The Hampton Court Palace Concours is one of a series of the world’s most exclusive concours events, and one we reported on last year as well. Established in 2012 and having previously been held at Windsor Castle, St. James’s Palace and Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, this is its second year in the beautiful surroundings of Henry VIII’s old house (where his second wife, Anne Boleyn, resided before he decided to have her part company with her head), and which will be the event’s home for the next four years as well (subject to royal assent, of course). While this is an occasion that has little in common with most of the regular classic car shows we cover here in ViaRETRO – the contrast with the Festival of the Unexceptional could hardly be greater, though both take place in splendid grounds – one thing it does share is a focus on raising money for good causes, with over £1m generated so far.
As before, the Concours itself is contested by some of the world’s rarest and most exclusive classics, many of them shipped in specifically for the weekend. It is further bolstered by displays from high-end classic car dealers such as Fiskens and Tom Hartley, a series of special displays of “future classics” and ‘90’s supercars from Harry’s Garage, a celebration of Aston Martin’s decades of collaboration with Zagato, and not least a display of Bentleys to mark the company’s 100th anniversary. As if this wasn’t enough, there was also the presence over Saturday and Sunday of some 20 classic car clubs including Mercedes-Benz, Alvis, Marcos, AC and on Sunday, a huge number of Ferrari’s.
I went on the opening and closing days, with day one (Friday) being effectively the opening ceremony as the participating cars were driven into the grounds of the palace and introduced to visitors. Thankfully, despite the gathering clouds, the rain remained absent during the spectacular parade of entrants, though a short shower later in the day necessitated a rush to put hoods up and tonneau covers on. Luckily, Sunday was bright and sunny.
With such a stellar line-up of rarities to choose from, it’s impossible to mention them all, but I’ll endeavour to provide a flavour of just how special an event this is.
The introductory parade, giving visitors the chance to see and hear these fabulous machines being driven into the grounds to take their allotted places – albeit very slowly – was quite something. Especially memorable were some of the Bentleys, including Le Mans winning cars from their period of dominance in the 1920’s when the “world’s fastest lorries”, as Ettore Bugatti allegedly dubbed them, took the winners’ trophy five times before a period of Alfa Romeo success at Le Sarthe.
Staying with Bentley, perhaps the most famous one on display was the legendary 1930 “Blue Train” Speed Six Coupé built by Gurney Nutting and driven by Bentley Chairman Woolf Barnato. He notoriously raced the Calais to Cannes “Le Train Bleu” express – except that Barnato had to reach the RAC Club in St. James before the train pulled into Calais, and he did so, with fifteen minutes to spare!
Having said that, it might also have been the Le Mans-winning – and 1920’s class winning – “Old Number One… In all, there were thirteen classic and two modern Bentleys taking part in the Concours, but this number was comfortably beaten by the eighteen Zagato-bodied Aston Martins which made a formidable line-up, although they were not actively contesting the Concours itself. Perhaps the most famous and the most beautiful of these is the glorious 1961 DB4 GT carrying the registration number 1 VEV. As if that wasn’t enough, there was a second DB4 GT alongside… surely, worth the trip to Hampton Court alone!
The Aston Martin/Zagato partnership continues to this day, but to my eyes most of them are unattractive, with awkward angles wherever you look. Of the modern Zagato-bodied Astons – which was most of them – the one that made the biggest impression on yours truly was the 2017 Vanquish Shooting Brake, one of four cars in matching deep metallic red with gold details, but I wouldn’t want one, even if I could afford it.
The Aston Martin Zagatos weren’t the only examples of that coachbuilder’s art on display, and they were just as divisive when it came to looks – the red 1959 Bristol 406 SWB looked ungainly next to the stunning 1954 Alfa Romeo 1900C SS in metallic two-tone dark turquoise and blue.
Besides celebrating both Bentley and Zagato’s 100th anniversaries, there was an extraordinary display of five Ferrari 166MM Barchettas, marking seventy years since it’s racing debut. The 166MM was not Enzo Ferrari’s first car – that was the 125 built in 1948 when he was already 49 years old – but it became a force to be reckoned with on racetracks around the world; a status Ferrari has maintained in the seventy years since. The number 22 car in the photographs is the actual 1949 Le Mans and Mille-Miglia-winning car, which some see as the most significant car in Ferrari’s storied history. By the end of the weekend’s glamourous event, it added to its list of triumphs by being named winner of the 1940’s class of the Concours.
It’s quite something to imagine that these small, boat-like cars (the word Barchetta is Italian for a small boat) were the seed from which all subsequent racing cars were grown in Maranello.
Almost every car in the Concours was extraordinary in some way or other, but perhaps the most astonishing was the 1936 Stout Scarab, which won the weekend’s 1930’s class. When I first saw it enter the gardens, I thought it was a Tatra, but as it got closer, it became apparent that it was in fact a UFO which had just landed from some other solar system. This Art Deco spacecraft on wheels was conceived as a mobile office-cum-minivan; designed by John Tjaarda (whose son Tom was to make his own significant mark on the world of automotive design), with a rear-mounted 3.6-litre Ford V8 engine driving the rear wheels, a central driver’s seat and movable passenger seats. Only nine were built; the other eight are touring the galaxy…
Some of the most glamorous cars ever built were spread out around Hampton Court’s central lake and gardens. One of the most extravagant was the 1919 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost in polished aluminium and built for the Maharajah of Patiala, one of a mere 25 Silver Ghosts that he owned. This striking example has been painstakingly restored back to its regal splendour over the past four years by its current owner; take a look at those hubcaps! This astonishingly ostentatious car was awarded the Car of the Show prize (voted by the owners of all the other cars) – it’s not hard to see why, despite the incredible standard of the other entries.
Speaking of glamour, two elegant Henri Chapron creations graced the Concours – one was the stunning 1937 Delage D8-120 Cabriolet that drove Gene Kelly around the city in An American in Paris, although for the film it was resprayed in a two-tone green. Following its acquisition by the current owner, it was restored to its original colour.
The second Chapron car was a glorious blue and white 1948 Delahaye 175S Grand Luxe, which the coachbuilder himself christened “Le Dandy”. You’d not think it to look at this car, but another 175S actually won the 1951 Monte Carlo Rally! The beauty of the 175 was clearly a lot more than skin deep!
Regular readers will be familiar with my feelings about replicas and recreations – basically, I don’t like them. However… there was one car here that I have to make an exception for, not least for the story behind it. With its flamboyant sweeping lines and superb chromework, the Bugatti Type 57 at the show is in fact a recreation – not of the original car which had a James Young body but fell into disrepair, but of the subsequently rebodied chassis by Van Vooren. That car was owned by the Shah of Persia and it currently resides in the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles; this one is almost an exact copy of the Shah’s car, built using all original Bugatti Type 57 parts, which is OK by me. What is beyond doubt, is that it looks absolutely incredible, and it won the Public’s Choice vote sponsored by Octane magazine.
I’m going to single out just a few more of the Concours cars; two of them coincidentally in green. Personally, other than British Racing Green, I’m not particularly keen on green cars, but there are always exceptions, and these were the two.
Spanish truck builder Pegaso built just 84 of its Z-102 sports cars in total, one of which – a convertible – was at last year’s event. This year, the presence of the oldest surviving Pegaso built, a 1951 Z-102 Berlinetta Prototype Enasa, added lustre to the event – not that it really needed it. Incidentally, in supercharged trim, the Z-102 was the world’s fastest production car of its day, with a top speed of 151mph or 243km/h, and with that it sped to first place in the 1950’s category.
Some of the world’s most elegant cars have the Alfa Romeo badge on them, and the green 1948 6C-2500SS Pininfarina Cabriolet was a perfect example of why that is. This particular Alfa Romeo, with its exquisite detailing – the polished wood fascia with bakelite switchgear, the slender integrated door and bonnet catches – was just lovely.
There was so much more… a glorious fire-engine red 1955 Mercedes 300SL Gullwing, a 1966 Ford GT40 which raced (but did not finish) at Le Mans that year and now won the 1960’s class concours, an absolutely remarkable 1904 Napier L49 – one of six bought by the Niram of Hyderabad – it’s Mulliner bodywork having just been subjected to six years of restoration done in India, which impressed the voters enough to give it victory in the pre-1920’s class. On top of all this, there were many more superb classics brought in by club members and dealers, too many to include here, so I’ll return to them in a later report where I’ve deservedly given them their own space…
Everywhere you looked were extraordinary classics in extraordinary surroundings, history surrounded by more history. The organisers of the Hampton Court Concours have, in just a few short years, established it as one of the world’s premier classic events and is now on a shortlist of must-see shows for me. It comes highly recommended.