The Most Expensive Cars Ever Auctioned

The automobile has been around for more than 100 years. Gasoline powered vehicles showed up near the end of the 19th century, but it's enough to look back to when the Ford Model T started rolling off the Piquette Plant assembly line to realize that the affordable automobile is already 105 years old. Since "Tin Lizzie" came to life, the automotive industry evolved so rapidly that we no longer need 12-liter engines to surpass the 100 miles per hour mark. Built in over 15 million units, the Model T managed to survive to this day despite the wars, the Great Depression or the Oil Crisis it had to go through. Not to mention the weathering processes it had to endure. But not all automobiles were produced in such high numbers and offered at affordable prices. Most of them were so expensive and so exclusive that they were considered rarities even in their hay-day, let alone now, when they can draw a huge amount of attention and a lot of cash at auctions. Low production volumes, rarity, design and nostalgia are just a few of the factors that can turn an old car, or even a barn find for that matter, into a precious collectible item. The fact that classic cars sell for seven-figure sums is no longer surprising. It all started back in the 1980s and since 2010 they began selling for over $10 million. More than half of the ten most expensive vehicles ever auctioned are Bugattis and Ferraris, and if you want another interesting fact, five vehicles have fetched more than $10 million and almost $110 million when put together. 1936 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic
RM Auctions sale 1 photo
Photo: RM Auctions
Hammered in 2010 in California, this specific Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic became the most expensive car ever auctioned. The figure was so impressive, that the owner decided to remain anonymous and asked for the exact amount of money to remain undisclosed as well. Word has it the French sportscar sold for over $30 million, and rumors are indicating a staggering sum of around $43 million. Holy cow is right! How many people on this planet have this kind of money? It's probably irrelevant, but we do need to know what makes this car so expensive.

Built in only four examples besides the Aerolithe prototype, the Bugatti Atlantic is one of the rarest vehicles in the world. With one gone missing and another one wrecked in the 1950s, only two original Atlantics remained to this day. The "Pope" version now resides with Ralph Lauren, who decided to scrap the Sapphire Blue paintjob and turn the car black, while the "Rothschild" Atlantic changed a few owners before becoming the most expensive car ever auctioned. Known internally as chassis 57374, this was the first Atlantic built by Bugatti and delivered to London's Lord Rothschild in 1936. Fitted with a supercharged three years later, the Atlantic had 210 HP coming out of its 3.3-liter inline eight-cylinder engine for a top speed of over 123 MPH. In 1971, the vehicle was acquired by Dr. Williamson for a record amount of... $59,000. He did a tremendous job restoring it and continued to drive it until his death in 2008.

1963 Ferrari 250 GTO

The Ferrari 250 GTO is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable Ferrari designs. Built for racing purposes, this amazing piece of machinery is an attention grabber no matter the event. Produced in only 36 examples, the 250 GTO is very well documented and it's unlikely that any of them could be auctioned for a figure that has less than seven digits. SCM's Keith Martin even claims that everyone who bought a Ferrari 250 GTO for $10,000 at some time in the distant past has now sold it, mesmerized by the impressive fortunes it can bring. Built in 1963, this particular example fetched $19.4 million back in 2010. The lucky owner? British radio and TV personality Chris Evans. I bet he still has a lot of fun with this 3.0-liter V12-engined beauty. 302 HP might not seem a lot to today's standards, but this Prancing Horse can reach up to 170 MPH.

1957 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa

Conceived as a true blue racecar, the Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa won the 24 Hours of Le Mans three times between 1958 and 1961. Winning the famed Circuit the la Sartre event once is a great achievement, but winning it three times ensures every vehicle a one way ticket towards high collectible status. And a self explanatory price tag obviously. Built in 34 units in various body styles, the 250 Testa Rossa was once viewed as an obsolete race car and several examples were almost given away for less than $5,000 in the mid-1960s. Those that were inspired enough to keep them struck gold, because the 250TR became the second most valuable Ferrari model, after the 250 GTO. And to further illustrate the value of the 250TR, I must point out that this specific model had burned twice and been seriously damaged in the 1958 Le Mans 24 Hours race. In fact, the livery it was restored in it's the exact paint scheme it was raced in 55 years ago by the legendary Luigi Chinetti-owned NART factory-backed operation. It was more than enough to be auctioned for $16.4 million at a Gooding & Company sale in 2011.

1936 Mercedes-Benz 540K

If there's one classic Mercedes-Benz that's desired all over the world, that would have to be the W24 series, also known as the 540K. The price of these both elegant and fast German vehicles has doubled the past six years and one example was sold for no less than $11.7 million in 2012. Introduced at the 1936 Paris Motor Show and designed by Friedrich Geiger, the 540K was powered by its 5.4-liter straight eight-cylinder poweplant up to 110 MPH thanks to an output of more than 115 HP. Only 419 units were built at the Unterturkheim factory in Sindelfingen, Germany, a lot of them being initially sold as chassis to be bodied by independent coachbuilders. The model depicted here is one of only 26 540K Special Roadsters produced and it was initially ordered in 1936 by the aristocratic Von Krieger family. Until 1989, it belonged to Baroness Gisela Josephine Von Krieger.

1968 Ford GT40

The Ford GT40 is without a doubt the most successful American race car. Developed with the help of the late Carroll Shelby, but initially built on Lola chassis, the GT40 fulfilled Henry Ford II's dream of defeating Ferrari in endurance racing, winning the famous Le Mans four times, from 1966 through 1969. All told, this high-displacement race car basically chased the Italians out of Le Mans, their mission being later continued by Porsche, who went on to dominate in the early 1970s with their 917 models. With a lot of the cars scrapped, damaged or displayed in museums after intensive restoring, the Ford GT40 is not the kind of vehicle you'll see under the hammer often. Though this particular model hasn't won the Le Mans, it did triumph at Spa in 1967 when it was still a Mirage. It was later modified by John Wyer Automotive to become GT40 chassis number P/1074, and remained widely known as being the first Gulf-liveried car to win a race. But there's another reason why this racer is famous. In 1970, while owned by David Brown of Tampa, Florida, the car was leased to legendary actor and driver Steve McQueen to be used as a camera vehicle in the highly-acclaimed "Le Mans" film. The GT40 was then sold and, after having a handful of owners, it was eventually restored and sold for $11 million at a RM Auctions sale in August 2012. Since then, it's the most expensive American car ever auctioned, but with classic car prices still going up, we wouldn't be surprised to see another US built vehicle take the crown later on.
If you liked the article, please follow us:  Google News icon Google News Youtube Instagram X (Twitter)
About the author: Ciprian Florea
Ciprian Florea profile photo

Ask Ciprian about cars and he'll reveal an obsession with classics and an annoyance with modern design cues. Read his articles and you'll understand why his ideal SUV is the 1969 Chevrolet K5 Blazer.
Full profile


Would you like AUTOEVOLUTION to send you notifications?

You will only receive our top stories