Ninety years of concorso d'eleganza

The “Coppa d’Oro Villa d’Este”, the international Concours d’élégance for motor cars, was held for the first time on the 1st of September 1929 following a joint initiative undertaken by the Automobile Club of Como, the Grand Hotel Villa d’Este and the Comitato di Cura di Como. The fame of the venues, the logistically impeccable choices that brought into play the inimitable backcloth provided by the gardens of Villa Olmo and Villa d’Este, immediately raised this event head and shoulders above numerous similar shows held at other well-known venues.

With over eighty entries and cars of the highest quality right from the first event, the Concorso di Villa d’Este was on a par with prestigious concours events held in Paris and Monte Carlo. In what was soon to prove the marque’s swan song, the top prize was awarded to an Isotta Fraschini bodied by Sala.

This was a mere two months before the Wall Street Crash: it was to be the beginning of a three-year crisis that was to lead to a reassessment of values, and an acceleration of the rationalisation of car production that was to result – in continental Europe at least – in the demise of automotive gigantism. Despite this, however, the coachbuilding business managed to stay afloat and coachbuilders enjoyed a twenty-year reprieve during which they reached heights of creative expression that have perhaps remained unmatched ever since.

The 1930 Concorso di Villa d’Este was marked by the institution of the Gran Premio Referendum, which was awarded on the basis of a secret vote cast by the spectators: both public and panel were unanimous in awarding the victor’s laurels to a Lancia Dilambda clothed with classic elegance by Stabilimenti Farina.

The 1931 concours was memorable for the appearance of Touring’s “Flying Star” versions of an Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 GS and an Isotta Fraschini 8ASS, a pair of dream two-seaters both painted in an unusual ivory-white. The former car, thanks partly to the likeable personality of its lady driver, Josette Pozzo, won over the public after having already conquered the panel. The sleek 1750 (still treasured today in an American collection) therefore carried off two grand prizes, an unusual achievment and a sign of the great interest aroused by the design produced by the Milanese coachworks.

The 1932 show marked the end of the first cycle of concours events sponsored by Villa d’Este, whose organisational formula (the one that has inspired the 1999 revival event) had reached its fullest development by that time. In particular, given its importance and popularity, the Gran Premio Referendum was offered explicitly by the Chairman of Villa d’Este spa after a vote to be cast on the terrace of the Grand Hotel during the closing stages of the event.

A refined model by Touring (in 1932 this was an austere but very sleek Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 coupé spider) once more convinced both panel and public alike. On another level altogether, no less interest was aroused by the little Fiat Balillas on their debut appearance in saloon and numerous special versions; a sign of the contradictory predilection – typically Italian – for luxury utility cars. Nor was there any shortage of anachronistic oddities such as the Isotta Fraschini with art déco styling entered by the Hartmann Coachworks of Lausanne.

By that time the consolidated success of the concours had attracted the attention of the regime, represented at the prize giving ceremony by Attilio Teruzzi, then chief of general staff of the militia and later to become a cabinet minister.

In 1933 a split whose causes are unknown caused the Villa d’Este company to withdraw from the organization of the event, responsibility for which was wholly assumed by the Automobile Club of Como. Having obtained the support of Princess Maria José, the event was renamed the “Coppa d’Oro Principessa di Piemonte” and was held entirely at Villa Olmo, including the prize giving ceremony, albeit without the referendum, which was discontinued.

The lines of the cars became steadily more fluid during the three-year spell in which government policy was leading Italy towards the sanctions and isolationism that followed. But the event’s cosmopolitan nature and popularity remained at excellent levels: by then Como had become the Autumn showcase for the latest in coachbuilding fashion. From 1934 onwards the event featured a minor innovation in the form of a women’s fashion show with clothes presented by mannequins from Milan’s most important fashion houses.

In 1935, Prince Aimone di Savoia-Aosta, in his capacity as President of the Italian Royal Automobile Club, authorised the organisers to introduce a series of prizes named after his own title of Duke of Spoleto. But the supreme prize (awarded every year, inasmuch as it was an ongoing challenge) was still the Coppa Principessa di Piemonte. The series-produced Fiat 1500 saloon won this award in its class while a rather conservative panel overlooked some interesting aerodynamic saloons by Pininfarina and Castagna. A certain reduction in the number of contestants, which fell to eighty in 1935 whereas previous entries had always topped the hundred mark, was perhaps a sign of diminishing interest, but we do not know the nature of the difficulties that led to the axing of the 1936 event. The show was held once more on the 12th of September 1937 under the aegis of the Automobile Club of Como and this time the number of entries climbed back to over a hundred. But there were no truly exceptional cars, so much so that the supreme prize for custom built cars went to an ephemeral Pininfarina Convertible built over a Lancia Aprilia chassis, and it should be said that – as had been the case in 1935 – some types of series-produced cars were entered in numerous examples, the only difference being the paintwork.

By September 1940 Italy had been at war for three months and civilian car production had already been suspended, as was the Concours. Recovery was long and difficult, and the Concorso d’Eleganza di Villa d’Este, which reverted to the original name and organisational structure for the event held on 27-28 September 1947, provided clear evidence of the automotive sector’s renewed desire to return to life. More agile and relatively less badly hit by the consequences of war damage, the coachbuilders were the first to set up promotional events and it was the same sector that inaugurated – in the absence of the manufacturers – an authentic mini Motor Show held in Milan’s Palazzo dell’Arte the following November. A new generation of stylists – with Giovanni Michelotti in the forefront – waited impatiently in the wings, while a febrile, contradictory wealth of design proposals competed for the centre stage at Villa Olmo.

The panel gave its vote to an extravagant Lancia Astura convertible bodied by Stabilimenti Farina, while the Gran Premio Referendum went to an avant-garde aerodynamic saloon built by the same coachbuilder over an Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 Sport chassis: it was not the first time that the public had shown itself manifestly more mature than the experts. Another injustice on the part of the panel was the decision to fetter the sensational Cisitalia berlinetta – the car that decades afterwards was to become the very symbol of Pininfarina’s creative genius – with a mere first equal award in its class.

The sober designs proposed by Touring met with even less comprehension. Leaving aside the controversies sparked off by the work of the panel, the event was a success, but the scarcity of resources prompted the organizers to make it biennial. Having skipped 1948, the 1949 show had everything that it takes to make a memorable occasion, including the – to modern eyes, at least – nostalgic distinction of being the event that marked the end of an era, one in which the Italian coachworks were all working to full capacity. Once again more than one hundred cars were entered, featuring very balanced and classically orientated styling proposals from the most important names, those who had been the first to recover from the innovative fever of 1947.

The 1949 event witnessed a flat contradiction between the opinions of the panel, which voted for a distinguished but unexciting three-light saloon by Ghia, and the result of the referendum by which a far more intuitive public adjudged Touring’s coupé version of the Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 SS an absolute masterpiece. This was the model that from the moment it won the prize was baptized by popular acclaim as the “Villa d’Este”, thus making a considerable contribution to the spread of the fame of this princely residence in the world of motoring.

The show originally planned for the September of 1951 never took place: the governing body of Italian motorsport issued a communiqué on the 24th of July announcing that it had been postponed indefinitely. The specialist press opined that a new triennial concours might be inaugurated in 1952, but by that time the crisis affecting the coachbuilding industry had become so severe that only those very few businesses able to convert to industrialised production avoided having to close.

After the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este was last held in its original form with the first new post-war vehicles in 1949, the event was forgotten for almost 40 years.

The Italian historian and author Tito Anselmi revived the Consorso and joined forces with the Grand Hotel Villa d’Este to establish the Concorso d’Eleganza once more. The first attempt at revival was made in 1986, although this event featured classics from yesteryear rather than new automobiles. Unfortunately, this was to remain a beacon event because a further nine years elapsed before the next Concorso was held in 1995. Two other Concorsos then followed in 1996 and 1997. However, the Concorso was abandoned yet again in 1998 and there was a risk of the event being consigned to the annals of history.
At the end of the 1990s, the event in Cernobbio attracted the attention of the BMW Group with its brands BMW, MINI and Rolls-Royce. The BMW Group took sole responsibility as the patron of the Concorso d’Eleganza for the years 1999 to 2001, under the management of the Director of BMW Group Mobile Tradition at that time, Christian Eich. Now, the Grand Hotel Villa d’Este and the BMW Group are celebrating the fourteenth anniversary of their cooperation.

After rather modest beginnings, the Concorso has been on a trajectory of continuous improvement and expansion. The selection and high quality of the automobiles, the strong international presence, the smooth organisation, the exclusive standard of the Grand Hotel Villa d’Este, the fabulous landscape of Lake Como and the numerous participants and visitors have transformed the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este into one of the most important Concours worldwide.

The return to the roots of the Concorso represented a milestone in 2002. An award for the latest design studies for Concept Cars & Prototypes was established to complement the competition for the classics.

The event is held on the last weekend in May. While the Saturday is reserved as a closed event at the Grand Hotel Villa d’Este for participants, the media and invited guests, the Concours of Historic Cars is open to the public on Sunday in the park of the Villa Erba located close to the hotel. More than 50 of the world’s most beautiful classics from the 1920s to the early 1980s and around a dozen of the latest Concept Cars & Prototypes make the hearts of the visitors to the exhibition and at the automobile parade beat a little faster. The Motorcycle Concours is also judged by an international Jury and this event is open to public visitors in the Grounds of Villa Erba on Saturday and Sunday. An exhibition on a dedicated subject each year is held in the Villa Erba to complete the event. Special shows usually celebrate anniversaries of famous designers and exhibitions of the BMW and Rolls-Royce brands have augmented this premium social event celebrating historic automobiles for a number of years. The BMW Group and the Grand Hotel Villa d’Este are looking forward to a continuing relationship of cooperation during the years to come.