There are some collectors who keep their prides and joys away from the public eye and covet them in privacy. Fortunately a large majority is willing to share their precious machines with the world. Excellent occasions for this sharing are concours d’elegance. Originally these ‘competitions of elegance’ were held for the latest designs carefully crafted into shapes by the many coachbuilders. With the demise of custom coachwork many of the original concours stopped, or turned into what we now know as concours d’elegance like the Pebble Beach concours, where the finest classic cars are shown every year. One of the most famous of the original concours is the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, which unfortunately did not survive the 1950s. In the mid 1990s, it was revived and under the flag of BMW has grown out to become one of the most important events on the classic car calendar. Thanks to the absolutely idyllic location and the high quality entry list, the ‘Concorso’ is not only a highlight on our calendar, it is also much anticipated by entrants, visitors and judges alike.
A concours unlike any other
At first glance Villa d’Este might look like any other concours, with the cars divided in various classes, which are judged per class by a panel of expert judges, who at the end of the weekend pick the best in show. A closer look reveals many subtle differences. For the general public the most noticeable is the fact that the event is by invitation only. They are accommodated the day after the event when all the cars are moved to the nearby ‘Villa Erba’ park, which has a much larger capacity The other Villa d’Este ‘quirks’ are inspired by the Concorso of old. There is a separate class for modern concept cars, which can be considered the current equivalent of the traditional coachbuilt one-offs. Additionally, not only the judges, but also the public can hand in their votes for what they believe to be the finest entry. The winner of the popular vote is awarded the Coppa d’Oro trophy just like in the heyday of the event. The Coppa d’Oro award ceremony is the conclusion of a parade of all entrants, during which each of the cars is introduced to the crowd by master of ceremonies Simon Kidston, who seems fluent in at least a dozen languages, but certainly not shed his British sense of humor.
Quality over quantity
Due to the limited space available in the courtyard of the Villa d’Este hotel, the entry list is limited to around 55 classic cars and a dozen modern machines. In charge of the difficult task of selecting these entrants is Urs Paul Ramseier, whose family used to run Swiss coachbuilder Worblaufen. Unlike any edition we attended before, he has managed to assemble an entry list this year that has not a single weak spot. Whether it was the highly original Bentley Blower, the superbly restored and maintained Ferrari 250 GT Cabriolet, or the very bright Lancia Stratos Prototype, each of the 52 cars present had its own interesting history. Needless to say, it would take too much ink and time to look in detail at each of these fine machines, so we picked out a few that captured our attention.
What a difference a new suit makes
Showing just how coachbuilders could transform a car, Ramseier invited four Alfa Romeo 6Cs, which technically are virtually identical and all bodied by Pinin Farina. While some of them had similar design cues, they all four looked distinctly different. The most interesting was the 1940 6C 2500 SS brought by Marc Caveng and shown for the first time after being hidden in a private collection for over half a century. It combines a thoroughly modern Cabriolet body with a Tipo 256 racing car chassis. This might sound like and actually is an appealing prospect; it was nevertheless the result of Alfa Romeo cutting a few corners by selling a used racing car as brand new. They hid the original identity by welding a bolt over the stamp of the first chassis number and applied a new one.
An avid collector of one-off Alfa Romeos, Corrado Lopresto never ceases to amaze. This year he brought a breathtakingly beautiful 6C 2500 Pinin Farina Coupe, built in 1949 for the Aga Khan. It features twin headlights, similar in design to those fitted on the Lamborghini 400 GT 2+2 almost two decades later, long before the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham. For many years, the car was believed to be lost and was only recently tracked down somewhere in the United States and brought back to Italy for a full restoration.
Jano’s secret miracle
The four 6C Alfa Romeo road cars were joined by a fifth example that was distinct for more reasons than one. Known as the Jankovits Spider or the Aerospider, it is the culmination of a top secret project by Alfa’s chief engineer Vittorio Jano. Inspired by the Auto Union Grand Prix cars, he designed the world’s first mid-engined sports car. The lists of firsts supplied by current owner Georg Gebhard is almost two pages long and also includes the three-seater central steering layout made famous by the McLaren F1. At the time Jano was under great pressure from Italy’s dictator Benito Mussolini to develop a Grand Prix car that could beat the Germans, so at the time the project was never made public. The car was assembled outside of the factory and extensively tested in 1936 and 1937. Just as he was about to prepare the car for racing, Jano was fired and the car was sold to the Jankovits brothers in Jano’s native Hungary. They had been involved in the project from early on and entered the three-seater car in various races. It was subsequently modified for road use and eventually disappeared. The revolutionary racing car was tracked down in Ireland (of all places) and has recently been completely restored.
In 2007 American collector Jim Glickenhaus grabbed the public’s attention by showing his Ferrari P4/5 created for him by Pininfarina. He returned to Villa d’Este with an even more special Pininfarina designed show car; the 206 S Dino Competizione shown in Frankfurt in 1967. Like Caveng’s Alfa Romeo, the ‘Yellow Dino’ combines race proven underpinnings with a designer suit. Penned by Paolo Martin, the design of the Frankfurt show car has received universal acclaim and it has since been one of the stars of the Pininfarina collection. It took Glickenhaus five years and an undisclosed, but no doubt substantial amount of money to eventually convince Pininfarina to sell it. Completely original down to its wheels and tires, the 206 Dino was carefully disassembled and cleaned before appearing at Villa d’Este. Additionally, new shock absorbers, seats, wheels and custom-made safety equipment were developed, all of which can be fitted without modifications, preserving the Dino’s originality. This enabled Glickenhaus to register the car and drive it on the road like he does with all his cars. At Villa d’Este, it was reunited with its designer, who jumped at the opportunity to get behind the wheel.
Another designer at the wheel of his own creation was Tom Tjaarda, who entered the 1973 Pantera 7X, or Montella show car. Commissioned by Ford, it was intended as the replacement for the Pantera until the oil-crisis killed the interest for mid-engined supercars. After the project was axed, the car remained in North America and in the last few years made various appearances painted in a two-tone white and brown. In August of 2007 it was bought at auction and brought back to Italy for a thorough restoration and repaint. Back in its original gold livery, it was presented by a visibly proud Tjaarda.
The youngest of the ‘old cars’ brings us right to the modern concept cars. As always the show was stolen by Frank Rinderknecht, who each year manages to bring a show car more extravagant than the last. He almost convinced Simon Kidston to take on the role of James Bond and take a dive in Lake Como in the Rinspeed sQuba. This Lotus Elise based two seater is actually capable of diving under water unlike the Lotus Esprit used by Roger Moore in the 1977 motion picture ‘The spy who loved me.’ Unfortunately the Swiss ‘Q’ had forgotten to bring a wet-suit, so Kidston had an easy excuse to decline the invitation.
A more serious, but equally extravagant concept on display was the high-tech Morgan LIFEcar. Its impressive engineering had already intrigued us at Geneva, but there the stand was not so flattering for its minimalistic design. Out in the Villa d’Este courtyard it looked right at home with its mix of fine materials like aluminum and wood. It received many admiring glances from the classic car enthusiasts, few of whom had expected a hydrogen fuel-engined prototype from the very traditional British company.
Also present at Geneva was the Zagato bodied Bentley Continental GT. The combination of Italian style and British engineering has always worked well and the Zagato Bentley is no exception. According to Tjaarda it was the finest of the modern classics. Nine will be built and the last one was still available.
As mentioned earlier, custom coachbuilding steadily faded away in the 1950s and 60s. One of the victims was Touring of Milan, who had celebrated great success with road and racing cars. In the late 1940s one of their designs fitted on an Alfa Romeo 6C chassis won the Coppa d’Oro and the model was subsequently dubbed the Villa d’Este. Forty years after their demise, the company has recently been revived and appropriately used the Concorso to showcase their new design; the Maserati Bellagio. Based on the Quattroporte, it features a custom fastback rear-end and interior. It did not sound like the best of ideas, but in the metal, the new Touring badged machine looked surprisingly good.
These were but a few of the highlights, many of which will be looked at in greater detail in future updates. Among them are the first production SS 90 (the very first Jaguar sports-car), a unique Ghia bodied Fiat 8V, the world’s first supercar, the ATS 2500 GT, the unique Pegaso Z102 Touring “Thrill”, the Bizzarrini Manta, Italdesign’s very first show car and a highly original Jaguar XK-SS.
As a side program, BMW always celebrates a particular series or model and this year all eyes were on the M1 supercar, which turns 30 this year. To mark the occasion various M1s were lined up and the original Turbo Concept was also shown alongside a modern interpretation of the M1.
Best in show
Although not yet mentioned a quick glance on the entry list revealed an instant favorite for the Coppa d’Oro; the Mercedes Benz 540 K Autobahn Kurier. Last year the judges picked another Mercedes Benz as the best of show and to the amusement of some a second win for BMW’s biggest rival was on the cards. The crowd at Villa d’Este proved the expectations right and proud owner Arturo Keller was understandably awarded the Coppa d’Oro. One of only two in existence, the Autobahn Kurier is arguably the finest pre-War Mercedes Benz, combining the potent 540 K chassis with a surprisingly elegant coachwork. As the name suggests, the two-door coupe was built to celebrate the introduction of the ‘Autobahn’ highway system in Germany. A little too extravagant for most Mercedes Benz clients, it was not a commercial success and it is believed that only two or three were ever built and none were sold to Germans.
As has become traditional, the Jury did not agree with the people and picked another well deserving winner for the Trofeo BMW Group; the 1950 Mille Miglia winning Ferrari 166 MM Touring Berlinetta. It was driven to that victory by Count Giannino Marzotto and he was so far ahead halfway through that he could permit himself to do some donuts to entertain the crowd in Rome before returning to Brescia. He had the car painted blue because his father asked him to stop racing ‘those red cars.’ The historically very Ferrari important was in a dire condition when current owner John Croul commissioned Paul Russel to bring it back to its former glory. His high quality restorations sure appeal to the public and judges in Villa d’Este as he was also responsible for the Autobahn Kurier and last year’s Trofeo BMW Group winner the Mercedes SSK Roadster.
The full list of award winners can be found here
If the previous 2000 words and the 200-shot slideshow
are not enough to win you over for the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, it is doubtful that you in fact are an automobile enthusiast. The only drawback of Villa d’Este is that access is restricted, but for those not lucky enough there is the Villa Erba Concorso on Sunday, which includes the same and a several additional cars. That would be an excellent conclusion of a week or a long weekend visit to one of the most beautiful areas of the world.