Villa d'Este

Few events celebrate automotive perfection in quite the same way as this Concorso d'Eleganza. Motor Sport was there
Words: Richard Heseltine. Photography: Ian Fraser

Don't mention the war, mention BMW." Manfred Grunert flashes enamel, laughter lines framing his marvellously malleable physiog. Warming to his homespun line of corporate slogans, and needing little in the way of encouragement, the newly appointed head of BMW Mobile Tradition continues unabashed; the look of mild bemusement registered among his British audience (all four of us) sends him into convulsions. He likes a laugh, does our Manfred. But having spent a weekend mingling with the moneyed as a representative of the Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este patron, and tending to the whims of overheated and underdressed hacks, it's probably the exhaustion talking. It's been a long two days.

This is the big one for Bayerische Motoren Werke, principal backer behind the überconcours that, to many movers and shakers in the old car world, appears all set to usurp Pebble Beach as the premier event for owners of top-flight classics. A viewpoint that is entirely explicable on stepping off the motor launch and onto the promenade of the Grand Hotel. As backdrops go, somehow a fogbound golf course doesn't hold quite the same allure as a 15th century palace and Lake Como.

The original Coppa d'Oro di Villa d'Este (also known as the Coppa d'Oro Principessa di Piemonte) was held annually from 1929 to '37 (except for '36) and twice after WW2 (1947 and '49). Intended to showcase the good and the great of Italian coachbuilding artistry to an informed — and select — audience, it achieved this and more, manufacturers using the event as a customer clinic to prophesise future design trends. A situation that continues, the reborn concours showcasing a dazzling mix of concept cars and the rarest of elderly exotica.

Impeccably manicured Bugattis. Supermodels. Chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce Phantoms. Rivas and ragtime bands. Somehow you sense that the Socialist Worker has yet to find a foothold here. Blinking into the sun, it's hard to take it all in. The big draw is a vivid red sports-racer. Surrounded by linen suits (rolled-up sleeves are back, apparently) and café latte tans, the hunkered down outline appears to be a medley of Ferrari's greatest styling hits, but it's nothing of the sort. The wonderfully monikered Serenissima Jet Competizione is making its post-restoration debut, 40 years on since its last public appearance.

Count Giovanni Volpi di Misurata's 1965 Le Mans 24 Hours entry has led a compelling life, this long-forgotten coupé barely a footnote in motorsport history without its one minor claim to fame: the engine from this car powered Bruce McLaren's eponymous M2B to sixth in the '66 British GP, scoring the team's first World Championship point. Edward Jelinek, showing the car on behalf of its Swiss owner, is busy talking himself hoarse and enjoying every minute: "It's such a beautiful car. What I really love about the Serenissima more than anything is that it hasn't been over-restored. The paint is original, just buffed up and polished. Look closely and you'll see chips. For me this is how a car should be done." With shades of Jaguar's 'diamond nosecone' folly of 2004, the bonnet mascot sunk into the car's nose is a gold medallion "by Johnny Bugatti". Which would explain why so many onlookers are ignoring the rest of the car. Any chance of it returning trackside? "I don't think so." Shame. Fired up for the judging panel, the MC can't resist holding his microphone to the exhaust pipes. Somewhere in the distance, a waiter drops his silver platter.

Others plainly don't keep to the 'less is more' approach to restoration. A nearby Ferrari owner is busy berating his regiment of dust wipers. His car is breathtaking. Perfect. Until it's driven before the crowd, puffs of smoke out back lending the impression that its valve guides need attention. Doesn't get driven much, then?

The man opposite almost apologises for his car's better-than-new state. Christian Hartmann's 1954 Swallow Doretti is one of two ex-works racers (later driven by Phil Hill on the US west coast in period), complete with decidedly strange Jaguar XKSS-like nose. "It's how it appeared back then but maybe a bit too shiny," muses the Swiss. "I'm planning on doing a few hillclimbs with the car though, so it probably won't look this good again." We like his approach.

By early afternoon of Saturday the mercury is rising and the judging panel takes cover under an awning as man-on-the-mike Simon Kidson ushers each entrant before them. And it's another opportunity to admire sartorial bravery. Some drivers are dolled up in period garb, the Beverly Hills contingent in baseball caps. Oh how we scoffed, until applying after-sun lotion to reddened pates hours later.

Sunday, and the public is welcome. The cars have been moved overnight to the nearby Villa Erbe to be joined by older concepts from the Pininfarina and Bertone factory collections. Massive plane trees dominate the sculptured gardens, punctuating the peaks and troughs of a hilly skyline. As waves lap against the shore, any sense of life-doesn't-get-any-better-than-this romance is exorcised by the vision of a fat bloke in his undercrackers meandering past on a raft as the strains of Mud's 'Tiger Feet' seep out of the PA system. Trippy.

The atmosphere is much more relaxed than yesterday, BMW taking a more overt presence with its Rolls-Royce brand. But upstaging even the new 101EX is an Eastern Bloc super coupé. As marque revivals go, the re-emergence of Russo-Baltique isn't likely to resonate with anyone caught short of a Georgano Encyclopaedia of the Automobile, the original firm having died off before the Russian Revolution. Powered by a twin-turbocharged Mercedes-Benz V12 engine, and costing around €550,000, only 10 of the new Impression model will be made. Which makes the Bizzarrini GTS, relaunched at the show at 50k less, almost a bargain. Nothing to do with old man Giotto this time, though, the new strain featuring Mecachrome V8 power that reputedly redlines at around 10,000rpm.

The efforts 'private' competitors make just to have their cars here are staggering, one Californian Ferrari type paying $26,000 in transportation costs alone. Others take a more direct route, hero of the event André Binda piloting his 1972 Maserati Boomerang show car all the way from Nice, the ankle-high projectile proving "a problem at toll booths." So what's the draw? "It's by invitation only," says barrister Tony Badenoch, who won the long-distance award for driving his 1974 BMW 3.0CSL from London. "If you get asked you can hardly say no, can you?"

The Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este is unashamedly highbrow, with a level of blue-chip corporate involvement that actually complements proceedings rather than detracting from it. A cloistered little world it may be, but this event should be near the top of every car lover's 'must-experience-one-day' list, even if only on a peripheral level. Just be sure not to pack any lefty, pinko tendencies. You won't be needing them.