Seven Stunning Classics that Stopped Me Dead in My Tracks at Villa d'Este
My best of the best of the best.
Unlike sprawling fêtes like the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, Italy's Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este draws a tiny smattering of entrants and even fewer spectators. The elite concours is not only limited by the geographical constraints of being nestled between the placid waters of Lake Como and rugged hills, but also by the human firewall of some of the nitpickiest committees, judges, and collectors on the planet. This year, only 58 cars dotted the idyllic shores of Lake Como. Here are seven of my show favorites; some were featured in our 2019 overview piece, but they were just too good for me to not share again.
1965 Pontiac Vivant 77
This blue-hued marvel was the brainchild of muscle car engineer Herb Adams, who conceived the concept at GM's headquarters but employed the so-called Beatles of Troy, Michigan—three British, ex Rolls-Royce coachbuilders—to fashion its clean, sharp lines. Combining flared nostrils with a manta-like tail inspired by the Alfa Romeo's trio of Bertone-styled B.A.T. concepts, the Vivant 77 wowed crowds at the 1966 Detroit Autorama with its otherworldly styling. Grounding the slick design was pure hot-rod hardware: a NASCAR-derived 370 cubic-inch V-8 pumping out 405 horsepower.
The Vivant was uniquely evocative, but eventually sold to fund Mr. Adams's racing expenses, trading hands several times before disappearing for 35 years and resurfacing on the market with its paint stripped and bare metal skin exposed. It underwent an 8,000-hour restoration and returned to the spotlight at Pebble Beach in 2017 before making its Villa d'Este debut this year. In case you were wondering, "Vivant" derives from Adams's head honcho, the legendary John Z. DeLorean, who grandfathered such cars as the Pontiac GTO and was known as a consummate bon vivant.
1953 Abarth 205 Sport 1100
Carlo Abarth had grand plans when he set out to build cars under his own nameplate, but the former Cisitalia employee faced serious headwinds when he launched the Type 205, which was powered by a hot-rodded 1,100cc Fiat four-cylinder but pricier than a V-12-powered Ferrari 166. Not surprisingly, only three were built, including one which made its way to the U.S. via entrepreneur Bill Vaughn, who debuted it at the 1954 New York Auto Show and rebranded it as the Vaughn SS Wildcat, marketing it as the first car with an overhead V-8 in America.
As with so many unique cars that became underappreciated over the years, this 205 traded hands several times before falling into disrepair and eventually undergoing a five-year restoration that led to a class win and overall second-place finish at Pebble Beach in 2015.
1957 BMW 507
With 248 units built between 1956 and 1959, the BMW 507 is hardly the rarest vehicle on display at the Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este. But the story behind this particular example makes it a worthy inclusion: When Elvis Presley was posted in Germany as a U.S. Army draftee in late 1958, he took delivery of this BMW 507 (just like any ol' soldier would, right?). The roadster, finished in Feather White, proved problematic for the rock 'n' roll star, because adoring fans left adoring scrawls on the sheetmetal in red lipstick. Elvis's solution was to have his white steed painted red instead, a color that masked the love notes and graced his 507 as it eventually moved back to the States, was sold several times, and eventually languished in a California pumpkin barn before it was restored to its original glory. As if that weren't enough history, it turns out the 507 also lived a rich life before The King's transatlantic adventures: Hans Stuck won several hillclimbs at the wheel of the V-8-powered convertible.
READ MORE: See Elvis Presley's Restored BMW 507
Marcello Gandini is the legendary designer responsible for signature wedge designs including the Lancia Stratos Zero concept (1970), the Lamborghini Miura (1966) and Countach (1974), and Alfa Romeo 33 Carabo concept (1968). Unlike many of Gandini's signature wedge designs, the Marzal's glass-intensive surfaces and silvery interior signaled a somehow different intent, calling upon a more practical greenhouse proportion than concepts like the Zero or Ferrari Modulo (though it did sit at a still-low 43.3 inches from pavement).
At its debut at the 1967 Geneva Motor Show, Nuccio Bertone described the four-seat Marzal coupe as "not a dream car, but an idea car." And indeed, it went on to inspire the Lamborghini Espada production car—making it no wonder the Marzal was the concept-class winner.
Ferrari 512 S Modulo
The battle for wedge concept supremacy was fierce in the 1960s, with Italy's most talented designers penning mild-melting shapes that seemed likelier to be found in an alternate galaxy than on earthbound roads. Among the most incredible forms was Ferrari's Modulo, penned by Paolo Martin and built around a Ferrari 512S chassis that was upgraded to Can Am specifications before it was stripped down and converted to a show car in time for the 1970 Turin Motor Show.
In 2018 the concept was converted to running order with a feral 5.0-liter V-12 producing 550 horsepower at 8,500 rpm by James Glickenhaus's Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus, much to the thrill of any petrolhead with a pulse who believes that the only thing better than paradigm-shifting design is one that's capable of intense performance, too.
1914 Rolls-Royce 40/50 H.P. Silver Ghost
Like most Rollers of its era, this 1914 Silver Ghost cuts a formidable silhouette that evokes coachbuilding grandeur and rampant wealth. But behind the folding bonnet is one of the more wondrous assemblages of delicately finished mechanical intricacy, complete with a dove-jointed wooden battery box. This Rolls also ticks a whole lot of other boxes, from its elaborately equipped rear quarters (with a bar, of course) to the whimsically correct old-timey horn. But most intriguing is the story of its origins, which included a Paris-built chassis that was delivered to Portugal and later converted to a shooting brake configuration, only to be reunited with the correct body some 85 years later. That might have had something to do with this Silver Ghost winning the Trofeo Rolls-Royce, awarded to the most elegant Roller at Villa d'Este.
1937 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Touring Coupe
Don't hate it because it's popular. The Villa d'Este Best of Show winner continues a victory streak nearly as long as its bullet-shaped nose, adding to a trophy pile that includes Best in Show at Pebble Beach, Retromobile, and the Peninsula Classic's Best of the Best.
The elegantly imposing two-door 8C 2900 was conceived as a seriously sporting car, and innovations like its twin-supercharged aluminum inline-eight, independent suspension, and a transaxle gearbox helped it snatch a total of five outright wins at the Mille Miglia. Of the 30 strains modified from the 2900's single-seat Grand Prix configuration, a mere 10 had long-wheelbase configurations; this example, serial number 412020, is one of only five built with Superleggera bodies by Carrozzeria Touring. While it's tempting to try putting a dollar amount on the winning 2900B, the task will likely leave you stumped: a 2900B sold earlier this year in Paris for $19 million, but that particular unrestored example, which has been owned by the same family for more than four decades, lacks 412020's concours accolades.