As of last Friday, the only time I’d seen the rich turquoise of Lake Como was through the windshield of a Lancia Delta—no, not the good one. It was a late-model diesel pulled along by a pair of thin front tires, and its squinty snout meant it looked more like a mole than the box-flared bulldog it shares a name with. It was the quintessential rental. A means to Point B.
My first semi-tangible experience with Villa d’Este was from the passenger seat of that car, saying “I think it might be over there,” as I pointed vaguely out the window at a place that was almost certainly not Villa d’Este. In the ensuing years I’d seen plenty of photo galleries from the Concorso d’Eleganza held at the hotel, and since the event’s history can be traced back to 1929 it’s easy to assume you know what’s in store when you first step foot on the grass and gravel. There are only so many ways you can arrange a few dozen cars, and buildings erected hundreds of years ago tend to look the same as they did 12 months ago.
’s been organizing the event since ‘99, and they invited lucky-me along to the latest edition just passed. After taking it all in, I am now writing this with my foot in my mouth. I expected mostly coach-built cars from the ‘40s and ‘50s infiltrated by a handful of early GTs, and more than a few airs being put on by an impeccably attired crowd that knew more about their shoes than the cars they were standing in front of. Instead I was met by a spread of Formula 1 cars sharing intimate atmosphere with Art Deco superstars, ray gun props, 007’s DB5 complete with tire-shredding knock-off hubs, Balboni sharing stories about the very Miura he was standing next to, and plenty of people decked out in designer labels who took me to school on their automobiles—I loved every heat-soaked second of it.
Within minutes of stepping off the boat I saw a four-cylinder Ferrari Monza with flames on its bonnet—off to an intriguing start. Parked in view of this oddity was something else I’d never seen before: a 335 Sport that I assumed was “just another” Testa Rossa. However, those don’t have twin-plug quad-cam motors underneath their plexi-hooded trumpets good for 400-plus rampant ponies. That car, one of just three survivors in the world, won the top prize of the weekend, but there were two other Italians capturing the majority of attention.
The Lancia Stratos Zero maintained a consistent orbit of aloft iPhones and open mouths before it was even parked, and the Alfa Romeo 33/2 Stradale upheld its nearly official status of “World’s Sexiest Street Car.” It won the the Coppa d’Oro (the People’s Choice), by a margin that was anything but marginal, and the following two photos represent only a sliver of that popularity:
At events like these—though I doubt there’s one out there that truly fits the definition—trying to shoot the crowd’s favorite cars inevitably means waiting for said crowd to briefly get out of the way only for that ephemeral gap to be filled by a lone dork and his tablet, but this was the only car show where I’ve ever intentionally waited for someone to step into the frame.
I’m not deeply into fashion, but if you’re going to have a glamorous showing of the world’s prime specimens of mechanical design it’s just a bonus to see the effort that the human element puts in to match the metal. I still prefer the sounds of motorsport to the clink of champagne flutes, but it’s stupid to think the two are mutually exclusive. Nobody’s racing here of course, but the bark of a warming Lotus 21 sounds like speed wherever you put it.
And that was by far the most memorable scene, the firing of the Formula 1 cars. Joined by the exoskeletal beauty of a Maserati 250F, the austere purposefulness of a Porsche 718/2, the Lotus and those early icons were adjacent to a seldom-seen Alfa Romeo 182, a McLaren MP4/2B (this example was the car driven by Alain Prost in 1985, in which he became the first Frenchman to win the World Championship), a B.R.M. P-180 with a deep red periscoop perched on its V12, and all six wheels of an ex-Ronnie Peterson Tyrrell P34 owned and exhibited by a former F1 driver himself, Pier Luigi Martini. Thankfully he’s still with us after starting more than 100 races in his time.
From the snug pocket of the cockpit he asks one of his crew—this was the only car I’ve ever seen roll onto the announcer’s platform followed by a chest of tools—to bring something over to show me. I lean down low and we flip through a book of period photographs of the car, me saying “Wow” for the fifteenth time in a row, him pointing out the marks of racing usage that have been preserved for the last 31 years. It was repainted as you can tell, but the rest is as it was in ‘77, down to the handwritten notes on the control arms. Fucking hell, this was good fun.
The Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance also plays host to the caliber of cars that get flown around on airplanes to compete against one another in pageantry, and the edge of the Pacific Ocean makes for quite a place to see row after regimented row of such things, but to compare the two isn’t apples to oranges. It’s more like toothpaste and orange juice—wildly different flavors and functions. If Pebble Beach is an expansive assembly of so many top-tier cars that you can’t see all of them in one day, going to Villa d’Este feels like sneaking into a private party rife with machines and scenery that typically exist behind eyelids only.
I hope you enjoy looking at the rest of the gallery below, and if you’d like to know more about the specific cars I’ll do my best to answer any questions.