People buy cars for a lot of different reasons. Some guys want to show how rich they are; some guys want to show how sexy they are and how fast they drive - people want to show they’ve arrived. The cars that I bought are not cars that look like you’ve arrived. They look like cars that you love and want to drive. They are not about a guy who says, “I want to have a lot of cars.” It’s not about that: it’s about loving them and not wanting to sell ‘em!
Like all kids, I grew up loving cars. And growing up in New York I was surrounded by cars. My family had a 1949 Pontiac - navy blue, torpedo back - but I am the youngest of four children and it was always being taken by my brothers, so I never had all those great opportunities to have a car to go out on a date. I liked American cars like Cadillacs, but I didn’t want to buy a Cadillac. First of all, I couldn’t afford one, but my eye was more on Rolls-Royces, Jaguars and, later, MGs and Austin Healeys - these were what I was interested in, they had a lot of style. At the time, those cars were very rare in America, you’d see them in the movies occasionally, but there was a company called Inskip Motors that would carry a couple, and as a kid I’d look in the window and think, “Oh my God, would I love that car!” They represented a different world for me.
The first car I bought was a 1961 Morgan, with a wooden frame and a strap across the hood - it was cream, or off-white, and cost $1,500. I think it was four or five years old. I was a single man with no family, and that car was a big thing for me. I sold ties, and would put them in the back of the Morgan and drive out to shops on the outskirts of New York. I came across as a very different kind of tie salesman - they normally wore a black hat and a black coat, and I’d arrive in a tweed jacket with suede patches, carrying my ties out of my Morgan.
So you could say I loved England and English cars. But a big part of my philosophy as a designer has always been that things look better with age, and English cars had that: the racing-green imagery, the wooden dashboard, a car you would keep forever and would have no age. The Morgan or MG had that spirit, with the wheel on the back, the wooden dashboard, wooden steering wheel and wire wheels - those were the cars that represented England for me. But it was also their compactness, the driving, speeding and shifting. I grew up when they’d stopped making stick shifts in America, but English sports cars had a stick shift, which made them an adventure and fun to drive.
For five or six years after I married, I had to knuckle down and work, so didn’t pay much attention to the car I drove, so long as it had a baby seat. But I yearned to get a Morgan again, so when my kids got a little older, I got the Morgan back. This time it was a four-seater, British racing green.
The first new car I ever bought was a 1971 Mercedes convertible, the last of its type ever made, though I didn’t know that at the time. I bought it on Park Avenue at 57th Street. I walked in and said, “I want to have that car.” And that was an amazing feeling. The salesman said, “We usually sell this car with black seats and black top.” But I asked for tan seats and top. So it’s probably one of the only ones like that. Although I’ve added to my car collection, it is still my family car. And I still have the Morgan. And they’re still beautiful.
The reason I accumulated these cars was because I loved the ones I had and I didn’t want to sell them. So I kept adding to them. I was always thinking, “If something happens, I can at least get my money back, because they didn’t depreciate.” When I first started coming to England, I used to go to Coys of London and look at Jaguars, Ferraris and Morgans. I once bought a very rare Bentley convertible, and the owner said, “Ralph, some day you’re going to want a race car.” And I said, “Oh no!” Sure enough, a year later, I went back to Coys and saw a Bentley “Blower”. It was winter and this guy drove in with a big shearling air-force jacket on and the top down, and it was exciting. I got hooked and bought one of the great cars of all time. I was in love with the history.
I first reacted to English cars as part of my love of English things. But as I developed as a man, seeing the world, I started to get myself an education. For instance, I had a friend who drove a Porsche Turbo Carrera. It was a complete departure from English cars; it was very industrial and mechanised, and also small and very simple. And I got into that concept: I learned from cars and connected with their “moods” - they reflected where I was going with my sensibilities as a designer. So the Porsche was “industrial” and it was an intelligent car, the Morgan was the Englishman’s rustic car, the Ferrari was more flamboyant, etc.
I had always thought Ferraris were too flashy for me, but then I drove my neighbour’s in East Hampton [Rolling Stone founder/publisher Jann Wenner] and loved the sound of it. We took a ride in each other’s cars one day - he had a Ferrari and he liked my Porsche. And later, in London, I came out of the Connaught hotel one day and saw a beautiful black Ferrari convertible. I went to a dealer to ask about it and was told there were only 125 of them and they were very hard to get hold of. That started the hunt for Ferraris.
When I came along, they were already getting valuable, but not as valuable as they became. I bought these cars not thinking I was going to have the best collection in the world, but because when you get one it’s a disease. Especially Ferraris. I’m a big Porsche lover, but they are a different sensibility, the Ferraris are more art pieces, they are more sensuous. I loved the authenticity of having all the right details and getting the original car back together. They never thought of them as “valuable cars”. They’d throw the engine and put another one in to finish a race; they didn’t care what was the right engine for the car; they just wanted to finish.
So as I started to understand Ferraris and their history, I started to get hooked. I realised how the cars developed and how the technology and the racing history changed them, particularly those of the late Fifties and early Sixties. I loved those cars because they had great shapes and details, and I loved the sexiness of a race car. And because the fantasy is to drive one really well, I went to racing school in California. I thought I was going to be the new Paul Newman, until I realised it takes a lot of time to be a good driver. You can’t be a weekend driver and think you’re good; you’ve really got to race. I’ve been on tracks, but never felt confident enough to be the good driver I wanted to be. It’s always a regret. Every spring, I have that, “Aw God, why did I let that go?” But I love driving at weekends, I drive in the country with my son and we race around.
Cars, like fashion, are a reflection of the times. What I like about cars today is they’re looking to the future. I think the technology is really exciting; in the Porsches and Ferraris, it keeps getting better.
But I have to like the new cars. I’ve been thinking about it, but I’m not sure I’d buy the new McLaren. It’s a nice car, but I’m not sure it has the same message to me as the F1. I fell in love with that car, it was a passion to me. Everything about that car has a revolutionary sensibility that is amazing - the way it feels on the road - like I’m in a jet plane. I drive it out in Colorado where the roads are clear and open, I’ll take along some friends and it’s just incredible.
I’ve always taken everything about the things I own very seriously, and these cars are treasures; they have racing histories. People say, “Wouldn’t you rather not have restored them?” But I want to use them. These cars are driven all the time. And if I was a car, I’d like to be taken care of the way I take care of my cars.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of British GQ.