For many people, the automobile is a machine, a mode of transport which comes in varying degrees of comfort, price and luxury. But there is a tipping point. If you are spending enough money, you move into the exclusive world of supercars, and all the metrics change. Workaday measurements like fuel consumption, internal volume and mechanical reliability fade into the background, and you start dealing in very different concepts: speed, style, cost, image, heritage.

Brands like Ferrari, Bugatti and McLaren offer prestige. They offer excellence of design, and often outstanding physical beauty. And, of course, they offer exclusivity. If you are paying six figures to own a car, you want to be assured that you will not see an identical machine on every corner.

Ferrari 250 SWB Berlinetta (High Museum of Art, Atlanta)

Within the supercar bracket, you choose between manufacturers depending on the nuance of image you wish to project. Ferrari is the grande dame of high-performance road cars, producing its first automobile in 1947 and going on to create classics like the 250 GTO, the Testarossa and the iconic Enzo. They are inimitably Italian: fast, loud and traditionally decked out in rosso corsa, the vibrant scarlet familiar from Formula 1 racing.

McLaren, by contrast, is the acme of modernity and engineering, all glass and carbon fibre. Its first product was the McLaren F1, which was the fastest production car in history when it was released in 1992. The company now offers 18 different cars or derivatives from its high-tech McLaren Production Centre near Woking.

Mercedes-Benz “Count Trossi” SSK (Boston Museum of Fine Art)

Automotive design is, of course, a well-established discipline, and its practitioners may come from a pure art background or a more practical design culture. The products of this discipline, however, can be regarded as art. In 2010, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta put on an exhibition entitled The Allure of the Automobile, which featured 18 cars from the 1930s to the 1960s. It included a 1937 Mercedes-Benz 540 K Special Roadster and a 1961 Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato.

Five years before, the Museum of Fine Art in Boston had created Speed, Style and Beauty: Cars from the Ralph Lauren Collection. This exhibition, co-sponsored by blue-chip investment bank Merrill Lynch, brought together 16 of Lauren’s extensive automobile collections, such exquisite moving sculptures that they seemed entirely at home in the museum’s airy halls. London’s own temple to the art of living, the V&A, held its own automotive exhibition, Cars: Accelerating the Modern World, in 2019.

The appetite for these future exhibits seems to be as strong as ever, despite an atmosphere of contraction and austerity since the 2007-08 global financial crisis. A study by accountancy group UHY Hacker Young has shown that the number of supercars in the UK increased by 12% from 2018 to 2019, up from 14,000 vehicles to 15,700. London, inevitably, has the greatest concentrations, but there are also significant numbers of luxury sports cars in the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Cheshire, home to many successful footballers, and Elmbridge in Surrey, the so-called ‘Beverly Hills of Britain’.

Tastes are a mixture of the traditional and the modern. “Out of all of the brands,” says David Kendrick, partner at UHY, “Ferrari is still the biggest-selling supercar brand but Lamborghinis and McLarens are quickly becoming the supercars of choice.”

Catalogue for “Speed, Style, and Beauty: Cars from the Ralph Lauren Collection”

Who buys these cars? Apart from the celebrities and sports personalities, already mentioned, a raft of new multimillionaires was created by the boom in oil and other resources after 2000; while technology entrepreneurs who have seen their worth soar over the past decade and are another important demographic. This is good for business and creates a competitive market, notwithstanding potential dampeners.

“Despite all of the economic uncertainty around Brexit, UK celebrities, sport stars and business executives continue to snap up the latest supercars, leading to many supercar manufacturers having lengthy waiting lists”, adds Kendrick.

So will galleries and museums be featuring the collections of Peter Crouch or Ronnie Wood in 2040? Perhaps tastes will change, as we move into the twilight of the internal combustion engine. It may even be that autonomous vehicles take us into an era of purely functional design. But we tend to revere our history. Certainly, at this point, it seems as if the potential exhibits will not be in short supply. Rembrandt exhibition? No thanks, tomorrow’s connoisseurs may say, I’ve got tickets for Filippo Perini, or Marek Reichman. As they said in Atlanta, ‘the allure of the automobile’.

Eliot Wilson

Eliot Wilson is policy editor of Culturall. A writer and strategic adviser, he is co-founder of Pivot Point Group, and is also a columnist for The Daily Telegraph and City AM. He was previously a clerk in the House of Commons.