There’s more to a great car than graceful curves. A true automotive classic combines head-turning looks with innovative design

Design outranks every other attribute that makes a car collectible. It counts for more than rarity, a desirable badge, dynamism or sporting provenance. A Ferrari F1 car driven by Michael Schumacher has all of those other attributes, but is not beautiful. It might sell for around £3m. But a Maserati 250F from the 1950s without such stellar provenance would make at least twice that, because it is arguably the most beautiful car ever to race in F1.

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No seven- or eight-figure car offers eye-magnet design alone. They all offer most of those attributes in varying degrees. But a handful of cars are so visually striking that their design eclipses all their other qualities. Google the Bugatti Atlantic. It is vanishingly rare. Of four made, only two survive in original condition. It bears one of the most storied names in motoring and it was sensationally fast and advanced for its day. Yet we only ever seem to discuss its looks, because it’s as close as car design gets to great sculpture. The perfect, Daliesque line and proportion of its teardrop cabin contrast with the industrial detail of its exposed riveted construction. It has the power of sculpture to suggest motion when still, and the power of art to make us look afresh at something familiar.

Its value is immaterial. Ralph Lauren owns one and the other is in the Mullin collection in California. Neither owner will ever need to sell. If they did, you would need north of £50m. But before you decide that you have as much chance of owning a piece of great automotive design as you do a really good Warhol, Picasso or Van Gogh, consider a Citroen 2CV, or an early Land Rover, or a Ford Model T. I’m serious. Automotive design isn’t just about looks, it’s also about brilliant, original product and engineering design that ignores convention and finds radically smarter, cheaper, simpler or faster solutions to the old problem of how to move people around.

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Each of those cars was a turning point and a benchmark in the history of motoring. Each is more important as a design than the Bugatti Atlantic, if not as beautiful. Clever design made them a ordable, popular and very long-lived: together, over 20 million of those three were made, and there are many other examples. There was a time when you couldn’t give old ones away. But as ubiquity changes to rarity and we see fewer on the road, we start to see such cars more clearly for what they are: classics of functional design.

Are there any great designs left undiscovered? The Citroen DS still seems unfairly undervalued to me. Known as the Goddess (Déesse) in France, the philosopher Roland Barthes referred to it in an essay as ‘humanised art’, and a ‘superlative object… fallen from the sky’. The DS has both types of great design: it’s beautiful and utterly original to look at, and it introduced more innovations in a single car than probably any other. It’s one of the stand-out cars of its century, and there are few cooler ways to cruise a city with friends on a warm summer evening. £25,000 is too cheap. And you can’t drive a Klimt down the Kings Road.

Ben Oliver is an award-winning luxury journalist and consultant writing for titles around the world