Like clothes, automobiles have to do something besides just look good, and Lauren says the most beautiful car designs flow naturally from their function. His 1996 McLaren, for instance, is striking to look at, but what really makes it special is how it moves. "When I'm driving the car I feel like I'm in 'Star Wars,' it feels like I'm off the ground," Lauren says. The car has a top speed of 230 mph, but Lauren hasn't gotten near that fast. "I got up to about 145 and I thought I was flying."
Still, some of the cars in the museum function just fine as stationary objects. One of the most striking is the 1938 Bugatti Atlantic Coupe, one of only two in existence (a third was destroyed by a train in the 1950s). Built in France, it has a wood frame under its aluminum skin -- take the metal off and it would look like an antique bird cage, says Paul Russell, who restored it for Lauren. As slick and black as an undertaker's shoes, the car has a long front end that leaps up into a round, delicate passenger compartment. It's somehow organic-looking and otherworldly at the same time, its five tailpipes as polished as a musical instrument.
A 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO, part of Ralph Lauren's collection on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
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It's unfair to compare Detroit with such hand-crafted European delicacies, of course. Lauren's cars weren't created for mass production, or even safety. Commercial car designs sometimes start out as things of rare beauty, but they're almost always watered down to make them easier to build or to satisfy focus groups, said Art Spinella of CNW Marketing Research Inc.
But the rules are changing . Some of the factors that used to distinguish a good car from a bad one -- such as performance, quality and safety -- are now consistently high from one model to the next. In fact, cars considered basic transportation today could outdo some of the sports cars in Lauren's collection. His 1955 Porsche Spyder 550, for instance, has a four-cylinder engine with less horsepower (110) than some models of Honda Civic or Mini Cooper.
Ever wonder why it's so hard for Detroit to make a buck these days? This is a good example, and a quick history lesson. Not too long ago, U.S. carmakers could slap a tail fin or a two-tone paint job on last year's model and Americans would stand in line to buy it, as long as it seemed "new."
During the 1970s, the industry started to run out of ideas. Maybe it was the era; Elvis got fat, Motown gave way to disco, and the Corvette became an orange fiberglass monstrosity. Style ruled over substance, and even the style was tired and uninspired. When the fuel crises of the 1970s hit, Japanese imports that had seemed boring and uncool suddenly had the virtue of good gas mileage.
By the 1980s, people who bought those Toyotas, Hondas and Datsuns also discovered that they lasted pretty much forever. Detroit, far outclassed in terms of quality, responded by inventing the minivan and the sport-utility vehicle. That kept the domestic factories running, for a while, but when the Japanese applied their super-efficiency to trucks, the U.S. Big Three ran out of options.
So they played catch-up in quality and reliability, and they succeeded. Most experts agree that while U.S. car brands still suffer from a slightly lower public perception of quality, they're in reality almost equal to the sainted imports.
This is the part where Detroit can't catch a break. Given that all those reliable cars last so incredibly long (remember when 100,000 miles used to be the end of the line?), people don't need to buy new vehicles very often anymore. Only 18 percent of consumers say they're in the market to replace a worn-out old car, Spinella said, compared with 93 percent in 1980.
"You have to give people a reason to buy something now," he said.
You also have to give people a reason to want your product more than the competition's. Which brings the industry back to design. Automakers once again have to sell style -- irresistible, must-have-it style. Car designs have shorter shelf lives than ever, so companies are retooling factories to be able to change products quickly to satisfy an ever-more-fragmented marketplace.
That's similar to what Lauren does in creating clothes or home furnishings. For years he has drawn inspiration from his collection of cars -- a recent chair, for instance, has the carbon-fiber construction and curved planes of the McLaren supercar. His line of women's wear for this fall has belts and colors derived from a 1955 Mercedes-Benz Gullwing. The grand finale gown at Lauren's latest fashion show was based on the long, exotic lines of the 1938 Bugatti Atlantic Coupe.
He's drawing not only on the beautiful details of the cars, but also on their history, on the cultural chords they tap in a viewer. The Fairlane car concept he contributed to at Ford is meant to evoke East Coast old money. The cars in his Boston exhibit are the source material, and they make plain the power of retro design.
Lauren's 1950 Jaguar XK120 was a type popular with movie stars of that era, for instance, and part of its appeal as a museum piece is how it evokes Lauren Bacall riding next to Humphrey Bogart, her scarf flying in the wind. Lauren's 1955 Porsche Spyder is all about James Dean in a canvas Windbreaker, collar turned up, speeding through the California countryside on his tragic last ride.
Detroit can tap into that mystique, Lauren says, for a mass audience. "American consumers are looking for individuality, and we can do it and do it at a mass price," he says. "That's what I believe in. I don't think everything has to be expensive to be creative and to be special."