Insights from the Villa d’Este Concours d’Elegance

This year’s Villa d’Este Concours d’Elegance again reaffirmed its position as my favorite automotive event. It begins with the location on the shores of Lake Como in northern Italy, which is one of the world’s most enchanting locations. The resort is on the shortlist of the world’s best, and the property has a history stretching back to the 16th century. The cuisine is superb, the resort staff attentive, the weather in late May absolutely marvelous.

One of the most enjoyable things about the concours is the organizers stay keenly focused on putting on the best event possible. In 2011 the field was quite tough and judging duties took longer than anticipated, so they brought in three new judges this year. One was Nick Mason of Pink Floyd and he was an absolute delight, especially when watching spectators line up after the show was over on Sunday to get his autograph. Nick couldn’t have been more courteous, and lets just say he has lots of fans!

Another old friend, a factory hot rod LP400 Countach. I owned this car more than 10 years ago when it was worth about 10% of what its value is today.

Another old friend, a factory hot rod LP400 Countach. I owned this car more than 10 years ago when it was worth about 10% of what its value is today.

What many exhibitors and spectators don’t grasp is the top flight shows judge in different ways. At Pebble, condition and authenticity rule most everything, where venues like Amelia Island are subjective, with elegance and personal taste determing the awards. Villa d’Este uses an interesting combination of condition, authenticity, history and elegance, and the judging is done in two phases. On Friday, Horst Bruning and his troops from FIVA pour over the cars, inspecting each entry and its documentation one at a time to make sure they are indeed authentic. It is a great spectacle, and attracts a number of onlookers.

Saturday morning Horst meets with us judges and tells us what they found. Sometimes it is nothing, sometimes it is severe—at least once a car from overseas did not make it out onto the conours field. After he is done, we confer further then head out onto the field to judge the elegance, presentation, and provenance.

But we also get into the authenticity. One year a Ferrari 166 MM berlinetta showed up with chrome wire wheels. I felt they should have been painted so I asked Paul Russell, one of the world’s best restorers who had done the car and was with the owner exhibiting it, if he could prove the wheels were finished that way (some owners prefer the look of chrome to paint, even though it is not period correct). Out came the presentation binder with historic photographs where there was no question the wheels were chromed, and that MM went on to win Best of Show.

My fellow judges include noted designers, a rock star, museum director, and titled royalty. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to believe that I am working with this wonderful group.

My fellow judges include noted designers, a rock star, museum director, and titled royalty. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to believe that I am working with this wonderful group.

This year’s field was the best yet, and a handful of the entries were close to my heart. The second Ferrari Daytona prototype was a car I tested years ago and really fell for, while the factory hot rod Lambo LP400 Countach I owned more than a decade ago. Quite stunning was one of my all time favorite Ferraris, a spectacular Zagato-bodied 250 GT that I have driven on a number of occasions.

The car that truly captivated all of us was an utterly fabulous two-tone 1933 Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 with gorgeous Figoni coachwork. It handily won Best of Show during our discussions, and took the two public “Best” votes as well.

What makes Villa d’Este the treasure of the event season is its size—just 50-60 cars. Many of the participants know each other, and any first time exhibitors are welcomed with open arms. This more intimate atmosphere gives the concours the air of a “gentleman’s competition,” where people are disappointed if they don’t win but very rarely go home upset or angry.

That comfortable size and most everything happening within a small geographic area means you can actually have lengthy conversations with exhibitors and fellow judges, and this year marked the first time I sensed an undercurrent of nervousness in the Europeans. A number spoke about the Continent’s continuing economic malaise, wondering over the longevity of the euro, and a potential division between the EU’s more prosperous and struggling states.

It will be fascinating to see what next year brings—both to the Villa d’Este Concours and Europe.

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