From a 1928 Rolls-Royce to a 1998 Porsche, the ten Most-Thrilling Vehicles at This 12 months’s Villa d’Este
Gudrun Muschalla, courtesy of Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este.
Every spring on the shores of Italy’s Lake Como, the thinnest slice of the world’s finest collector cars assembles onto the idyllic grounds of the 450-year-old Villa d’Este. The automotive tradition started in 1929 and has consistently delivered an amazing array of radical concept cars, historically significant race machines, and rare coachwork one-offs. Unlike expansive events such as California’s Monterey Car Week, there is no massive peninsula sprawl here, rather a concentrated hit of ultra-high-quality vehicles from the world’s most coveted collections.
Though the 2023 edition of the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, sponsored by BMW, saw rare rain and cloudy skies, that didn’t dampen the shock-and-awe effect of the 52 competitors that vied for recognition. In ascending order of age, here are the top 10 most gorgeous cars that caught our eye.
1928 Rolls-Royce Sports Phantom Prototype Experimental
Rolls-Royce Motor Cars might bear a reputation for building big, soft, cushy cruisers, but between 1926 and 1928, Henry Royce set out to construct three groundbreaking Phantom-based experimental vehicles with the intent of forging a sporty, even racy side to the marque. Developed to break the 100 mph barrier, this example—known as 17EX—was finished in Sax Blue as a hat tip to Sir Malcolm Campbell’s legendary Blue Bird world-record car.
With a 7.8-liter engine, this long-bodied Roller performed numerous tests and trial runs before it became one of only three experimental cars to be sold to a client in an unmodified state. In 1928, this Rolls was delivered to 33-year-old Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir, India, where it remained under the care of two other Maharajas until 1976. It’s currently owned by Alexander Schaufler of Austria.
1935 Duesenberg SJ Speedster Gurney Nutting
One of the older entrants in the Villa d’Este concours also happens to be the one that took home the Best of Show award for 2023. This Boattail Speedster–bodied Duesenberg SJ was the last of 36 examples built by John Gurney Nutting in his London atelier.
The automobile was delivered to the then-28-year-old Maharaja Holkar of Indare, although by way of his estate in California in order to avoid damage from a potential Japanese invasion, eventually making it to India once the threat diminished. The orange-and-black beauty later found its way to California again in 1959, earning a place in current owner William Lyon’s garage in the late 1980s.
1938 Delahaye 145 Coupé Chapron
It seems no world-class concours is complete without a Delahaye, and this particular example was deemed special enough to earn it Best in Class among its field of prewar weekend racers. Originally built as part of a consignment of four racing cars, this 145 model was campaigned in international Grand Prix racing.
After being mothballed during the war years, coachbuilder Henry Chapron converted the race-bred machine into an elegant sporting coupé. The Delahaye eventually moved to the United States where an owner tracked down the car’s original V-12 engine and reinstalled it. This exquisite vehicle has been under the stewardship of Peter and Merle Mullin since 2003, and can be visited at the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, Calif.
1953 Cadillac Series 62 Ghia
Transcontinental mashups like the 1953 Cadillac Series 62 Ghia capture the spirit of Villa d’Este because they combine the best of two seemingly divergent cultures: In this case, the larger-than-life presence of a big American coupe, and the sophisticated details of Italian design.
This striking sport sedan, with coachwork by Carrozzeria Ghia Turin, was penned by designers Felice Boano and Luigi Segre. It features neat touches like a split rear windscreen with aeronautical cues, and an extensively lengthy body with a short front overhang. Interestingly, this is one of only two in existence and is surrounded by a bit of mystery: one was delivered to movie star Rita Hayworth, but historians are unsure about which of the two was hers.
1962 Ferrari 250 GTO
The legendary Ferrari 250 GTO didn’t just earn notoriety for its rarity (this example is No. 24 out of only 36 built), but became the holy grail of collectors because it also dominated racing circuits for decades. Painted in an unusual (for Ferrari) Silver Metallic hue, this specific car competed at the 1963 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and finished in fourth place at the hands of Pierre Dumay and his co-pilot.
Powered by a sonorous 3-liter V-12 fed by six Weber carbs, this GTO is finished in the same livery it wore at Le Mans in 1963. Owner David MacNeil, founder of WeatherTech, regularly drives this very special GTO and competes in concours events around the world.
1968 Ford GT40
Few cars are as iconic as the Ford GT40—so named for its height of only 40 inches—and far fewer can claim the historical significance of chassis No. 1075, which won at Le Mans not once, but twice.
The first time, in 1968, saw Pedro Rodriguez and Lucien Bianchi finish with a staggering lead of five laps, while the second win, a year later, started with the now-legendary slow walk up to the car by Jacky Ickx, who was protesting the dangerous (and later banned) practice of running starts. This GT40 is the only car to ever win two overall victories at Le Mans, and owner Rob Walton can also boast that his Gulf-liveried icon took a total of six victories in eleven races.
1970 Porsche 917K
The Porsche 917 was famously conceived by Porsche technical and racing boss Ferdinand Piëch for the sole purpose of achieving nothing less than “overall victory at Le Mans and winning the Sports Car World Championship”. As such, engine guru Hans Mezger went for broke by conjoining two 911 engines into a fearsome V-12 configuration and bolting on a massive turbocharger.
While the 917 K that finally took the coveted top prize for the manufacturer at Le Mans in 1970 is in private hands (and so special that Porsche actually houses a replica of it in its museum), this example boasts an identical vintage, desirable Vasek Polak lineage, and the ability to capture the heart of every collector and enthusiast that sees it.
1971 Citroën SM Espace Heuliez
The Citroën’s French body paired with an Italian-engine layout was already an ambitious configuration, but designer Yves Dubernard had hopes of taking the concept a step further. Employed at the Heuliez coachwork firm, Dubernard wanted to create a low-volume-series model, so he conceived of the SM Espace.
Incorporating a t-top design with sliding stainless steel louvers, the one-off boasts chrome disc wheels, angled louvers at the rear, and an airy greenhouse thanks to the car’s lack of a B-pillar. When its debut at the 1971 Salon d’Automobili in Paris failed to inspire serial builds from Citroën, company boss Henri Heuliez drove this very car up until 2012. The current owner acquired the unique vehicle in 2018 and had it restored to its original condition.
1979 Porsche 935
The slant-nosed, big-spoilered Porsche 935 may be more visually relatable to road cars than many of the low-slung competition vehicles on display at Villa d’Este, but it was no less critical to the German marque’s success in racing, taking four consecutive championships in the World Championship of Makes and winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans outright in 1979. This 935 was campaigned by Ted Field, founder of Interscope Records, and drivers like Danny Ongais and Hurley Haywood, racking up victories that bolstered the legend of this wide-hipped, turbocharged warrior.
The car’s current owner, Phillip Sarofim, parted the crowds when piloting this raucous Porsche at Villa d’Este, but he also made literal waves when his Grumman HU-16 Albatross amphibious aircraft—the flying mascot for his Meyers Manx buggy company—traveled all the way from California and performed fly-bys and water taxis on Lake Como.
1998 Porsche 911 GT1
One of the newest cars competing in Villa d’Este’s Century of Le Mans class also happens to be one of the most jaw-dropping entrants. In the late 1990s, the GT1 racing class required 25 homologated examples to be built. But when Porsche only built 21 road-going models, the FIA turned a blind eye and allowed examples like this Polar Silver Metallic GT1 to become all the more coveted.
Powered by an air-cooled and twin-turbocharged flat-six engine with liquid cylinder heads, the GT1 shares that commonality with the fearsome 962 race car, making it a veritable wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Ready to start summer in high gear? There’s still time to join Robb Report’s 2023 California Coastal Rally, June 4 through 8. For more information, or to register, visit here.
Source: Robb Report