Back to the Future
The annual Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este is a celebration of automotive history, as well as the industry’s future
Now an annual event held on the grounds of the Villa d’Este on the shores of Lake Como, Italy, the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este traces its history back to 1929. The event, organised by the Automobile Club of Como, the Grand Hotel Villa d’Este and the Comitato di Cura di Como, was intended to showcase the latest trends in automotive design.
Back in that golden age of coach-built vehicles, when a designer and his team of artisans added the bodywork to an existing chassis, its grand prize was awarded for flair and creativity in a new vehicle. These days, the Concorso d’Eleganza tends to be an event where rare classic vehicles are scrutinised for authenticity, for being as they were—or even better than—the day they first left the factory.
Little surprise then, that after a 40-year hiatus, when the event was resurrected by Italian historian and author Tito Anselmi, along with the Grand Hotel Villa d’Este, in the 1990s, its focus was on historic vehicles. This year, the coveted Coppa d’Oro Villa d’Este —literally the Gold Cup—voted for by visitors to the event for the best design in the show, was awarded to a classic 1933 Lancia Astura Serie II. The nine class winners for 2016, judged by an international panel of experts, ranged from the same 1933 Lancia to a 1976 Lamborghini Countach “Walter Wolf” Coupé Bertone.
The event, held in the final weekend of May, goes back to its roots in more ways than one. Its design award for concept cars and prototypes, which is again judged by public vote, gives manufacturers and coachbuilders the opportunity to gauge public opinion about their designs, potentially shaping the designs of the future.
This year, event sponsor BMW Group Classic teased visitors with the world premier of its BMW 2002 Hommage and the BMW R 5 Hommage—design studies that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the BMW 2002 and the 90th anniversary of the BMW R 5 motorcycle respectively. If they look like futuristic takes on models from the brand’s 100-year history, it shouldn’t come as a surprise given the “Hommage” nomenclature. That and the fact that the theme for this year’s event was “Back to the Future – The Journey Continues” (though fans of the film franchise would be disappointed that there were no DeLoreans on display).
Other participants in the Concept Cars and Prototypes category took the theme to heart to different degrees. Coachbuilder Pininfarina might have celebrated a class win in the historic categories for a design dating back to 1937, but its H2 Speed concept on display was decidedly futuristic, right down to its hydrogen fuel-cell power plant. The working prototype looked somewhat like a racetrack refugee, though the zero-emission drivetrain is potentially representative of a future automotive direction.
On the surface, Bugatti’s Vision Gran Turismo was also a glimpse into the future, with little to connect it to the past. It was even conceived for Gran Turismo 6, a PlayStation game. That said, the design was supposed to have been inspired by a Type 57 race car that won at Le Mans in the 1930s, right down to the traditional blue paintwork.
Mazda’s sleek RX-Vision concept had fans of the marque drooling, with obvious reference to the much-loved RX-7 model that ended production in 2002. With the RX model designation, it should come as no surprise that the concept has a similar rotary engine under the bonnet too. Whether or not this concept is headed for production is in the lap of the gods, or Mazda’s management, in any case.
Of more interest to collectors was coachbuilder Zagato’s fifth collaboration with Aston Martin in as many decades. The pairing of the Italian design house and British sports car has resulted in some of the rarest and most collectible cars on the planet. Depending on customer demand, Aston Martin tends to produce a limited run of Zagato specials—the 2011 V12 Zagato won the Design Award for Concepts and Prototypes at the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este that year. Aston went on to produce 150 vehicles for customers, albeit at a fairly eye-watering premium over the cost of the donor car. Aston recently announced it would produce 99 units of the Vanquish Zagato, which is sure to become another collector’s item.
Collectors should be ready with an even bigger cheque book if they wish to secure this year’s Design Award for Concepts and Prototypes winner, the beautiful Alfa Romeo Disco Volante Spider by Touring. The Spider is based on the limited-run Alfa Romeo 8C, with only seven examples to be built.
The Disco Volante (Italian for “flying saucer”) offers a nod to the past, as the original Alfa to bear the nickname was built in the 1950s by Carrozzeria Touring and only five examples were ever made. There are some styling cues that the vehicles obviously share, such as the semi-hooded wheel arches that gave the car its distinct outline and helped earn the flying saucer nickname in the first place. “If I had to express this shape with one word, I’d say, ‘freedom’”, commented the eminent designer and jury member Ian Cameron when delivering the trophy.
There was a coupé version that won the Concepts prize in 2012 as well, and Touring went on to make eight cars, one of which found its way into the hands of a Singapore collector.
Whether the Spider will make an appearance in our part of the world is unclear, but two things are certain: It is a thing of beauty and the equally admirable art of coach building remains one that is celebrated and honoured.
By Tony Watts