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The Villa d'Este Concours d'Elegance — Let's get intimate

Intimo- it's a word Italians use to describe intimacy and underwear, presumably both subjects about which warm hearted Latins are knowledgeable.

It's also a term one often hears used to describe Europe's most exclusive- and therefore intimate- concours d'elegance.

Set in beautiful parkland on the shores of Lake Como, near the Swiss-Italian border, the palatial Villa d'Este was built in 1568 for a cardinal, presumably one who had renounced any vows of poverty. After spells in the ownership of a Napoleonic general, a queen without a crown and a Russian empress, in 1873 it opened as one of Europe's most famous luxury hotels. The Roaring Twenties saw the emergence of the concours d'elegance as a social phenomenon which gave wealthy owners the opportunity to show off bespoke motorcars they had recently commissioned; the positive effect of such publicity was not lost on either the coachbuilders themselves or the venues which hosted these glittering events. It was in this context that Villa d'Este chose to hold its first concours in 1929, since when, initially at irregular intervals and since the mid-1990s on an annual basis, the Concorso di Eleganza Villa d'Este (it sounds so much better in Italian) has become the most exclusive get-together of its kind worldwide.

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Left: Brutal '55 ex-works Ferrari 410 Sport arrived from Ohio looking better than when it left the factory
Right: Stunning 1963 ATS 2500GT, one of a handful built, with just 1,300km (yes, 1,300) from new, flew in from US

With substantial backing from BMW Mobile Tradition (the Munich firm's classic division) and luxury watchmaker Girard Perregaux, Villa d'Este can afford to be the most glitzy car event in the calendar. Attendance is by invitation only (tickets are like gold dust and cost as much) and applications are vetted to ensure a predominance of private collectors, design gurus, lifestyle press and Loro Piana-clad jet set types. It's also unique as the only concours to uphold the tradition of showcasing the latest 'concept' cars, which adds a fascinating, forward looking dimension to the gathering: it's a novel experience to see prototypes which wow the crowds under spotlights and behind barriers at international motor shows actually being driven, the carefully raked gravel crunching under their tyres, the sun casting shadows on their curves and their engines revving (or humming in the case of the latest battery powered generation) as they glide past the watchful eyes of the guests sipping aperitivi at their tables just a few paces away. "It's posh" observed Britain's Daily Telegraph. "Pastel sweaters are draped rather than worn. This is the world of floppy haircuts, Cartier cigarettes and vivid-coloured slacks fighting for attention with the gleaming cars. Old men link arms and gaze at glinting chrome, while considerably younger women stroll behind, watching each other."

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Left: Want patina? How about a 13,000-mile-from-new Jaguar XKSS?
Right: Shown for the first time since the war, this one-off 1940 Alfa Romeo Tipo 256 Roadster by Pinin Farina won its class

The selection committee, headed by Swiss motoring historian Urs-Paul Ramseier, spends much of each year touring the globe in an effort to uncover interesting and 'fresh' entries for the concours. Highlights for 2008 included the sinister black 1938 Mercedes-Benz 540K Autobahnkurier which so nearly took Best of Show at Pebble Beach in 2006, a gargantuan 1932 Daimler Double Six saloon (a previous star at Pebble, and at 6 metres possibly the largest entrant to date), a recently discovered 1940 Alfa Romeo Tipo 256 roadster by Pinin Farina, and the famous yellow 1967 Ferrari Dino 206S Competizione show car which the Italian coachbuilder recently sold to US collector Jim Glickenhaus after more than four decades of ownership.

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Left: Sixties survivor: the one-off Dino prototype sold by Pininfarina after 40 years
Right: Fluorescent Lancia Stratos prototype poses for the photographers- it won its class

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Left: VIP panel includes the crème de la crème of the world's car design experts
Right: The judging style is more relaxed than other world-class concours

Judging these and almost fifty other 'world class' automobiles was an equally illustrious jury: ex-Pininfarina design director (now head of Fiat Group styling) Lorenzo Ramaciotti; Goodwood host Lord Charles March; Renault design boss Patrick le Quement; veteran US freelance designer (father of the Intermeccanica Italia and many more) Robert Cumberford; Californian 'car and surfin' dude' (his words, not mine) Winston Goodfellow; German historian and author Jurgen Lewandowski, and former GM designer Hideo Kodama from Japan. Together they award class honours and the most coveted trophy of the weekend, Best of Show, whilst guests vote for the Coppa d'Oro Villa d'Este and, Italy being a democracy these days, even the public (who for €10 each are allowed to see the cars on Sunday at the adjoining Villa Erba, used in the last 007 movie) get their say, voting for their favourite concept car.

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Left: The first of nine projected Zagato-bodied Bentley GTs
Right: Maserati Bellaggio looked very much at home on Lake Como

This modern prototype class included the Rinspeed sQuba, a Bond-inspired underwater Lotus, shown by the genial Frank Rinderknecht (who ducked questions about the usefulness of an underwater vehicle which required the occupants to don scuba outfits). The Maserati Bellaggio estate car, the latest offering from revitalized Italian coachbuilder Touring (now in Belgian ownership), and the Zagato bodied Bentley GTZ (based on the Continental GT) were examples of old school coachbuilding, production realities whose boundaries are defined by the stylist's imagination and the owner's pocketbook.

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Left: Shaped by the wind: the stunning, streamlined Mercedes 540K Autobahnkurier
Right: Owners Arturo and Deborah Keller receive the Coppa d'Oro from Girard Perregaux president Gino Macaluso (right)

Scooping the Coppa d'Oro was the streamlined Mercedes-Benz 540K Autobahnkurier, the only running example in the world and a favourite with public and press alike: the resulting scrum to get the best shot of the car and its owners, Arturo and Deborah Keller, was worthy of a rugby match. The FIVA prize for the best preserved entry went to Gary Bartlett's 1957 Jaguar XKSS, a 13,000 mile 'time warp' down to its 51 year old tyres. Taking Best of Show was Jack Croul's little blue 1949 Ferrari 166 berlinetta, returning to Italy for the first time in over half a century. With this very car, 22 year old Count Giannino Marzotto took outright victory against the odds in the grueling 1950 Mille Miglia round-Italy race: the young aristocrat's performance is equally memorable for his racing attire, which consisted of a blue double breasted suit and silk tie, not to promote his family's textile business but because the count did not wish to draw attention to himself should the car break down en route, obliging him to return home by train. In the prototype class, and perhaps unsurprisingly in view of its wide-ranging notoriety, the public chose the Hermes-trimmed Bugatti Veyron 'Faubourg', presumably targeted at oligarchs who consider German leather just isn't expensive enough.

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: Returning to its winning ways, the ex-Count Marzotto '49 Ferrari 166MM took Best of Show
Right: The author (and event presenter) congratulates the Prototype class winner, the new Bugatti 'Faubourg'- the motoring world's fastest (and most expensive) interior

Photo credits: our thanks to UltimateCarPage.com and gmx.de

Find additional information and photographs on this year's Villa d'Este Concours d'Elegance on UltimateCarPage.com.