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Ralph Lauren's SSK Mercedes Returns to Italy Triumphant

Back in the Como area for the first time since it left in 1932, the magnificent Mercedes-Benz SSK bodied specially for Italian motor racing legend Count Trossi and now owned by Ralph Lauren won the coveted Best of Show award at this year's prestigious Villa d'Este Concours.

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Left: Engines awaken the early morning on Lake Como.
7.1 litres, 300bhp, 120+mph...back in 1932 Count Trossi's big Mercedes SSK was the fastest car on the road.

Held under brilliant spring sunshine on the shores of Lake Como, in the grounds of the famed Villa d'Este hotel, this year's Concorso di Eleganza attracted arguably the finest turnout of classic cars ever seen at a European concours: Ralph Laurent sent over his sinister black, ex-Count Trossi SSK, with its streamlined one-off body and 7.1 litre supercharged engine. From Mexico, Arturo and Deborah Keller came with their rakish 1931 Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 Flying Star, a legendary show car bodied by Touring of Milan and trimmed all in white- a touch of irony as the car's first young lady owner's father made his fortune trading coal. Also returning to the area after decades abroad (it won the 1931 Villa d'Este concours), the Flying Star won the other major trophy on offer: the Coppa BMW Italia, named after the main sponsor.

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Left: More gauges and dials than a German fighter plane...and it probably cost more Reichsmarks too!
Nobody knows who designed or built this extraordinary body, but it's an absolute masterpiece (reserved for drivers under 5'5"!).

Kentucky based Jim Patterson brought his 1939 Bugatti Type 57C with outlandish roadster coachwork by Berlin firm Voll & Ruhrbeck- another one-off, which had been reassembled only in recent years after the body and chassis were sold to different owners in the 1960s. Love it or hate it (the 'waterfall' radiator grille is controversial), this is one of the most spectacular Bugattis ever built. It won the Coppa d'Oro Villa d'Este, voted by the public.

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Left: Flying Star: Arturo and Deborah Keller's famous Alfa Romeo show stopper, originally built for a 21 year old debutante.
The swooping lines of the 1939 Bugatti Type 57C by Voll & Ruhrbeck wowed the crowds.

Former Microsoft president Jon Shirley came all the way from Seattle with one of my favourite cars, the 1954 Ferrari 375MM with unique berlinetta coachwork crafted by Scaglietti for film director Roberto Rossellini. Originally a racing spyder, Enzo Ferrari sold this fearsome 400bhp brute to Rossellini with the suggestion that it would make a good road car. Competition car coachbuilder Sergio Scaglietti offered to create a bespoke coupe body which owed much to the contemporary Mercedes-Benz 300SLR but also presaged styling elements from the forthcoming 250TR. Later sold to Sicily where it was painted military green and languished forgotten for years, this 1950s supercar has since been restored to show standards but surprisingly did not win its class, the judges instead favouring David Sydorick's space age Fiat 8V Supersonica flown over from its home in Beverly Hills. The 375MM did however win the prize for outstanding Italian coachwork, awarded by an emotional Sergio Scaglietti himself, still sprightly in his ninth decade.

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Left: Red 250GT Tour de France, blue SWB California Spyder, silver 375MM: do we really need to choose?
Heart of the beast: 4.5 litres of Maranello muscle powers the ex-Roberto Rossellini 375MM.

Great cars present at Villa d'Este are too numerous to list here but a few that caught my eye included American Peter Read's curvaceous Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato, originally supplied in Desert White with red leather to Australia; Italian collector and financier Chicco Gnutti's formidable Ferrari 375MM spyder, acquired from very long term US ownership a couple of years ago; Umberto Camellini's lovely Ferrari 340MM barchetta which won the 1953 Mille Miglia driven by Count Marzotto and has been in Umberto's family since 1963 (when acquired from a Florentine fishmonger) and Jorge Fernandez's lovely 1919 Hispano Suiza H6 torpedo, supplied new to Spanish King Alfonso when aged just 19. Poor King Carlos has to make do with a German station wagon nowadays...

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Left: David Sydorick's space age FIAT 8V Supersonica framed by Villa d'Este's famous mosaic backdrop.
Sharp Italian tailoring for a conservative British chassis: Peter Read's lovely Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato.

Villa d'Este is unusual among concours d'elegance in also inviting modern manufacturers to unveil concept cars and prototypes, much as these events showcased the latest automotive fashions in their 1920s/30s heyday, and so we were treated to a fascinating array of cars whose doors opened every which way, which dispatched steering wheels in favour of joysticks, mirrors in favour of cameras and cabins in favour of cockpits...the variety was beyond most of our imaginations but closer to the future than many might think. Winner of this class was, not surprisingly, American Jim Glickenhaus in the Ferrari Enzo-based P4/5 prototype commissioned by him from Pininfarina: every Italian schoolboys dream.

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Left: Every schoolboy's favourite: the Ferrari Enzo based P4/5 prototype.
The famous BMW 328 coupe which beat Alfa Romeo to win the 1940 Mille Miglia, driven by Huscke von Hanstein and now owned by BMW.

Overall this was a vintage year for the concours which, with the support of BMW Group Mobile Tradition and (new for 2007) luxury watchmaker Girard Perregaux, is going from strength to strength. If you love beautiful cars in a beautiful setting, make a date in your diary for 2008. Even the wife/ girlfriend/ mistress will enjoy it.

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Left: Not all guests arrived by road...
Restorer Paul Russel shows Jury President Lorenzo Ramaciotti (ex-Pininfarina Head of Design) the history file of Ralph Lauren's Mercedes SSK.

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Left: Delicate wooden steering wheel on '39 Bugatti- note right-hand drive for luxury French cars of the era.
Lipstick red Connolly leather interior as ordered by racer Nano da Silva Ramos for his California Spyder back in '61.

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Left: A gathering of rare 'big banger' racing Ferraris with the 1953 Mille Miglia winning 340MM in the foreground.
Sergio Scaglietti responding to the crowd's applause as he presents an award to Andrew Pisker.

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Left: Simon Kidston greets Marie-Jeanne Bertone and her mother Lili, President of the Bertone Group, in their firm's FIAT based Barchetta.
Fabrizio Giugiaro in his latest creation: nothing is sacred (not even the steering wheel)...

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Left: Inspired by its Mille Miglia winning predecessor, BMW presented this stunning Mille Miglia Concept.
Right: Simon Kidston interviewing President BMW Group Designworks USA, Verena C. Kloos.