Ralph Lauren began sewing neckties out of a cramped rental in the Empire State Building in 1967, inspired by European cuts and determined to shake up American menswear. Within five years, his line was retailing at Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s, and his first freestanding Polo boutique opened on Beverly Hill’s ritzy Rodeo Drive in 1971. Before long he began collecting cars. Some of his earliest purchases were his 1971 Mercedes 280SE 4.5 convertible, a 1979 Porsche 930 and a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing coupe bought in 1983.
Today, his collection of more than 70 cars is perhaps the highest-valued in the world, estimated by Forbes to be worth at least $300 million, making up a significant portion of the fashion designer’s personal assets outside his shares in his fashion company. (In all, Forbes estimates his net worth is $6.2 billion.)
“I’ve always seen cars as art. Moving art. While friends of mine were into paintings, I somehow felt that the real beauty of owning a rare and magnificently designed car was the fact that you can use it. You can look at it, enjoy its visual qualities, as with a painting, but you can also get inside and drive it – which means both enjoying the drive itself and going somewhere with it,” Lauren said in a 2004 interview for a book detailing his collection.
The Louvre exhibited 17 of Lauren’s cars in a standalone, four-month show in 2011. Most of his cars are either rare, limited edition models or one-of-a-kind vintage race cars with history in their seats. Many of Lauren’s cars were built before he was born in the Bronx to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents in 1939. There’s the 1929 Bentley 4.5-liter ‘Blower’, ridden at the world’s oldest car race, The 24 Hours of Le Mans, in 1930, 1932 and 1933. His 1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 Mille Miglia, is widely reported to be one of the best pre-war sports car ever built.
Others are symbols of the 1950s, the decade when Lauren was coming of age. There is his 1955 Mercedes Gullwing, which was a favorite of A-list celebrities like Sophia Loren and Elvis Presley, and his 1955 Jaguar XKD Long-Nose, of which only 10 were built. It is thought to be the fastest race car of that decade, clearing 190 miles per hour.
Though he is known for his love of vintage designs, he has been looking to add modern “super cars” built on cutting-edge technology to his collection. In June 2015, for instance, he picked up a Ferrari LaFerrari, the brand’s first hybrid sports car.
Perhaps the most prized car collection is a Bugatti 57SC Atlantic of 1938, which has an aerolithe body and runs on a 3.3-liter, supercharged engine. That car is one of two in existence today. Only four were ever built. The other was sold to a museum in California for about $40 million in 2010, and experts believe that should Lauren ever sell, his could command a price tag as high as $50 million. Lauren has said the car is “the most beautiful in the world.” It won Best in Show at the 1990 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and also won the 2012 Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, widely thought to be the world’s most prestigious car show.
The collection is housed in a secret garage in Westchester County, New York, where the models are kept in perfect working condition. Lauren himself drives them regularly.
He and his team also restore many of these cars and add his own touch. For example, he told Vanity Fair in 2011 that he changed a 1933 Type 59 Grand Prix Bugatti from light blue to black. his Mercedes Gullwing coupe, a bit of cream was added into the traditional silver paint. “I wanted to restore them as I thought they should ideally be,” he reportedly said. “I got the right color, I got the right leather. These cars are all what you dream they should be.”
For more highlights on Lauren’s stunning car collection, see the slideshow below.