Concours of Elegance - A Show-stopping Cast at Hampton Court Palace


© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

 

Whether protected in palaces, hidden in Swiss castles or stored at Malibu mansions, the owners of the world’s best examples of automotive engineering do occasionally get tempted by invitations to show their favourite wheeled artworks at exclusive Concours events across Europe and the United States.

Valued in the millions, or multi-millions, but still largely sheet metal, a rudimentary chassis and a combustion engine, the selected elites are basically the same construction the vast majority of readers of these words will have as personal transport, outside their houses, right at this moment. However, like a celebrated original painting, the quality of workmanship, talent of the creator and overall visual ambiance in the result, will set them apart from the masses of our mainstream alternatives.

To varying degrees, of course, but subjectivity in the world of car culture, often trumps objectivity given the basic concept of getting from A to B more quickly than humans can run - or ride horses - is satisfied by all such products built over the last hundred and twenty years. It’s just that when the desire for more opulence and greater speed can reach sublime levels of luxury, or challenge certain laws of physics, that recreational admiration becomes a popular pastime. And, after all, surely wandering around amongst the sights and sounds of exquisite mechanical and coach-building craftsmanship on a sunny afternoon is more engaging than staring for hours at a few paintings on an artificially lit wall?

It was with this in mind that I gladly took up the opportunity of visiting the 2019 edition of the Hampton Court Palace staged Concours of Elegance, for the third successive year. Same glorified car park, cynics might suggest but, naturally, a different selection of over sixty horseless carriages to those appearing previously. It’s always a privilege to view them in the metal at close quarters, meet friends and talk to experts and owners. An education as well as a temporary escape from the merely mundane, the imaginary soft focus of a luxurious lifestyle and passion for unobtainable cars sharpens into reality, for just a little while.

So, enough of the overture, what about the vehicles themselves? Better than any words on a page, or type on a screen, take a look at the pictures to accompany this report as you read. Each one is identified and you can hover over your personal favourites or scroll through the set, at will.

In essence, Hampton Court Palace, by the River Thames, on the southwestern edge of London, is the former home of King Henry VIII, the 16th Century monarch most notable for his marriage to six wives, each one a Queen for a period, during his reign. The final consort outlasted him, while two others lost their lives owing to his brutality and self centred lifestyle. Not thought quite so barbaric in the Tudor times and much harsher environment in which his subjects and royal household lived, Henry VIII, during his younger days, was a gregarious ‘sportsman’, and an entertaining host of feasts and parties. He was also a ruler of unrelenting determination, rejecting a millennium and a half of Catholicism to found the Church of England, which our current Queen Elizabeth II still heads to this day.

Honorary Patron, and very much a knowledgeable participatory visitor to the Concours of Elegance, is HM The Queen’s first cousin, HRH Prince Michael of Kent. Both are grandchildren of King George V and Queen Mary. So the grandeur and setting for the occasion could not be more appropriate for most of the cars to have travelled many hundreds, or several thousands, of miles - albeit not under their own power - in order to be collectively displayed and presented in such numbers. Fortunate owners could also have the chance to properly exercise their cars on a two-day tour of southern England, and enjoy the finest hospitality and accommodation throughout. Therefore, it couldn’t be further from a parochial tyre kicking morning coffee gathering, although these, too, have their merits across the broad spectrum of classic automotive enthusiasm. What is about old cars, and a small number of traditionally made newer ones, that attracts and intrigues so many followers? Both those lucky enough to buy them or drive them, and the majority of us who just dream, study and stare? I think the overall answer is a group of elements combined, to a lesser extent akin to the resulting collection of parts making up a car itself.

First of all you have the visual manifestation - the curves, the paintwork, the detail of craftsmanship. Then, under the bonnet, you have the engineering excellence, a fuel and air mixture producing great power for motion, be that transforming into silent, sedately progress, or raw, excessive speed. Plus the byproducts of this, activating our more minor senses, of sound and smell. However, perhaps an often ignored facet of a car’s existence is the anticipation of arriving at your destination - during the time spent inside the car - so the efficient process of getting there is not the only purpose. Contrarily, quite often, it is the journey itself, mainly from behind the wheel - but also from one, or more, passengers’ perspective - which is all part of the fun. Sometimes it will actually exceed that of the venue, if expectations in a new location are not met. And, after all, if this does turn out to be the case, you have the opportunity of just turning round and going back, thus repeating the journey which you found to be more favourable!

That said, you can also use the car as a tool for exploration so, as well as enjoying the experience of motoring in a classic or historic vehicle, it enhances the leisure pursuit of ‘discovery’. Don’t go back, go somewhere else. Therefore, to conclude this philosophy, and finally steer it round to something of relevance again, a concours car not only brings happiness to those onboard, but positivity and variety to those around it, in addition to the scientific, industrial and cultural education!

Right, if you’ve read this far without metaphorically switching off or, actively clicking ‘close’, you certainly deserve to learn of a few specific highlights. My favourites, yes, but potentially some of yours, as well. As indicated, please do study the pictures for yourself, as there will be many cars you like in particular, which I have omitted to mention by name, yet are just as interesting, rare or elegant.

There is invariably some sort of anniversary to celebrate, whatever the year, and these present ready-made themes for concours organisers to begin their invitation lists. In 2019 they were in abundance, so several groups of similar or related cars were present and, collectively, they can create a greater impact than some individuals might, if they were only solo representatives of a marque.

The biggest of these, almost the size of a separate concours event in its own right, was the century of Milanese style since the opening, in April 1919, of Carrozzeria Zagato. In particular, although a much later commencing timeline - but still a longstanding association - was the close collaboration with manufacturer Aston Martin. Most famously in the autumn of 1960 when the DB4GT, restyled by the paired pens of Gianni Zagato and Celestino Zoppi, was unveiled. Only 19 examples were produced but, so popular were the curves and profile that copies have been constructed for forty years, not least half a dozen by Zagato/Aston sanction themselves in the 1990s and Aston Martin Works, in Newport Pagnell, currently building another 19 ‘continuations’. Thankfully, a couple of the original cars were present, together with three V8 Zagato iterations based on the V8 Vantage chassis of the mid-1980s.  Add to those, various Zagato Astons spawned from the more standard DB7, Vanquish, Virage, DB9 and V12, and the combined display line was quite a visual history lesson. This culminated in a quartet of cars, in the same colour, owned by a single collector. He liked the 2016-19 Aston Martin Vanquish model so much that he commissioned a Coupé, a Volante, a Speedster and a Shooting Brake. They looked identical head on, but varied hugely from aft of the front wheels.

A second quartet, of mainly red cars, took centre stage when they arrived late morning in recognition of seventy years since the Ferrari 166 MM began an extraordinary catalogue of racing success. With a slightly later 212 Export Berlinetta joining the convoy, one of these five won both the 1949 Mille Miglia and 24hrs of Le Mans, while its twin won the 1949 Spa 24hrs and came second in that same Mille Miglia.

Back to the hundred year parties, and the creations of one Walter Owen Bentley and his successors were in greater evidence. And, of these, more than a dozen spanned the most iconic decade between 1921 and 1931, also with whisperingly quiet, curvaceous, coupés from the ‘50s. In addition, two brand new models of the current year and the State limousine of Queen Elizabeth II, driven directly from the Royal household. Bentley Motors themselves brought the 1929 Birkin 4½ litre ‘Blower’ and one of the best known 8 litre Saloons (in fact, W.O’s personal car), while US collector Bruce McCaw flew over the famous ‘Blue Train’ Speed-Six and ‘Old No.1’, the Speed-Six which was victorious in consecutive years at Le Mans in 1929 and 1930. Sister car ‘Old No.3’ was also present, as was the unique single-seater original Blower, Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin’s ‘Monoposto’ Brooklands record holder, in which he achieved 222kmh on the banked circuit in 1932.

Elsewhere were fine examples of cars which, with their sculpted coachwork and graceful appearance, looked far more sedate and luxurious yet, given their streamlining - often well ahead of their time, in airflow terms - could still outpace far lighter more basic sports machinery of the 1930s and ‘40s to exceed 100mph speeds. It was three of these which received my personal top three votes for a podium of true elegance. Mainly owing to their unashamed flamboyance, but also for their bold colour schemes which, in those dark and depressing days of the immediate pre- and post-war era, must have been akin to viewing intergalactic space ships whooshing down European roads, and almost as unlikely.

My third choice would have been the 1948 Alfa Romeo 6C-2500 SS Pininfarina Cabriolet, which featured quite prominently in the Orson Welles film, ‘Confidential Report’. As finished in a shade of lime green (veering towards yellow in the spectrum), with beige cloth roof and interior, this particularly enhanced its appeal. Runner-up, and built in the same year, would have been the Delahaye 175 S Grand Luxe Chapron, another cabriolet which, despite its deceptive opulence, was robust and fast enough for a sister coupé example to win the 1951 Monte Carlo Rally. This one in a bold shade of light blue with cream wings and hood.

However, the ultimate winner, for sheer presence and astounding bodywork - from absolutely every angle - was the 1938 Bugatti Type 57, chassis no. 57159. This a design by Parisian Coach-builder Van Vooren and an almost exact recreation of the original Shah of Persia car (chassis 57808), which is currently in the Petersen Museum. That was commissioned by his government as a wedding present for Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had similarly extravagant automotive tastes. The example at Hampton Court was described in the narrative as finished in deep purple, but in the London light appeared to be a richer shade of Royal Blue, with copious swirls and flashes of gleaming chrome. With contrasting crimson hood and seats, it appeared that my view of this Bugatti’s most arresting nature was shared by many others, as I later read that it had been presented with media sponsor ‘Octane’ magazine’s ‘Peoples’ Choice Award’.

A project of a slightly more economic nature and result (though still $5,000, when new), but perhaps an even more futuristic appearance of the time, was the 1936 silver, chromed, white-wall tyre and rear-engined, Stout Scarab. An aerodynamic mini-bus shaped vehicle, perfectly suitable for Flash Gordon and Dan Dare, only nine were constructed at Dearborn and apparently five still survive. William Bushnell Stout was not only a journalist, but an aviation engineer and he conceived the Scarab as a long wheelbase, art deco inspired, office on wheels, with swivelling seats and optional desk/table. Powered by a 3.6 litre Ford V8 directly over, and driving, the rear wheels, it gave a smooth and hushed ride, but with light steering, the rear weight bias and aerodynamics were said to ensure handling characteristics of a distinctly challenging nature.

By complete contrast in shape, although not dissimilar in colour, was a true centurion car, a 1919 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost 40/50hp in polished aluminium which had spent much of its life in north-west India. This 7.4 litre Barker bodied Rolls was one of 25 owned and imported by Lt.General, His Highness the Maharaja, Sir Bhupinder Singh of Patiala. Principally used on his shooting trips, it still carries four Patiala 12-bore shotguns and sports particularly exaggerated wheel arches. These, no doubt, highly suited to crossing rough terrain and preventing any form of local life or potential obstruction, that might have hindered progress, from getting clogged up in the wheels.

Another car with strong links to the Indian sub-continent, was the oldest exhibit on display, and certainly one of the grandest. The car in question was the Mulliner-bodied 1904 Napier L49 limousine, which had been sold new to the Nizam of Hyderabad, said at the time to be the wealthiest man in the world. Following a lunch with Napier advocate and racing pioneer S.F. Edge, the Nizam ordered half a dozen of the near silent 6-cylinder Napiers, five of which he shipped out to India, but this one was kept in England for when he made subsequent visits. Selwyn Francis Edge, of course, the driver of the first Napier which won its class in the RAC’s 1000 Mile Trial in 1901 and then, in another, the Gordon Bennett Cup during the following year. This being awarded for a special 565 kilometre section of the gruelling Paris to Vienna race and his car in distinctive Napier green.

As a result of his European success, the colour was henceforth adopted as the official British racing livery. The 2019 Concours L49, too, was presented in BRG and although perhaps the antithesis of a competition car, especially in silhouette, it largely shared the same six-pot engine, so smoothly running it was favoured by Edwardian Dukes, Marquises, Earls, Viscounts and the rest of the wealthy aristocracy who referred to it as the ‘Noiseless Napier’.

Personally speaking, it is the presence of imposing, glamorous vehicles which sets the tone for a high class concours, and no matter how many modern, low slung, speed machines appear - even those which have won the epic endurance races - or road cars capable of 200mph plus, it is the mythical carriages which bathe in the spotlight the best. And what could be more appropriate than the catalogue cover car, the 1937 Delage D8-120 Cabriolet from the Peter Mullin Collection, which appeared in the multi Oscar winning Hollywood Musical, ‘An American in Paris’?

George and Ira Gershwin’s songs, with dance routines choreographed by, and starring, Gene Kelly saw this Henri Chapron styled straight-eight glide him, and actress Nina Foch (the Delage’s owner in the film), around the fabled City of Light. However, when Kelly sings of the fledgeling French star, Leslie Caron, in whom he (and two others) are far more romantically interested, the opening words of; S Wonderful, S Marvellous”, specifically about her, could equally sum up the overall attributes of this breathtaking car. Just take a look for yourself, then swoon over all the others!

John Godley
Classique Car Conduits