Back Page: A Passion For The Past

<< Back to Robb Report, August 2005
  • Jack Smith

Everyone agreed that the 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO was a lovely car with an intriguing history. “A Who’s Who of racing had driven it,” says Paul Russell, the auto restorer who revived the Alfa Romeo that is the subject of “Alfa Tale” in this month’s issue. “It had been raced by the Rodriguez brothers, Roger Penske, Augie Pabst, Dan Gurney.”

 

Even so, the car-collector community was rocked when, in 1985, Ralph Lauren acquired the car for the seemingly stratospheric sum of $650,000. “A lot of people said it was a ridiculous price to pay for a car,” Russell recalls. Events, however, proved otherwise. “A few months later the market blew right by that figure, with cars sailing right past the $1 million mark.”

The prices of collectible cars continued rising, as noted in the January 1998 Robb Report cover story, “The Million-Dollar Marque,” which cited numerous Duesenbergs, Isotta Fraschinis, Packards, Hispano-Suizas, Rolls-Royces, Alfa Romeos, Bugattis, Delages, Delahayes, Talbot-Lagos, and Ferraris that were selling for upward of seven-digit prices.

As for the once widely held notion that Lauren and a handful of likewise well-heeled auto enthusiasts would drive other collectors out of the game and into pastimes more affordable and less risky—perhaps bird-watching—the opposite has been the case, says Russell. “Vintage car collecting is more popular than ever. Look at the vintage car magazines. They used to be a few pages. Now they’re an inch thick.”

This is not to deny that Lauren has changed the way people think about car collecting, says Russell. “He’s brought a whole new sensibility to the field,” he says. “There was a time when restoring a car meant improving it. Saying a car was ‘better than new’ was supposed to be a compliment.” Lauren and Russell share a different aesthetic, however. “We feel it’s far more desirable to restore a car to its original state than to make it over,” says Russell. “That’s the appeal of working with these prewar classics: They come from a time when cars were made by hand to the highest level of craftsmanship.”

Russell cites the test that was required of every prospective panel-beater at Felice Anderloni’s Carrozzeria Touring, one of the most famous of the old Milanese coachbuilders. “Anderloni would give them two balls of aluminum, which they had to beat into two perfectly formed hemispheres fitting along their equator,” he says. “Unless they could do this, they couldn’t work for Touring.”

Russell demonstrated his insistence on authenticity while restoring the 1930 Mercedes-Benz SSK once owned by Count Carlo Felice Trossi, a well-known collector and driver of that era. Russell was not sure what to make of the car’s somewhat ugly removable top. As with the body, the count had designed the top himself, commissioning an independent coachbuilder to make it. But, did it come with the car? When Russell could not find the coachbuilder, he pored over the Italian vehicle registry from 70 years earlier, which—Eureka!—listed the count’s car as aperto, or open. Having fulfilled his duty, Russell then restored the car without the top.

A different challenge awaited in the 1938 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic Coupe that Lauren acquired in 1988. The car had been well maintained; indeed, it already had taken third place at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 1985. But the car’s finish reflected a different philosophy of restoration; the engine compartment and even the crude castings had been polished until they gleamed. “We removed the polish and restored a more authentic look to the car,” says Russell.

At Lauren’s behest, the car did include one notable exception to its original mien when it arrived at Pebble Beach, where it would claim Best of Show honors; instead of French blue and cream, the car’s original colors, Lauren had the Bugatti painted black, which, he decided, was how it should have looked all along.

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