Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este: Painting A Mural Stretching From Pre-War Racers To ’90s Supercars
Photography by Virgiliu Andone
Thick layers of nostalgia were brushed onto the tableaux before me, embracing every fragile leaf, covering every wave and ripple on the surface of the deep turquoise water, texturing the ever more daring clouds that rolled off the faces of the Alps to the north. This vision of dramatic natural and man-made beauty is of course the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este. Typically held at the beginning of summer, this year’s event brought the welcome charm of autumn weather to the scene on the banks of Lake Como.
For a few precious days, some of the most elegant and inspiring creations of the motoring world graced the grounds that seem to pour down from the hillsides that surround the historic buildings that make up the villa. Stepping inside this magical anti-reality zone, it doesn’t take much squinting to fell as if you’ve just stepped into a life-size painting meant to depict the best stereotypes of Italian beauty. The mood and the colors were exactly the same, instead of the scantily dressed gods and thee chubby cherubs of the renaissance greats, the subjects were the artworks of Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Porsche, Lancia, joined by the limited output of the much less prolific but equally masterful coachbuilders. If there were ever a pantheon of the automotive world, it might as well look like this.
What separates this concours from the rest is quantity, but not in the strict definition. There are fewer cars than you’ll find at Pebble Beach, but there is more diversity within the count. Space is at a premium compared to shows held at more expansive locations, but the amount of pretty things to look at—cars just being one example—per square meter is, in my opinion, unmatched. Don’t get me wrong, the villa is as grand as they come, but—and especially when it’s swarmed with the concours crowd—it has a surprisingly cosy atmosphere.
This sets up a unique spectator experience; it’s a much more natural feeling to flow between the distinct spaces that make up the show areas than the typical lining of fields, gardens, and golf courses in shapes that amount to grids that could be transposed over a parking lot without much modification. Instead every car here is joined by its group in their own environment. The villa’s natural landscape and features are representative of Italian gardens that are meant to be enjoyed as a journey, the stroll from one end to the other being imagined as a way to enact a narrative that unfolds rather than smacks you in the face all at once. The more studied among us are able to interpret and relate to each other the symbols in the statues, plants and fabriques (the term used to describe the various architectural interventions, such as fake ruins or elaborate natural looking fountains, i.e. fabricated features). Every step of the way a story was told by these symbols, leading to its grand conclusion at the last stop of the journey. In a wonderful parallel to the space that the occupied, the succession of car groups at the Concorso told their own progressive story.
It started with the pre-war machines of early motorsport, and the graceful monsters that combining racing chassis with intricate decorations in an uneasy but still compelling marriage of the risky pursuit of speed with elegance, a clash of two worlds that were much further apart back then. The path then takes us to La Belle Epoque, defined here by a finned Delage and the hugely influential Touring-bodied BMW 328, from a time when art thought that it reflected science. But, in an age before wind tunnels and complex stress analysis, such designs rarely reached beyond the level of aesthetic homage.
Naturally, the pre-war machines were followed by their post-war replacements. These were the cars that made Italy a truly dominant force in design and engineering. There are so many renowned classics of that era, but still, every year, another string of masterpieces seems to emerge on the shore of Lake Como, fresh from lengthy restorations or recently rediscovered after years off the radar. A glowing Alfa 6c Supergioiello was sat next to its successor, the 1900 Supergioiello, two jewels of the Milanese brand that are rarely seen, and even more so together. Nearby a Vignale-bodied Fiat 8V was flanked by an Isotta Fraschini, a Siata, and a Moretti. The level of design details to be found is so rewarding on older low-volume cars like these, with the interiors being an especially divine place to peek into.
The next group of cars focused on the maturing industry in the decades after the war, with the contribution of racing cars to the development of the underlying science being a major focal point. Sometimes these steps toward understanding were wonderfully bold but ultimately unfruitful, such as the science fiction helicopter-turbine-powered Howmet TX, the unofficial and undisputed temperamental beast award winner of this year’s edition. More linear technological progress was showcased with icons like the 300SL Gullwing, the BMW 507, and the Ferrari Daytona, high-performance and aesthetic triumphs that inspired a new generation to fall in love with the automobile, and new generations of automobiles in general.
And then there was the grand finale, the supercars. In a one-year-only Concorso group, the organizers from BMW Classic selected some of the defining examples of the genre, from its beginning, with the Lamborghini Miura, all the way to its last analog heroes, the McLaren F1, as well as some exceptional examples of homologation specials represented by the Porsche 993 GT1 and the Mercedes CLK GTR.
Although there are more classically “good looking” cars from eras before (although what is meant by “classic good looks” is always changing, if at a slow pace), and higher-performing cars from the times that followed, something peaked in the car world in the 1990s. Prices of the enthusiast cars reflect that people are cottoning on to the decade’s products, but it’s an era I feel we have yet to fully appreciate. It’s in those years that supercars connected to pop culture in a way that they cannot hope to achieve in the age of the iPhone. Get your limited-edition hybrid supercar off my lawn.
Before the immediate dissemination of the world’s goings on was available 24/7, supercars held a more mythical status in the collective imagination of car nuts that will remain unrivaled. Pulling crowds whenever they were revealed, which was often in grand fashion, like the drive on the Champs-Élysées that launched the Bugatti EB110. Before the end of the millennium, production cars had shaken free of the lasting malaise of the oil crises, racing began to reach people in numbers never before seen, and the early years of consumer-level video games created a new generation of enthusiasts to a degree that’s unfathomable by today’s standards wherein increasing numbers of teenagers would prefer to use an app instead of own a car. Get your e-scooter off my… sidewalk?
I realize that it sounds like I’m being a curmudgeon, but it’s important that we give the next generation something to get excited about. I love the pre-war stuff right alongside this crop of ’90s supercars, but I can understand why someone younger than me wouldn’t. We shouldn’t eliminate the celebrations of the past, but it’s at least as important to not become stagnant. To that end, hats off to the Villa d’Este crew for having an—or should I say, the—Isdera Commendatore 112i a head swivel away from a 250 GTO.
Whatever your preferences, it’s always easier to appreciate the stuff you’re less familiar with or taken by if the setting is as sublime as this one. On the banks of the lake, a story of time and progress and excellence was told not with words, not even with statues and fabriques, but with a bunch of sheetmetal and carbon reinforced composites. You could make academic arguments for whether or not a transportation devices constitute art in a strict sense, but I think everyone can agree that certain cars can transcend their function and become something more—you don’t need to drive a McLaren F1 to be moved by it.
After a year of delay, having the Concorso back in action was in and of itself cause for excitement. But to see the group encompassing so many facets of design and engineering and purpose was cause for a lot more. And the best news is that we only have to wait six months until the next edition, as in 2022 the event will go back to its traditional dates in May. Here’s to the future.