Villa d’Este 2018: Perfection by the Lake

Here’s something I’d never seen at Villa d’Este before, let alone in Italy—a Tesla. The sighting was a reflection of how electrification is spreading everywhere, including the top of the collector car world.

You know your favorite annual automotive event is going to be stellar when you pull up and see a Tesla parked, getting a bunch of luggage unloaded. Prior to this year, I’d never seen a Tesla within 100 miles of the Villa d’Este resort on the shores of northern Italy’s breathtaking Lago di Como.

Then, right around the corner was a bit of four-door madness from the fertile mind of Swiss GT constructor Peter Monteverdi. The 375/4 from the 1970s was his competitor to Iso’s Fidia, Maserati’s Quattroporte, De Tomaso’s Deauville and more, and had the same general mission statement as the Tesla—moving up to four people and their luggage in fast, comfortable bliss—only this one used a big-block Chrysler in place of a massive battery pack. The 375/4 was the first one I’d seen in person, resplendent in a lovely blue that was perfect for showing off the car’s size, clean lines, and rather unusual proportions where everything simply seems loooong.

In Full Swing

The view out back Villa d’Este overlooks Lake Como. It’s hard to imagine a better location for a concours d’elegance.

The fun didn’t stop there. No sooner had I walked through the Villa d’Este’s revolving front door and by the concierge desk, a prominent collector friend approached and said: “Did you hear that a GTO just sold for $70 million?”

In other words, Villa d’Este was already in full swing, and it wasn’t even lunchtime on Thursday. It would get better, for I was charged with leading the judging team on two tasty classes. The two were “Speed Meets Style: The Flowering of the Sports and Racing Car” (endurance racers of the 1950s and 60s) and “When Sex Was Safe and Racing Was Dangerous” (F1 racers through the 1980s).

This is on the earlier side Saturday morning, when the classes were being positioned. This Porsche 904 and Abarth 2000 Sport were in the “Speed Meets Style” class.

To my knowledge this was the first time F1 cars had been featured at any concours, and I was sweating bullets on the best way to judge the class. Villa d’Este uses a 50-point system that covers elegance, presentation and provenance, so how would that work on F1 cars? Thankfully my two fellow judges were amateur racer and former head of design at Porsche Harm Lagaaij and Ing. Mario Theissen, who headed BMW’s Formula 1 effort. Working together we came up with another 50-point system that took technological achievement, provenance (what did that particular chassis accomplish) and presentation into account to get the score..

When it Starts Getting Good

This one-of-two made Series 62 Cadillac with Ghia coachwork was made in 1953, and reportedly was owned by Rita Hayworth. Southern California’s Petersen Automotive Museum sent it over for the “Hollywood on the Lake” class that was won by the Lancia Stratos HF prototype.

Friday is when the action really starts, for the cars are put under the FIVA team microscope. This is where Villa d’Este differs from most shows, for in a way it has two judging teams—FIVA making sure things are indeed period correct, and that there is proper documentation to support the car’s provenance, and then us judges on Saturday following the aforementioned 50-point system.

Late that afternoon was a welcome and familiarization meeting, followed by a lovely cocktail party and dinner out by the lake. Several times throughout the day I typically wander through the multi-story garage where most of the cars are parked, simply to see what’s in there.

Saturday morning starts with a scrumptious (and extensive) breakfast buffet. Then I’m outside seeing the cars being positioned before heading off to the pre-show judges meeting, where FIVA briefs us on what they have found. Sometimes this includes telling us a car didn’t make the cut, and it won’t be on the field.

Not Your Typical Pininfarina

The biggest surprise at Villa d’Este was Pinin Farina’s lovely Jaguar XK120 SE from 1954. I’d seen pictures in books but never the actual car, and assumed it was long lost to time.

There was so much good stuff on the field this year that it would take another two or three blog entries to cover it all. But there’s always something you haven’t seen before, and this year it was the Pinin Farina Jaguar XK120 SE. After years of mashing my nose against photos of it in various Pininfarina books, I thought it was long gone, only there it was, looking resplendent and classically elegant in the typical Pininfarina way.

Other stars included Bertone’s fabulous one-off Stratos from 1970 that is so low the great coachbuilder reportedly drove it under the security gate when he went to present it to Lancia’s management, an Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale, a Ferrari 335 S, a superg (and largely unrestored) Lancia Astura Cabriolet, and an Abarth 2000 Sport SE from the late 1960s that has the most beautiful exhaust bark you could imagine.

Perhaps the machine that bit me the most was one of the most radical F1 machines ever, the wild and crazy 6-wheeled Tyrrell P34. The car met with moderate success in 1976-77, with a 1-2 finish at Sweden in 1976, and finishing third in the constructor’s championship that year. Besides the four wheels, what really struck me most was how small the car’s footprint is compared to today’s machinery.

The Winner Is…

When I first saw this Ferrari 335 S, I knew it would be a contender for Best of Show. But first it needed to win its class, which it did. It then did go on to take the big prize by a 6-4 vote over the radical Lancia Stratos.

It was a treat judging it and the other F1 machinery, getting up close to a number of cars I only saw from spectator stands. Did the Alfa’s 540 horsepower, 2991cc naturally aspirated V12 sound glorious, but the car that won the class was “The Professor” Alain Prost’s 1985 McLaren MP4/2B (chassis number 5) in which he had seven podium finishes, including four wins. Mention of Honor (basically second in class) went to a superb Maserati 250F.

When I saw the Ferrari 335 S pull onto the field, I knew it would be a serious contender for Best of Show if it won the class. The colors were spectacular, the shape marvelous, the presentation stupendous—and what a noise. It was indeed victorious, and the Mention of Honor was a close battle between a lovely Porsche 904 GTS with long-term ownership and Le Mans history, and a wonderful Ferrari 750 Monza (the Porsche won by a single point).

Best of Show

Probably my favorite car at Villa d’Este was the wild Tyrrell P34 “six wheeler.” Announcer Simon Kidston gives a good baseline for its size, for compared to today’s F1 machines the cars from the 1970s were considerably smaller.

Other class winners were a 1934 Bugatti Type 59 Grand Prix, a 1929 Rolls Phantom, a 1953 Ferrari 212 Export, a 1913 SCAT, and the aforementioned Lancia Stratos and Astura. Before Saturday night’s party at nearby Villa Erba, we narrowed it down to three cars at a judges’ meeting—the 335 S, Stratos and Astura—with a final vote happening the following day.

Sunday morning the show moves to Villa Erba so the public can also enjoy it. Like all the other judges I arrived early to spend time viewing the three final contenders, and we reconvened for the last deliberation. Chief judge Lorenzo Ramaciotti went around the table so each of us could summarize our thoughts, and end that with our vote. Renault’s former head of design Patrick le Quement started the proceedings with an eloquent design summary of the three contenders (moments like this are where I feel so blessed to be in that room), and then cast his vote.

I was near the end, and by then it was clear the two frontrunners were the Ferrari and the Stratos. I made an impassioned speech on how two decades earlier it was very likely an unrestored Alfa 8C2900 would have won Best of Show at Pebble if the owner hadn’t, at the last minute, switched his car to “exhibit only” (meaning he didn’t want it judged), and how, if that had happened, how much different the concours playing field would be today. I then spoke of leaning toward the Astura because of that and its overall elegance, and how to help me decide I had the owner show me the engine. What a disappointment that turned out to be; there was no real “drama” or “eye candy” to view, just a plain, smaller capacity engine in a large space.

Sealed the Deal

The Lancia Stratos prototype and the Ghia Cadillac had both driven over from Villa d’Este to Villa Erba Sunday morning without a hitch. But when it came time to leave, one of the Italian authorities stopped the two cars (and others) from departing Villa Erba because they couldn’t produce insurance papers. The crowd outside the Villa Erba grounds certainly enjoyed the impromptu display.

As much as I loved how the Stratos arrested one’s gaze, there were some angles from which it was anything but “elegant,” and told the room, for this reason, it was out for me. I then moved to the Ferrari, talked about the colors and singular purpose the machine had, how the shape represented that purpose and the car’s presentation. Even though I had judged it the day before, I wanted to see the engine one more time. That sealed the deal, for it was also beautiful—and purposeful.

In the end, after a lively and engaging debate, the Ferrari won over the Stratos six votes to four and took the “Trofeo BMW Group” (Best of Show by us judges). We were also very pleased to see the Alfa 33 Stradale win the public’s vote of Best of Show at both Villa d’Este and Villa Erba, showing how this audience “gets it.”

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