A glimpse at the most glamorous party of the year – The Concorso D’Eleganza Ville D’Este
Vintage cars and old-school movie glamour are backdropped against one of Italy’s most scenic lakeside locals for a car show to end all car shows.
The Concorso d’Eleganza held every year at the Grand Hotel Villa d’Este on the shores of Lake Como was first held in 1929. This year, it celebrated perhaps two of the 20th century’s most important socio-historic events – the arrival of the automobile and its relationship with the cinema. Eighty-nine years after the first Concorso was held, back when the movie industry was still in its infancy and the Great Depression was at its peak, the annual vintage automobile fete for 2018 once again cued up the glitz and glamour of the original with the 2018 iteration called, fittingly enough, “Hollywood on the Lake”.
Villa d’Este, built in 1568, was originally the summer residence of Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio, becoming a hotel in 1873. Since then it has always been a destination for the aristocrats of Europe partaking of the Grand Tour. In the 20th century, as today, it was where the famous and infamous gathered, many of them became so almost overnight by dint of their exploits on the silver screen. For this reason, the hotel, to insiders, became known as Hollywood on the Lake.
Classic and newfangled beauties
The 50 cars featured in the Concorso were divided into a variety of classes according to their style and purpose. Pioneering racing cars (“The Titans”) including venerable Alfa Romeos and Bugattis (including Marc Newson’s powder blue 1934 Bugatti 39; opulent automobiles (“From Manhattan to Mayfair”) of which surely none was more luxurious then the gold-plated 1929 Rolls-Royce Phantom seemingly touched by the hand of King Midas or the Ian Fleming character Auric Goldfinger himself; stunning Art Deco grand routières exemplified by the 18-foot long 1936 Lancia Astura Serie III or the beautiful Bugatti 57 Atalante, from the following year, named after the Amazon hunter from Greek mythology.
GT cars were in abundance with wonderful and exotic specimens from the great marques, Ferrari, Bentley, Jaguar and Aston Martin, from the pens of the great coachbuilders Mulliner, Vignale, Pinin Farina (which became Pininfarina only in the 1960s), and Scaglietti.
For the first time, too, Formula One was a featured class at the Concorso, designated with the risqué classification, ‘When Sex Was Safe and Racing Dangerous’. Here were single seaters, or
monoposti as they are known in Italy, which had been driven by those who hold a place in the Pantheon of Piloti: Moss, Schell, Behra, Musso, Villoresi, Fangio, Clark, Surtees, Bonnier, von Trips, Beltoise, Peterson, De Cesaris, Berger and Prost in an incomplete list.
Some of the most interesting cars though were in a class entitled, “80 Years of Automotive Archaeology”. Here were shown cars that have amazingly avoided the ravages of time without need of restoration. Foremost amongst these were the incredible 1913 SCAT (Socièta Ceirano Automobili Torino) which was in the family of its first owner for 104 years. Other worthy “relics” were the 1954 Fiat 8V still sporting its lustrous turquoise paintwork, and the cute 1958 Fiat 500 Spiaggia of which only two were made by coachbuilder Boano. One of these beach cars was owned by Aristotle Onassis, and one by Giovanni Agnelli, who used it in the world’s most expensive villa, La Leopolda in Villefranche-sur-Mer on the Côte d’Azur.
Stars of the silver screen
The original raison d’être of this Concorso d’Eleganza was to showcase the latest new cars and this still exists today with the Concept and Prototype class – Flavio Manzoni’s Ferrari SP38 Coupé drew lots of attention from one and all as one might expect in Italy, and Ferrari’s Head of Design told me he had created this one-off for a major international art collector who wanted his motor car to represent his life in art.
It was the “Stars of the Silver Screen” class though that truly encapsulated the day’s theme. The 1939 Delage D8-120, which I had last seen earlier in the year in India at the 21 Gun Salute International Vintage Car Rally, appeared in the 1951 movie, An American in Paris, with Gene Kelly behind the wheel. Another dancer/ actor, Rita Hayworth’s present from her ex-husband Prince Ali Salman Aga Khan (who was to die at the wheel of his Lancia Flaminia GT aged just 48) in 1953 was a similarly coloured Cadillac Series 62, the first car ever to feature twin headlights. Also a gift was the 1958 BMW 507 presented by Elvis Presley to his co-star, Ursula Andress in the 1963 film, Fun in
Acapulco. It was later purchased from the captivating actress by a king of another kind, George Barris, “King of Kustom”, who added its cool bumpers.
Fittingly parked next to Ursula Andress’ BMW was one of her co-star’s chariots. Apparently there were six Aston Martin DB5s used in the making of the early James Bond films, but only one of them, the one on display here, was driven by Sean Connery in GolDfingEr and Thunderball.
Also in this group of “film stars” was the jet-age looking Lancia Stratos Zero. Created by Nuccio Bertone, he, as legend has it, drove the wedge-shaped sled under the barrier at the factory gate when he delivered it to Lancia – at its highest point the car stands at just 33 inches (0.838 metres). It did not appear in film as its owner would not release it, but a replica was made especially to appear in Michael Jackson’s fantasy Moonwalker.
One of my favourites in this class and indeed the whole extravaganza was the gold 1965 Ferrari Superfast. This five-litre beauty capable of 174 mph (280 km/h) was the Earls Court Motor Show car and first owned by none other than Peter Sellers who is well known for his taste in beautiful women and beautiful motor cars. This was one of his most treasured, owned when he was at the height of his fame for comic genius and married to Britt Elkland.
Fantastic cars in a fantastic setting. Great fun was had by all, topped off by boat rides on classic Rivas, and a fancy dress ball, inspired by Casino Royale and Star
Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. Both were filmed in part at the enigmatic Villa Balbianello (built in 1787 and formerly the home of gentleman explorer Guido Monzino) and not a stone’s throw away along the water’s edge. A third film theme for the ball was Ocean’s Twelve which used Villa Erba, erstwhile home of film director Luchino Visconti, as the stand in for Nightfox’s villa in the movie. Let us not forget too, that the protagonist of the series, George Clooney who played Danny Ocean, also has his own villa close by on the shores of this, the most glamorous and deepest of all of Europe’s lakes.