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Even after nearly a decade, Miles Collier still gets a visceral thrill as he scans the first floor of the Revs Institute.

“Jiminy Crickets!” says Collier, founder of the museum and research facility in Naples, Florida.

“Every time I walk in here, I am totally blown away. At the same time, I’m horrified as to how much of my sum and substance this all comprises, and what it takes to keep it going. As you can imagine, it is considerable.”

The place is stuffed with masterpieces—the Renoirs and van Goghs of the auto world. Ten feet away, a 1962 Ferrari 400 Superamerica gleams under florescent lights. Only 46 of these cars were built, and Enzo Ferrari himself owned this one.

Upstairs is the first American-manufactured car to win a Formula 1 grand prix: Dan Gurney’s 1967 Eagle, often called the most beautiful open-wheel car ever built. It sits near the Jorgensen Eagle that Bobby Unser drove to Indy 500 victory in 1975. Alfas, Bentleys, Bugattis. The New York Times once called this group of vehicles “the finest sports-car collection in America.”

Collier, 70, owns it all, and he is a bit of a mystery. This much is known: He is a fine artist, philanthropist, and scion of one of the wealthiest families in America, who is so publicity shy, he refuses to be photographed. More important, he is a man on a mission, one that the Revs Institute embodies: to proselytize the important role the automobile has played in human history, and to make the car a subject of serious academic scholarship.

“The automobile is the single most important technical artifact of the 20th century,” Collier says. “It really did shape the world in which we find ourselves today. Something with those kinds of credentials deserves to receive respect and examination.”

Since Collier founded the Revs Institute in 2009, he and his staff have labored to turn the hobby of car collecting into a vocation. The institute has formed a partnership with Stanford University to create a transdisciplinary field to study cars and their influence on society. The Revs Institute has possibly the largest specialized automotive library in the world. A 12,000-square-foot workshop is dedicated to high standards of auto restoration and innovating ways to care for antique machinery.

As someone who prides himself on his historical knowledge, Collier knows as well as anyone that the automobile industry is on the verge of the most spectacular transformation since the dawn of the motoring age. Autonomous cars and electric vehicles may eventually make the internal-combustion engine—and perhaps the human driver—go the way of the horse and buggy. “Change in our high-technology world is a fact of life,” Collier says. “The real issue is, are people going to want to engage with an artifact that in some sense resembles an automobile in the future?”

This uncertainty is almost palpable in the halls of the Revs Institute.

TO UNDERSTAND WHY COLLIER CARES SO much, you have to go back two generations. Barron Collier, Miles’s grandfather, made a killing selling advertising in subways and on streetcars across the country. He invested a fortune in south Florida, becoming the state’s largest land owner—including thousands of acres of what the Associated Press described in 1952 as “primeval wilderness of the Everglades, inhabited only by alligators, panthers, poisonous snakes, wildcats, strange birds, and a few silent Seminole Indians.” The Collier family developed this slithering wilderness into the south Florida we know today. Thus, this huge section is Collier County.

As this was happening, Collier’s father, C. Miles Collier, and uncle Sam Collier played an outsized role in the emergence of sports-car racing in the United States. During the prewar years, they founded the Automobile Racing Club of America, which morphed into the Sports Car Club of America, and introduced the MG brand to the U.S. After the war, they helped organize the first public road races at Watkins Glen and, in 1950, raced at Le Mans. They wrote about the latter experience for a fledgling publication called Road & Track. Not long after, Sam was killed at the Glen. In his honor, the Sam Collier Memorial Grand Prix of Endurance was organized at an airfield in central Florida. That evolved into the 12 Hours of Sebring.

Miles Collier came along amid all this, his family so famous that his birth was announced in the New York Times. Before he was old enough to walk, Collier was hooked on cars. “It must be some genetic imprinting,” he says.

Collier began shaping his 115-car collection in the 1980s. They are carefully organized and grouped in different sections of the building, which is reinforced to protect against the most severe Florida hurricanes. “The cars here are my interpretation of transcendent technology and excellence in aesthetics, the cars that changed the way the world thought about automobiles,” he says.

The first floor holds mostly sports cars, with a wing dedicated to Porsche. The collection also includes a fleet that once belonged to Briggs Cunningham, a 20th-century automotive pioneer (and a friend of the elder Colliers’). The floor’s 1937 Delahaye, bodied by Figoni and Filaschi, is one of the most striking cars ever to roll down a road.

Most of the collection’s race cars are on the second floor. Among them are two Ford GT40s; one was the first to wear Gulf Oil livery. There’s also a 1948 Ferrari Tipo 166—the first Ferrari model to win a major race and the first imported to the United States. Sam Collier died after crashing this very car. If there is a flagship here, it’s the 1939 Mercedes-Benz W154 Silver Arrow grand-prix car, which competed in Europe on September 3, 1939—the day Britain and France declared war on Germany.

It’s easy to see why Collier would call these vehicles transcendent: They embody game-changing ideas and ambitions that mark critical moments. “If all this technology goes away,” Collier says, referring to the internal-combustion engine and the act of driving, “then historically, all this is clearly very, very important.”

That is why, in 2014, he opened the Revs Institute to the public. In keeping with its mission of being “the premier destination for automotive research and study,” it is open as a museum and research library three days a week. Collier believes that celebrating the automobile is the best way to spread the gospel of its importance. “Part of the way you educate people about the significance of cars is to let people see them,” he says. “Educate and thrill and charm and seduce people into the fascination with these things.”

Preservation is a major part of the institute’s effort. Collier and his staff hold regular symposia for collectors to disseminate ideas about how to be better caretakers, how to make decisions on what to buy, how to determine whether to restore a vehicle or not, and more. Preserving old cars is not easy or cheap. For example, Revs Institute techs “exercise” the cars regularly. “We have to keep everything running,” says Scott George, the institute’s vice president. “You’ve got air-cooled cars, water-cooled cars, hydraulic brakes. All those systems have to be kept functional.” Most of the vehicles in the Collier Collection are driven on public roads, in rallies, or on private racetracks.

A visit to the Revs workshop is the auto equivalent of walking into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Many of Collier’s cars are restored to their original state with obsessive attention to detail, while others maintain patina from years of use. Dents and paint scratches can illuminate the life an automobile has lived and the companions it has kept.

The day of my visit, craftsmen were re-creating the belly pan on a French 1919 Ballot that raced at the Indianapolis 500. Jacked up next to it was a swoopy 1962 Lotus Elite undergoing a mechanical and cosmetic rebuild. There’s a paint shop and a machine shop in this space, yet across all of it, the floor appeared as clean as a surgical table.

Another goal is to attract the attention of younger generations. The Revs Program at Stanford has offered classes such as Judging Historical Significance: The Automobile and Mobility Entrepreneurship, plus an Open Garage Talk series of speaking events. Thanks to the institute, Stanford students have had the opportunity to judge the world’s most important vintage-car show, the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

Revs also employs interns in the workshop and library. Archiving is a critical part of what the institute does, because the importance of the automobile is not just the vehicle itself, but the ancillary items orbiting its existence: photos, marketing materials, shop manuals, anything that could interest the most esoteric car nerd. Among the impressive and eclectic catalog are a signed copy of Enzo Ferrari’s memoirs, a pair of bear-fur gloves used by drivers in the 1920s before cars had heaters, vintage racing goggles and trophies, original blueprints of championship race cars, and vast collections of periodicals and other publications.

“Not a lot of car collections have as many staff working in the library as it does on the cars,” George says.

All of it aims to spread Collier’s message. “The thing I’m most interested in is the archeology of these things,” Collier says. “Archeology is essentially the study of how human behavior has been shaped over time by the creation of artifacts and technology. The way people used the automobile and looked at them, the way cars were built and maintained. . . . All aspects of their physicality are of great importance to me. That’s what we’re trying to do here, to be a thought leader in what these things mean, how to think about them, and how to care for them. Somebody needs to be the call for action to protect, admire, and appreciate these things for what they are.”

To that end, Collier has an ambition to create Revs fellowships to support the next generation of thinkers and caretakers in this arena—master craftsmen, historical writers, etc. He also likes the idea of creating a wing for cars that changed the world. This part of the collection would be less about game-changing technology and achievement and more about the roles cars played in people’s everyday lives. Collier singles out the 1964 1⁄2 Ford Mustang, the first-generation Toyota Prius, and the seminal Chrysler minivan—“a paradigm-initiating car.” There would be a Citroën DS 19, a Fiat Cinquecento, even “a horrendous GM thing from the 1980s” that would illuminate why America’s largest corporation “was on a fast skid to oblivion” at the time.

“There is something about the automobile that appeals to the fundamental DNA in people,” Collier says. “And I think I know what that is. Man has always been a toolmaker. Man has always been a creature of wanderlust. So what is more appropriate for man the toolmaker and wanderer than to create a machine for movement?”

For someone with such a passion for history and old technology, Collier is anything but defeatist or cynical when it comes to the future of mobility. “My thesis is that the things that made the automobile so pervasive are fundamental human drives that are not going away with changing technology,” he says. People are still going to want to go places, to choose the timing of their travel, and to choose with whom they travel. “How much will insurance companies and government or quasi-government organizations interfere with our ability to drive automobiles?” Collier asks, rhetorically. “The jury is out, but I am an optimist.”

He sees a future in which self-driving technology will be a modality rather than a constant. “It may be mandated at certain times and places, like getting in and out of L.A., San Francisco, New York, or Boston. They may say that nothing but autonomous vehicles can go into Manhattan. That’s fine. Who in their right mind wants to drive in Manhattan?”

Collier concedes that some of the vintage cars he adores could be legislated o the road. “Gradually, the arc of technology is taking cars of a certain age or performance envelope out of the mix,” he says. “That’s sad but unavoidable, unless you live in some rural backwater somewhere. With respect to normal traffic, I think cars from the 1960s on up are still competent. That being said, anyone who says they want to drive their 1912 Mercer on modern roads today has a suicide complex.”

Collier does not see some “great faceless leviathan” taking away our ability to drive cars, however. His optimism even extends to electric vehicles. “One hundred percent torque and zero rpm! Who doesn’t love that? The day of the burnout has truly arrived!” he enthuses. That is, assuming battery technology improves so EVs cost less and have better range, and we figure out how to create electricity sustainably. His face contorts into a mischievous smile. “Of course, the one thing about being a pundit about anything is that you are virtually condemned to be wrong,” he says. “The one thing I know about the future is that it’s certainly going to surprise us.”