July 2013

The Most Elegant Car Event in the World? You Judge...

by Simon de Burton 

There are classic cars, great classic cars, really great classic cars -  and then there are the cars of the Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este, the sort of cars that give insurance brokers heart palpitations every time their owners wheel them out in public, the sort of cars that incite people who don't even like cars to fall in love with them.

The 2013 edition of this remarkable event - which ran from 1929 until the outbreak of war before being revived in 1995 and is now backed by BMW Group Classic - saw 49 historics and seven concept vehicles lined up in the manicured grounds of Lake Como's most celebrated hotel, their owners hoping for the large slice of automotive glory which comes with having your wheels judged 'Best in Show'.

You know this is a concours that's a cut above simply by holding the catalogue. No glossy soft-back this, but a sumptuous, cloth-bound production in which the entries are not depicted through any medium so base as photography, but through the picture-perfect paintings of automobile artist Brian James whose deft touch with brush and gouache evokes an era far better than Kodachrome ever could.

Old Money meets New: Lord Sinclair's Aston joined by Charlie Croker's, last seen on a cliff edge in The Italian Job Old Money meets New: Lord Sinclair's Aston joined by Charlie Croker's, last seen on a cliff edge in The Italian Job

But it's not an easy show to win. This year, exhibits included everything from a Jaguar XKSS (the '50s road-going racer of which just 16 were built) to the first Lamborghini to roll out of the factory - and helping to celebrate the centenary of Aston Martin, there was even the Bahama Yellow DBS driven by Roger Moore's Brett Sinclair in The Persuaders, a cooking six-pot still sporting the stick-on muscle of the V8 guise it wore on set.

In the 'Kings of the Road' class, we marvelled at the shameless decadence of a 1928 Mercedes-Benz S-type roadster by Saoutchik which didn't so much glide as shake the ground in front of the judges (the never ending bonnet seemed to arrive minutes before thre rest of the car) while the title of Class F - California Dreamin' - reminded us, through cars such as Siata's sublime 208S roadster, a Chinese entered Porsche 356 Speedster and Carroll Shelby's rubber-shredding Cobra that, in some places at least, roofs really are superfluous.    

But, truth be told, nothing could match the one car present which everyone - and I mean every one of the 6,500 people who attended - simply had to look at: it was Ralph Lauren's 1938 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic, one of just four built and valued at an easy $40 million.

And the winner is... And the winner is...

Gloss black, six exhaust pipes, exposed rivets along its beseamed length harking back to the magnesium-bodied 'Aerolithe' prototype which preceded it; wings, beautifully bulbous; side windows drooping in line with the lazy, liquid fall of the teardrop roof; engine, a metal sculpture of burnished brilliance. This car was so jaw-dropping that few would have noticed if Cruela de Vil herself had stepped out from behind the steering wheel followed by a stream of 101 spotted puppies. Or, as Simon Kidston observed: "If Captain Nemo travelled by car rather than submarine, this would be it."

Not only did the panel of expert judges award it best in show (winning Lauren a unique, $60,000 A. Lange and Sohne world time wristwatch), it received the public vote, too, enabling RL to add the historic Coppa d'Oro Villa d'Este to the car's already bulging trophy cabinet.

Did it deserve such praise? Well, put it this way - the 2013 Alfa Romeo Disco Volante which won the concept car category somehow looked less futuristic. So the answer is probably 'yes'. And is the Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este really the most elegant car event in the world? Don't take our word for it. Go there next year and find out for yourself.

Images courtesy of Bianchi-Piras and Alexander Gabrysch

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