Move Over Mona, Lauren Parades Le Mans Champs: A. Craig Copetas

Vrrrrooom! Vrrrrooom!

Eric Meltzer, a thoroughbred-horse breeder from Seattle and a frequent visitor to the Louvre in Paris, likes what he’s hearing inside the neighboring Les Arts Decoratifs museum ahead of this weekend’s 79th 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race.

“Oh, boy, oh, boy,” the 66-year-old Meltzer says over the roar of antique racers blazing around the track on the gallery’s loudspeakers. “More fun here than over at the Mona Lisa.”

Watch out, Leonardo. Designer Ralph Lauren’s collection of 17 vintage sports cars on display inside the world’s most famous museum may steal La Gioconda’s thunder through Aug. 28 at the L’Art de l’Automobile sight-and-sound exhibition.

“The Louvre is the perfect venue to view Lauren’s cars as design objects,” says design consultant Karen Wells Verlander, a former art director at Elle Decor who in 2006 made a film on Les Arts Decoratifs.

“It’s here where we see how Bugattis, Ferraris and Jaguars are aesthetically driven,” Verlander says. “Notice how many men are standing over the 1930 Mercedes-Benz SSK ‘Count Trossi’ with their mouths agape. I’m certain more men will visit this exhibit than any other exhibit in the history of the Louvre.”

Verlander may be right. The Count Trossi’s straight six- cylinder engine and six hood exhausts give the aristocratic German racer a top speed of 235 kilometers per hour. Meltzer shakes his head and runs his eyes over the auto’s colossal radiator, designed to project as a windbreak.

“This is an absolute one-of-a-kind visual experience,” Meltzer says. “An unforgettable memory.”

Boots and Buckles

Let the fashionistas cringe or celebrate Lauren’s penchant for embroidered ponies and knee-high boots with ankle buckles, the 71-year-old clothing billionaire, founder of Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. (RL), has spent the past 10 years assembling what’s arguably the greatest collection of sport and touring cars.

Lauren has lent the show a sculpture, an engine plucked from a 1937 Bugatti S, eight handmade cylinders fitted with twin overhead camshafts that would make the Venus de Milo blush.

The display opens with a black aluminum 1938 Bugatti 57 S (C) Atlantic, driven by a straight 8 that pumps 200 kph of speed. It then proceeds in chronological order, from a 1929 Bentley Blower to a papaya-orange 1996 McLaren F1 LM prototype - - powered by a V12 -- that accelerates from 0 to 131 kph in 5.9 seconds. The guidebook calls the show “Masterpieces From the Ralph Lauren Collection.” This is a tour de force.

Bentley Truck

To understand the scope of power on display in the museum’s marble corridors, take a look at the Bentley Blower, the vehicle Ettore Bugatti called “the fastest truck in the world.” The 4.5-liter engine “Bentley Boys” sports car participated in three Le Mans races and finished second to a Bugatti in the 1930 Grand Prix de France in Pau.

From a style perspective, Verlander says the Count Trossi provided the original DNA for comic-book hero Batman’s Batmobile. “The Jaguar XKD clearly inspired the subsequent cinema Batmobiles,” Verlander says. “Forget about the engine, look at the lines.”

Indeed, the aerodynamic two-seater 1955 Jaguar XKD is the ultimate in non-conformist long-nose race cars. It has a long hood and no radiator grill cowling its six-cylinder, 3.4-liter engine. Sleek, nasty and with a top kick of 260 kph, it’s the ultimate bat-out-of hell and the winner of three Le Mans competitions between 1955 and 1957.

As for the sticker price on the collection, “Can you place a value on anything in the Louvre?” asks David Gooding, 44- year-old founder and chief executive officer of the vintage automobile auction house Gooding & Co. in Santa Monica, California.

“These are the absolute best of the best cars in the world,” says Gooding, who last year privately sold a 1938 Bugatti 57 S (C) Atlantic in excess of $30 million. “None of us in the vintage-car market know the total value of this exhibition. These are all Mona Lisas.”

The only downside to this parade of automotive angels, which include models by Ferrari, Porsche and a deuce of 1930s Alfa Romeos worthy of their own museum, is that the car keys are nowhere in sight.

“The Art of the Automobile, Masterpieces from the Ralph Lauren Collection” runs through Aug. 28. Les Arts Decoratifs, 107 Rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris. Information: http://www.lesartsdecoratifs.fr or +33-1-4455-5750.

To contact the writer on the story: A. Craig Copetas in Paris at ccopetas@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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