Today a concours d’elegance is a competition between historic vehicles, but in the heyday of custom coach building it was rather more about contemporary cars that were entered for judging. In those days sheer beauty was the decisive factor, whereas today the condition of the car and its historic importance are equally significant. One of the most famous of those original concours was annually held on the shores of northern Italy's Como Lake on the grounds of the Villa d’Este resort. First held in 1929, the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este was last organized in its original form in 1949. The modern type concours became increasingly popular in the following decades and in 1986 the Italian village revived the tradition and hosted a “modern” concours. Another nine years passed before the event received annual attention. Now, 76 years after being held for the first time, the quality and atmosphere of the Italian concours is rivaled only by the annual Pebble Beach gathering.
Unlike other concours d’elegances, Villa d’Este is a private event, open only to the entrants, press and special invitees. The public is welcomed the day after on the nearby Villa Erba premises where there is more room to line up the cars. The 54 cars entered where subdivided into four main age categories, of which two had further separate classes for open and closed cars. All cars were scrutinized by a very competent jury, the composition of which is being kept as constant as possible over the years.
Les Annees folles (1920-1929)
Cars in the first age bracket included some long forgotten manufacturers. Most interesting was a very original Italian Bianchi S-5, which for weight saving reasons features a body made partially of leather. Of similar size was the 1924 torpedo bodied Ballot, a rare survivor from this French company. Fighting for the favour of the European rich and famous in the 1920s were three manufacturers; Rolls Royce, Hispano Suiza and Isotta Fraschini. All of which were represented. In the past, Isotta examples have proven to be particularly favoured by the judges at Villa d’Este with awards won in both the historic and modern concours editions.
Flamboyances et extravagances (1930-1939)
Custom coach building was at an all time high in the 1930s when many cars were sold as a chassis and engine only. French coach builders of the period were very gifted designers, producing some of the most beautiful bodies ever. In this class the French were represented by Franay, Gangloff and Pourtout, with the work of manufacturers like Bugatti and Voisin to assist in paying homage to the nation’s design talent. A rare sight on this side of the Atlantic was the American Duesenberg, which impresses in size, but also in the advanced engineering applied. The entered example was equipped with an elegant body by Franay, and was originally owned by Queen Mary of Yugoslavia. It was lined up next to a Peugeot 402 Darl’Mat, which looked petite in comparison to the Duesey. Another representative of advanced American engineering was the Cord 812, which featured front wheel drive and flip-up headlights.
Le temps du changement (1940–1959)
Sometimes separate, but more often together, Ferrari and Pinin Farina are two of Italy’s best known names in the automotive industry and each built up their reputation during this era. To celebrate the designer’s 75th anniversary a number of unique coach built Ferraris were entered. Recently restored, the Ferrari 375 MM Pinin Farina Sport Speciale has been triumphant in previous concours throughout the United States and subsequently tried its luck in Europe. It is the last Pinin Farina body fitted on a competition car chassis; a true racer for the road. Another rarity was the coupe bodied Ferrari 500 Mondial, of which only two were ever constructed, compared to two dozen roadsters of that type. The Turin coachbuilder did not work exclusively for Ferrari, but sculted for other Italian manufacturers as well. A gorgeous example of this is the Lancia Aurelia Spider America; today the most valuable Lancia of the era. Bodied by Stablimenti Farina, the Fiat 1100 entered was a previous class winner in the 1947 running of the Villa d’Este concours. Saving weight was on the top of the priority list at Zagato, who specialized in racing cars. Like Pinin Farina, Zagato also worked for/with various manufacturers and occasionally constructed direct competitors such as the Alfa Romeo 1900 SS and Fiat 8V present. Much attention in this class was drawn by the one-off 1951 Ferrari 212 Vignale Spider, which during the concours was reunited not only with its original owner, Count Marzotto, but also with the journalist from the Swiss Automobil Revue who tested the car in 1951 on the Modena Aerotodromo.
Le Style en liberte (1960–1975)
This was the era in which Giorgietto Giugiaro penned some of his finest creations, first for Bertone and later independently. One of his unique creations, the Alfa Romeo Canguro, was long considered destroyed after a heavy crash, so its appearance at Villa d’Este, not surprisingly, resulted in much discussion. After many years of deterioration, it was apparently saved and completely restored for its current owner. Giugiaro’s replacement at Bertone, Marcello Gandini, did his best to let the world quickly forget about his predecessor with the groundbreaking Lamborghini Miura. Entered in the concours was an original example of the second generation ‘S-model’. One of Zagato’s best known designs was based on the British Aston Martin DB4 GT chassis, in an attempt to make it more competitive against the strong opposition from Ferrari. With only 19 examples ever constructed, a DB4 GT Zagato is a rare sight, but as you've probably realized by now, Villa d'Este is full of rarities.
Regard vers le future
In modern motorshows the place of the coach built specials is now filled by the ‘concept cars’, which are used to showcase new technologies and design routes. Continuing its old tradition, Villa d’Este created a separate class for these concepts in 2002. This offers a rare opportunity to view some of these cars outside their natural, yet short-lived habitat of the motorshow floor. Eight examples were entered this year, ranging from a Castagna bodied Mini to a Porsche 911 hatchback. Presented at the 2005 Geneva Motorshow, the Bertone/Cadillac Villa shows a possible future for automotive design, incorporating a versatile drive-by-wire control system. Peugeot surprised the crowds at the 2004 Paris Motorshow with the V12 engined 907 supercar, and much to our surprise during the concours it was proven that the car actually runs.
With a field of this quality, we didn't envy the judging teams assigment, although the press was given the opportunity to vote for the “Trofeo Corrado Milanto”. At the end of the weekend the judges and press were unanimous in their choice and awarded the Alfa Romeo Canguro as the well deserved best of show. A third overall award, the “Copo d’Oro” was chosen by the gathered public and was awarded to the Ferrari 212 Vignale Spider. As words hardly do justice to the beauty of the cars, we have compiled a 150 shot slideshow
, which includes multiple images of all cars entered.
It seems certain that BMW’s generous sponsoring of the event will safeguard future editions, and will keep the Villa d’Este concours the most important event of its kind in Europe.