Saturday, June 04, 2011

RALPH AT THE LOUVRE, AND THE QUESTION OF 'HISTORY'

The display of 17 brilliant cars in the Louvre was elegant, simple, and digestible. 
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.
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.  Go to the RL page to hear the cars.
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.
1929 Bentley 'Blower', "the fastest truck in the world", according to Ettore Bugatti, who regularly trounced them with his small, elegant racers.
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.
1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 Mille Miglia; 8 cylinders, two camshafts, two superchargers, one amazing car.

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.'
1931 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Monza, ex-Scuderia Ferrari (who also raced motorcycles)
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."

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."
Bugatti Type 57 engine, with '55 Porsche Spyder and '55 Jaguar D-Type lurking behind...
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?
1933 Bugatti Type 59 Grand Prix, flanked by a '96 McLaren F1 LM and '54 Ferrari 375 Plus...
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.
1938 Bugati Type 57 S(C) graced the entry hall; a breathtaking car in the metal, especially without the Pebble Beach crowds!
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?
Bugatti under glass, with intriguing noses behind...
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!)
Imposing 1930 Mercedes-Benz SSK 'Count Trozzi'...
...and its shapely pontoon tail....
1964 Ferrari 250 LM, with engine amidships, my favorite Corgi toy as a lad...

Perhaps my motto should read: 'Ride them as the makers, or re-makers, intended." 

40 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very divisive topic Mr Laurens cars- at best they are overrestored, at worst he has completely destroyed their value by tweaking colours and finishes for ones that he 'feels' are better than they were originally. Has resulted in cars dated 50 years apart in identical finishes when paint technology was drastically different. Alfas finished identically to Ferraris and so on.......
BW

The Vintagent said...

Yes, RL is above 'the law', but it does beg the question about one's duty to history. If the FIVA recommendations go through, it is conceivable such restoration will become illegal, which is a worse outcome than an egoist's paint jobs...

Anonymous said...

I am told this is a pretty amazing show with some stunning machinery. I'm glad you could see it and wish I could too.
- BK

Anonymous said...

BW, you are absolutely right regarding Mr Laurens cars, but its his fantasy and Iam glad he shares it with us, just my never humble opinion.
Jim

Anonymous said...

It is like a sports franchise you own it then it's time to drive and sell.
JL

Anonymous said...

Having been up close and personal to a few of the standouts in this collection, pre-Ralph, I agree with Benedict. When you are the steward of a car like the 2.9 that Phil Hill drove at Pebble Beach, it IS the property of history, just like everything else at the Louvre.
- DR

The Vintagent said...

Happy to stir a little controversy on this one; feel free to comment on my post!

Anonymous said...

The issue is that during ownership you can screw up the car by removing original parts replace the body and blow up the original motor. I agree that these cars belong to history but history has few real defenders.
- JL

The Vintagent said...

I consider myself a Defender of History, but I think the urge of Preservation must be balanced against an interesting development in Culture, which is the continued fascination for 'messing with' old cars and bikes, even radically altering them in the pursuit of something entirely new.

I find the question fascinating; is Designer X's blueprint for a car or motorcycle the final word on the subject? Or is there room for a continuing conversation?

Anonymous said...

This exhibition does not smell of oil

OC

Rhynchocephalian said...

An object will always be part of history; weather it has an 'owner' or not. Does it cease to be 'yours' when you no longer exist? Do paintings need to be stripped of the names given by the artist that no longer exist?

The essence of the automobile is just that; automatic transportation. When it ceases to be transport for a physical body it becomes an object of art; a canvas for interpretation. The automaker creates the machine; an artist vision changes the canvas to bring forth his vision, to enhance the canvas for communication.

historic preservation is almost impossible; for a an automobile to be it must endure the elements of nature. Each outing ever changing the finish, the mechanics and performance. And it should be able to endure the nature of the artist.
But, each outing does not change the essence of the automobile, in fact it would embrace the essence.

So yes, as you say- ride them as they were intended!

Anonymous said...

On the Ralph topic, I am not a detractor in any way- what Ralph has achieved will never, ever be repeated- its no accident. I fully understand his pursuit of the fantasy and so on but these cars are living history. Thats why I appreciate a Brough Superior or a Holland & Holland Royal, they will return better than market interest whilst being useable on a regular basis. I saw one of the mopst valuable Healeys in resto recently and the owner had spent a fortune having it 'foxed' to look like it had just competed- distressed leather bonnet straps and oil marks running down the wings from the lights etc. It was captivating- I do have photos if anyone would like to see. I hate to see parts of a chassis split from parts of a body and two owners believe that they own the 'original', its gone way too far. I do want to say though that without Ralph the world would be a worse place and its better he rescued the cars at all. Kep up the great work and sorry that your page got hijacked (albeit by passionate people).....
BW

Anonymous said...

Look up the 1930 Mercedes SSK remake by ACR from Argentina. It is a near mirror Of Mr Laurens car. That is the perfect platform for your mods and I love the idea. Sorry to be such a freak about this but it is my quest to assay cars for original content and have value and reputation tied to the quantity of original parts.
- JL

Anonymous said...

Sure, on something that there are at least say 20 or 30 examples of, go for it.
- DR

Anonymous said...

The link to hearing the sounds is amazing!
- DS

The Vintagent said...

In case anyone missed the link, it's on the RL homepage; follow the arrows to 'The Cars', and click on the 'Listen to the Engine' buttons! A real treat; the 'sound room' was spine tingling.

Anonymous said...

In the interest of History, Mr. Bugatti's little cars did not regularly trouce the Bentleys. A review of 1920's racing history, when Bentley was competing as a factory team, will show it was the Bentleys that did the trouncing, especially at LeMans. Eddie Hall's Derby Bentley did the trouncing at the TT in the mid 1930's. All in the interest of history, of course.Thanks for the lovely photos and the ongoing debate on over restoration.

The Vintagent said...

Ah, a Bentley fan! Even Mr.Lauren concedes about the Blower Bentleys; "The Bentley Boys drove these cars in many races, but never managed to carry off the expected victories..."

It would be hard to find another car with over 2,000 race victories, as does the Bugatti T35. Not to split hairs; I love the giant, howling English racers too.

Anonymous said...

I could not care less of what Mr "RL" (name is already banned ??), these are his cars and he can do what ever he likes with them, "history" is only a "branlette" term used by some obscure committee to try to justify their salary and time. What shocks me is how, after making fun of France for so long, you are now turning French in your wannabe socialist remarks like "rich, private jet, money" repeated at nauseum...
- PM

The Vintagent said...

I make fun of France? Maybe you missed all those posts about French motorcycles, events, et la vie?

And a 'wannbe socialist?' You've got to be kidding...

Anonymous said...

Vintagent, The Blower 4 1/2 Bentleys never did well. They get all the collector interest these days but were not a racing success. W.O. never liked the Blower cars. The 3 Liter, 4 1/2 and 6 Liter cars cleaned everyones clock in the 1920's, Bugatti, Mercedes, you name it.The bulk of those Bugatti victories in the 1920's were a lot of very little continental races. Bentley won the 24 hours of LeMans 5 times in the 1920's. I confess to being a fan of endurance races rather than sprints. It's a good debate.

TIM said...

Just as in zoology where the utmost care is taken to curate the holotype of a species, it is important that somewhere in the world there be a representative specimen of iconic models that is kept as close as possible to its original form, as a historical reference.

But not every example need to be so kept, and there are very culturally-important modifications that deserve recognition too. It bothers me that there are almost no "original" 1950s or 1960s Harley choppers still extant, period-perfect and untouched since they first rolled out into the California sunshine. Books nowadays on the history of the chopper must resort to using recent bobber/chopper replicas constructed from period photographs or old-timers' recollections, to illustrate their chapters about the 50s and 60s bikes. How many genuine 1967 Summer of Love psychaedelic metallic-paint-over-lace paint jobs are still extant? If you found one now in a barn somewhere, what would you do with it? Strip it all back and turn that bike into a CMC-machined billet-barge in line with current chopper fashion? How would FIVA treat that hideous but iconic 60s gunsmith-engraved and gold-leaf Sportster you just discovered? Rules need to be fair to all, and take into account cultural significance rather than degenerate into an apartheid of showroom correctness. I support what FIVA is trying to do for the "holotypes", but the priviledges and status accorded to such machinery should not be denied to other categories. My logic here extends right through to genuine period choppers or hotrods.

By the same token, it is the owner's right to determine which category of vehicle they want their prized possession to fall under. FIVA should use carrots, not sticks. There is plenty of precedent among castles, historic sites and paintings to guide us. If governments or the UN feel strongly enough about "preserving" certain vehicles as "holotypes" of each species, then come up with the money to buy them at market rates and then curate them for the sake of all humankind. Market instruments will be more effective to achieve these goals than regulating for some kind of "originality apartheid".

My 5c worth

TIM

Sleeping Dog said...

The question is, when does the vehicle become historic and in what iteration? Many of the cars and to a lesser extent motorcycles that we might argue about were intended as dual use vehicles, road and race. Is the historically correct vehicle the one as delivered by the factory, or the one modified by the original owner for competition and later returned to street trim. Or perhaps the historic iteration may have been the 2nd, 3rd or 4th owner when the vehicle passed to the hands of a young driver who went on to be a Moss, Fangio or Hill, as his first serious competition car.

Manufacturers never intended their products to be art and for enough money the manufacturer or an aftermarket company is more than willing to execute whatever modifications the owner wants, regardless of taste. http://www.automobilesdeluxe.tv/2loud-copper2tone-rolls-royce-phantom/

Regarding Falcon et al, such customs can't automatically be considered historic, but it is likely that a rolling work of art such as a Falcon can become historic in its own right based on the artistry of the design and the quality of the execution.

GuitarSlinger said...

#1 Ralph's cars . Ralph's money . So its Ralph's decision what to do with them

#2 The only thing different I'd like to see with collections such as RL's a Jay Leno's is that they be available for public viewing on a regular basis , but again their money and their cars so .....

# 3 As to Shinya , Falcon , Big Sid etc modifying of classic machines ....... well being a Kit Basher for decades myself ( including my music ) I'll hold to Big Sid's favorite quote ;

" Stock is a Can of Soup on a Shelf "

#4 The LAST thing we need is another Overlord watching over our shoulders about another aspect of our lives . History is not a dead collection of items in a glass box . History is a living and changing entity . Especially when it comes to motorized transportation

#5 If the curators want them preserved as is . LET THEM BUY and preserve them themselves .

But don't go telling me or anyone else what to do with our possessions !

End of Sermon

Matthew said...

In my humble opinion, the key to this debate is whether or not an embellished "restoration" is reversible.

If the answer's yes, then I have little problem with something RL, and others like him, has chosen to do, other than a selfish itch to see the vehicle _now_ as it originally rolled off.

This is doubly true if there already exists a historically correct iteration.

occhiolungo said...

an interesting debate.... While you guys hash it out, I'm going for a ride.

The Vintagent said...

Haha, I'll join you, and buy you a beer! Then we can hash it out properly...

Anonymous said...

At what point does a car become a cultural relic?A Toyota Camry 50 years from now will still be a car. The only real answer is in educating peoples taste to prefer the "real deal", for which I am grateful to the Vintagent.
-DK

J.Duss said...

Paul,Thank you and a very interesting subject,but as you suggest properly best hashed out with a few beers. On the subject of Bentley vs. Bugatti there were likely few direct encounters in major races because the Bentleys seldom participated in G.P.racing. Even in the Gran Prix of England in the 20's the winners were French cars.I believe the last victory for a British driver/car in a continental Gran Prix occurred in 1923 until Tony Brooks win in a Connaught in 1955 at Syracuse. A rather long dry spell!At LeMans from '31 until the war the race was dominated by French and Italian cars(other than the Lagonda win). However the "Brits" love LeMans sometimes referring to it as an "English race conducted in France". Their enthusiasm for the event is inspiring. J.Duss

john said...

Amen to Mr GuitarSlinger! The argument over "object of art" vs motorcar and whether one should change paint colours is academic and secondary at best - people, the question here is once again governmental intrusion into private lives and confiscation of private property! Worse yet, we're talking about a NON government - the parasitic tentacles of the "U.N". I could go on for hours about the evil of this organisation, and the property and rights already stolen from us in the "west" , but shan't at this juncture. May this post of Paul's bringing this travesty to light serve as a wake up call to us all. Thank you Mr d'Orleans for bringing this up.

Anonymous said...

Great post, great responses. For my part, I agree with the Vintagent.

At the Legend of the Motorcycle Concours, I ensured we had classes and awards not just for "stock/factory" machines but also for "competition", "preservation" and "customs." In our mission statement we affirmed that all must be duly recognized as all categories play a fundamental role in the history and development of motoring. How can you respect, appreciate and preserve history and heritage if the very essence of automotive creation - form and function merging - cannot be recognized?

FIVA, like almost all historical stewardship organizations, claims that it needs the interest and the participation of the younger generations and I applaud them and would love to help them as I believe their purpose is worthy. Although I see very little outreach on their part to this extent, I can say without reservation that legislating this debate - which has no clear and definitive answer -is absolutely the wrong direction for everyone.

State-enforced laws are not only misguided, they are contrary to the very spirit that bore, sustained and inspires motorists of all stripes.

Educate, advocate and support, and you will inspire more loyalty and adherence to correct principles than any law is capable of ever achieving.

J. Zaugg

Anonymous said...

Mr. Duss, You are correct about the lack of British success at Grand Prix in the 1930's. There is one interesting and fun footnote however. In 1930, Tim Birkin stripped down one of the 4 1/2 Blower Bentleys and entered it in the French Grand Prix. The Bentley was as fast on the straights as the supercharged smaller Bugatti. Mainly by being reliable for a change, Birkin finished a fine second in a car not at all suited to the Grand Prix, averaging 88.5mph. That was the only success of any sort for the Blower cars on road courses. They did do well in Blooklands circuit racing and Birkin held the outer circuit record for some time with his blower special. Birkin switched to Alfas after Bentley went under, and won LeMans in 1931 for Alfa. All these cars survive and that is impressive. Cortes Pauls

Anonymous said...

Yesterday (Sunday) I punched up Vintagent on the box - as usual - with my first cup of coffee. The pictures are exquisite and the volume went up after the first few seconds to an acceptable level.
The narration I had to read a couple of times to understand this was about the future, not the past.
Being very aware of government intrusion in our lives and the extent of Article 21 of the UN which UNESCO is a part of I'm firmly in the camp of Guitarslayer and Mr. John. Integrity and freedom die in the hands of bureaucrats.
Thanks for another great post.
Buck in Phoenix

Anonymous said...

Paul,

Your blog just gets better and better. Its the first thing I read every morning. Far more informative and entertaining than the media.

A well known owner and commissioner of restorations of fine vintage vehicles in my area really gets my goat up. His restored vehicles are fantastic except for one extremely important detail. He uses "off the shelf" bolts and nuts complete with tensile embossing in situ on his restorations. When you see supercharged pre war Bentleys and MGs with UNF (American thread) instead of BSF fasteners, it really erks me and I think devalues the car considerably what other short cuts does he take?

He had a museum on the wharfs near me, immediately above the salt water. You can imagine the degradation that occurred especially on aluminium and magnesium components from 50s racing cars. Fortunately, after 6 years or so, the museum was closed as he failed to con the government into funding it.

So much money in the hands of the visually illiterate. An eye for detail goes hand in hand with style and engineering excellence. Come to think about it, I get quite excited about nuts and bolts. In one sense, the fabulous cars and bikes we see are a merely a very expensive way of showcasing a good nut. Rudge and Norton fasteners are my favourites. Rudge with the original Whitworth style large heads which they used to the very end and Norton do it even better with slightly domed small head bolts, turning marks on show and a larger nut at he other end so any fool can work out which end to turn. I'm getting all hot just thinking about it. Think I'll wander into my shed a categorize a few fasteners with my precious thread gauge

Mitchell

Long live the anti-Allen bolt society!

eggtooth said...

Fantastic blog and great commenting!

So what is history if not the cumulative record of an object's existence? If you strip something back to 0, history is absent.

So while I can see why it pains some purists when an owner takes "liberties" with their vehicles, the other side of that coin says that those liberties are what gives the vehicle it's true significance.

Anonymous said...

Ralph at the Louvre..............I would love to have been there, thank you for bringing some of that experience to use mere mortals.
How you were able to find a link between the love that Ralph showed to his automotive possessions, making HIM an automotive artisan, what I thought. And linking that to the H-D custom scene, was a surprise, but I think I agree.

So, thank you again for your efforts on my behalf.

Sincerely

Paul in Chicago.

Michael said...

Ralph's raison d'etre has been history and style with a spin (such as his reinvention and interpretation of American workwear in the '70's and subsequent directions). He would never leave these cars alone. As has been belabored, that is ok. The audience will define the event.

Gabriele Spangenberg said...

UIuiuii.
What an interesting discussion!
Truly inspiring!
Wonderful.
Thank you very much!!!

Tim George said...

They are Mr. Lauren's cars. It is his business what he does to them. He should not be considered a "Coachbuilder" though. He does not design or build car bodies as far as I know. I build cars from scratch (English wheeling etc) and think that if he wants to put Cragar SS wheels on his 8C and someone tried to stop him they would be violating the most important feeling that cars give us...FREEDOM!

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