Inside the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, the Greatest Car Show You’ve Never Heard Of

Every year, motoring royalty — and their multi-million-dollar masterpieces — convene on the manicured shores of Lake Como

June 6, 2023 6:00 am
A selection of classic, luxury cars at the 2023 Concorso d'Eleganze Villa d'Este on Lake Como
Welcome to one of the world's most exclusive concours.
Basem Wasef

Nobody here wants to talk about the weather. But the crowd — sipping Pommery from crystal goblets and dressed to the nines under a canopy — is obsessing over the dark clouds and downpour. Sure, no one likes a rainy car show, but the mental effort focused on the climate is reaching comical proportions here on the shores of Lake Como. In these parts it’s simply not supposed to rain, as if a papal bull has exempted this microverse from meteorological ills. 

Welcome to the greatest, grandest car show you’ve never heard of: The Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este.

Great Expectations

If you’ve been lucky enough to attend the Villa d’Este concours, which took place this year from May 19 to 21, you understand the unnatural obsession with the weather. Nestled within the pre-alpine region just east of the Swiss border, Como and the municipality of Cernobbio, Italy, enjoy a microclimate that’s similar to perennial sunny conditions, a la Southern California and Southern France. “For centuries,” the Villa d’Este website explains, the property has been “a residence of the aristocracy — princesses, marquises, sultans and tsars.” The event has not significantly altered its clientele since its founding in 1929.

The 1935 Duesenberg SJ Speedster that won best in show at the Villa d'Este concours in 2023, with fireworks going off over Lake Como in the background
There are no losers among the Villa d’Este concours competitors. But this 1935 Duesenberg SJ Speedster was the clear winner.

The annual gathering attracts the modern-day equivalent of motoring royalty, with the car-collecting cognoscenti convening in late May with the same fervor billionaires descend upon Sun Valley every July, except the pond here is considerably smaller. Unlike mega auto events like Monterey Car Week, there is no sprawling peninsula where hundreds of thousands can infiltrate, and there’s a complete absence of adjacent properties and attractions where large spinoff events can be staged. 

Winterace, Italy’s Hottest Car Event, Takes Place in the Snow-Covered Dolomites
100-year-old Bugattis race alongside modern Ferraris at this annual rally, which celebrated its 10th anniversary earlier this month in the town of Cortina d’Ampezzo

Rather, Villa d’Este is geographically isolated to a grand estate on the lake with a modestly proportioned outdoor setting, replete with not-so-modest furnishings and a stunningly symmetrical mosaic garden that descends the hillside. Hence, the invitation-only guest list includes only 50 or so competing vehicles, making it among the thinnest slices of automotive elites. That explains why the best-in-show winner — this time a stunning 1935 Duesenberg SJ Speedster — took home an A. Lange & Söhne 1815 Chronograph “Como Edition” along with a giant trophy. If the manual-wind timepiece were commercially available, it would be more valuable than many luxury cars. 

The Spectre, the first electric car from Rolls-Royce, on display at Villa d'Este in May 2023
Rolls-Royce brought its first electric car, Spectre, to the soirée at Villa d’Este.

All Is Fair in Love and Cars

Though Villa d’Este’s roots are intimate, involving a tradition of unveiling concept cars and a gathering of unusually rare vehicles owned by extraordinary personalities (see: Ralph Lauren shepherding his one-of-three Bugatti 57SC Atlantic to claim the top prize in 2013), the scope expanded notably when the BMW Group began sponsoring the event in 1999. The boon has been mutually beneficial, with the event gaining organized press exposure from the association and priceless infrastructure from the Germans, who bring truckloads of top-end 7-Series sedans and X7/XM SUVs to ferry VIPs up and down the lakeshore. In turn, the proceedings have expanded to include a Gentleman Driver track day at the nearby Monza circuit, and sundry ancillary social events like Wheels & Weisswürscht. 

The nameplate association brings the inevitable token classic Bimmers into the show — you’re likelier to see a Mille Miglia-era 328 or a 1980s-o-riffic M1 at Villa d’Este than at other concours. But if you’ve ever experienced the controlled chaos that is Italian logistics, you’ll appreciate the sense of order introduced by having Germans in charge of event organization and ground transportation. As such, the main event on Saturday is among the calmest in the concours world. With only 52 entries to scrutinize, judges are able to go over each vehicle in surprising detail, downloading personal anecdotes, historical curiosities and mechanical peculiarities as well as the obligatory crowd-pleasing engine startup [golf clap].

The judges at Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este in 2023
Want to locate the judges at Villa d’Este? Just look for the matching hats.
BMW Group

This year’s class themes were spread across eight topics, covering everything from the centennial of the 24 Hours of Le Mans to “Dazzling Motoring Indulgences of the Mighty Maharajas” to the “Eccentric Back Catalogue” of Porsche’s last 75 years. Per the grand Villa d’Este tradition, the cars were no less spectacular than the class descriptions promised. 

Among the Le Mans entrants were Rob Walton’s legendary Ford GT40, a grail racecar that boasts the distinction of being the only vehicle to ever take the top prize at the coveted race twice, and a dreamy 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO belonging to David MacNeil of WeatherTech fame, the same 1-of-36 model that has traded hands for up to $70 million. The P Car class was also stellar, with a dreamy Porsche 917K in Martini livery battling amongst heavy hitters like the race-car-in-road-guise GT1, which looks more like a Speed Racer hallucination than a production car built in Stuttgart. 

Phillip Sarofim, current owner of Meyers Manx, didn’t take the Coppa d’Oro award with his Interscope-liveried 935 as he did with last year’s entry, the stunning Aston Martin Bulldog concept which was fresh off a two-year restoration, though he did manage to steal the show when his Manx-themed Grumman HU-16 Albatross arrived from California and performed flybys, joining Riva yachts and ferry boats water taxiing near the event. 

Porsche 917K with a Martini racing livery at Villa d'Este concours in 2023
The Porsche 917K with its unimpeachable Martini & Rossi livery.
Basem Wasef

The Expansion Era

If you weren’t invited to participate in one of the world’s most exclusive concours and didn’t feel inclined to spring for the $10,000 “Friend of the Concorso” package, which covers room, board and event access for the weekend for two, fear not: ordinary people can pay a nominal fee to flood the grounds of the nearby Villa Erba on Sunday, where concours entries and a handful of other cars are on display along with food trucks and memorabilia stands. While the teeming masses fill the more spacious villa with a more pedestrian mood, the cars fanned out on the lawn are no less otherworldly than they were at the Villa d’Este. Notably, the attending visitors tend to be reverential both to the specialness of the cars as well as each other, politely waiting for photos to be snapped before stepping into frame and taking their own shots. 

While the main attraction at Villa d’Este maintains its exclusivity due to the event’s inherently small geographical footprint, satellite events have indeed crept onto the scene, among them FuoriConcorso. With a kickoff gathering in 2019 that paid homage to ‘90s-era Bentleys and enjoyed heavy promotion from the likes of Ted Gushue, the Guglielmo Miani-led event has since become officially affiliated with Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este and expanded to include the Villa del Grumello, Villa Sucota and Villa Olmo. While this sounds like an automotive sprawl, the villa-palooza is remarkably discreet; given the constraints of the terrain and the inherently walkable nature of the region, locals and those in the know manage to drop in via BMW livery or on foot to savor the displays like they would an afternoon garden party. There’s also official manufacturer participation from Porsche at the largest villa, introducing a counterpoint to Bavarian Motor Works’ ubiquitous presence. 

The crowd at the public day of Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este 2023, at Villa Erba
While Villa d’Este is an exclusive affair, the event opens things up to the public at Villa Erba.
Basem Wasef

Niche Within a Niche

If the whole “world’s most exclusive concours” thing seems a tad solipsistic, that’s because it is — and that’s precisely the point. By narrowing the demographic focus into a tiny fishbowl crammed with big fish (like the most ambitious collectors on the planet, and watch sponsors whose products can reach $1.2 million a pop), BMW not only elevates the image of their brand (and related nameplates like Rolls-Royce, which displayed its new electric Spectre coupé in the mosaic garden), they’re able to dive further into the ultra-niche space where whales are willing to spend beaucoup bucks in order to be the first — and likely only — folks on their blocks for automotive unobtanium. 

Witness: BMW’s 3.0 CSL Hommage R concept, which was unveiled at Villa d’Este in 2015 and might have seemed like an exercise in frivolity if it hadn’t become an actual production car. The 3.0 CSL found its audience after concours-goers voiced interest in the idea, which catalyzed BMW to build an ultra-limited run of 50 vehicles at a staggering €750,000 each — making it the most expensive roadgoing Bimmer in the history of the company. The trend might continue with this year’s event, which saw the unveiling of the Concept Touring Coupé, a shooting brake-style one-off based on the Z4. 

“I’ve already received two or three serious inquiries,” BMW design boss Adrian van Hooydonk revealed hours after the unveiling, adding that it’s possible that a run of 50 or so vehicles is possible if enough clients express interest.

As for the clouds over Villa d’Este, they did in fact materialize into actual precipitation, which led to a flurry of microfiber mop-ups and hastily arranged silk scarves. Though the rainstorm prevailed, fair weather was eventually restored by 4 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, sending winners home with a warm kiss of sunshine.

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