Growing up, Ralph Lauren recalls, his family did not really have the means to buy a car. But that was a world, a lifetime and a storied empire ago.

This week, the crème de la crème of the designer’s car collection—roughly a third of the total—bows in the Louvre’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs, a final highlight in a year marked by the opening of the designer’s flagship and restaurant on the boulevard Saint Germain and his reception of the Legion d’Honneur from President Sarkozy.

The Art of the Automobile: Masterpieces from the Ralph Lauren Collection is a variation on the successful Boston car event five years ago. A showcase of 17 exceptional cars that marked the history of auto-making for their design and technical prowess, it opens with the mysterious and stunning 1938 Bugatti Atlantic, one of only a handful ever created. There follows the massive 1929 Bentley Blower painted with the Union Jack; a separate enclave to the right houses the most modern icon in the exhibit, an orange 1996 McLaren F1 LM supercar.

In between is a waltz of celebrated mid-century models that even non-car people can admire, such as the Mercedez-Benz’s Count Trossi, Alfa Romeo’s Monza and its first-ever Mille Miglia, a 1955 Porsche Spyder (calling James Dean fans) and a dazzling red trio by Ferrari—the 375 Plus, 250LM and Testa Rossa. “I’ve always loved cars, perhaps in part because they are an escape from the world I inhabit,” the designer mused, before reconsidering. “Then again, in a way they’re similar—there is always color. And line. Each one has its own magic and its own personality.”

In another fashion parallel, the designer considers his pieces as objects to live with rather than sit back and look at. “I don’t see myself as a collector,” he notes. “A collector has a garage full of cars. I love and drive every one of them; they are all my children.”

The Art of the Automobile, Masterpiece from the Ralph Lauren Collection runs through August 28, 2011. Les Arts Décoratifs, 107 rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris. Tel: (33) 1 44 55 57 50.

Tina Isaac-Goizé is Travel + Leisure's Paris correspondent.