A successful acting career, a beautiful home and family, famously good looks: That’s the anatomy of Patrick Dempsey’s life, and it’s anything but gray.
But car fans don’t necessarily care about that. The part that gets them all McDreamy is Dempsey’s off-camera world: The owner and codriver of Dempsey Racing has paid his dues for a decade, steadily elevating from celebrity driver to respected competitor and podium finisher. Embarking on a partnership with Porsche, Dempsey Racing is currently campaigning a breathtaking Porsche 911 GT3 RSR in the world’s top endurance races from Daytona to LeMans. In the process, Dempsey is becoming the leading heir to such noted actor/driver heavyweights as James Garner, Steve McQueen, and Paul Newman.
With such bona fide car-guy credentials, it's only natural that Patrick Dempsey would own a personal collection of four-wheeled beauties. Architectural Digest sat down with Dempsey to talk about classic car designs, left-lane dawdlers, and his life-changing passion for automobiles.
Architectural Digest: Car obsessions almost always start young. Were cars a big part of your childhood?
Patrick Dempsey: I grew up in Maine, right next to Route 4, and there were always cars going by. This was the 1970s, the heyday of the Indianapolis 500. And my dad raced in Maryland, short-track stuff. On Fridays dad would bring home a Matchbox car for me. The older you get, the bigger the Matchboxes get. One of my sons really loves cars, and I got him a Matchbox Porsche RSR after our Daytona race, which brought things full circle.
AD: There’s always a first love. What was yours?
PD: The first car I bought was a 1963 Porsche 356. I got it when I was 18 or 19. I had been ski racing at the time, and a friend had a poster of the Porsche 911 whale tail [a Porsche with a finlike rear spoiler]. It was the first time I realized, What is that? That bathtub shape always appealed to me. If you look at the evolution of Porsche after World War II, everything else was these monster cars. Then Porsche comes along, this tiny thing, but nimble and easy to drive. It’s a design that was revolutionary in its day, and it’s still revolutionary.
AD: So that one’s a keeper?
PD: The 356 I’ll never let go of. It will always stay part of the family.
AD: Including the 356, the VW Beetle’s hotter-design cousin, you’ve scaled back your car collection to a precious trio?
PD: I’ve had up to ten cars, but I don’t have a garage to keep them in, and it can become a waste of time and money. I believe all cars should be driven, not just parked and looked at. Each one has a tremendous personality.
AD: You bought and then sold a postwar Jaguar XK120. Now you have a 1972 Jaguar E-Type, one of the most iconic sports cars in history.
PD: Yes, I still have my E-Type, turquoise, a V-12 convertible. When it’s sorted, it’s a beautiful car to drive—nimble, easy, silky smooth. And it’s an evolution of that older XK120. The E-Type will always be a sexy car.
AD: You’ve also hung onto a 1969 Mercedes-Benz 280SE.
PD: Now that’s a fun car—our family car, cool, classic, elegant, it just floats. There’s a little body roll, not a tremendous amount of power, but it’s great just to cruise up the coast.
AD: One might see that Mercedes as a bit demure for someone who tears down the Mulsanne straight at LeMans.
PD: But it’s just such a beautiful car, a convertible. When I first saw one, I was blown away. There’s also what it represents. Growing up in Maine, if you saw a Mercedes or a Jaguar, it was so rare. Buying one was like that Matchbox experience, a symbol of success or a rite of passage.
AD: Does your relationship with cars inform the way you see the world?
PD: Definitely. From architecture to painting, the visual aspect of my life is important to me. It changes your psychology to see things that please you.
AD: Every collector has a dream car they’d kill for. What’s yours?
PD: I would definitely go with the original Mercedes 300SL [the ’50s two-seater with flip-up gullwing doors]. But they’re so outrageously priced.
AD: But you did own the Gullwing’s revival, the modern Mercedes SLS AMG supercar that goes, oh, 197 m.p.h. I’ve driven that car on road and track, and it’s a blast.
PD: The SLS is beautiful; it really comes alive after 80 m.p.h. Unfortunately, roads in this country don’t allow for much of that. My biggest frustration is people who sit in the left lane. There should be a law that [slow drivers] have to get out of the fast lane. But when you pulled up anywhere in the SLS, there wasn’t anyone, of any age, who didn’t appreciate it. It wasn’t like running around in a bright-yellow Lamborghini.
AD: Every collector has a problem child, something that’s a beast to drive or maintain.
PD: I had a Ferrari Daytona at one time. It was a beautiful car, but not fun to drive. You had to manhandle it just to turn around. But it’s a beast with a big, strong motor, and a great look. In context, it was one of the last big front-engine cars from Ferrari.
AD: Speaking of children, which car do your kids like best?
PD: They like the Mercedes 280SE. They call it the Princess Car [laughs].
AD: Is there one classic you regret selling?
PD: The Jaguar XK120. I always look at one now and my heart just sinks. Why did I let that go?
AD: You’re also a fan of Airstream, the streamlined aluminum trailer that’s a rolling piece of Americana.
PD: When I go into my Airstream at work [on Grey’s Anatomy], it’s so pleasing and comfortable. It’s a piece of handcrafted sculpture. I’ve got a 1950 Flying Cloud on my property, and the International Sterling at work, a new version. I’m waiting for the Land Yacht to come out. The new one looks like the inside of a boat, and they’ve refined the quality of the wood and materials. For such a small company, they’re doing amazing work.
AD: People who have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude about cars are often mystified by people who don't. How do you explain the attraction?
PD: As Ralph Lauren says, they’re works of art. They’re a joy to drive. My daily commute is 45 miles, cruising Sunset Boulevard to the PCH and up the coast to Malibu. I was coming home last night, and I was driving this new Porsche 911. And it was so much fun just to drive home. It’s the experience that it gives you: You stop thinking; you’re in the moment. There’s something transcendent in that. I was tired, but by the time I pulled into the driveway, I was invigorated.
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