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2019-06-04 08:00:00
by Christopher Butt
(comments: 0)

Villa d'Este 2019: All Cars Are The Same

Elegance mingling with decadence can have the most astounding side effects.



An occasion like the annual Concorso d’Eleganza at the obscenely picturesque Villa d’Este grand hotel by Lake Como usually invites strong reactions, ranging from adulation to vitriol, immense desire to downright hatred. After all, this is the kind of occasion to which neither the prosaic nor the mundane tend to get an invitation. Villa d’Este is very much about exclusivity, with all that entails.

The event’s master of ceremonies, Simon Kidston, in more than one way encapsulates the extreme nature of Villa d’Este, too - he is rather well-off (this year, he used his black Lamborghini Miura to commute to Lago di Como), filthily suave (insofar as he is among the few people who can make the impeccably dressed Stefan Winkelmann appear as though he is trying a bit too hard) and astoundingly cosmopolitan (as no European language seems to challenge him, either in terms of grammar or pronunciation). 

To people who do not drive around in Lamborghini Miuras, are shorter than 1.90 metres, have no bespoke suit in their closet and struggle with the finer aspects of even their mother tongue, Simon Kidston can be rather hard to take. As is a celebration of incredibly rare, incredibly expensive and (mostly) incredibly beautiful cars - courtesy of the very rich, showing off their prized possessions in one of the prettiest spots this planet of ours has to offer, where a cappuccino and a sandwich cost as much as a three-course lunch in more mundane surroundings. 



Casting any such preconceptions aside though, the Villa d’Este estate unquestionably makes for a Stendhal syndrome inducing environment. The lake by its side not only reflects either the sunlight or the surrounding mountains in the most romantic of manners, but the architecture of the renaissance buildings scattered across the premises in turn reflects the water’s beauty through man-made means. So it does take more than a few vulgar millionaires and billionaires to spoil this kind of ethereal genius loci. Which, incidentally, is also why a large, dark hall - even one designed by Herzog & de Meuron - could never hope to be a truly appropriate setting for motoring’s most lavish offspring. 

The staff of the hotel certainly add to the flair of the proceedings, being attentive, prompt and courteous at all times, even to those in attendance that do not splash out on one of those cappuccini, or the Cohiba cigars that are to Villa d’Este what Perrier-Jouët champagne is to the regular luxury car launch party. On a day that must be hell on Earth to them.

Similarly hospitable, in entirely different fashion, is aforementioned Mr Simon Kidston, who made up for the ongoing waterfall-like precipitation during the climactic parade of cars by remaining seemingly effortlessly entertaining for hours on end. Some people, it would appear, are simply born this smooth. 



Even before the heavens had opened their floodgates, another, utterly unexpected aspect of the Villa d’Este experience could be observed though. For all the luxury, beauty and money results in an astonishing side effect: Villa d’Este, almost disturbingly, turns out to be a great leveller. For all that exclusivity creates a microcosm environment in which sheiks, equity investors and plutocrats are all vying for the same, in almost schoolboy-like fashion: attention. 

If one was to approach some of the owners of the cars on show at Villa d’Este under different circumstances, a handful of security guards would lunge at you before ‘hello’. But in one of the world’s most beautiful spots, surrounded by some of the the prettiest automobiles ever created, all the money in the world doesn’t matter anymore. It may have opened the gates in the first place, but beyond the entry’s plaque, everybody - or every car owner - becomes the same. Even Italian collector extraordinaire, Corrado Lopresto, who appears almost as though he owns the place, would have to contend with returning home empty-handed (figuratively speaking), after the prizes for the 2019 Concorso d’Eleganza had been handed out. 

Lending this vanity fair some kind of factual grounding is, of course, the task at the hands of the jury, which mostly consists of household names of the car design and vintage car scene. The likes of its president, Lorenzo Ramaciotti (ex-Pininfarina/FCA chief designer), in conjunction with fellow former chief designers Ian Cameron, Harm Lagaaij and Patrick le Quément - alongside an assortment of automotive journalists, historians and some celebrity enthusiasts -, are the true authorities here, the people whose verdict is really what matters to those who want their car, even more so than themselves, to be seen. And respected. 



If this class of Very-Very-HNWI consists of human beings after all, the question of whether the automobiles on show at Villa d’Este can still be described as cars looms large. 

Despite the essence of the Concorso d’Eleganza being historic in nature, some modern machinery is also in attendance, either due to corporate sponsorship (Rolls-Royce’s current range, as well as assorted BMWs - pardon: Bayerische Motoren Werkes) or thanks to exceeding exclusivity - hence the presence of Bugatti’s Le Bête/La Voiture Noir(e) and, for a bit of comic relief, Ares’ Panther ProgettoUno, whose overall flack of sophistication is almost endearing in the context of Villa d’Este’s Stendhal-induced flair.



Not part of the actual Concorso, yet not contemporary either is BMW’s star car for this year’s show, the Bertone Garmisch, a Marcello Gandini-designed show car from 1970, which went AWOL after its Geneva debut and has now been painstakingly recreated (on the basis of a BMW 2002, like the original) to celebrate both BMW’s design heritage and Gandini’s 80th anniversary. 

As tributes go, the Garmisch is a very dignified affair. In terms of craftsmanship, it is most likely to be leagues ahead of its Grugliasco-built progenitor (an effect of modern technologies, rather than deficits on the part of Bertone’s craftsmen), while its striking, clean graphics teach modern car design a lesson or two. The interior achieves something similar - its minimalist, Gio Ponti-like door card design alone certainly appears more striking, modern and luxurious than all the stitching of any luxury coupé on the market right now combined. And in spite of its earthbound materials, it even beats having meteorite powder incorporated in one’s dashboard. 

While no meteor strikes Cernobbio on this last weekend in May 2019, the appearance of Marcello Gandini himself - despite having been announced beforehand - is something to be relished, as he and the other immensely influential car designers of his generation will not be around forever. In that context, the Garmisch acts as more appropriate a gesture of respect to Gandini’s work and BMW’s own legacy than any Homage concept car could ever have. 



Similarly triumphant is the overall winner of the Concorso d’Eleganza, the astoundingly pretty Alfa Romeo 8C 2900G. This sublimely elegant Touring design from 1937 wins the Coppa d’Oro, as well as the Trofeo BMW Group, and deservedly so. Its beauty may be of the kind that needs no explanation, but sometimes, things truly are just as simple. The Alfa’s elegantly dignified silhouette, as well as the beguiling craftsmanship of its very dark blue & silver bodywork, truly speak for themselves. 



Most interesting among the classes of cars presented is ‘Small and perfectly formed: The Coachbuilder’s Art in Miniature’, which features small coachbuilt designs, such as the intriguingly modernist (by the standards of 1953) Abarth 205 Sport 1100 or the endearingly peculiar Austin Seven 850 Beach Car (the Torquay take on the Fiat-based beach mobiles preferred by the mediterranean jet set from Capri to Nice). Then there is the standout among the rather unimaginatively named ‘Swinging Sixties’ category, the Aston Martin DBS C. This was Carrozzeria Touring’s proposal for a successor to the Aston DB6, originally unveiled in 1966 and immediately rejected by Aston’s management, who believed in-house designer, William Towns, could do a better job. Which is what he did, and yet this peculiar alternate DBS - considered lost for years, just like the Garmisch, but unearthed a while ago and since restored - constitutes a fascinating piece of car design history, for all its obvious flaws and awkwardness. 



There is also a collection of groundbreaking concept cars of yore to be inspected, most outlandish of which is the Gyro-X, an Alex Tremulis-designed, two-wheeled, gyroscopically-stabilized prototype. However, in keeping with the overall theme of exceptional equality, two legendary concept cars that need no introduction - the Bertone Marzal and Pininfarina’s Modulo - at the same time depict how easily the unique can be put into sharp relief. For next to the diligently restored Marzal, which looks as though it has just been parked by Prince Rainier after a blast along the Monte Carlo F1 racetrack, the Modulo’s relatively recent transformation from static show car into running, possibly even street legal (if its New York plates are to be trusted) vehicle has left a few unsightly marks. Certainly neither the rear view mirrors, nor its uneven, big block V8-aping soundtrack seem appropriate for Paolo Martin’s design for a future that never was. 



As all cars at Villa d’Este are more equal than others (just like the owners), St Peter clearly wants to prove that the world’s finest cars can get wet just any other - or even more so. Thus, as the clouds above Lago di Como started to unload tons of precipitation - and MC Kidston ensured that the show did go on, after all - no car is spared the kind of wet treatment some of them may never have experienced before. No matter if pre- or post-war, production or concept car, roadster or fixed head coupé: all these automotive valuables have to endure the kind of weather that Villa d’Este appeared to be immune to just hours ago. To the rain, absolutely everyone and everything is the same.



After this in many ways special Saturday, the by then dried cars make their way towards nearby Villa Erba, to be seen and worshipped on much larger premises on Sunday, by far more people, as the price of entry is considerably more reasonable than on the far more exclusive Saturday event. Cappuccino turns out to be considerably cheaper there too. Children are around. It does not rain. 



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Christopher Butt


car enthusiast, writer, critic

biased, elitist, German 

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