[Text/photos by Paul d’Orléans.  Originally published in The Automobile  the best old-car mag on the planet] 

Lake Como’s leafy sentinel towers over the Villa d’Este’s grand gravel terrace, but the hoary Sycamore is chopped further back every year, its once expansive canopy shrinking to a leafy fat spire, providing shade no longer, yet still the axis of the party. The villa’s Renaissance gardens and pebbled grottoes are intact these 500 years; swapping an elderly companion for younger model may be the habit of the Concorso’s wealthy entrants, but the tide of History demands respect for the old tree, as it does for the automobiles and motorcycles celebrated within the grounds.

Best in Show!  The 1928 Grindlay-Peerless ‘Hundred Model’ ex-‘Boy’ Tubb Brooklands racer

Anxiety over the Sycamore’s fate defines the beginning and the end of troubles at the Concorso d’Eleganza di Villa d’Este; as lucky guests and journalists float on the music of clinking glass flutes, the poor tree plays Cassandra for the real world’s troubles – vanishingly absent from the scene otherwise. Burbling Rivas deliver the happily elegant to the hotel’s shores, not the desperate, so we may rightfully celebrate the fabulous treasures of our world on the weekend, and return to reality on Monday.

For BMW’s centenary (it was established in 1916, making airplanes), this early BMW-powered monoplane was moved (not flown) from villa to villa.  When fired up, an LED display on the prop made the BMW logo – nifty.

For 2016’s iteration of the most coveted spot in the show-car/show-bike calendar, Nature offered a 3-day gap between torrents; tourist-brochure perfect days, suitable for the otherworldly perfection of 50 cars and 40 motorbikes gleaming with elbow-grease, from helper-hands conjuring prize-granting djinns via yellow microfiber cloths. And that, readers, is serious work, conducted by an unsung and invisible army, never thanked from the podium by the Jereboam-armed, ribbon-draped swells who paid their salaries. The Little People, as tactless Oscar winners once at least acknowledged, whose labors transformed the inert cash of connoisseurs into an invitation to this truly incredible party beside Italy’s most beautiful lake. As tax-haven oligarchs stage dramatic, black Amex duels at fine auctions houses, sending car (and now moto) values to the lofty heights inhabited by the finest of arts – the realm of the gods – rolling sculpture has become the last publicly visible evidence of real wealth, as great art disappears into freeport bunkers, and nested shell companies obscure ownership of part-time mansions. 

This original-paint 1939 Triumph Tiger 100 was originally owned by BMW! They bought it for testing/comparison, and soon blew it up.  It lay undisturbed for years, and was recommissioned recently, with its patina intact.  Fantastic.

Temporary membership to this sunshiney, sweet-smelling tableau grants one – e.g. me – a few days’ overlap with wildly different Venn circles; it only hurts when the bubble protecting wealth and beauty floats off, and the sweaty tang of real work and deadlines returns. My nominal job at the Concorso di Moto (judging the assembled treasures) is difficult only in the weighing, discussing, and choosing, which can only be counted a pleasure in such company as the since-1949 Motociclismo fixture Carlo Perelli, the director of Prague’s Technical Museum – Arnost Nemeskal, the chief of BMW’s motorrad design – Edgar Heinrich, French moto-institution Francois-Marie Dumas, and, god bless our host country, the editor of Italian Cosmopolitan, Sara Fiandri, who scatters Milan’s pedestrians like leaves aboard her racy Honda. 

Fellow moto-judge Sara Fiandri in the driver’s seat of the 1911 Magnet Selbstfahrer, a remarkable machine, used as a taxi in Berlin originally!

It must be equally true for our automotive counterparts that Choosing is a profession of thick-skinned devils, as subcurrents of politics, aesthetics, nationality, status, and history swirl around every vehicle, while judges argue – oh yes we do – their views on such matters. We have a day to observe, discuss, ponder, and reassemble before the prizegiving ceremony on Sunday, overseen in the case of motorbikes by the affable and poly-tongued Roberto Rasia dal Polo, while the four-wheeled crowd suffers the inconceivably smooth Simon Kidston, whose puns and light verbal pokes reveal his intimate familiarity with the assembly. 

Yours truly aboard the BMW R5 Hommage concept bike, which used original 1935 R5 engine and gearbox castings, with everything else new.  The grotto behind me is original toVilla d’Este from the 1500s.

BMW, owner of the Concorso, litters the grounds of Villa d’Este with new Rolls Royces and prototypes, while neighboring Villa Erba, which hosts the Concorso di Moto, is saddled with drudgeries like a ‘Teens BMW monoplane, a terrific display of concept cars/bikes beside the machines which inspired them, and the public, which has free range on the expansive grasslands of the park. This year’s overall theme was ‘Back to the Future’, which translates from German as ‘retro’ – the concept car unveiled at Friday’s swanky cocktail party claimed parentage from the 40 year old BMW 2002 (though it was hard to see resemblance, it was a sharp effort by Adrian van Hooydonk), while the concept motorcycle was an industry first – no factory to my knowledge has ever used a vintage motor as the basis of a show vehicle. 

A terrific display of rally cars on the grounds, ready to spit some gravel skyward.  A 1972 Ford Escort 1600RS, 1973 Renault Alpine A110, and 1975 Lancia Stratos

The ‘R5 Hommage’ ridden in noisily by Edgar Heinrich (beside designer Ola Stenegard on an original 1936 R5) used the castings of an 80-year old engine as its heart, although the vintage 500cc OHV motor sported a new supercharger, disc brakes, and a discreet swingarm. While seemingly odd for a technophilic team like BMW to dig around its museum for the actual building blocks of a prototype, ‘heritage’ is the most potent design tool in the moto industry today, and the smooth castings of the old flat-twin motor just might point to an upcoming engine redesign? Back to the future, indeed. 

What it looks like in the jury room – not eleganza! But we’re in the conference center at Villa Erba, near the motorcycles

Picking winners in the physical context of Lake Como and a pair of grand Villas seems almost gauche – if you’re there, you’ve won, as has your vehicle. But everyone loves the tension of a contest, and so the list: the under-16 public referendum went rightfully to a 1974 Lancia Stratos rally car, while the drinking-agers chose a bottlefly green ’71 Lamborghini Miura P400SV, which only proves the crowd was Italian, and excitable. The gentry strolling the closed party at Villa d’Este preferred a streamlined ’33 Lancia Astura Serie II, while the judges appointed an exquisite ’54 Maserati A6GCS as Best in Show, a title having much to do, I have learned, with what might look best on the cover of next year’s catalog. This was actually discussed amongst the motorcycle jury, and with vehicles of near-equal money-no-object perfect restorations, what Should tip the scales?

Epic; a 1937 HRD-Vincent Rapide 998cc V-twin

But, we are reminded annually that ours is a Concorso di Moto, not an Eleganza, and thus chose the charismatic and oh-so-English 1929 Grindlay-Peerless-JAP ‘Hundred Model’ with illustrious competition heritage from new, multiple Gold Stars from Brooklands, and a fantastically mechanical, and poster unfriendly, all-nickel finish. What bridged a chasm of disagreement among jurors between suavity and pugnacity was a special Jury Award to the very most elegant ’37 Gnome et Rhone Model X with tailfinned Bernardet sidecar, lovely awash in cream and burgundy, which pretty much describes lunch. Wish you were there.

The motorcyclists tour the lake on Saturday, finishing up with a burble across the grounds at Villa d’Este for the entertainment of the hoi polloi.  Several two-stroke bikes guaranteed a Zika-free zone.
Lago di Como


Drama, with a 1937 Bugatti 57C Atalante and 1933 Lancia Astura Serie II
At the far end of Villa d’Este, a Bizzarini, Lamborghini Miura S, and early Countach lurk
All bubbly; 1961 Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato and ’68 Bizarrini GT Europa
Pushing all that 1925 Böhmerland Reisemodell to the display
The Concorso di Villa d’Este has the best (hardback) event programs in the industry.
Puzzling out the relative simplicity of an early Ferrari V-12 engine
Instructions for Concorso losers
Happiness is Jürg Schmid on his 1938 Gilera VTGS Saturno
Some of the elaborate nickel-ness of the Grindlay-Peerless ‘Hundred Model’
The Grindlay-Peerless logo is famously mis-spelled on this tank, and shows up in many books on vintage racers.  When I asked the owner if he’d change it, he said, ‘the mistake is too famous now!’
Alberto Soiatti and his peerless restoration of his 1968 Hercules GS
Special Jury Award for the magnificent 1937 Gnome-Rhone Model X- Bernardet outfit of Jean-Claude Conchard
1980 Lamborghini Athon, with body by Bertone – deliciously understated
Timeless design – the Miura is eternal. Bottlefly green, however, comes and goes.
Lovely BMW display of concept vehicles with the originals that inspired them.
Strike a pose, there’s nothing to it. Vogue. But dig the pebble mosaic work on this 1500s grotto
Serial #1 ‘Black Pig’, the 1967 MV Agusta 600 of Tobias Aichele


Head of BMW’s motorcycle design team, Ola Stenegard, aboard an original 1935 BMW R5
Caught mid-flight, borrowing Sebastien Gutsch’s BMW R5 racer around the grounds of Villa Erba
A proper view of the R5 Hommage – the rear end is a ‘softail’, with a vertical monoshock at rear.  Only the engine and gearbox castings are from the ’30s, all else was built by Unique Custom Cycles of Sweden
Not all the beauties at Villa d’Este have wheels…although Katerina Kyvalova has several sets as a driver with the Bentley Belles
A study in abstraction courtesy Ferdinand Porsche
Time makes all things possible, like a Rokon on the grounds of Villa Erba.
Additional benefits of Best in Show – hugs from The Vintagent!

Paul d’Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.