The Villa d’Este concours had plenty of spectacular cars and the best of show had Indian provenance
Vintage cars exhibition at Lake Como
Vintage cars exhibition at Lake ComoGudrun Muschalla

2023 edition of the classiest concours d’elegance in Europe – the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, to give the event its complete respectful name, when for the first time in the history of this great event an American car drove away with the top honours! If that wasn’t all, it was a car entered in the class for Incredible India: The Dazzling Motoring Indulgences of the Mighty Maharajas that wasn’t a Rolls- Royce! Fittingly so because there was no other car in spirit, elegance, charm, muscle, performance, and historic provenance that could match up to the 1935 Duesenberg SJ carrying the superlative one-off Speedster coachwork by Gurney Nutting. Made to the order of the former Maharaja of Holkar, this SJ (one of just 36 produced) was the last Duesenberg to roll off the firm’s assembly line before shutters were downed, it came out as a rolling chassis which was shipped to the Maharaja’s favourite coachbuilder in the UK to give it a sporty turnout. This long and large car with a boat tailed speedster bodywork appears small and diminutive in pictures but in the flesh, it has terrific presence and next to other large European and American cars of its vintage at the Villa d’Este it was imposing in its stance and lovely in the way its flowing lines finished in sunglow, black and chrome (probably the Maharaja Holkar’s prime colours for most of his cars), endowed it to great effect. Yet amazingly when its gracious owner Bill Lyon thumbed the starter to get that massive straight-eight Lycoming engine throbbing to life, it was purring away with the subtle hint of ‘don’t mess with me guys’ with just a dab on the loud pedal and the supercharger would kick in to unleash all of its 320 horses! Yes, this car had the ‘go’ to back up the ‘show’ and even though it went on to convincingly take the honours in class, it was the exquisite competition that it beat to grab the Best of Show which marked it for so many.

And the competition it bested was eclectic to say the least. Take the 1938 Delahaye 145 Coupé Chapron of Peter and Merle Mullin for instance which won the class for pre-war racers and was truly at home on the shores of Lake Como. Or take in competition from closer to home to the Duesy in the form of a very elegant 1933 Chrysler Custom Imperial with coachwork by Le Baron that had everything and more but just that it didn’t have the rich provenance and history that the Lyon’s ex-Holkar SJ had, in abundance!

If that wasn’t all, there was genuine sporty fare and history coupled together in the form of the Porsche 901 Prototype which was the forerunner of all 911s to date and looked as fresh today as it did in 1963! It was one of the 13 prototypes of the 901 which carried names such as Sturmvogel (storm bird), Blaumeise (blue tit), Fledermaus (bat), Zitronenfalter (brimstone butterfly), Barbarossa (red beard) and Quick Blau or Quick Blue. And this last named was there in its original glory owned by none other than another great name to enhance the Porsche legend – Alois Ruf who has owned it from 1968 to this day! And if that wasn’t all, this car, the oldest remaining 901 prototype, also had pedigree testers on its roster: apart from Ferdinand Piech who worked on it, it was also under the care of great German engineers such as Hans Mezger (who did the TAG Turbo F1 engine for McLaren, led the design and engineering teams on the 917 and many more racing Porsches) and Walter Vetter before Alois Ruf bought it off the factory.

If so far the Duesy had to shrug off its French, Yankee and German rivals for Best of Show, it also saw off a trio of Ferraris and a singleton Maserati that grabbed class victories. Jonathan and Wendy Segal’s 1956 Maserati A6G/54 Berlinetta clothed by Zagato was clearly the pick of the judges for the “Made in Italy” class while the first of the Prancing Horses to effortlessly breeze ahead to win the Granturismo European GT honours was a Pininfarina-bodied 330 GTC Speciale from 1967 (one of only four such made). Owned by William E Heinecke of Thailand, this was truly ethereal in its beauty and with a derivative of the great Giaochino Colombo designed engine of 1947 beating away to its V12 rhythm, it looked just the way lithe thoroughbred Ferraris of the 1960s were always expected to be!

I loved what Class G stood for and that was for machines that had thundered down the Mulsanne Straight during the fabled Le Mans 24 Hours through the years and of the eight entries in this class there were no less than four cars with five outright Le Mans 24 Hour victories there on the terrace at Villa d’Este: the winning Mercedes-Benz 300SL from 1952 (the first Le Mans victory for the German marque), the 1960 Le Mans winner – the Ferrari 250 TR (Testa Rossa) with its flamboyant Fantuzzi designed and built open coupe bodywork, the 1968 and 1969 Le Mans winning Ford GT40 (yes the same car won both years) and the 1977 Le Mans winning Porsche 936/77. There were others as well in this class including the 1937 Peugeot 302 Darl’Mat Sport which ran in the 1937 Le Mans and won its class; a 1950 Aston Martin DB2 Coupe, one of just five such built and raced by the works with class victories at Le Mans and also the Mille Miglia and a fabulously maintained as original 1976 Ferrari 512 BB LM with lightweight and long tailed bodywork by Pininfarina replete with its race hewn scars made up this great class which was obviously created keeping in mind that this year Le Mans was celebrating its centennial!

The period perfect 1992 Rolls-Royce 40/50 hp silver Ghost was the second oldest car in the event
The period perfect 1992 Rolls-Royce 40/50 hp silver Ghost was the second oldest car in the eventAdil Jal Darukhanawala

However, the winner of this class was none other than a Ferrari 250 GTO (in metallic silver and carrying the Italian tricolour from nose to tail) from 1962 which went on to win its class and take fourth overall in the 1963 Le Mans 24 Hours! Owned by American David MacNeil, it was the 24th example of just 36 250 GTOs ever built and it appeared at Villa d’Este in the same configuration as when it scored its greatest success at Le Mans in 1963!

One of the most elegant of Ferraris, the 250 GT Spyder California from 1961 came up trumps in the class succinctly titled “Here comes the sun: ‘Topless’ done differently!”. With Pininfarina penned lines and body crafted by Scaglietti, this short wheelbase version is one of only 55 built and fittingly it was its first owner who epitomised the way Ferraris were perceived: French author Francois Sagan’s bon mot who liked living the grand life had immortalised all Prancing Horses with her words: “whisky, gambling and Ferraris are better than housework.” With a factory fitted hardtop and finished in a fantastic shade of metallic blue, I liked it the minute I laid eyes on it at the Villa d’Este. Also, it seemed rather familiar until I realised that ace German model maker CMC had made a small run of this model and I have that very same machine in 1:18 scale in my model car collection so was pleased to see it take the honours in this class.

For the Duesenberg to beat this set of automobiles was massive and it reminded me of the fact that it was the first Best of Show victory by an American car in the greatest concours d’elegance event in Europe. Almost akin to the first Grand Prix win by an American car in the history of the French Grand Prix when Jimmy Murphy trounced the combined European opposition to win the 1921 GP and etch his and his car’s name in the history books. As such Bill Lyon’s foray with the ex-Holkar Duesenberg at Villa d’Este came exactly a century after Duesenberg stamped its authority on European soil. And fitting that an Indian potentate had inadvertently played a role in this latter victory! Speaking of which it would be unfair to dismiss the four other cars in the Incredible India category (in fact there would have been five but for a no show) and all four of them were heavy with provenance, being top of their marques in their respective years of manufacture and superbly turned out to hold their heads high in million-dollar company! In no particular order I will run you through these four and Karamjit Singh Jaiswal’s immaculately period perfect 1922 Rolls-Royce 40/50 HP Silver Ghost was the second oldest car at the event. Ordered by the Maharaja of Mayurbhanj it had special lightweight open tourer bodywork by Windovers, given the Maharaja’s penchant for hunting and those two big Grebel spotlights on the footboard attested to this fact. Kishore Gidwaney who has undertaken the care and restoration of this car plus others in the supremely eclectic vintage and classic car collection of the Jaiswals was on hand and his deft handling of this Silver Ghost was sheer joy to behold. On hand next was the magnificent 1934 Packard Standard Eight from the US firm’s 11th Series and clothed with a seven- seat open tourer coachwork by Dietrich for the Maharaja of Nawalgarh. It was acquired by its present owner and longtime classic car aficionado Rajiv Kehr who lusted after it for over 30 years! A complete body-off restoration was resorted to a couple of years ago (at the Supercar Garage in Mumbai) and the Packard with its sizzling chrome bonnet and deep red body shade debuted at this year’s 21 Gun Salute Concours d’Elegance in Baroda where it was impressive to behold. Rajiv had taken the plunge to get going on the European scene and the Packard won a lot of hearts even if it came back with no silverware. After this event, the car has stayed put in Europe to head to other major events for which it has been selected for participation.

The 1935 Duesenberg SJ Speedster of Bill Lyon won Best of Show.
The 1935 Duesenberg SJ Speedster of Bill Lyon won Best of Show.Gudrun Muschalla

A car which is a prized one in the roster of great Rolls-Royces, and which was just one of two specially built Experimental models ever sold by the works was Austrian collector Alexander Schaufler’s 1928 Phantom Experimental, better known by its 17EX suffix. This car was built to see off the growing challenge to the Silver Ghost from other carmakers and so with an enlarged engine, newer chassis and suspension and supposedly lightweight construction (which was anything but lightweight!), the 17EX was chanced upon by the Maharaja Hari Singh of Jammu & Kashmir who asked Rolls-Royce to sell it to him. It wasn’t RR’s policy to sell any of its development machines but being a very influential customer who it couldn’t displease it was sold to him. This car with a body built by Jarvis of Wimbledon was finished in the same shade as sported by the Blue Bird Land Speed Record car of Malcolm Campbell (correct name in RR parlance being Sax Blue) has dazzled many on the global concours circuit over the last two decades and it has been in ownership with Schaufler since 2009. To see this car light on its feet, drive with alacrity was magnificent indeed. No wonder then it took the runner-up spot to the Duesenberg in the Incredible India class.

As an aside to the 17EX at Villa d’Este, there was also another experimental Rolls-Royce at the show and this was 10EX, purportedly belonging at one time to the Maharaja of Baroda. As such both cars were together for the first time in over a hundred years, if only for a couple of days!

The fifth and the final car in the Incredible India class was the magnificent 1949 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith Drop Head Coupe of Yohan Poonawalla who was the first from India ever to be selected for the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este last year and he returned with a car that was clearly befitting the Maharaja of Maharajas in its stately manner and turnout. Ordered by the Maharaja of Mysore and with coachwork credited to James

Young, I learnt from Allan Almeida the man in charge of Viveck Goenka’s all-inclusive restoration facility in Mumbai (arguably the foremost such in the country) that it came with a build sheet running into nearly 400 pages and that apart from James Young, three other big name British coachbuilders also plied their craft on it, especially the interiors and special fitments. These included Mulliner, Hooper and Co, and the car had to be seen to be believed. It took over two and half years for Allan to build this car from the ground up and thanks to the extensive build sheet and service history, he and his team were able to turn a rust heap into a stately car that literally glided on the pathways at Villa Erba and Villa d’Este. No wonder then that the Silver Wraith finished in deep carnation red dazzled the judges sufficiently to award it the Trofeo BMW Group Classic for the most sensitive restoration of any car at the event! Take a bow Allan, Viveck and Yohan, you all did yourselves and India proud!

 Ex-Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir’s 1928 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith
Ex-Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir’s 1928 Rolls-Royce Silver WraithGudrun Muschalla

The Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este is an institution and given its stunning success year on year it has now spawned a classic car week at Como with other events tagging along at other terrific venues around Lake Como at the same time. However, that is another story altogether and it is the atmosphere around the shores of Lake Como that transforms this dreamy little town into hosting one of the most prestigious events of automotive beauty every May. I have been visiting it now for close to a decade and a half and while I have been fortunate to see some of the truly greatest of great cars built by the world’s master craftsmen, designers and engineers, nothing is etched on my subconscious as strongly as the 2023 event and for the right reasons: a Yankee supercar of its time, ordered by an Indian royal who was a lover of French art deco in all its myriad forms assigning his favourite British coachbuilder to create a stunning masterpiece on wheels which would 88 years later go on to take Best of Show while at the same time heralding the coming of age of the Indian heritage car movement will be hard to erase! I can hardly wait for 2024!

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