Historic, exposing a deep bias against the $13Billion/year industry called Custom Motorcycles. Of course motorcyclists, being generally inclined toward personal liberty, are far more likely to raise the middle finger than the white flag to FIVA or UNESCO. Still, the most significant protection for ‘historic’ vehicles under the Turin Charter is the absolute right to use our old cars and motorbikes on public roads, a right which should also extend to choppers, bobbers, café racers, customs, oddballs, and perfectly standard machines…in other words, this is all about Us.

On rotating tables, a hall of beauties; 1950 ex-works Jaguar XK120 ‘lightweight’ Roadster, and ’55 Mercedes-Benz 300SL ‘Gullwing’ (called ‘le Papillon’ en Francais!) [Paul d’Orléans]
If FIVA is proposing global legislation on Historic vehicles, then certainly, its time to drop the ‘grumpy old fart’ attitudes, and take a more nuanced view of History, which must include an understanding of the vital, living place of historic vehicles within contemporary Culture. Do we put them in a glass box? Do we risk destroying them with historic racing? Do we prevent them from being modified in the name of History?

1938 Bugati Type 57 S(C) graced the entry hall; a breathtaking car in the metal, especially without the Pebble Beach crowds! [Paul d’Orléans]
1931 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Monza, ex-Scuderia Ferrari (who also raced motorcycles – read our article here) [Paul d’Orléans]
1964 Ferrari 250 LM, with engine amidships, my favorite Corgi toy as a lad. [Paul d’Orléans]

Paul d’Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.