Posh car-fanciers should put the pedal to the metal and make haste to the Concours d’Elégance, says Nick Foulkes.
Most car lovers are a combination of two types of petrol head: one a grease monkey and the other an aesthete. The first is never happier than when underneath the bonnet, up to his arms in con rods and cam shafts, wittering on about the ‘going’ of big ends and the merits of ‘short-throw’ gear boxes, pausing only to recite to you, in reverse order, the celebrity lap-times of Top Gear guests.
The second may not know a V8 engine from a vitamin-packed vegetable juice drink, but will have a view on the coachbuilders of old: the razor-edge styling of a 1930s Rolls-Royce or the poetic beauty of a Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic Coupé.
I find myself much more in the latter camp, and as such I am looking forward to the return of the Concours d’Elégance at the Hurlingham Club this year. I have many fond memories of the old Louis Vuitton-sponsored Concours: the atmosphere was a bit like a Commemoration Ball for grown-ups crossed with an automotive Glyndebourne, as guests picnicked and disported long into the night. And indeed that is what I like about a Concours d’Elégance; I am not a hardcore petrol head and I prefer my motoring events leavened by a slightly social atmosphere.
For many years I have been fortunate enough to be selected as a judge at the Cartier Style et Luxe, an automotive beauty pageant that is, for me at least, the highlight of Lord March’s Festival of Speed. There is something about rare and beautiful cars displayed against the backdrop of a beautiful stately home that I find compelling, and it would appear that I am not alone, as it is a taste shared by David Bagley, who together with his brother Andrew started the Salon Privé – a sort of Top Gear for rich people. Now in its third year, the Salon Privé is expanding the Concours d’Elégance that it launched at the Hurlingham Club last year and I have to say that it has changed my view of the whole event.
When I first heard about it, I thought it would be a bunch of City boy tyre-kickers and footballers in search of a trophy motor, but a Concours d’Elégance puts a different complexion on matters. Simply put, the Concours d’Elégance brings an air of civilisation and beauty to what might otherwise be misinterpreted as an event that turns the Hurlingham Club into a giant car showroom.
The Salon Privé is certainly aiming high with its concours. ‘I have done my homework at the Villa d’Este and Pebble Beach and this is what we are trying to create,’ says the show’s co-founder David Bagley. These are brave words indeed. The Villa d’Este Concorso d’Eleganza, held in the eponymous luxury hotel on the shore of Lake Como, is a long way from Fulham, while Pebble Beach, the sort of place where American squillionaires like Ralph Lauren take their multi-million dollar vehicles to compete against each other, is arguably the most demanding and exigent of automotive environments.
However, Bagley feels that his event at Hurlingham offers something unique in terms of focus and atmosphere. ‘We wanted to create a concours that featured post-war and luxury cars so it was integrated into the overall experience. We sought some very special and historic cars that were celebrity-owned and it really went down well. Indeed, it attracted real enthusiasts, while remaining very much the summer garden party: the champagne on the lawn, an intimate and relaxing number of people; wonderful dinners, and great entertainment in the evening.’
Indeed the inclusion of a Concours d’Elégance element in the Salon Privé has encouraged Bagley to broaden the scope of the event: ‘Last year we focused on supercars and luxury cars and this year we have expanded to include coachbuilders and concept car makers, and that is one of the unique things about the event. You will see some of the well-known luxury car brands and then a lot of things that people will not necessarily know about.’
And it is as part of an overall contextualisation of the supercar that the Concours d’Elégance makes sense, in that it evokes the romance of the car, which is probably more important than sheets of statistics testifying to Newton metres of torque; hundreds of bhp; and 0-60, 0-100 and standing mile times. Bagley believes that supercars should be treated as works of art and some of the vehicles he has assembled for this summer’s concours are very artistic indeed. For a start, he has a Gullwing Mercedes 300 SL, a truly entrancing automotive jeu d’esprit allied to the precision German engineering of the Wirtschaftswunder era.
However the first car I will be looking at is a highly evocative example of the emblematic Lamborghini Miura SV. Everybody knows the Miura. It appears during the opening titles of The Italian Job and steals the film. And this is a Miura P400 SVJ, one of only five built and one of only one that is said to have been delivered personally by Ferruccio Lamborghini to the Shah of Iran while the latter was enjoying a well-earned rest from affairs of state in St Moritz, where he had a villa behind the Suvretta House. The car was subsequently owned by Nicholas Cage, but it is the Shah-of-Iran provenance that really excites me.
Ever since the father of a friend of mine bought one of a shipment of Lambos destined for the Shah, but held up in transit owing to the small matter of a revolution, I have been fascinated by the influence of this much maligned world leader on automotive tastes. For instance I have heard the theory that it was he who encouraged Lamborghini to develop its SUV, the LM, for use in his army, although once again the revolution intervened and put a spanner into the works before the order could be completed.
In fact, the Shah owned so many important and very beautiful cars that for the 2009 edition of the Salon Privé I would like to see Bagley add another category to his Concours d’Elégance. As well as GTs, luxury cars, roadsters and road/racing cars, I suggest that he institutes a class dedicated to cars owned by the Shah of Iran.