By Wayne Batty
Seeing pictures of Aston Martin’s superbly restored Bulldog taking the Coppa d’Oro at this past weekend’s Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este prompted a bout of nostalgia as I recalled a trip to Lake Como made a decade ago.
As a young child, my father’s modest motoring book collection was all I wanted to read. The exploits of Fangio, the tragedy of 'Levegh' and the heroics of Moss and Jenkinson made bedtime reading a treat.
Now, filling my central vision, as if beamed forward through time from a 1950s Circuit de la Sarthe pit lane is an Aston Martin DBR1 and a D-type Jaguar. Seeing these cars in their hand-beaten metal for the first time is surreal – so beautiful, so raw, I could burst a spleen. But I’m getting way ahead of myself.
Whether it’s climbing Mount Everest or swimming with dolphins, most people have a bucket list of sorts. For car enthusiasts, going to Le Mans or attending the Goodwood Festival of Speed are absolute musts. Topping my own list was the annual concours that graces the banks of Lake Como in northern Italy. The Concorso Internazionale d’Eleganza dates back to 1929 when the top coachbuilders of the day exhibited their creations at the Villa d’Este. Abandoned for almost three decades, this most prestigious of car shows was revived in 1995 and has blossomed under the patronage of BMW since 1999.
Munich in the Rear View Mirror
Pointing the sat-nav towards Como, I head out of Garching, Munich on the A96 towards Memmingen. A few hours and many Swiss towns later, I cross over into Italy near Chiaso before making my way into Cernobbio and the welcome site of the Grand Hotel di Como. I’m so busy negotiating the concrete barriers of the basement garage that I nearly crash into the BMW Turbo concept from 1972 – a priceless one-off in burnt burgundy with just its ends dipped in Day-Glo orange. It is spectacular and still so significant.
Sunrise in Como
It’s 7.20am on Sunday. I turn down the hotel room’s suggestion of a ‘mini-jog’ around the lake and opt for a gentle stroll to the entrance gates of the Villa Erba. A red carpet leads towards an open hall celebrating 40 years of BMW motorsport. Front and centre is the sinister scowl of an all-carbon DTM car, flanked by an E30 DTM racer and the 2010 M3 GT2 that won at Nürburgring that year. Behind all of them is the McLaren F1 GTR driven by Laffite, Soper and Duez at Le Mans in 1996.
Yet more red carpet leads outside, ending only where lush green grass begins. Maples, like friendly sentinels, stand guard providing shade and leafy serenity. A bandstand awaits its musicians. I have half an hour before the public is allowed in and I plan to make good use of it.
Fascinating as many of them are, the motorcycles off to the left can wait, ditto the 25 bubble cars. I’m far more interested in the impromptu Zagato display unfolding before my eyes. A DB7 and a Bentley GTZ are split by the Milanese firm’s collaborative one-off creation, the BMW Zagato Coupe. This Italian Beemer is a rebodied Z4 packed with every traditional Zagato design cue. Double-bubble roof, sharp shoulder lines, seriously kicked-up rear haunches, typical side vent detailing and glassy Kamm tail. It’s a convincing Zagato but seems far too Italian for a German car.
The famed Lago di Como beckons and I’m pulled towards it and the automotive crown jewels that line its banks. A row of Ferraris including a 250 California, 250 LM, Daytona, 400 Superamerica and an unmissable 250 Gran Turismo Omoligato. It’s not just the incredible style and raw emotion these cars project, but also the pristine condition they’re in that boggles my mind. It’s as though they left the factory that very morning.
As my eyes caress the curves of the Aston Martin DBR1 my ears listen in on the conversations of fellow admirers.
‘Yesterday it was a bit The King's Speech but it sounds on form today,’ offers an elegantly attired man, old enough to have been at Le Mans back in 1959 when this very car finished second behind Caroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori in the sister Aston.
Just then a Porsche 917/K in quintessential Gulf livery cuts through the trees, skirts the Ferraris and parks up alongside a pair of Lamborghinis. A distinguished looking gentleman complete with houndstooth driver’s cap clambers out. After hanging a ‘Ferrari driver’s view’ sign from the rear spoiler, he seems unsure about where to stash his kit bag, eventually settling on a seat in the cockpit. ‘I don’t suppose there’s much luggage space in that’, I venture.
‘Actually the rules at the time stipulated that provision be made for luggage, replies quaint cap man, pointing out two storage areas aft of the rear wheels. ‘But things tend to get rather hot in there.’
He introduces himself as Mark Finburgh and begins to tell me about the car, which it turns out was No.21 in the famous Le Mans film and that it spends its winters in Stavelot, Belgium. Great, except the fanatical neighbourhood noise regulations means it only gets onto the track two or three times a year. He goes on to recount a few choice stories: ‘A guy came up to me once and said, “I remember that car, my dad drove me around in it.” Oh and who’s your dad?’ “Steve McQueen!”’
Brilliant. Smiling broadly I say farewell and head on over to where the concept cars are gathered on the gravel driveway in front of the Villa Erba.
Just as with the classics, the Italian coachbuilders are out in force, displaying several concepts. Apart from Zagato’s BMW, Giugiaro’s ItalDesign has entered the Brivido, a gull-winged four-seater full of sumptuous, techy luxury. Bertone and Pininfarina are here too, though their cars – Jaguar B99 and Cambiano, respectively – are sadly hidden beneath a tree away from the Villa. Stuck between those two is Alfa’s glorious 4C concept.
As a way of promoting the event, organisers have opened up the vast expanses of the Villa Erba to the public. Given the reasonable €14 entrance fee, around 6,000 people are expected. While certainly less hoity-toity than the Villa d’Este, among the casually clad crowd are a number of couples dressed as if they’re off to the opera. The atmosphere is laid back with the band now providing suitably forgettable background music for the exhibitors to fall asleep to as they recline in the event’s distinctive red deck chairs.
It’s much busier now, but still nothing like the mad scramble of a Frankfurt motor show.
Time and the open-air ambience grants this place a rhythm and an elegance all its own. I spot a father and two young boys standing alongside a Miura SV/J, passionately schooling them on this most beautiful of Lamborghinis. It’s also great to see loads of parents pushing prams, but I’m saddened by the lack of teenagers in the crowd – a missing generation perhaps too digitally distracted to care?
I in turn distract myself with a few more of the delights on offer. The sublime bodywork of Albrecht von Goertz’s BMW 507, the interior of Merc’s 300 SL and the exquisitely chromed exhaust detailing of a supercharged 1937 Cord 812 are indelibly etched into my cerebrum. Equally unforgettable is Alfa’s 6C 1750 GS from 1933 that wins both the public’s Coppa d’Oro Villa d’Este and the judges’ Best in Show.
A Grand Parade
Skipping the earlier categories, I join the crowds gathered at the grandstand. They erupt in enthusiastic applause as a 1956 Ferrari 250 GT Zagato ambles onto a tyre-track soiled red carpet and is paraded before the judging panel.
Announcer Simon Kidston swaps his ‘Oxbridge’ English for Italian that is as silky as the twelve-cylinder Ferrari 250 GT Spyder California currently gliding into view. It is driven by Andrew and Belinda Pisker, looking about as elegant as is humanly possible when holding an iPad above your head.
Kidston says the Ferrari 400 Superamerica due next has come all the way from New York City, a long journey rewarded with victory in the romantically titled La Dolce Vita class. Lamborghini test driver Valentino Balboni tears up the carpet, revving the V12 like a school kid. His explosive entrance is greeted with massive applause befitting of a rock star. But then this is Italy and he is piloting the Miura.
The much anticipated Heroes of Le Mans cars are up next and the D-type Jaguar is introduced as ‘one of the most important English racing cars ever’. but it’s the DBR1 that wins the class. Juror and former Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason concedes the Aston is one of the few cars he would still like to own.
Then it’s the turn of the 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO and Kidston asks Mason: ‘What makes the GTO so special?’
‘It’s undoubtedly the greatest all-rounder. You can win Le Mans with it one week and take it on a picnic the next.’ Mason should know, he owns one.
Kidston: ‘Have you ever made a better investment?’
‘Absolutely not. Buying the GTO makes me look very clever.’
A Ferrari 250 LM, followed by a 1968 Ford GT40 Mk3 and the Finburgh’s Porsche 917 complete the Heroes of Le Mans line-up. Out from under the trees, Alfa’s 4C gets everyone’s approval, easily winning the public vote for best contemporary concept car. BMW’s 40-year-old Turbo concept ends the classic parade.
The amble back to the hotel allows time for a little contemplation. My Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este box has been comprehensively ticked, but I’d return in a flash.
By Wayne Batty