Today, the three-day Concours of Elegance has established itself as the UK’s premier Concours as well as one of the most prestigious in the world. Like many outdoor events, its location has a big part to play in how people perceive it. In recent years, it’s been held each September at Hampton Court Palace, Henry VIII’s home by the Thames.
The 60 Concours cars are displayed in the Great Fountain Garden, the formal baroque garden created at the end of the 17th century by Daniel Marot for William & Mary. With its rows of toadstool-like clipped elms, it provides an iconic backdrop for the cars, but while the individual entrants change from one year to next, it does mean that, visually, each Concours looks much the same as its predecessor.
This time round the only discernible difference I could see was the main Concours stage alongside the fountain had a yellow rather than red carpet. With Lotus being a principal sponsor, this was no doubt intended to reflect the marque’s primary colour.
With Covid still rampant around the world, just like last year’s event, travel restrictions certainly affected this year’s entrants. Even so, there was the usual diverse collection of cars, including some so unique you will probably never see them again. What catches your eye depends on your taste, but there is always something for everyone.
Personally, I still find it jarring that the Concours cars are randomly displayed, rather than positioned either in order of age or by country of origin. That peeve aside, and knowing that every entrant is worthy of being there, I was drawn to a handful of automotive exotica that for one reason or another had special appeal to me.
The first of these, and probably my favourite car from this year’s Concours was an absolutely gorgeous Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 from 1950. With a one-of-a-kind body designed by Giovanni Michelotti and built by Carrozzeria Ghia of Turin, the Alfa looked absolutely stunning. No wonder it was given pride of place close to the palace entrance, although it was incongruous to be positioned next to another one-off model, the sharp-cornered Aston Martin Bulldog from 1979.
Aside from contemporary cars, I find myself increasingly drawn to those from the 30’s and 50’s, two decades where designers looked to sculpt beautiful bodies and dress them in jewel-like details. Ghia’s Alfa 6C is an example of how simplicity can be beautiful, if the lines are right. But perhaps what made this car so special was its colour scheme.
Speaking to its owner, San Diego architect Jonathan Segal, I learnt it was originally painted blue. After undergoing a full restoration, the car emerged with a unique brown/grey metallic paintwork — he called it Johnny Bronze. I’ve always been of the opinion that colours make the car, that certain hues bring out the best of a particular car’s design: its lines, its form. And Johnny Bronze, together with a contrasting black roof was the perfect choice for this car which won the award for Most Elegant Closed Car at the prestigious Pebble Beach Concourse d’Elegance in 2019.
Another notable feature — and one I confess to knowing nothing about — was the abundance of amber detailing on the Alfa’s art deco dashboard. All I know is I’ve never seen anything quite like it — it almost looked like jewellery.
I also found out that when the car is displayed at Concourses, it wears custom-made silver hubcaps over its regular black wire wheels.
Next was another car from the 50’s, although the other end of the decade, the 1957 BMW 503 Cabriolet (Reg: BEE 46).
Now I’ve always had a penchant for its styling, but what made this model even more interesting to me took place a few years ago at the Goodwood Revival. I was admiring a 1957 507 Roadster (Reg: 22 GKN) in the paddock when John Surtees approached the car. It turned out it was his and we got chatting about it. The car was apparently a gift from Count Agusta, on whose motorbikes Surtees won the World Championship in 1956.
As well as his 507, Surtees acquired the 503 — one of just 138 cabriolets produced of which there were only three right hand drive models — in August 1992 and was its second owner.
After his death in 2017, it was sold by his family at auction in October 2020. It sold for £230,000. Surtees’ other BMW — the one I saw at Goodwood — fetched significantly more when it was sold by Bonhams in 2019 for just over £3.8 million — an auction world record for a BMW!
Under Surtees ownership, the 503 was fully restored. I loved its rich red leather interior and the iconic off-white ‘bakelite’ steering wheel, with matching gear knob and switches.
Back in the 50s, this would have been the ultimate sportscar for touring the French Riviera, but bringing it to market almost bankrupted BMW.
The story goes that the runaway development costs meant the price of the 503 ended up over twice as much as planned, so it was extremely expensive.
Today, the body — the first ever styled by Albrecht von Goertz, a protege of Raymond Loewy — is considered to be one of the most beautiful produced by the marque in the 20th century.
It’s estimated that as few as 250 coupe and convertible 503’s are still in existence today.
Another car from the same period also caught my eye, Much bigger and much more expensive than the BMW, Fred Kriz’s 1958 Bentley S1 Continental 2-door coupe looked particularly handsome in its peacock blue livery. Monaco-based Kriz is one of the most renowned collectors of Bentleys in the world.
Bentley launched its S1 Continental chassis in 1955 with customers having a choice of different coachbuilders to create the body.
With its elegantly understated fastback styling, this car — one of only four produced by James Young — recently underwent a full restoration at P & A Wood. Founded in 1863 as a builder of bespoke horsedrawn carriages, James Young was acquired by Rolls Royce in 1937. The company made its last body in 1967.
Of all modern marques, perhaps only Ferrari retain the tradition of allowing customers to fully personalise their vehicles. In recent years the Maranello company have produced a handful of one-of-one models, but to cater for a wider audience, they also introduced the Ferrari Tailor Made programme for a limited number of customers who want to fully personalise their Ferrari.
Assisted by a Personal Designer, each element of the car can be unique to the owner. The programme includes a visit to one of three Tailor Made centres, either at the Maranello facility, Shanghai or New York.
One example of what can be achieved was on the Future Classics display, a 2020 Ferrari 488 Pista Tailor Made.
The Pista (named after the Italian for ‘track’ and pronounced pee-sta) is the most potent Special Series Ferrari yet. One of the reasons for this is how lightweight it is. This grey example — which I think was in Argente Nurburgring — featured the one-piece carbon fibre wheels, a £14,208 option, as well as the blue and yellow stripe livery, which costs an extra £8,640.
The stripe is an important element of the track focused Pista, as it plays to the racing heritage of the car. The stripe also emphasises the S Duct on the bonnet and helps create an even more individual look.
But perhaps what stood out most was the car’s full carbon interior with its bright blue Alcantara racing seats and yellow detailing on the upholstery and shifters matching the colours of its stripe.
So those were the cars that caught my eye. If I had to choose my favourite Concours car from this year’s entrants, it would have to be that gorgeous Alfa 6C. The 60 owners saw it differently, judging the 1934 Avions Voisin Type C-27 Aerosport to be the best in show. To me that was a fairly predictable choice and I would have liked to have seen something less obviously showy get recognised.
Speaking of which, if I had one criticism of the event, it’s that it’s too predictable. I first attended back in 2012 and have now covered it six times. Whilst the Concours cars obviously change each year, not much else does. Of the noticeable differences this year, the biggest for me was having the Concours stage carpeted in yellow rather than red. I thought that worked really well as it made for a much more distinctive presentation area for the cars. Personally, I’d like to see a larger stage next time, capable of accommodating two cars.
But what I think would make the biggest difference, elevating it to another level, would be if more of the Concours cars were displayed on raised, angled, platforms, with some perhaps on revolves. Not only would it distinguish them from all the other cars at the event, but visually it would make the Concours cars feel even more special.
Two other cars making their Concours debuts this year also got my attention, the 2021 Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus 004 and the recently reborn Bizzarrini 5300 GT, both of which I’ll be writing about in more detail in forthcoming articles.
Behind the shot: These images were taken either using the Olympus OM-D E-M1 with the M Zuiko 1.8 75mm lens or the iPhone 12. As always at Concours of Elegance, getting great shots of the cars is never easy. Because they are parked very close to each other, it’s almost impossible to photograph one without the reflection of another in its bodywork or chrome, or without people, their shadows or their reflection in the shot. As a result, over the years I’ve tended to focus on tight compositions. That being said, the challenge as always is to come away with a set of interesting images that are different from those taken by all the other photographers there. Photographed at Hampton Court Palace on 3 September 2021
About the author: Based in Sussex-by-the-Sea, on England’s south coast, Gary is a creative writer and image-maker. He specialises in out of the ordinary portraits of musicians and people with interesting faces, as well as photographing some of the world’s finest flowers and gardens. With no concerts or major events taking place during lockdown, Gary turned his attention to creatively capturing the landscapes of West Sussex. On the writing side, he also penned deep dives into some of his favourite songs beginning with Bryan Ferry’s ‘These Foolish Things’ ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials and ‘All The Young Dudes’ by Mott the Hoople. Most recently, he has written a biography of Robert Palmer and the story behind Whitesnake’s ‘Still Of The Night’. All these can be found here on Medium, along with his reviews of gigs and events and chats with musicians.