The primal urge for speed, the low growl of the revving engine waiting to be unleashed and the blinding passion for high-performance machines have made the history of automobiles and motorsports a rich and storied chronicle. Men and women around the world have been enthralled by these powerful machines that ooze style, elegance, luxury and sophistication. No other vehicle has been used as a symbol of status, power and elitism as the motorcar. Over the last 128 years of motoring history, countries and corporations have competed to build and drive the fastest, largest, most expensive and most stylish cars. Trillions of dollars are spent in building and racing high-performance cars for a dual glory that goes to both driver and manufacturer.
Our list of vintage cars that embody luxury are selected from a wide range of automobiles – concept cars, racers, touring cars, roadsters and town cars. Each car has a special place in automotive history although a few of them – such as the Bugatti Royale Type 41 Kellner Coupe and the 1954 Mercedes W 196R remain inaccessible to the public. Every one of these cars embodies a spirit of luxury that comes from visionary engineering and superb performance that define how an automobile is experienced, perceived and eventually, leaves its mark on history. The selection of cars comes from across some of the greatest motoring nations including Germany, France, Italy and the United States.
10. The 1932 Alfa Romeo Tipo B: $5.6 Million
Manufactured in 1932 for the Grand Prix circuit, the P3 cut a dashing figure as one of the first cars that defined what a racing car should look like. At 260 HP of power, the Alfa Romeo has less than a quarter of the power that Formula 1 engines generated at their peak in 2009, but the car’s exceptionally clean lines and period styling have gained it a cult following. The P3’s status as a racecar is further enhanced by the fact that it was among the first cars raced by the great Enzo Ferrari as a manufacturer. In the years between 1932 and 1935, the car won an impressive 26 races, breaking the dominance of Mercedes & Auto Union at the 1935 German Grand Prix.
9. The 1929 Mercedes-Benz 38/250 SSK: $7.4 Million
The SSK – Super Sport Kurz is a luxurious performance race car with the classic Mercedes grille and the iconic hood ornament. The SSK’s luxury factor lies in its appearance and that it was the last car that legendary automaker Ferdinand Porsche designed for Mercedes. Under the hood, the SSK produces a monstrous power output of 300 HP from its gigantic 7.1-liter engine. The SSK dominated the Grand Prix season through most of the 1930’s and is a connoisseur’s delight as an icon of European motorsports for its rarity and its legendary Mercedes styling.
8. The 1965 Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe: $7.7 Million
The urban playboy’s delight, the Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe revels in its status as one of the few American cars considered a worthy contender to the GT title dominated by Ferrari. An American classic, the Cobra’s name, styling and red-hot performance was far too much for even Ferrari to handle. The low growl of the car’s V8 engines and its devastating straight-line speed won it the 1964 Le Mans and 1965 World Championship. The Shelby Cobra Daytona also went on to set 23 land speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1965. The last of these authentic American classics was sold for a record $7.7 million, the highest price paid for an American GT super car.
7. The 1961 Ferrari 250 GT SWB California Spyder: $8.6 Million
Once owned by film and television actor James Colburn, the Ferrari 250 GT SWB California Spyder was the reimagining of the award-winning 250 GT Berlinetta SWB. The new Spyder featured a sleeker body, a far more efficiently designed chassis and a powerful 3-liter V12 engine. This car belongs to a family of Hollywood-friendly Ferraris that have been featured in several television shows and motion pictures. Colburn’s black open-top California Spyder was sold for around $5.5 million although the original race versions have been auctioned to private buyers for $8.6 million. The car’s racecar minimalist design and superb handling make it an object of desire for auto enthusiasts around the world.
6. The 1947 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster: $9 Million
Before he left to manufacture cars on his own, Ferdinand Porsche designed the engine that would power this 5.2 meter beast. While its 5.4 liter engine may have made the 540K Special Roadster a beast, its streamlined body, pristine silver paint finish and aristocratic appearance made it a favorite of royalty, businessmen and stars of the stage and screen. The two-door convertible was styled with the opulence of a pre-WWII car complete with extra-large chromed dome headlamps, plush leather seats and sweeping beltline. This car stands out ahead of the pack for its excellent steering and handling at high speeds – a rarity even among luxury cars in the 1940’s. The 540 K Special Roadsters have also had the distinction of being owned by Adolf Hitler, Bernie Ecclestone and James Warner.
5. The 1931 Bugatti Royale Type 41 Kellner Coupe: $9.8 Million
It is said that Ettore Bugatti had a vision of a car that was so luxurious; it could only be affordable to royalty. Unlike several other cars that make up this list of the most desired luxury cars in the world, the Bugatti Royale Type 41 Kellner Coupe was not designed for the racetrack, but for kings. In the pre-WWII era, it held the distinction of being the most luxurious car ever sold. With fine wood paneling, a walnut-covered steering wheel, whalebone knobs, exotic leather seats and handmade engines, the Type 41 Kellner Coupe was powered by Bugatti railcar engines. At 12,763 cc, it is one of the most powerful road cars in the world. Of the six cars made for royalty, only three were sold to private buyers although it is recorded that King Alfonso of Spain was a potential buyer.
4. The 1931 Duesenberg Model J: $10.3 Million
The 1931 Model J was a luxury motorcar that was designed for clients whose fortunes transcended the vicissitudes of the Great Depression. Designed by the Duesenberg Automobile & Motors Company, Inc. of Des Moines, Iowa, the Model J is a shining example of American innovation and luxury. Commissioned by E.L. Cord, the Duesenberg Model J was designed to be the most stylish, fastest, largest and most expensive car in the United States – and it was. First made in 1928, the 1931 version featured several innovative improvements and an engine that produced over 400 HP. The Duesenberg Model J was sold to King Alfonso XIII of Spain and several leading businessmen of the time. Today, nearly 400 of these cars exist, one of which stands in comedian Jay Leno’s famed garage.
3. The 1957 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa: $27.5 Million
The ultimate in sporting luxury, the Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa is far more than a powerful and stylish motorcar. It represents a generation of sports cars that would crossover to being the favorite toys of the rich and famous. Its sleek sweeping curves and pontoon fenders are still the cynosure of the automotive community over half a century after the car was built. Only the 250GT had a record as enviable as the Testa Rossa that dominated the 1950’s, winning Le Mans and the World Sports Car Championships. The car is also a billionaire’s delight with rebuilt versions routinely selling at over $12 million while untouched cars have been sold at over $27 million. The Testa Rossa makes a statement as a symbol of style and luxury, a tribute to the glorious days of open-top racers and is Ferrari’s most expensive ultra-rare vintage.
2. 1954 Mercedes W196R: $29,601,500
The car known as the “Silver Arrow” –the Mercedes W196R – is the runner up in the list of cars that evoke luxury because of its rarity and consequent demand among the elite. Of the 10 cars in existence today, only one car is privately owned while all other cars are either the property of Mercedes Benz or automobile museums. Auctioned at nearly $30 million, this car’s luxury quotient comes from the thrill of its single-seater, driver vs road experience. The car dominated the 1954 and 1955 seasons of Formula 1 racing and the very same car that won the championship is the one that is owned by an unnamed business tycoon. The 1954 Mercedes W 196R is the only car that can truly claim exclusivity – the greatest symbol of luxury.
1. 1937 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic: $40 Million
When the Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic was designed, few people thought that there would only be four cars produced. Today, only two remain and are believed to be the last of the true ‘future cars’. Crafted from a combination of Elektron—a magnesium alloy and Duralumin— aluminum alloy, the car owes its distinctive design to the central ribbed ‘spine’ and exterior riveting. Timeless futuristic styling, extreme rarity and a construction technique that has never been replicated places the Atlantic at the top of a list of luxury vintage cars. The distinctive design of the 57SC Atlantic combines elements from the 1930’s with the sleek elegance of form that would only be seen over 25 years later in the late 1950’s and 1960’s. With one of the last two originals owned by connoisseurs, the car’s market value rose to over $30 million and the last original was sold to a private collector for $40 million, making it the most expensive luxury vintage car ever sold.