Best Cars at the Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este

The ultra-exclusive show specializes in exotic rarities, and these stopped us in our tracks.

bmw group 2021cde
BMW Group

The Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este is the world's oldest, most exclusive classic-car show. Held regularly since 1929 on the shores of Lake Como—a recherché Italian vacation destination since the times of the Roman Empire—the show gathers just 50 or so cars. Each is a member of a small class with an arcane name that generally signals an era and some other discursive parameters.

Though the event is typically held in late spring, it was canceled last year, then delayed until this fall. Since we are more intrepid (or perhaps more inclined to risky behavior) than most, we traveled to Italy to see the show. Every car on the grounds was droolworthy, and unlike at Pebble Beach or Amelia Island, the selective nature of the event really allowed each one to shine. But choices must be made. Here are our picks for Best of Class—or at least Most Intriguing of Class—in each category.

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1937 Lagonda LG45 Rapide
1937 lagonda lg45 rapide
Brett BerkCar and Driver

Class A—Twentieth Century Style: From Touring Torpedo to Racy Roadster

Before its acquisition by Aston Martin in the late '40s, Lagonda was a separate brand. Founded in the U.K. in 1906 by an American former opera singer and motorcycle maker, it was named for a vanquished Shawnee settlement that, once colonized by Europeans, would become Springfield, Ohio. This aerodynamically flowing beauty was purported to be the fastest car in the world at the time of its production, capable of 100 mph via a 4.5-liter straight-six engine developed by none other than W.O. Bentley, who was lured to Lagonda from Rolls-Royce (which had acquired his eponymous car company). This particular car was allegedly ordered by Hollywood superstar Clark Gable, who would have housed it in a garage with one of only two Duesenberg SSJs. (We drove the other one, owned by his contemporary Gary Cooper.)

1938 Delage D8-120 S
1938 delage d8120 s
Courtesy: BMW Group

Class B—Developing the Theme: Space, Pace, and Grace

The storied and independent French marque was founded in 1905 and went on to produce some of the most elegant and fastest race cars of the early automotive era. But the Great Depression hit the luxury market hard, and the brand was acquired by a competitor, Delahaye. Thus, this Delage is powered by a 4.7-liter Delahaye straight-eight, no slouch. Its convertible coachwork by the French expert De Villars typifies a glorious art-nouveau styling with impossibly low bodywork nearly swallowed by curvaceous, tapering aerodynamic fenders that rise improbably above the hood and trunk lines. The adventurous wife of a Paris Delage dealer rallied the car in period and showed it at various concours events.

1947 Bentley Mk VI
1947 bentley mk vi
Courtesy: BMW Group

Class C—Showroom Showdown: Britain and Germany Battle for Luxury Supremacy

Surrounded by blue-chip midcentury stalwarts like a pair of Mercedes-Benz 300SLs, a BMW 507, and an Aston Martin DB5, this postwar Bentley felt almost anachronistic. But that didn't stop us from falling in love with it. It is one of just two Mk VIs to be bodied by the French firm Franay, famed for graceful Duesenbergs, Rolls-Royces, and Bugattis. It shared a garage with a half-dozen other Bentleys and Rolls-Royces from the same year, ordered by a wealthy gentleman from Basel, Switzerland. Its 4.3-liter straight-six purred. But was really impressed us was the brown and tan bodywork, draped in layers over a silver metal undercarriage as if lifting the hem of its pant legs to show off its fancy socks. We found its peekaboo act irresistible.

1948 Isotta Fraschini 8C Monterosa
1948 isotta fraschini 8c monterosa
Brett BerkCar and Driver

Class D—Granturismo all'Italiana: Finding the Perfect GT Formula

Norma Desmond, the fictitious former silent-movie star at the center of Billy Wilder's 1950 masterwork, Sunset Boulevard, is famously chauffeured around not in "one of those cheap things made of chromium and spit" but in her grand Isotta Fraschini, a car from the Italian automaker’s classic-era heyday. By the end of the Depression and World War II, the brand was in tatters. As a Hail Mary, it developed a brand-new luxury car with a 3.0-liter V-8. Shockingly, the engineers placed the engine in the rear, allowing the creation of a spacious passenger compartment that, with no transmission tunnel, featured room for six. About a half-dozen prototypes were produced, including this wondrous streamlined Boneschi cabriolet, which was shown at Villa d'Este in 1949. Sadly, this model never entered production and was the final attempt at reviving the brand, which faded soon after.

1968 Howmet TX
1968 howmet tx
Brett BerkCar and Driver

Class E—Big Band '40s to Awesome '80s: Five Decades of Endurance Racing

This class of endurance race cars was littered with famed Ferraris and Porsches and even featured a stunning French blue Alpine M64. But we were drawn to this stranger entry from Howmet, a Pittsburgh aerospace conglomerate. Like a number of other vehicles in that era, it was created to test the viability of gas-turbine engines in automotive applications. This car featured a mid-mounted Continental Aviation and Engineering mill borrowed from military-helicopter production. The motor produced around 350 horsepower and 650 lb-ft of torque and revved to an outrageous 57,000 rpm. Because of this massive thrust, the car had only one gear and no reverse. (A small electric motor enabled the car to back up.) The Howmet has the distinct honor of being the only turbine-powered car ever to win a race, garnering two victories in SCCA events during its one year of competition.

1957 Fiat 500 Abarth
1957 fiat 500 abarth
Brett BerkCar and Driver

Class F—A Passion for Perfection: Celebrating 90 Years of Pininfarina

The Fiat Cinquecento was a masterwork of Italian flair and packaging, kicking off decades in which the country rose to the top of affordable international industrial design in nearly every category, from fashion to furniture to housewares. This little coupe represents what may have been the zenith of such synergies, combining industrial megalith Fiat with hypertalented coachbuilder Pininfarina and adding in—for the first time in a 500—the up-powering might of scorpion-branded Abarth. This particular car has been in the same family since it was new, with the original owner taking possession directly from Pinin Farina in 1958, driving the car for 10 years, racking up just 4350 miles, and placing it in storage, where it sat for 50 years. This is the first time the public has seen the car since, and we are thankful for the familial stewards who preserved it and brought it back to life.

1989 Aston Martin V8 Vantage Volante Zagato
1989 aston martin v8 vantage volante zagato
Courtesy: BMW Group

Class G—The Birth of the Supercar: Latin Style Landmarks

The V8 Vantage of the 1970s and '80s was an amazing achievement from a company that was constantly teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Its potent quad-carbureted 5.3-liter V-8 produced 390 horsepower in base trim, an outrageous output for the day and enough to best the era's Ferraris in a straight-line race. And its bodywork was emblematic of its designation as a British muscle car. Toward the end of its run in the late '80s, Newport Pagnell commissioned a limited edition of Vantages with bodies by the carrozzeria Zagato, with which it had a history dating back to rebodied DB4 GTs. These rectilinear redesigns were purposefully inelegant, with almost Brutalist touches. With its blacked-out paint scheme, throwing-star wheels, angular bodywork, and stumpy overall proportions, this convertible—one of only 37 produced—could almost be a Japanese supercar of the era, which perhaps explains why this particular example resides in the Land of the Rising Sun and why we are smitten by it.

1993 Isdera Commendatore 112i
1993 isdera commendatore 112i
Courtesy: BMW Group

Class H—The Next Generation: Hypercars of the 1990s

This class contained nearly every hero vehicle from the Slacker generation, including the Bugatti EB 110, Ferrari F50, Mercedes CLK GTR, Porsche 911 GT1, and McLaren F1. But those are the obvious choices compared with this oddball German one-off from the Ingenieurbüro für Styling, Design und Racing (Isdera). With a mid-mounted Mercedes-Benz 408-hp 6.0-liter V-12, a Getrag six-speed gearbox from a Porsche 911 Turbo, suspension and braking components from a Porsche 928, headlights from a Porsche 968, gold BBS wheels, a hand-built body, and a ridiculous periscopio rearview mirror, this outrageous bit of kit was purported to crest 210 mph. Unfortunately, prohibitive development costs prevented the car from going into production, and this is the only one ever built.

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