A worthy concours – the past, present and future of concours d’elegance shows

Concours d’elegance classic-car events have risen in popularity over the years. Phill Tromans looks at the concept’s origins, current shows and asks whether the UAE is ready to host its own version.
The cars of this year’s Salon Privé event at Syon Park, London. Newspress Ltd
The cars of this year’s Salon Privé event at Syon Park, London. Newspress Ltd

What are the world’s most prestigious car events? Forget the international motor shows in Detroit, Paris, Geneva or Dubai. The world’s best cars and the most exclusive gatherings aren’t open to the masses. They’re not held in exhibition centres. The cars on show are rarely new and tickets are often the equivalent of thousands of dirhams each.

Welcome to the world of the concours d’elegance, a type of competitive car show reserved for the finest, rarest and most expensive vehicles in the world. Almost all of them belong to the ultra-wealthy, who gather in some of the world’s swankiest locations to show off their pride and joys, often having spent vast fortunes just to prepare the cars for each outing.

The concours d’elegance has existed for almost as long as the motor car itself. As the name suggests, it originated in France – at the turn of the 20th century, owners of new self-powered carriages would gather in Paris to display them. Today, the concours is the crowning glory of exclusive society events around the world, where stringent teams of judges gather to scrutinise classic machines in minute detail. A class win means prestige among your peers – and it can also add considerable value to your already-rather-pricey car.

“It’s a question of location, location, location,” says Michael Scott, who has set up prestige motor shows and concours all over the world. “If your show is in a country house or a palace, then it’s immediately different from a car show. It’s got to be in a spectacular venue.” He points to perhaps the most exclusive concours event, the Concorso d’Eleganza at Villa d’Este in Italy, held at a luxury hotel where rooms are thousands of euros per night, or the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, held on the northern California coastline.

Salon Privé is held at Syon Park, the 81-hectare west London home of the Duke of Northumberland. Co-founded by David Bagley, the concours element of the event sits alongside a presentation of new cars by prestige ­manufacturers.

“Premium manufacturers and supercar manufacturers who produce very small numbers of cars wouldn’t really go to a motor show other than Geneva or Frankfurt, perhaps,” Bagley says, “because the volume of cars that they manufacture is so small and the buyers that they’re looking for generally won’t go to the big public shows. The concours very much feeds the rest of Salon Privé, in as much as it brings in a hundred or so of the wealthiest car collectors from around the world.”

Since it was founded nine years ago, Salon Privé has become one of the world’s top events – those in the know tend to suggest that the big three are Pebble Beach, Villa d’Este and Salon Privé.

With more and more events cropping up all over the world, driven by the rocketing values of classic cars, it’s not enough to host some old cars at a swanky mansion house. To really call yourself a prestigious event, you need stiff competition, the best cars in the world and the most stringent judges. The big events will have multiple classes, decided on by the organisers and judging panel.

“Look at any concours and you’ll see there are various sections,” explains Scott. “You can have 100 cars in a concours, but there will be probably 10 categories: Italian Sports Car or Wind in the Hair or Royalty Cars, that kind of thing.”

Bagley says of Salon Privé: “We’re very similar to Pebble Beach and Villa d’Este, in that we have quite a large, illustrious judging panel. The more experienced the judging line-up, the more valuable their choices and advice. They’re not just pop stars or celebrities; the people we have at our events are people like [the racing driver] Derek Bell, [the Jaguar designer] Ian Callum, [the Aston Martin designer] Marek Reichman, [the McLaren designer] Frank Stephenson; the people we have coming are people in a position to make judgements and uniform decisions on how good these cars are. The better the judging panel, the more serious the event and the better the cars you get being entered.”

The judging process is rigorous, with every aspect of the car scrutinised to rules usually decided on by prestige marques’ owners’ clubs. For some, including Scott, the process is actually too laborious. “I’m not a great fan of concours d’elegance as such, especially the American ones, because the cars are trailered to the event, and they’re so pernickety – the cars have to be polished underneath, they’re examined with mirrors.

“Cars are to be used, driven and enjoyed. To just polish and display them is not something I’m into. When they’re dolled up and made to look shiny, sometimes it seems to me that they lose their charm.”

What judges look for can vary from class to class – sometimes the aim is to present a car in a like-new condition or even better. But others, such as Scott, prefer to focus on keeping as many original features as possible.

“When you have a section that deals with originality, that’s the bit that I like; I like cars that have not been restored, but at the same time the restoration industry is massive, and classic cars are the best investment that there is at the moment.”

According to the Luxury Investment Index compiled by the consultants Knight Frank, classic cars rose in value by 469 per cent over a 10-year period to 2014. Gold, as a comparison, rose by 254 per cent, and dropped in value by 2 per cent in the 12 months to June.

“A classic car is better than money in the bank,” says Scott. “It’s tax-free and there’s a vast industry around it worth more than £8 billion [Dh46bn] a year.”

Despite the financial lure of classic-car investment, however, it’s the love and desire to share that brings owners together and makes concours events a ­possibility.

“They’re very social occasions,” says Bagley. “The owners all meet on the circuit – they all do Pebble Beach, they all do Villa d’Este, they all do Salon Privé – so they all pick each other up in the US, Italy and the UK. I don’t think there’s a business angle to it at all – it’s more a social, networking hobby – a big boys’ hobby.”

Corrado Lopresto is a multiple concours winner and has collected vintage cars since he was 18, some 40 years ago. “It’s true, the events are important, especially for the wives who accompany us,” he says. “At the events in Paris, at Villa d’Este or in New York, the family always follows you – there has to be more than just the cars.”

But that’s not to say that the cars themselves are mere excuses for a party. The regular concours competitors take it very seriously. “The car has to be perfect,” says Lopresto, recounting how he prepares his collection for events. “I like to research the history. I go back through the previous owners with an agency that creates a family tree for every owner. Thanks to military, parish and registry-office records, we are able to find news or photos essential for good research. We’re like archaeologists. I use software to determine the original colours from photos in black-and-white, and then I study the stylist and his period.

“When I show the car, I make the judges go back into the history, and they’re enchanted.”

Such preparation doesn’t come cheap – entrants can pay hundreds of thousands of dirhams to prepare a car for each show, and some buy specific vehicles just to enter them in a particular concours.

Lopresto’s dedication to his research and preparation has paid off – he’s picked up more than 200 concours prizes since 2001, including four gold cups at Villa d’Este and five titles at Pebble Beach. But there’s no prize money involved – it’s all for the glory.

“There are no cash prizes, only satisfaction,” he says. “For me to participate in these events – and I go to almost all the most important ones – gives me the satisfaction to meet and learn from my competitors.”

That’s not to say that there aren’t financial benefits from winning, however.

“I’ve never sold a car in 40 years of collecting, but I think there could be a big value increase for each major victory,” Lopresto concedes.

Scott agrees. “At Pebble Beach this year, probably the best Bentley restorer in the world got a first-class award, and that will mean that car has the greatest accolade there is in the classic-car world,” he explains. “It’ll add to the value of the car or the business.”

There are currently no concours events held in the Middle East; a short-lived concours in Kuwait has not been staged since 2012. There were rumblings before 2008 of attempts to host shows in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, but those quietened after the economic crisis.

Surely, though, with the region’s finances surging once again and the huge appetite for spectacular cars among the wealthy residents, the Middle East is now ripe for a concours of its own?

Well, maybe not quite yet – the classic-car scene here numbers too few, and both home talent and international visitors are needed for a successful and sustainable event.

“Outward perception of wealth is far greater when you’re driving a brand new supercar or hypercar than it is when you’re driving a classic car,” says Bagley of the Middle East. “The market is very much for new and bling and shiny. They’d put their money towards a yacht or a helicopter or a brand new Ferrari, rather than one built in 1963.”

But there’s hope. Scott says a regional event is “inevitable”, and Bagley agrees.

“I’m looking forward to the point when things do change,” Bagley says. “The moment these prolifically wealthy people start understanding the classic-car market more and seeing it as an investment then it will take some interesting changes.”

weekend@thenational.ae

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Published: November 20, 2014 04:00 AM

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