La dolce vita
Celebrating pomp, ceremony and facelifts (in more ways than one), the world’s most glamorous classic car show, Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, transforms the shores of Lake Como into an automotive wonderland
Lorenzo Ramaciotti, chief designer at famed Italian coachbuilder Pininfarina for 33 years and lead jury member, pores over the details of the 1930 Duesenberg J Convertible Berline’s 6.9-litre inline-eight engine. Brought to this ultraglamorous setting by Ion Tiriac, erstwhile Romanian tennis pro and Boris Becker’s former manager, the cream-coloured luxury drop-top glistens in the sweltering sunlight on Saturday, day two of Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este next to Italy’s Lake Como. Once owned by prolific American actor Tyrone Power, this Berline is one of only 481 Model Js built. The jury members accompanying Ramaciotti (there are 12 in total and they’re decked out in striking pastel-hued fabrics, wide-brim hats and oversized shades) appear to like the Duesenberg, taking notes, shining a flashlight into the depths of the gargantuan engine bay and cracking the occasional wry smile.
“The stately grounds of Villa d’Este on the shores of Italy’s Lake Como play fitting host to the Concorso each year.”
The following day, the Berline would win the trophy for best car in its class but not the main prize. That honour belongs to a 1957 Alfa Romeo Giulietta SS Prototipo, the understated but gorgeous result of a partnership between Alfa and Bertone. Striking a stylish pose next to the delicate SS is Giovanna Scaglione, the daughter of Bertone’s chief designer at the time, Franco Scaglione (regarded by many in the industry as one of the all-time masters of automotive styling). The jury appreciates the part the Giulietta’s played in the origin of the production Sprint Speciale. Saturday is the most crucial day at Concorso. The jury assesses all the cars across eight classes that delineate them according to style, era and size, such as Class G, “Little Toys for Big Boys” – the one in which the Alfa features. Concorso also hosts some of the world’s most famed car collectors. Some haven’t brought their wares here this year – only 52 classic cars are entered – but deals are clinched over decadent lunches washed down with champagne inside the centuries-old Renaissance Villa d’Este – and sometimes in the parking lot, which unintentionally morphs into a classic car show of its own, considering how many visitors drive their wonderful vintage vehicles to the event.
UNDER THE HAMMER
For the gambling men and women, RM Sotheby’s auction on the Saturday late afternoon is hosted at Villa Erba next door (although “next” – considering the villas’ extensive grounds – is a distinct misnomer). There’s an excited energy in the air. Will the fabulously named 1928 Mercedes-Benz 680 S Torpedo-Sport Avant-Garde by Saoutchik hit its estimate of €8 million (about R121 million) and how will bidders react to the dusty, grubby – it’s still covered in the factory-applied, protective cosmoline – 1993 Porsche 911 Carrera RSR 3.8 with a mere 10km on the clock? To rapturous applause from the now well-lubricated crowd, the Benz ultimately sells for a relatively disappointing €5.05 million (about R75.7 million), despite its undoubted pedigree. A few minutes later, a group of three elderly women giggle as one repeatedly bids on an astonishingly pretty 1948 Talbot-Lago T26 Grand Sport Cabriolet by Franay. It sells for more than a million (about R15 million), but to a man with a stomach as well fed as his bank account. The women seem unfazed and sip more champagne. The 24-year-old Porsche? The gavel falls at €2.016 million (about R30 million), proving that not all expensive classic cars are old ones.
Back at Villa d’Este, as Riva speedboats flit the tanned guests between d’Este and various villas of their own, the distinctive one-cylinder beat emanating from a petite racing car has everyone doing a double take. There are some valiant attempts all round at pronouncing the little vehicle’s name – Lurani Nibbio – but it’s late in the afternoon and the sun, seared salmon and champagne have taken their toll. The Lurani’s owner, 20-something Federico Göttsche Bebert, tells me the vehicle was fashioned by the eighth count of Calvenzano, Federico’s grandfather Giovanni Lurani Cernuschi, a man with a prodigious appetite for life (and cars). In 1935, the count and the Nibbio set four world records – including being the first automobile with a half-litre engine to pass 160km/h. Four years later, after coachbuilder Carrozzeria Riva optimised the aerodynamics, it nabbed another eight. And then six more in 1947. Remember that Best of Show by Public Referendum prize I mentioned earlier? Federico happily accepts it on behalf of the Nibbio hours later.
Futuristic cars were also featured, such as this 2016 Renault Trezor above; the crowds were as glamorous as the cars – in this case, a 1955 Lancia Aurelia B24 Spider;
Period dress was all the rage, as demonstrated here by Luca Bertolero, the owner of a 1960 Abarth 1000 Bialbero Record; winner of the Best of Show by Public Referendum.
The 1935 Lurani Nibbio, and its owner, Federico Göttsche Bebert; two classics that had the crowds lining up for a peek, a 1958 Maserati 300S
TURNING UP THE CHARM
Like any beauty pageant, not every entrant is classically beautiful; rather, striking features are integral to their charm. At least, that’s what I prefer to think when I first lay eyes on the 1946 Fiat 1100. Goggle-eyed like the most pedigreed pug, the minute Italian roadster elicits gasps from the show-goers. Owner David Word from the US is all too happy to share its story. This exact vehicle – a one-off – took part in the 1947 Concorso, where it placed second in its class. It doesn’t enjoy the same success this year but it’s certainly the vehicle that has everyone smiling. There are other notable participants, of course. Some because of their colour – honour goes to the pea-green, or Verde Germoglio, 1976 Ferrari 365 GT/4 Berlinetta Boxer – others because of their size, such as the 1952 Osca MT4 that looks like it could fit on the rear seat of the Duesenberg. Some simply because they’re lovely to look at like the 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing, which recently underwent a painstakingly detailed restoration, complete with leather-trimmed luggage that perfectly fits the snug cabin. My favourite, though? A 1938 Mercedes-Benz 540 K Cabriolet A. To hear the rumble of the inline-eight echo across the manicured lawns as the jury scrutinises the engine bay leaves a strong impression.
Credits: Photo: Supplied, Text: Terence Steenkamp