As Tennyson observed, spring is the time when a young man’s fancy “lightly turns to thoughts of love.” But for the more middle-aged types whose passion is directed towards old motor cars, the welcome end of winter marks the blissful beginning of the international concours d’elegance season, which gets underway this month on the romantic shores of Lake Como in Italy.

It was here in September 1929 that the far-sighted manager of the Grand Hotel Villa d’Este invited the Automobile Club of Como to organise a display of the latest and most interesting cars in the hotel’s beautifully manicured gardens, leaving nature to supply the lake and surrounding Grigna Mountains as a picture-perfect backdrop.


THE 1952 FERRARI 212 EXPORT BARCHETTA BY TOURING WILL BE OFFERED BY RM SOTHEBY’S AT VILLA ERBA THIS MAY.

Prestigious concours events were already established in Paris and Monte Carlo but, right from the start, there was something special about Villa d’Este’s Concorso d’Eleganza, which was inaugurated with an impressive turnout of more than 80 cars. Despite the Wall Street Crash only a month later, the Concorso survived for a second edition that saw the introduction of something called the Gran Premio Referendum, where the visiting public were invited to vote for their favourite car. The first winner they picked was a Lancia Dilambda with Stabilimenti Farina bodywork, betraying, perhaps, a slight Italian bias to the proceedings.

The event continued to grow, reaching a high point of more than 100 cars – but the outbreak of the Second World War and the subsequent upheaval signalled its demise. Fast-forward to 1995 when a man called Jean-Marc Droulers, then CEO of Villa d’Este, took the initiative to revive this rich aspect of the hotel’s heritage. This year the Concorso d’Eleganza celebrates its 16th edition in the modern-day format.


THE 1976 RIVA AQUARAMA SPECIAL “SHAHEEN.” 

Droulers remains the show’s honourary chairman, and it is now thoroughly established as one of the key happenings in the high-end classic-car calendar. Being invited to show a car there garners considerable cache, but such is the quality of the entries that prizes are hard-fought – at the 2013 event, for example, Ralph Lauren eclipsed the competition by entering his 1938 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic, one of just four ever built and conservatively valued at $40 million.

With its glossy black paint, endless bonnet and signature exposed rivets along its beseamed length that harks back to the magnesium-bodied “Aerolithe” prototype that preceded it, the Bugatti was awarded best in show. Few were surprised when it also triumphed in the Gran Premio Referendum, enabling Lauren to walk off with the coveted Coppa d’Oro Villa d’Este to add to the car’s already bulging trophy cabinet.

1953-fiat-9v-cabriolet-940
THE 1953 FIAT 8V CABRIOLET BY VIGNALE, CHASSIS NO. 000050.

This year will see around 50 cars spanning the history of the automobile from the 1920s to the 1970s plus a selection of motorcycles in the Concorso e Mostra di Motociclette section as well as speedboats. At the same time RM Sotheby’s will stage an auction of classic cars at the event, the highlights being a 1952 Ferrari 212 Export Barchetta and a 1950 Ferrari 250 GT SWB “Competitizione” Berlinetta.


THE STAR LOT OF RM SOTHEBY’S VILLA ERBA SALE IS THE 1950 FERRARI 250 GT SWB “COMPETITIZIONE” BERLINETTA, CHASSIS NO.
1953.

The Concorso is not, however, just about the cars. It is about a sense of occasion – that you can tell just by looking at the sumptuous, cloth-bound catalogue in which entries are depicted through the exquisite paintings of automobile artist Brian James, whose deft touch with brush and gouache evokes the past and defies any photograph. It is also about dressing the part – women in stylish dresses and hats, men in summer seersucker or formal blazers. There is no place for a Formula 1 baseball cap here – elegance in dress and driving is the order of the day on Lake Como.


London-based writer Simon de Burton covers old and new cars for the Financial Times, Country Life, EVO and Octane.
 

Villa Erba will be on view in Cernobbio, Italy from 22–23 May. Auction 23 May. Enquiries +44 20 7851 7070.