There are less-convenient things to collect than cars, but not many: big cats, perhaps, or aircraft, or large-scale military machinery. Paintings can be hung on a wall and watches kept in a box, but automobiles are large, awkward beasts that require a substantial amount of climate-controlled indoor real estate. Even if you don’t drive them, cars need exercise and expensive maintenance. When the collecting bug bites, pray that it’s for something you can lift.
Yet cars are one of the most popular and visible collecting hobbies. When we reach a certain age and have the means and space to buy and store a nonessential vehicle, many of us do—even those who weren’t die-hard car enthusiasts before. The luxury-automobile broker Max Girardo once advised me to buy the cars that people about to turn 40 had posters of on their bedroom walls as teenagers, because that’s often what people start to collect as soon as they’re able. Had I listened, the V-12-engined Ferraris and Lamborghinis that would be sitting in my collection would be worth 10 times as much now, and I certainly wouldn’t have minded the inconvenience of storing and exercising them in the meantime.
The history of the great car collections is fascinating, not least because buying them in large numbers isn’t remotely rational. The largest hoard is undoubtedly that of the Sultan of Brunei and his brother Prince Jefri. It has been reported to contain over 7,000 vehicles, with media leaks suggesting that maintaining such a vast armada is beyond even the Sultan’s near bottomless pockets, many of them now in poor repair.
Decades ago, French textile barons the Schlumpf brothers amassed a collection of over 400 of the very best vintage specimens, including two of the six extant Bugatti Royales. When their business faltered in the late 1970s, the factories were occupied by workers, who were outraged to discover the full scale of the treasure. The brothers fled to Switzerland; the French state seized the collection in lieu of taxes.
In the U.K., Lord Brocket, a former polo-playing pal of King Charles III, acquired a smaller but equally well-curated cohort of around 40 vehicles, mostly Ferraris and Maseratis from the ’50s and ’60s, bought with cheap financing back when classic-car prices were spiraling. When interest rates rose and values crashed in the early ’90s, he panicked and staged a break-in at his stately home, disassembling the cars he claimed had been stolen and seeking $5.6 million from his insurers. The ruse failed, and he was sentenced to five years in jail.
Some collectors we encounter are kind enough to grant occasional access to their inventory. Ralph Lauren has displayed a small selection of his extraordinary cars to the public at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs adjoining the Louvre in Paris, and, in our October issue, you’ll find he has shared a few with us, too—a rare treat. Peter Mullin, who owns the world’s largest private collection of Bugattis, opens his private museum in Oxnard, Calif., to the public for a couple of days each week. If you haven’t already—go.
After I met the Rodeo Drive retail and real-estate mogul Bruce Meyer some years ago at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, he invited me to view his collection at his Beverly Hills home. When I arrived a few mornings later, he pointed me toward his garage and said he’d join me in there once he’d “worked out and eaten a banana.” In that garage, among many other important cars, was a 1957 Ferrari Testa Rossa worth around $17 million at the time and perhaps nearer $40 million now. Can you imagine an art collector giving you a private—let alone unaccompanied—audience with an important old master or French Impressionist painting of similar value?
Meyer is a car guy’s car collector, as keen to drive his madly eclectic assortment of wheels as to share them with the public. In doing so, he avoids the slight sadness of some of the other great car collections I’ve seen. Carmakers are among the most prodigious automotive hoarders of all. Many have museums displaying their best pieces, but their reserve stocks are often hidden in massive mausoleum-like warehouses, oddly quiet and still given the furious noise and kinetic energy they once created.
Mercedes has the Holy Halls, a bunch of anonymous buildings around Stuttgart that contain its entire back catalog, from the very first car to the most valuable—the 1955 Uhlenhaut Coupé, which left its warehouse home last year for a private collection in return for $143 million. (Don’t worry; Mercedes has another in the museum.) McLaren has Unit 2, a run-down-looking industrial building near its headquarters in the U.K. that houses its history of world-beating Formula 1 cars. The eeriness of both collections is compounded by the cars’ ghostly translucent shrouds and by the memory of those who once sat in them but have long since passed: presidents, popes, and racing icons such as the talismanic Ayrton Senna, killed at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994 but whose name and Brazilian flag still adorn the side of many of those McLarens.
It isn’t rational, acquiring and hanging on to cars in such numbers, but it is essential. These machines need to be preserved. The automobile was one of the defining influences on the 20th century, transforming everything from the economy, geography, and our environment to sport, design, and culture, which makes these private selections of public importance. The Schlumpf stockpile was so significant that it became the French National Motor Museum. The world’s best collections will, in time, become mechanical archaeology. And unlike most other relics from the past, they can all be made to breathe and run and live again.
Ben Oliver is an award-winning automotive writer and regular Robb Report contributor based in the U.K.