It seems the same every year. That routine, however, is anything but boring. It is wonderful. Just like the greatest traditions (and now please imagine what comes first to your mind, beginning with Christmas and ending with your own birthday). A great feast, at least for those whose hearts beat faster when confronted with beauty so overwhelming that it is almost impossible to bear. So much better than that plastic bag dancing in the wind in American Beauty. It is the last weekend of May, the weekend of the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa D’Este, the most prestigious vintage car competition on the Planet.
The shores of lake Como are one of the most beautiful places in the entire World. Films like 'Ocean's Twelve' and 'Star Wars' have been shot here. But in May the cars are the stars.
One word from the narrator (that’s me). I have been coming to this competition for seven years now. And it has been organized in its present form and shape for 21 years. Its origins date back to 1929 with a ‘brief’ interval (66 years) after World War 2, when the economy altered, for decades to come, all ambitions and plans of the rich, the well-off and those, who it seemed just an instant ago could have lived an idle, carefree and beautiful life. 7 years seem brief looking from such a perspective. However, thanks to the sponsor, the BMW Group, I may submerge myself in an atmosphere of nostalgia impossible to experience in Poland and participate in a celebration of automobile beauty and that of the world, which had existed much earlier than I was allowed to enter it.
Each year I am also obliged by my profession of journalist to write about the Concorso for some publication. However, how is it possible to write something fresh and new while all that comes to mind are the same old words…? Sentimental words filled with exaltation and delight. Words, which fail to describe the indescribable. The combination of one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, the banks of Lake Como - the set of many film productions e.g. Casino Royale, Ocean’s 12 and… Star Wars Attack of the Clones - with one of the most luxurious hotels on this planet - Villa D'Este, an ancient palace of Caroline Brunswick, the future Queen and wife of King George of England - and the rarest, most beautiful automobiles ever made.
I usually write about the mist descending from the mountains around the lake and floating over the water in the wee hours of the morning that later gives way to the burning sun. About the whispering rustle of tablecloths, the chiming of cutlery and the hissing of shining, chrome espresso machines, waiters in crisp white liveries preparing the white gravelled hotel grounds for the reception of guests from all over the world. I describe the wooden Riva motorboats floating on the ice-cold waters of the 410- metre-deep lake. And hydroplanes emerging from the hangar of the Como aero club, which later on cross the skies in a rush to take care of their owners’ affairs. I write about Pommery champagne, which in such heat seems to disappear down thirsty throats faster than water. About the elegance of the guests, the essence of which has found its home here and not anywhere else in the world (which does not exclude some inevitable fashion flops). About pretty double-breasted jackets, no “construction” in sight, made of the most delicate Italian wool or linen. About Panama hats shading faces hidden behind sunglasses. About watches shining under the shirt cuffs, - Lange & Sohne, F.P Journe, Patek Philipe, Audemars Piguet, Chopard, Cartier, time determining instruments worth more than a small flat in Warsaw where I normally live.
Mr and Mrs. D'Ieteren come from a family of carriage and coach builders. Now the family owns several business in Belgium and The Netherlands and a collection of absolutely unique cars.
And lastly I write about cars. Made by companies which disappeared a long time ago, such as Isotta Fraschini, Talbo Lago, Delage, Delahaye, Cord, Pegaso, Bizzarini, Facel Vega, Giaur, Moretti, Cisitalia, Avions Voisin etc. About the coachbuilders (in the period between the two Great Wars, if one was well-off enough, one could order a custom-made extravagant body for one’s car), about design or aerodynamics research geniuses. Vignale, Castagna, Touring, Ghia, Saoutchik, Figoni&Falaschi, etc. About famous owners and fascinating stories about the cars themselves. Cars found in barns or boxed in a cellar in Rome. For example, I adore the story of that one Rolls Royce equipped with a special compartment for its owner’s (a British colonel stationed in India) leg, bitten off by a tiger. New stories every year, different automobiles and different models. It is a fact that a car which has been displayed at the Villa D’Este once may not join the competition for a second time.And yet there are new and exceptional vehicles that join the competition every year. This year, it is a mere example, one of 14 existing Bugatti 57 S.C. Atalantes with an inline 8-cylinder 3257 cc supercharged engine powered by a compressor. Just imagine: it is 1937 and you have been queuing up for an hour for a loaf of bread, you get on your wagon. The horse does not seem to wish to pull today. It must be the weather… when suddenly… on one of the routes départementales connecting the town and your humble farm a Batmobile-like Bugatti like that overtakes you at a speed of 180 km/h. What a shock!
Speed is not everything, however. An exceptional Rolls Royce Silver Cloud I immediately attracts the eye. Bodied by Freestone & Webb, with flared, concave side panels and tail fins to rival any Cadillac. Next to it an amazing and unique prototype Bentley T Speciale, coach-built by Pininfarina, which later inspired the shape of the Rolls Royce Camargue. Angular, beautiful, awkward and imposing. “Unusual” in an Italian way or perhaps even “sloppy” with those Opel Admiral headlights and taillights lifted from the Fiat Dino Spider. Parked on one of the lawns nearby there is the cosmic 1954 Fiat Otto Vu Supersonic, which looks like a space ship about to be launched from the 1950’s, a new nuclear world full of fridges, TV sets and mixers. Next to it, the even crazier 1957 Dual-Ghia. An Italian-American convertible and a favorite among celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Ronald Regan (one of 117 made). Clark Gable’s Jaguar XK120 looks unimpressive in comparison.
This year, Z-102 represents Pegaso (Ferrari’s Spanish competitor, which failed miserably and never did more than construct prototypes). Exceptionally modest in style (for a Pegaso), though very technologically advanced with four double barrel Weber carburetors, a double overhead cam-shaft V8. Torsion bar sprung De Dion rear axle and a trans-axle gearbox with a housing made out of Elektron magnesium alloy for better handling balance. Then there are the racing cars: the Ferrari's (255 S, Spider, Vignale), Maseratis (200SI, Barchetta, Fantuzzi), Jaguar (C-Type) and the crazy Porche 550 RS with the biggest spoiler I have ever seen. Built in 1955 by Michael May, a visionary Swiss engineer and Formula One driver who also gave us the first ever turbocharged passenger car. The Porche shown at the Concorso belongs to Cavaliere Ugo Gussalli Beretta. And yes. Beretta as in the gun maker, Beretta.
It is the most important thing at that brief, exceptional Concorso weekend. The people you are lucky to meet. I must admit that the winner of the Copa d’Oro, an Art Deco Lancia Astura with a Catagna-designed body, or the first car to be listed as UNESCO World Heritage, the lovely Alfa Romeo Giulietta SZ Zagato (which belongs to Corrado Lopresto), leave you stunned. But what makes the Concorso what it really is are not the scenic views, the clothes, watches, weather, food, the champagne (not quite unimportant, I must admit). What truly matters are handshakes and conversation with such personalities as Lord Bamford, Ercole Spada and Valentino Balboni. Or the chance to have lunch with Aldo Brovarone. Far from the noise of the modern world, as if you were cast in some nostalgic film in which you yourself are playing an important supporting role. Magic.