Chantilly Concours, ‘Arts and Elegance’ 2019 - Magnifique!


What was I thinking? Heading due south, across country, towards what I knew was an environment suffering the hottest temperatures on record - surely madness? And especially as it had been forecast a couple of weeks ahead, so for someone with a deep seated, but genuine, fear of intense heat and humidity it seemed like masochism. This had to be a very special event to tempt me out, especially in an underpowered hatchback that had seen better days, not least because neither the air-conditioning nor basic cooling fan were functioning. But continue towards the French capital city, I did, desperately hoping for a moderately cool room once I reached my overnight stay. This was to be in the town of Beauvais from where, the following morning, I would continue the journey south east to the ultimate destination: The Domaine de Chantilly. Situated a few miles north of Paris and made famous by its equestrian course for top class flat race meetings, Chantilly hosted the prestigious ‘Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe’ in 2016 and 2017, open to the fastest thoroughbred horses, ridden by jockeys at the very pinnacle of their careers.

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

However, this event, the Chantilly Arts and Elegance, was primarily for horsepower of a different kind, and hundreds of thousands more of them, perhaps, including spectators’ transport, closer to a million. The estate of the Domaine de Chantilly is France’s foremost equine centre with not only a museum dedicated to the horse and the biggest stables complex in Europe, but wonderful architecture, palatial buildings and landscaped gardens, featuring lakes, fountains, statues and verdant greenery all around. Most appropriate for Royalty as originally the home of Henri d’Orléans, Duke of Aumale, fifth son of Louis-Philippe, the last King of France. Therefore, it was an ideal setting, too, for the highest quality gathering of significant cars from all over the continent. The Peter Auto organisation’s fifth Chantilly Arts and Elegance, was a standard setting weekend festival, both in terms of the invited vehicles and, even on a frightfully hot day, an audience of extremely well-dressed visitors. Of course, and worth re-emphasising, this was France where understated, personal elegance comes naturally to the majority, especially the female gender.

As for gentlemen’s attire, garish polyester football shirts, ugly ‘dodgem car’ sized running shoes and back to front baseball caps were not desirable - from the organisers point of view - nor thankfully seen worn by any of the visitors amongst whom I mingled. Further good news was that given the expanse of the venue, display cars, especially those competing for the top concours prizes, were given space so that everyone could admire them and even photographers rarely found the back of other people’s heads got in the way of their camera lenses. How unlike many outdoor events in the UK, which have their enduring appeal slightly tarnished by claustrophobic crowding. So, here we were in France and, just as earlier enjoyable trips to that country had shown, the domestic manufacturers were out in force.

Eclectic designs, sometimes even quirky Gallic inventions are synonymous, but somehow all of them combine individuality, functionality and artistic merit. Beginning in the early days of motoring as the 20th century dawned, right up to the latest conceptual offerings, harnessing new methods of electric propulsion. Precisely which of these will be built in large numbers for the public roads, well into the twenty-twenties and beyond, is not certain.

Bugattis, Facel Vegas, Avions-Voisins, Matras and Citroens led the way in terms of personal interest and a continuing desire to educate myself viewing cars I’ve never seen within the islands of Great Britain. However, it was also a chance to see Italian, British and German examples which may have been domiciled in France all their lives. These, too, provided variety given they were alternatives to similar models which tended to ‘do the rounds’ at UK events, year on year. Headlining these marques, from a British perspective, were Bentley (celebrating its centenary) and Aston Martin (sixty years after its Le Mans win), with Porsche, Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, Pagani, Iso-Rivolta and McLaren equally represented in strength. Of special note were the exotic creations of Marcello Gandini, designed between 1965 and 1980, many still looking futuristic today.

For a true cornucopia of the best automobiles on offer, across a range of decades, Bonhams once again took centre stage providing an opportunity to bid and purchase some 40 cars of stature. The setting for their sale-room marquee was sheltered among trees and on a gentle slope so that, with the sides rolled up allowing air to circulate, cars could also roll down in line to be presented right in front of collectors, serious bidders and miscellaneous viewers both seated and standing in great numbers. Headline vehicle and one which graced the cover of the catalogue was an appropriately French one. This being a 1952 Gordini Type 15S sports racing car and one of only a pair of four-cylinder spyders in existence, the other, stationary for decades in the Mulhouse-Schlumpf Collection. This fetched an impressive sum of €690,000 (with fees) but not quite scraping the lower estimate, and was joined by similarly impressive machinery commanding substantial sums. These included a 1932 Invicta 12/45 4½ litre Tourer (€276k), an especially attractive 1947 Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 Sport for €210k and a 1953 Aston Martin DB2/4 which went to a new home for €207,000.

© 2019, Classique Car Conduits

Concerning those other cars which didn't reach their reserves, perhaps some after sale negotiations were carried out and agreements reached between buyers, sellers and Bonhams the intermediaries. The high profile 1966 Shelby Cobra 427, 1913 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and 1959 BMW 507 being three for which upwards of €650k, €850k and €1.8m (for the BMW) may be required to secure them. After photographing most of the inventory, i.e., those for which I considered ticking at least two descriptor boxes; historic, classic, attractive or, perhaps the most subjective word, ‘important’, I headed off to explore the delights and many other facets of the event as a whole.

By this stage, even sheltering from the sun under a Panama hat, the equatorial heat made liquid refreshment a necessity rather than an indulgence. Plain old ‘aitch-two-o’ was the beverage of choice although it appeared I was in the minority, given the bottles of champagne and fine wines flowing in the grand hospitality areas and amongst alfresco picnics, enjoyed on lush lawns as far as the eye could see. The very best French cuisine was being served as well, either on tables or discovered in elaborate hampers and wickerwork baskets. Back at my car, where a rather modest salad and baguette awaited, a large bottle of clear liquid tasted like bathwater, thankfully without bubbles or soap, but did the trick of both quenching thirst and re-hydrating.

There were far too many highlights to describe, or even list, in this account, but the accompanying photographs should provide a flavour. However, just a few elements which particularly caught my eye include both automotive and organisational detail. From the atmosphere and ambience side of things, displays of equestrian carriage driving and very luxuriantly dressed occupants exemplified the uniqueness of the occasion. How on earth they stayed so cool in the conditions was quite beyond me as, notwithstanding rain, they were well wrapped up for the harshest autumnal, perhaps even winter conditions. Common to all moving displays of wheeled vehicles; those pulled by horses, plus the majority powered by internal combustion engines, or indeed some recent ones propelled from currents supplied by the very latest lithium-ion battery packs, was that they paraded around the same central arena. And at its core, a circular pond and fountain (named ‘La Gerbe’; water jets resembling a sheaf) being a perfect backdrop. On one side, for photographers and admiring spectators alike, the ornate stone steps descending from the main courtyard provided staggered viewing and, closer in, this was supplemented by a complete ring of grandstands provided free, with the majority of available seating thankfully not reserved for the great and good.

Another nice touch, out in the fields between the classes of concours cars were large wooden games. Some being greatly sized up versions of traditional tabletop games which have entertained families for several generations. Among them were chess sets, shuffleboard, quoits and also various versions of Boules. And in the late afternoon it was most welcome to see that even the smallest pieces or counters, in fact all objects needed to play each game, all remained in place for continued enjoyment.

I can certainly think of other outdoor venues where these would be pocketed within minutes to take home as souvenirs or just for the selfish pleasure of depriving others, but not here at Chantilly. People respected the occasion and there appeared no thought of spoiling it. On a similarly impressive note was the total absence of litter. This only became apparent when I had finished the tepid liquid contents of a plastic bottle and was looking for somewhere appropriate to place it, hopefully for recycling. I scanned around in all directions and saw nothing, but a few hundred yards further on did spot a bin discretely placed by a low wall. But given their general absence, I was most impressed and amazed there were no discarded items, so people must have taken all their rubbish, food packaging, etc., home with them. Where else would you see that happen today? Whether it be modern motor racing circuits, music festivals or any other major sporting occasion?

So, back to the focus of the visit: I have always been intrigued when attending concours events of varying degrees in importance and quality, how potential winners are actually scored, then selected for top honours. The obvious indicators of cleanliness, all working parts, originality, absence of rust and good paintwork come to mind, but then few people would consider entering unless these prerequisites for success were fulfilled. And Peter Auto had invited a ‘jury’ comprising no fewer than 56 judges. Granted, not all of them looking at every class but, nonetheless, all independently minded with separate viewing criteria, so there couldn’t really be an absolute level playing field. One would have thought that a brand-new or totally restored car from any leading manufacturer, that had literally just left the factory or specialist workshop and transported directly (probably not under its own power) to the venue, would have to receive an unblemished 100-point result, but this is not the case. Certainly in a few competitions I've attended over the years, such cars could fall well short, and the principle of the scenario has left me quite baffled.

© 2019, Thomas Quintin

However, chief judges and those with many years’ experience must educate the newcomers who may have received an invitation owing to their fame and notoriety in other spheres. When they come from the more classical art world, their expertise is not automotive or engineering based, though they will have a distinct flare for colour and lighting or three-dimensional design. Just wandering around, making mental notes from nothing more than an external visual view, I wasn't too surprised that my own choice concurred with the majority of judges for ‘Best of Show’ in the Post-war category. This being the 1948 Talbot Lago T26 Grand Sport Coupé with the impossibly perfect curves, only coach-builders ‘Figoni et Falaschi’ could fashion so well.

Again, both uniquely French, I was amazed by the avant-garde interior of the 1935 Avions-Voisin C25 'Aérodyne' and its convex sliding roof, then initially fooled by the radical, almost sci-fi, 2019 Citroen DS X E-Tense. On one side was a turquoise open cockpit for the driver, on the other, his/her partner would be cocooned in a scarlet capsule. However, you could see the road beneath, so the passenger needed to copy Fred Flintstone and run along the tarmac from a sitting position. Only by studying it really closely was the glass floor at all evident but, even so, it may be rather disconcerting for any anxious occupant at high velocity. These would be class winners in my mind but, obviously, collective judging panels know infinitely more than I do. If the final decisions were based on static inspections, that's one thing, but should they encompass various disciplines during the weekend, I would subsequently propose a very deserving winner would have been the 1969 Porsche 917K in Gulf colours, chassis 917-008, which raced at Le Mans, led for the first 18 hours and set a new lap record.

The reason for this opinion was based on an in-car video filmed the day before, just as I was travelling on the sweltering Saturday afternoon through northern France. Here, in the same heat and humidity, were two adults squashed into a noisy cramped driver/passenger compartment of a sports racing car with the roof only about three feet off the ground and capable of 240 miles per hour. They were travelling on public roads with their line of sight lower than the tyre treads of articulated lorries adjacent to them at junctions. Unless I am much mistaken, this car would not have had any sort of supplementary ventilation, let alone an air conditioning system yet the well-dressed occupants looked cool, calm and collected, even smiling during their hazardous and surely stifling journey. Having said that, I wouldn't refuse the opportunity for a ride in a real Le Mans Porsche 917, whatever the conditions. Probably enduring nausea or heatstroke until I passed out. It certainly put into perspective my own discomfort while driving, but at least I had windows open and the 1600cc motor made less noise than the Porsche’s 5 litre Flat-12 right behind the ears. I can only surmise that it was pure adrenaline coursing through their veins, while piloting such an iconic example of motor racing heritage, that kept them feeling fresh.

As ever with such glamorous outdoor motor car events, the best pictures and true atmosphere surrounding displays can be most appreciated as the sun is lowering in the sky and the majority of visitors are heading home. Merely out of curiosity, I boarded the last carriage on a little road-going train, constructed to look like a steam locomotive of yesteryear, imagining it would circulate the entire estate. But I was wrong in that after half a mile or so, past impressive structures of the grand stables and horse museum to the right, and alongside the railings of the racecourse on my left, the driver slowed to conduct a tight U-turn and enabled over 99% of the passengers to disembark. Only then did I realised the objective of the free transportation was to take the majority of visitors back to the outer public car parks.

Consequently, this indicated just how big the event was, and how well spaced out the specific areas on the site had been planned. Now parallel to the driver and at the back of the semicircle on wheels, he realised that I wasn't alighting, waved an acknowledgement, and we started back to the original point of departure, where the main chateau and surrounding lakes were situated. A final few photographs, then I drove out of the premises and along forest roads round to Chantilly itself and the main thoroughfare, Avenue du Maréchal Joffre. I concluded that this was a very pleasant part of northern France in which to reside, but you’d probably need considerable financial means in order to relocate there. Next summer Peter Auto’s other biennial ‘not to be missed’ headliner is the Le Mans Classic, once again, therefore I very much hope to return for the ‘Arts and Elegance’ they will be arranging for the year 2021.

John Godley
Classique Car Conduits