In a perfect world, this treatise on automotive elegance would have been inspired by something beautiful; my first glimpse of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, for instance; the beatific smile of a newborn babe cradled lovingly in a mother's arms; or, because I am, after all, a recalcitrant gearhead, the passing of a immaculately restored E-Type. Instead, my inspiration was all ugliness and subterfuge, surprisingly perpetrated by what many people consider the world's most exotic automaker and what I always thought was the industry's most creditable tome.
The March 2011 issue of England's CAR magazine, you see, has exposés of the latest from Ferrari, Maserati and McLaren and frankly, they're ugly. Well, to be honest, the McLaren is only boring. But the new Ferrari FF - the one that looks like someone mated a BMW M coupe with a wiener dog - and Maserati's proposed SUV look like they were beat with an ugly stick so severely that felony charges should be pressed. That CAR managed to say almost complimentary things about the FF is only proof how obsequious the once critical magazine has become since former editor Angus Mackenzie left to save America's Motor Trend magazine.
This motivated me, I'm still not quite sure why, to compile the definitive list - or at least my definitive list - of the 10 most beautiful cars of the last 25 years. Perhaps, my mind really is twisted. Maybe I just like courting controversy. My choices may even brand me an artistic Luddite. None will be sufficiently oblique or esoteric for those purporting to be cognoscenti; being a simple country boy at heart, my tastes run to Jeff Koons (he of the latest BMW art car) mainstream rather than Dada eclectic.
First-generation Mercedes-Benz CLS
Number 10 on my list of most beautiful cars of the last quarter decade is the first CLS. Yes, the second-generation is little changed, but Mercedes felt it had to do something and that's never a mandate for classic design, so the original gets the nod. Some may argue that the CLS isn't objectively worthy of a Top 10 finish, but remember how shocked we all were when it first came out. You could literally hear the "That is a Mercedes?" everywhere the car went. So, even if you think the CLS only has top 20 styling, you've got to give it 10 bonus points just for proving that Mercedes's stylists could pen something other than bank vaults.
Number nine goes to the big Roller. Yes, the engineering is German and the dimensions almost vulgarly outsized, but under BMW's ownership, Rolls-Royce has retained the one quality that has been essential to its uncontested status as top dog of the automotive world for almost a 100 years. Its entire comportment - the upright grille, the blocky cabin, the interior that could still pass as a Victorian-era sitting room - reminds me of royalty schooled in the art of marching the entire length of a red carpet without once dropping the proverbial grade-school text book perched atop their head. Mercedes's competing model, the Maybach, simply looks big; the Phantom looks regal.
Lincoln Continental concept
I've always had a thing for early-Sixties Lincolns with their square shoulders, impossibly long hood and "suicide" doors. So when the company unveiled its Continental concept at the 2002 Detroit North American International Auto Show, it struck a chord and it still holds down the number eight spot. Clean, simple and full of interesting design touches, the Continental concept was shelved because of Ford's then-precarious financial position. Now that the company is once again solvent and thriving, perhaps it ought to resurrect the decade-old prototype. It's classier than anything in its current lineup.
This sports car deserves its seven spot on my list because it somehow managed to remain true to one of the most iconic racing cars of all time without becoming a caricature of itself. Even in its 1967 Gulf pale blue livery, it looked at once thoroughly modern and yet true to its origins. That it was produced by Ford and was, by my reckoning, the best "almost" exotic of its era just adds reason to an otherwise emotional decision.
Number six goes to McLaren's original supercar. I'm not sure that the F1 could ever be called classically beautiful, but it was surely the most purposeful supercar of the last 25 years. While Lamborghinis always look like cartoon sketches and Ferrari likes its creativity unfettered by practical engineering, every inch of the Gordon Murray design looked like it served a functional role in the art of going fast. That it was indeed the fastest car of the time just added to its allure.
Fourth-generation BMW 3 Series
In fifth spot, any of these two- and four-door cars, made from 1999-2005. It matters not the model designation or the type of engine hidden under its (relatively) long bonnet; this was BMW getting it right before Chris Bangle upset the whole apple cart. It was simultaneously both subtle and muscular, the same basic silhouette serving both as 318 runabout and M3 supercar. BMW spent the entire last decade searching for an answer to Bangle's misdirection when the answer was right before its very eyes.
Number four is more of a people's choice award than a personal choice because, although I find Audi's first supercar quite fetching, it's the reaction from bystanders that's truly convinced me of its soon-to-be iconic status. Parking the R8 beside any Ferrari or Lamborghini short of an Enzo reminds me of that famous picture of Sophia Loren staring down - jealously, it must be said - at the even more impressive bosom of Jayne Mansfield; accustomed to always being the most desired, the Italian couldn't believe her position usurped. The people have spoken and their choice of supercar is from Audi.
My first podium position goes to the entire Mini lineup. Another German-engineered English classic, many see the Mini as a little too precocious. But - and I am as amazed as anyone by this - its too-cute-for-its-own-good shape remains as popular today as it did 11 years ago when it was introduced. Indeed, it still puts a smile on my face every time I drive one. As the only car on the list I might actually be able to afford, it's probably the car I would park in my driveway were I forced to actually own a car.
Alfa Romeo Competizion 8C
My runner-up position (it was originally going to be my co-winner until I decided this build-up required a definitive winner) is actually the most purely lustful car here. The Competizione 8C is the very definition of sultry. It is the aforementioned Ms Mansfield and Ms Loren all wrapped up in one; it is (and I am sure to be called a heathen for this) Ferrari's GTO improved. There are no terms other than desirous to describe the Alfa's allure. If I could have but one car for one day of pure unadulterated abandon, it would be Alfa's 8C.
And the top car is …
My choice of cars that I could gaze upon day after day, however, is Aston Martin's Rapide. I'm guessing that many of you will, at least grudgingly, give Gaydon's stylists their due, but I'm pretty sure none of you thought my choice would be the English marque's four-door "sedan." Though I can make all manner of rationalisations for my choice - adequate boot space, room for the family, legroom to spare - the real reason it's perched atop this list is I think it's absolutely stunning. Not in the Jayne Mansfield "look at me" display that made men drool and trip over their tongues, but more the timeless allure that Audrey Hepburn slowly seduced us with in Roman Holiday. Yes, I know it has four doors and it is relatively practical. But you wouldn't decry Ms Hepburn's beauty just because it turned out she could cook as well, would you?