Rendez-vous avec les voitures de Ralph

| 31 May 2011

Finally got around to visiting the amazing display of Ralph Lauren's toys in Paris. This involved a massive amount of contrivance, some severe sacrifice on the part of my missus (I dread to think what the kids were like on a boat chugging up and down the Seine for two hours while I was swanning around the Musée des Arts Décoratifs), but was well worth it.

I went with a French architect friend who is no great classic car fan, but has a dread terror or boats so needed an "out" because his wife and brood were accompanying mine. While I was boring him to death to histories, stats and prices in my pidgin French, I realised that his insight into the design aspects of the collection were far more enlightening ( blowing away my perhaps naive assertions that the Atlantic really isn't that pretty compared to other Type 57s).

To kick off, let's describe the show. It's only 17 cars, but, even so, the space seems small. Thanks to that and the incredible access you have to these priceless machines – they sit on small plinths, but that is it – it almost makes you feel guilty to be so close to them, wary that a jacket button or camera could swing into one. Well not cameras because photography is forbidden (only slightly greatening the need to shell out a considerable sum for the accompanying book, though to balance things it should be said that, at €9, entry is cheap).

You enter the museum to see the Atlantic (earwigging the French visitors it is astonishing how few are aware that this is part of their own motoring heritage), and then go up some stairs to be confronted with a series of tastefully displayed greats from the ex-Trossi SSK to an LM at the far end of the room, via a multitude of sports racing greats and a single GP car, the Type 59 Bug.

To one side of the main display is another run of beauties – the genuine road cars ranging from XK120 to shortwheelbase – and to the other there is a Bugatti engine, McLaren F1 and the audio visual displays. I ventured into the latter solely because I was in some sort of emotional state after drooling my way through the main hall and needed to sit down in a dark room.

It was there, however, that my misgivings started to creep in. Yes, there was something otherworldly about seeing all those great cars in one place at one time, but what was equally alien was how unused they all looked. Rightly or wrongly there just wasn't an air that they are driven. Ever. And this was a doubt compounded by the slick VT (do people still say that?) presentation, which ran a series of studio detail shots of the cars, scored by the sensational soundtracks of their engines. It is not a deal-breaker, of course, but imagine if those marvellous noises accompanied film of the cars in action: that would have brought the whole expo alive.

Like everyone else it seemed, I respected the fact that photography wasn't permitted by urgently needing to send "text messages" on my phone whenever security's back was turned. This also prompted a visit to the upstairs of the Musée, which is a bizarre celebration of everyday toys and objects (in some cases simply tat) that have been elevated way beyond the raison d'être (well, we were in France). It was when I was looking at the small, sad-looking Paddington Bear enshrouded in a glass case all alone and never to be played with again that the parallels with the display of Ralph's "toys" downstairs really hit me.

That said, let's put my petty quibbles and wider agonising about the use of classics aside, and remember a few details.This collection of cars has never before been seen together outside of North America. I suspect it is extremely unlikely it will ever visit Europe again. Entry is dead cheap and Paris is a mere two and a quarter hours from London on the Eurostar. You owe it to yourself as an enthusiast to make the effort (it's technically in the Louvre for heaven's sake, classic cars in the Louvre! Sort of). You may well overdose on it, as I did, but don't let that dissuade you from trying it.

Here, I'll make it easy for you:Details of the expo here Details of Eurostar here  Details of the Paris metro here (you want either Louvre-Rivoli or Palais-Royal Musée du Louvre stations)Details of the cars on display here:1938 Bugatti T57 SC Atlantic1929 Bentley "Blower"1930 Mercedes-Benz SSK1931 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Monza1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 MM1933 Bugatti T59 GP1954 Ferrari 375 Plus1955 Jaguar D-type1955 Porsche 550 Spyder1958 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa1962 Ferrari 250 GTO1964 Ferrari LM1950 Jaguar XK1201955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL 'Gullwing' (Papillon or butterfly in French, you learn something every day)1958 Jaguar XKSS1960 Ferrari 250 GT SWB1996 McLaren F1 LM