Another stately home, another classic car show? Well, yes… but actually, much more than that. For Hampton Court Palace is not your average stately home, and the Concours of Elegance is most definitely not your average classic car event. Even after a week where record prices have been achieved for some of the world’s most exclusive classic cars during the Monterey Car Week, words such as spectacular, astonishing, extraordinary and superlative are just as applicable to the 2018 Concours of Elegance. This is the classic car elite, the top 0.01% of the classic car world in terms of rarity and value.
The US has Pebble Beach and Amelia Island (among a number of US-based Concours), Germany has the Masterpieces Concours at Schloss Dyck in the Rhineland, Italy has the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este on the shores of fabulous Lake Como, and the UK has the Concours of Elegance. This was the seventh edition, and the third time it has been held at Hampton Court. I attended the first one in 2012, held in the grounds of Windsor Castle and the Long Walk, where it – and I – returned four years later. In between times it’s also been held at St. James’s Palace, and the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh.
Each year, sixty of the rarest classic cars in the world are invited to participate in the Concours, displayed this year in Hampton Court’s elegant Fountain Garden, alongside scores of cars from what the organisers deem to be the UK’s most prestigious car clubs, themselves competing for The Club Trophy. This year, these included cars from the Jaguar, Aston Martin and Jensen Owners Clubs.
Let’s start with the venue itself; begun by Cardinal Wolsey in 1515 and then gifted by him to King Henry VIII in 1529, who took all six of his wives there. Henry expanded the palace massively, establishing the Great Hall and Royal Tennis Court, the only major parts of the palace that remain from that period. Construction of the bulk of the current building was overseen by William III and Mary II, who commissioned Sir Christopher Wren (the man behind St. Paul’s Cathedral), to build an elegant new baroque palace. It’s a wonderful building, set in beautiful grounds along the River Thames and filled with art, antiques and history emanating from every wall – a stunning backdrop to a collection of some of the world’s rarest and most beautiful cars.
And what of the cars themselves? Having parked die Zitrone on Hampton Court Green alongside a tidy BMW 635CSi and several other charming classics, I set off on another gloriously sunny day towards the Palace with high anticipation for the day ahead.
Everything about the Concours carries an air of exclusivity and prestige. Sponsors include high-end watch specialists A. Lange & Söhne, classic car dealer Tom Hartley, bubbles from Champagne Taittinger, upmarket catering from a variety of specialist food and drink retailers, and not least the event’s royal patronage in the form of Prince Michael of Kent. His passion for classic cars is long-standing, and he also happens to be President of The Royal Automobile Club, and an Honorary Member of the Bentley Drivers’ Club and the British Racing Drivers’ Club.
Despite this, they still let me in, and after walking through the gates at the side of the main palace entrance, I turned right and was immediately confronted by a long line of Jaguars from the Jaguar Owners’ Club. The line-up of mainly E-Types and XK’s outside the Royal Tennis Court made a very powerful first impression. Despite their relative ubiquity, especially the E-type, these are still very beautiful cars.
Continuing along the path, some of the UK’s most exclusive classic dealers such as Fiskens, Frank Dale & Stepsons and Tom Hartley displayed some of their stock, probably at eye-watering prices if you were brave enough to inquire.
On reaching the Fountain Garden proper, what a sight I was greeted by! All 60 of the main Concours participants arrayed along the various paths around the garden. How to pick highlights from such a stupendous collection of fabulousness? Well, I’ll do my best…
Initially, I thought I would walk around them in numerical order – logical enough. However, my carefully thought out plan was immediately holed below the waterline when my peripheral vision spotted a car that had fired up my imagination when I was a young boy, and which I would have happily paid the admission fee for alone. Low and mean and bristling with intent, even just parked in the morning sunshine, and in the greatest racing colours ever, the pale blue with centre orange stripe livery of the JW Gulf team, was an example of what I believe to be the greatest racing car ever built, a Porsche 917K. This 1969 car was the 13th 917 built, and had raced at Sebring, Daytona, Barcelona and elsewhere. This was the car driven by Steve McQueen in “Le Mans”! And amazingly, it’s pretty much unrestored. What a car!
This wasn’t the only JW Gulf liveried car on show – there was also a 1997 McLaren F1 GTR and, more evocatively, a mighty 1965 Ford GT40, one of two present, though this one had a less storied racing history. When the second of these GT40’s was parked alongside the 917, it felt like sportscar racing history was being recreated.
One of the most hyped cars ahead of the Concours was the astonishing 1929 Mercedes-Benz S Barker Tourer. In peacock blue and polished aluminium, this boat-tailed beauty was just breath-taking. It had apparently been the subject of a multi-year restoration in recent years and last year won Best of Show at Pebble Beach. It was exquisite in every detail, and yet, not a car for me.
More to my personal liking was another one-off, the stunning 1954 Jaguar XK120 Pininfarina Coupé. If a standard XK, lovely as it is, is too “common” for you, then this unique Jaguar would definitely separate you from the herd. The car was originally ordered by US importer Max Hoffman, then effectively went missing between 1956 and 1979, and was left unrestored after its rediscovery until four years ago. 6,750 (yes!) hours of work later, this fantastic combination of “Italian flair and English thoroughbred” can now be enjoyed in all its perfection by those of us lucky enough to see it.
There were stunning wonders everywhere you looked – a number of Ferrari’s including a sleek white 1967 365 California Spyder (one of only 14 built), a unique 1951 166M/212 Export Uovo, and a 1965 275 GTB “short nose and a “long nose” from the same year. Further along the row, one of my favourites, a beautiful – and big – 1936 Lancia Astura Cabriolet, in superb original condition (!), a glorious 1967 Bizzarini GT 5300 Strada for when an Iso Grifo just isn’t exclusive or fast enough, an utterly gorgeous 1950 Aston Martin DB2 DHC in pale blue resplendent in the sunlight, a Porsche 904 GTS… all swoon-worthy…
Another rare beast on display was an example of Spain’s finest, a cream Pegaso Z-102 Spyder. Pegaso is much better known as a truck and coach manufacturer but built exclusive – just 86 – and very expensive sports cars for a mere seven years. 69 remain, with this one being a conversion from a Touring Berlinetta crashed during practice for Le Mans in 1953. Every bit as fabulous as the mythical flying horse it’s named after.
In amongst the powerful, the grand, the big – or huge, in the case of the 1912 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost “Taj Mahal” – and the flamboyant, were two of my favourite cars of the 60. The first, a tiny red 1961 Intermeccanica Imp 700 GT (which should surely have been listed as a 500 GT, as it had a Puch 493cc engine?), one of only 21 made. A little gem of a car, which would surely bring a broad smile to the face on every drive.
The second was the appropriately-named 1958 Fiat 1200 Vignale Wonderful (sic), in ivory and hazelnut two-tone, and the last example of just five built. Styled by Michelotti, it was one of the first – if not the first – cars to feature a removable targa roof panel, a feature which Porsche has effectively made their own since the mid-1960’s. This chic, understated and oh-so-stylish car was the one that I could easily imagine myself driving, roof out, along the Mediterranean coastline.
Of course, while the 60 Concours entrants were the stars of the show, there was much more gorgeousness spread around the Fountain Garden.
On the other side of the imposing façade of the Palace was a line of Aston Martin Owners Club cars. Now the DB4 and DB5 in particular are undeniably lovely cars, but I’m starting to feel the same about them as our own Dave Leadbetter does about E-Types. For an exclusive car, Aston’s seem to be everywhere these days, and seeing so many of them – certainly 50+ cars – actually reduced their impact. Nevertheless, there was one particular stand-out for me – the second most famous Aston Martin in the world, the Bahama Yellow 1970 DBS driven by Sir Roger Moore as Lord Brett Sinclair in The Persuaders, a 1970’s TV series in which his co-star, Tony Curtis, drove a Ferrari Dino 246GT. This Aston was sold at auction in 2014 for £533,000, and is probably worth even more today. More importantly, it simply looks utterly delicious!
Tucked away at the end of a seemingly endless row of Aston’s, cars owned by members of the Jensen Owners Club could be found, including the absolutely immaculate two-shades-of-pink 1959 541R that I saw at Knebworth last week, one of a trio of 1950’s Jensen’s that were displayed among the 1970’s Interceptors and FF’s. Considering an Interceptor (such a brilliant name by the way!) would have been a direct alternative to a DB4 or 5 back in the day, their current values are very far apart. Obviously, Aston Martin, like Ferrari and Porsche, have a strong competition pedigree, and perhaps it’s the lack of same (as far as I know, at least), that contributes to keeping Jensen values (relatively) down? In any case, with its Touring-designed body and V8 Chrysler muscles, an Interceptor would be a far more exclusive proposition at one-tenth or less of the price of a DB5.
In other areas of the Fountain Garden were other classics that in any other company, would be among the star cars, including two superb Porsche Carrera 2.7 RS’s, a vivid metallic purple Ferrari Daytona, a Bentley Le Mans Eight (among a row of Bentley’s from the Bentley Drivers Club) and Renault Alpine’s old and new, side by side; I like them both.
Among the dealer cars, perhaps the most stunning was a Ferrari 250 GT Lusso being shown by H.R. Owen, and another fabulous Lancia, this one a slightly later Aurelia B20 GT that was being sold by Sports Purpose Ltd., who are based at Bicester Heritage. I had a good chat with one of their team, John Brewer, who spoke very knowledgably about this and other cars. He loves being based there, and clearly also loves what he does. The keys to the Lancia, incidentally, were mine for a mere £220,000…
Then there was the exquisite pair of Italian-designed Aston Martins, both part of the AMOC display – one by Bertone, the other by Zagato; but both fabulous, with the DB4 Bertone JET being new to me. Yet another unique car among those on show, it was sold in 2013 for $4.9m, and with prices at the top of the market continuing to rise, is probably worth a great deal more today. If it were mine, it’d have an electric fence around it and armed guards standing at each corner…
Moving around the edges of the Fountain Garden, more wonderful classics could be found – a lovely 1930 Buick Boyce in white with black and red detailing, and further round, I stopped to check out a delightful Talbot Sunbeam 90, which turned out to have been owned by the Dewar family, of whisky fame. One of their team offered me the chance to taste some of their products, something I obviously couldn’t turn down, though I had to limit myself for obvious reasons. In keeping with the extraordinary cars on show, I was offered the most expensive drink of any kind that I’ve had the privilege of trying – a 31-year-old Craigleachie which retails at £1,200 a bottle…it was quite fantastic, but it saddens me to know that I’ll almost certainly never get to drink it again…
And there was still more… ViaRETRO readers might remember the piece we ran on SuperSaloons. The “Harry’s Garage” feature at the Concours, overseen by Harry Metcalfe, the founder of evo magazine, pulled together a collection of the fastest 4-door saloons ever built, including a 171mph Lotus Carlton, a mighty 6.9-litre Mercedes-Benz W116 and a Lancia Thema 8.32, a car we have also discussed in our pages in the past. Practical family cars, all.
After a few hours of taking in the delights of the Concours, and a quick tour of the Palace itself to soak up some history (entry was included in the ticket price), it was time to tear myself away and think about the drive home. On my way to the car park, I came across a Fintail Mercedes-Benz 190 standing forlornly on the roadside verge with a note in the window – “Clutch has gone; awaiting assistance”, and then in the car park itself, a car that almost made my day – “my” lottery-winning 1973 Porsche 911S 2.4 in a fabulous shade of orange. This finished my visit to the Hampton Court Palace Concours on the highest possible note!
A final thought – that this superb event took place at the same time and in direct competition with the Salon Prive and Supercar and Classic Weekend at another of England’s great residences, Blenheim Palace, seemed to have little effect on the quality of the entry list or the number of visitors. Yet another example of how spoilt for choice we classic car enthusiasts in the UK are at times. Indeed, the following day, I was to take part in the Shere Hill Climb in die Zitrone on another perfect day in this seemingly endless summer. Are we lucky, or what?