With the release of the third installment of Assouline’s Impossible Collection of Cars compendium, Kari Colmans takes a look at the biggest driving forces of the 20th century
"The car is the closest thing we will ever create to something that is alive,” said Sir William Lyons, also known as Mr. Jaguar, having co-founded what would become the staunchly British luxury car manufacturer after the Second World War. And since the production of the first true automobile by Karl Benz on New Year’s Eve in 1885/86, man has come to long for the powerful engineering, seductive lines and infinite kudos of the world’s most sought-after cars.
Whether you’re already a collector or, for now, just a fanatic observer, you can’t help but be drawn into Assouline’s stunning new tome showcasing the 100 most exceptional cars of the 20th century – the third in The Impossible Collection of Cars series. Featuring those owned by the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Ralph Lauren, Greta Garbo, Pablo Picasso and Elvis Presley, it’s not only the most luxurious and extravagant cars that are on show, but also those models that have stood the test of time through their groundbreaking engineering and design. The great American designer Ralph Lauren says: “Cars have always been a source of design inspiration for me. The cars I collect have a message of timeless beauty.”
Man has come to long for the powerful engineering, seductive lines and infinite kudos of the world’s most sought-after cars
While none of the cars featured in this fantasy showroom are mundane, many were indeed mass-produced and, as such, owned by the masses. But their prevalence doesn’t take away from their remarkability. The book’s author, the Pulitzer Prize–winning automotive columnist for The Wall Street Journal, Dan Neil, cites the VW Beetle, the Fiat Nuova 500, the Chevrolet Bel Air and the Citroën DS19 as avatars of their time, when you look at their cultural as well as their industrial impact. “They are cars that endow the built world,” he writes. Neil declares the latter the most beautiful car of all time – all 1.5 million of them – and quotes French critic Roland Barthes when he declares such iconic vehicles as the “creation of an era… consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population”.
Through the boom periods of the 20th century – the ’20s, the ’50s, and then the ’80s – a new class of super-rich called for a new brand of supercar, a change in demand from the likes of Rolls-Royce Phantoms to architecturally masterful Ferraris. Bentley, Maserati and Bugatti were just a few of the go-to names for a supercharged engine that said just as much about wealth and grandeur as it did about your understanding of fine aerodynamics. Indeed, as Neil affirms, “speed was the 20th century’s muse”.
The wave of eponymous automobiles that flourished were on the whole created by men (there are very few female car designers, even today) who had the passion and ego to create something better, faster and more beautiful than their predecessors. Miller, Duesenberg, Doble, Horch and Tucker were as representative of their era’s tastes and optimism as the great artists of the day. “I couldn’t find the sports car of my dreams,” remarked Ferdinand Porsche, “so I built it myself”.
Neil references the Bugatti Atlantic as the most valuable car of all time, with one of only two remaining models being purchased in 2010 for more than £30m. The other belongs to Ralph Lauren. While it wasn’t the fastest, most beautiful, or critically innovative vehicle of its time, the consensus of its hierarchy is consensual for a deeper reason. “It represents a mordant love,” writes Neil, “a fated nostalgia for a time when cars were purer, more elemental, more creations of master artisans than of bookkeepers.”