Inside the World's Most Glamorous Car Show
Illustration by John Molesworth
"There’s so much beauty in the world," says the character Ricky in the 1999 Sam Mendes film American Beauty, "I’m afraid that I can’t take it." If it sounded a little pretentious at the time, the sentiment begins to resonate when arriving through the gates at the annual Concorso D’Eleganza Villa D’Este.
First held in 1929 as a competition where local classic car owners could show off their most desirable vehicles, the founders managed to secure the grounds of the impossibly grand Villa d'Este hotel on the western shores of Lake Como as its setting. It would soon become the most stylish and discerning classic car event in the world. The hotel itself goes back further. Built as a private villa in the 16th century, this year marks its 150th season.
As you stroll along the hotel drive, Riva speedboats skim across the lake to your right, framed by the spring flowers in the foreground and the mountains behind. The yellows, pinks and whites of the lakeside villages and bell towers on the other side of the lake mirror the rainbow of car paintwork, flowers and expensively-assembled outfits on this side. It’s a trifecta of beauty; natural, man-made and, in certain cases, human.
Turn your neck 45 degrees and you’re presented with a new composition worthy of a prominent position on your living room wall, or at worst the downstairs loo. It’s no wonder that people zig-zag around with camera or phone in hand - often both - snapping indiscriminately in an effort to bottle the experience. Futile, of course.
Occasionally it can leave you craving something ugly, like an over-filled bin, a discarded cigarette, a half-finished ciabatta. No luck. The swarm of waiting staff, in cream jackets and black ties, hold such unsightliness at bay. Your best hope on that front is to scrutinise some of the jacket and trouser combinations.
I saw at least one man, standing on his own, shaking his head and smiling as he looked around, punch drunk by it all. Admittedly, given it was after lunch, he could have just been drunk.
The cars, of course, are, nominally at least, why we’re here. Several hundred of the rarest, most desirable and most important vehicles of the last 100 years or so, all tightly parked in places hotel guests might otherwise be heading from breakfast for a swim in the floating pool.
On a gravel turning circle, a row of greats from the art deco era, including a Bugatti Type 57C Stelvio and Mercedes 540k Spezial-Roadster, both from 1936, are hard to pull yourself away from. Turn around and there are eight of the greatest Ferraris, including the rarely spotted 1956 250GT Zagato in a majestic deep blue. On the lawn: a 1987 Lamborghini Countach with gullwing doors open, next to the less familiar, and less radically wedged Aston Martin Bulldog concept from 1979, which would go on to take the people’s prize on Saturday.
By the boathouse, a Giorgetto Giugaro designed BMW M1 from 1978, is here to celebrate the M brand’s 50th birthday this weekend. A wonderful Maserati MC-12 from 2004 is about the most recent classic on show.
In the mosaic garden, the BMW i7 and Rolls-Royce Boat Tail are launched as the only brand new cars on show. A BMW iX Flow E-ink, with paintwork that can change colour on demand, is tucked away from the main drag as a nod towards our automotive future.
The precise value of all this metal is hard to calculate accurately. Dozens of these specimens would be worth, let’s say, several million. The rarest and most desirable upwards of £50m.
It’s tempting to see it see it as the world cup of smart casual, each nation presenting their style sensibilities under the summer sun. The Germans with their sportier, slimline combinations and pointy white trainers; the French in their statement shirts and coloured spectacles; the Italians with both the sharpest and boldest interpretations. It’s an environment that demands an effort to be made. Without looking like you’ve made one of course. This is the land of sprezzatura.
One mutton-chopped Italian man in his Sixties sports green velour shorts and matching polo below a white jacket. A friend tells me he last saw him earlier this year at the Dakar rally, when he was wearing a Versace dressing gown in the desert.
Stereotypes aside, these tribes appear less defined by borders, or even age, and more by attitude. The most interesting contrast in the car business is the sight of long-limbed influencers in flowing knee-length shirts and brightly-coloured sneakers amidst the executive’s uniform of beige and blue.
As lunchtime looms, the search for a shaded table for a seafood lunch and a glass of rose begins, while the cars we’ve been gawping at begin to throb and trundle along the promenade one by one for their moment in the spotlight.
One fascinating side show is to watch the owners and their passengers try to look nonchalant as the rest of us ogle and snap. Thoughts turn to evening and perhaps a boat ride to Villa, or a walk up the steps to the steps past the Mosaic house.
The beauty continues. But, for a day or two, we can take it.