Hampton Court Concours of Elegance - A Small Selection of the Very Best


Former home of the infamous Tudor monarch, King Henry VIII and, at differing times, his six wives, was once again the venue for the Concours of Elegance. Always a highlight and a grandiose, yet friendly motoring event, now traditionally taking place at the transition in the calendar between Summer and Autumn seasons. The previous September, in 2020, it had still taken place as one of the few enduring events possible within worldwide pandemic restrictions. However, this year could be further enhanced by considerably more of our international friends and associates making the journey from Europe and the United States. Not only in person, but they were able to bring their magnificent cars across the sea or over by air which, after all, are the raisons d’être and stars of the whole occasion.

Prior to arrival and when reading down the pre-published list of invited participants, I noticed there were many familiar marques, but the selected individual cars themselves would be of the highest calibre. Surprises awaited, as seeing is believing, and only in the metal could they be fully appreciated for craftsmanship, design and overall splendour. Expectations exceeded as, up close and personal, it was a joy and privilege to be in the presence of so many magnificent machines, in some instances veritable art forms. Perhaps only a lifelong enthusiast or automotive historian would say that with genuine conviction, but the Hampton Court Concours never fails to impress and continually sets a world class standard. A feature most poignantly demonstrated this year, by the mass arrival itself.

© 2021 John Godley

In truth, until mid-morning, there were far more unoccupied parking spaces than cars present, and one or two verbal rumblings among expectant visitors about potential ‘no-shows’. But so many? What went wrong? However, any doubts dispelled when the majority of vehicles would literally sweep, en masse, into the gardens behind the Palace as a convoy. Some would glide, others would rumble, though a sure way to turn heads was for drivers to exercise their right foot and tap dance over the throttle pedal. Rasps and crackles were the order of the day for highly tuned race bred engines. Some overseas participants later confirmed this as being a conclusion to their travels and recounted a well organised tour through the English countryside as far distant as North Yorkshire. So, whilst this opening Friday, 3rd September, was primarily focussed on the owners’ and informal presentations, throughout the weekend all exhibits would remain in place, to be enjoyed by many, many more hundreds of public visitors.

And, it seemed, temperatures were back to high Summer levels, perhaps more typical of mid-July at latitudes further south than London. Among the sun-drenched Hampton Court cars were models which had never been seen in an open environment before and others - made only for competition - last raced half a century previously, at minimum.

There were those simply stored away for decades and some revitalised and relaunched as originally constructed, many years ago. One such example, and in pride of place, was a 1979 Aston Martin. This a one-off potentially 200mph Aston, christened ‘Bulldog’ but officially recoded as Prototype DPK901, with a twin turbo 5.3 litre V8 engine, sharply contoured bodywork and only 43 inches in height. But let’s take a minute here, just to absorb the specification brief:

First of all, this was a full eight years before a commercially marketed Ferrari F40 would supposedly break the 200mph barrier. And this, a full fat road-going Aston, constructed for comfort and luxury, not a race-bred lightweight intended for Le Mans. Added to that a great lump of a V8 sent to the back of it, but usually found in the front, powering hundreds of Astons, as driven on ordinary highways, since the late 1960s. However, after changing its colour to two tone green and adding peripheral adornments made of gold, the Middle Eastern owner had got bored or, for whatever reason, ‘moved on’.

After decades of dormancy, this vehicle’s extensive and recently completed restoration (including the gold removed and returning it to silver/light grey paint) had been a project managed by Richard Gauntlett. He, a businessman son of one of Aston Martin’s previous managerial saviours, himself right at the helm and Chairman of the company for the latter Newport Pagnell years. None other, of course, than the venerable Victor Gauntlett. In respect to his late father, Richard publicly pledged, following a typically rousing military musical fanfare (of which Victor would have approved), that although Bulldog did reach 191mph during its initial development tests, he was going to make sure it officially crossed the 200 threshold, as originally intended, all those years ago.

Opposite the Aston, and nearest to the palatial buildings, was an array of Sports Racing cars, undoubtedly made even more famous by their imaginative colours schemes and visually arresting liveries, specifically and unmistakably, the signatures of Martini and Gulf Oil.

They included the ultra-development versions of the Martini Porsche 911 Carrera RSR, and a pair of the earlier and even more iconic Gulf 917Ks, together with the 1975 Le Mans winning Porsche 936, as piloted by Derek Bell and Jackie Ickx. Beside these were the slightly more nimble looking Gulf Mirage GR8 and Porsche 908/3 Spyder open top sports cars. The latter being fully suitable for the epic Targa Florio races in the early 1970s, a true test of endurance in the challenging terrain and, often rudimentary, road surfaces of Sicily.

Geographically linked to which, perhaps the manufacturer most associated with the blue and red striped Martini liveries, isn’t German, but Italian. Therefore, what demonstration of the world-famous Vermouth sponsorship would be complete without the presence of Lancia? Track and Rally versions were represented by the Group 5 Lancia Beta Montecarlo, plus its replacement the LC2 Group ‘C’ car, and the Lancia 037, as campaigned in the World Rally Championships between 1984 and ’86.

Other cars of note, and those worthy of detailed description would have included nearly every one of the eighty or so specially selected for the main concours arena. All possessing a unique story of their own, but only a cross section of these can be described within the following paragraphs to give them a degree of justice.

Therefore, to begin with, and returning to a Targa Florio theme, but from the previous decade, we had a rare sighting of a 1966 Alfa Romeo Giulia TZ2. This, the successor - being lighter, faster and more agile - to the original Zagato bodied TZ1. Still with only a modest 1.6 litre in-line four-cylinder, but the engine putting out 170bhp, to propelling the mass of only 620 kg, to over 150mph. Such impressive performance statistics that this car, the most successful of only eight chassis constructed, won its class and came 4th overall in the 1966 Targa Florio, with additional class wins that year at the Nürburgring 1000kms and four other national Italian based events. In 2018 Simon Kidston certainly knew he was acquiring the best, of the best.

Speaking of superlatives, there are countless debates as to which model personifies the pinnacle of all Ferraris. Objective criteria range from circuit success, astronomic monetary values, bodywork design, engine and sound, or a range of more intangible aesthetics, but most candidates are those with power generated from the front. By removing the letters GTO (not the ultimate model, in any case, for many), we are often left with the 250 GT Short Wheel-Base from just before, or the 275 GTB and GTB/4 from the era immediately afterwards. At Hampton Court we were blessed with fine examples of each of them. However, for this scribe, it was the late 50s, rather than early to mid-60s, which typifies the marque at its most iconic and beautiful. And furthermore, we were graced with the presence of these models, as well. The only remaining debate concerns whether the ultimate Ferrari has a roof or not.

So, from every angle, the 250 Tour de France never fails to freeze the jaw in the open position, just as its sunshine absorbing brother, the California Spyder, does likewise. From then it’s easy to become pedantic on both but, as a personal choice, the finest iterations are arguably the covered headlight TdFs with the similar length chassis LWB 250 Cals. Lucky owners of any of them, and marque connoisseurs the world over, could well dismiss that view from their more learned perspective, but when you have both as a pair of subjectively perfect cars, precisely selected by the Concours invitation committee, one can be a little smug this unwavering view had actually been held for decades!

Both chassis 0763GT and 0923GT were simply gorgeous. In fact, you could make it a threesome, by adding in the short nose 275 GTB also present, the unique profile chassis 07535, with its exquisite chrome grille guard linking the front bumpers. And then you’ve got pretty much an unbeatable holy trinity of fantastic Ferraris. I didn’t even mind that they were all in red! (Personal foible, or failing?)

For pure race bred exuberance, fearless times when the virtues of speed and bravery eclipsed any notion of safety, or exercising restraint and reserve among the thrill seeking rich - either sportsmen or women - exploring the limits of physics on water and in the air, by mechanical means, opportunities were matched by pioneering motor manufacturers on land. And as perfect examples of the most powerful, noisy and often oily machines they made, both the Bugatti Type 59 and Alfa Romeo Tipo P3 Grand Prix cars, of the early 1930s, were archetypal of this glamorous genre.

Similarly powered by straight-eight 16-valve engines of 3.3 and 3.2 litres, respectively, these period rocket ships with wire wheels and spindly axles, provided 250-265bhp in completed chassis weighing under 750kg (actually 70kg even less for the Alfa). No belts or harnesses, of course, and if your mind had time to process the fact you were heading for a heavy crash, from well over a hundred miles an hour, the safest thing would be to jump out! Only heroic skill matched with equal daring and pints of adrenalin could enable the cars to perform at their ultimate by drivers such as René Dreyfus and Tazio Nuvolari. They, in turn, had to go beyond the theoretical limits of engineering specification just to match the even more powerful, advanced and aerodynamic competition from Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union.

However, entering fully into the spirit of yesteryear was the P3’s owner, Jennie Taylor. She demonstrated probably the loudest vehicle on show with verve and enthusiasm at every opportunity. In her pristine white overalls, one could imagine her in the heart of the international racing fraternity (or sorority) when both well-resourced genders were, in equal measure, maximising their fun around the hedonistic social scenes of European race tracks. Ms. Taylor was certainly a most popular and happy contributor to the spirit of the 2021 occasion. She, and everyone else in earshot, was smiling whenever the lady fired up her Alfa!

Although similarly from the upper echelons of the automobile pantheon, being the playthings, even sometimes merely mundane transport for the wealthy, Rolls-Royces and Bentleys of various shapes and sizes (starting reasonably large and continuing upwards) are more familiar on the roads and in garages of the British Isles. However, the 1937 Rolls-Royce Phantom III Airline Limousine stood out as a true one-off, in several spheres of influence. For a start, under the bonnet was a water cooled 24 Valve V12 displacing 7.3 litres. Other contemporary Rolls-Royce V12s powered the Supermarine S.6B seaplane (Schneider Trophy winning racers), and developments, of course, would eventually find themselves creating propulsion for many thousands of Spitfires and Hurricanes.

So, perhaps no co-incidence then, that the coachwork on this Rolls was crafted at the behest of Sir Alan Butler, chairman of the De Havilland Aircraft Company. He instructed HJ Mulliner to design an Airline Limousine with a counter-intuitive, reverse angle windscreen and sublime rear curvatures, previously found to be so aerodynamically effective, in his wind tunnel. Back wheels also smoothly clothed in spats (with lightning bolt flashes), thus continuing the unbroken lower line of bodywork to the extremities of the swept tail. Another aeronautical finishing touch was an aneroid altimeter, calibrated to 7,000ft, among the other dashboard instruments. In 1939 the car was gifted to the war effort, and became the personal transport of one Field Marshall Montgomery, with no lesser passengers than Eisenhower, Churchill, even King George VI, also benefiting from rides on occasion. Viscount Montgomery, affectionately known as ‘Monty’ to his troops, liked the limousine so much he even kept it for personal use long after hostilities had ended.

There’s something about the Art Deco period which transcends national boundaries, certainly in terms of the automobile. Of course, a little later in the United States, rounded and svelte shapes of large cars were common place during the 1940s, an age when most of the affordable European cousins seemed at least a decade behind in modernity. However, well ahead of its time, and way back to 1935, was the arrival of Avions Voisin C27 Aérosport. Notice a theme here? Californian collector Peter Mullin had generously brought earlier sister cars over to Europe for display in recent years (including the C24 Chatelain and C25 Clairière at Chantilly’s Concours), but this, a two-door coupé was a progression from the innovative four-door C25 Aérodyne - unveiled at the glamorous Paris Motor Show - and which had never, as far as I know, been seen here in England. 

The C27, in turn, had wowed at the Geneva and Madrid motor shows on completion, with its pentagonal side windows, underslung profile, mirror dished wheels and a fully powered sliding roof. This process activated by its own little motor working off the vacuum generated by the main engine. Externally, from all angles, it is beyond striking. And everywhere there’s a fascinating element of unique detail, not least the triple connecting windscreen wipers and, further ahead, the aluminium buttresses, a particular Avions Voisin trademark. Effectively a pair of struts enhancing upper rigidity between the bonnet and tops of the forward wheel arches.

But that’s not all: Oh no, it certainly isn’t, by any means! Look inside the windows or down through the open top and your eyes can’t fail to be staggered at the creative vision of the fabric, enveloping not only the seats, but throughout the entire interior surface, above carpet level. Doors, pillars, rear body work, even the roof lining itself. Haphazard, yet geometric and uniform at the same time, it contrasts and complements the piano black dashboard, filled with a plethora of varying sized circular dials in polished bezels and miscellaneous organ stops, activated by pulling or pushing them, depending on specific function.

As ever, the standard of competition at the Hampton Court Concours of Elegance was phenomenal, but the white and black Avions Voisin C27 Aérosport simply had to be crowned the ‘Best of Show’. And, I’m sure, very few of those present would argue with the judgement.

Now you’ve seen it is only possible to describe a tiny proportion of the display cars in words, but often a picture can paint a thousand of them, so I do urge you to look through all the accompanying photographs. If nothing else, a quick scan just to give a visual impression of the standard and variety of these truly amazing vehicles. Each one invited and brought - the majority were driven - to the ancestral home of a much married, tempestuous, and unpredictable King, ironically now a most peaceful and tranquil setting by the River Thames, south west of London…

Don’t miss it in 2022!

© 2021 John Godley
Classique Car Conduits

PS (as in: postscrīptum)

I have only just noticed a subtle theme of monochrome or sepia, but dual colour, motor cars which took my eye, on several returning occasions. And, with further paragraphs, I would have described being drawn to the stunning Aston DB4 Series 5 Vantage, the versatile and still a sumptuously smooth adaptation of Citroën SM - the influential Henri Chapron hinting at his desired customers’ standing by naming it ‘Mylord’ - and yet another Milanese offering, built at the Portello Plant: the glorious Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 Supergioiello Ghia coupé. Incidentally, the very same car was invited to the recent Villa d’Este Concorso d’Eleganza, where it received ‘Mention of Honor’. An inspired foresight? No, the cars in the photographs have an aura about them and silently speak for themselves.
Take a look.