Charlotte and Peter Fiell, best known for their books on furniture and interiors, turn their practised hands and well-trained eyes to assemble a collection of the world’s most significant classic cars. As its name suggests, this two-volume slipcased set doesn’t cover any old automotive conveyances. Instead, Ultimate Collector Cars is about those rare machines, old and new, that transcend being just a mere mode of transport. This is the car as art, both sculptural, sonic and visceral. 

With its hefty volumes – one covering the period 1900 to 1950s and the other 1960 to 2000s – the book is an unashamed love letter to the automotive form. The approach is from the rarefied perch of the ultra-high-end collectors’ market. Practically every machine featured on these pages is an icon of its age, whether for its design, its beauty, its luxury, its performance on the track, or a combination of the above. Most of the featured cars are now tucked away in private collections, occasionally making appearances on the well-manicured lawns of events like the Concorso d’Eleganza at the Villa d’Este or its American equivalent at Pebble Beach. The more adventurous owner might even take them on a track, should their insurers allow it. 

1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B MM Spider, Ultimate Collector Cars by Charlotte and Peter Fiell, published by Taschen
1971 Lamborghini Miura P400 SVJ, from Ultimate Collector Cars by Charlotte and Peter Fiell (Copyright: Kidston SA)

The Fiells have managed to accommodate a vast spread of marques and types, and each volume spans enough time to really showcase the evolution of engineering over the period. It didn’t take long for the muscular simplicity of the Edwardian automobile to transform into the art deco monumentality of the 1920s and 1930s. Then you have the contrast between the racehorse-thin flanks of the post-war racing cars and the CAD-shaped forms of the modern era.

The photography – a mix of evocative archive images and crisp contemporary studio shots of shiny wings and battle-worn interiors – goes some way to explaining why cars are so extraordinarily fetishised and so highly prized. An inter-war Bentley or Bugatti has the presence of an ocean liner, the detailing of an Old Master and the complexity of a Swiss watch. The private bank Coutts runs a ‘passion index’ for investors in collectibles; between 2005 and 2019, classic cars as an asset class rose by over 245 per cent.  

2020 Aston Martin Valkyrie, from Ultimate Collector Cars, published by Taschen
2020 Aston Martin Valkyrie, from Ultimate Collector Cars, Taschen (Copyright: Courtesy Aston Martin Lagonda)

For a long time, the star stock in this index was Ferrari, the name that weathered a couple of bubbles and continues to rise, currently dragging every other marque up with it. The Italian company is well represented in the second volume, which is perhaps the weightiest in terms of value. Volume 2 covers the golden years of 1960s racing cars and road-going specials as well as their modern equivalents, the supercars and hypercars that continue to push the envelope of performance and price.

Faced with this lavish publication, a historian of the far future would gain a useful, if skewed, insight into humankind’s love affair with the automobile. Assembled altogether, these examples of the ultimate collector cars showcase the stark beauty of pure function, and the origins of the heady symbolism of speed and power that continues to hold such huge cultural heft. Nevertheless, we will probably never see the likes of such cars on our roads again. §

The book cover of Ultimate Collectors Cars, published by Taschen