Nestled on the shores of Lake Como in the foothills of the Italian Alps, Villa d’Este is one of the most beautiful places I have been to. Riva boats pass by and seaplanes buzz above our heads as cappuccinos and champagne cocktails are served to fashionable patrons smoking cigarettes in the lush courtyards.
Originally built for Cardinal Como by architect Pellegrino Tibaldi in 1568, Villa d’Este opened as a luxury hotel in 1873. Much of the original architecture remains intact – pebble paths line the gardens while engravings and carvings in the stone courtyard walls cause one to take a break as you walk the grounds. It is partly a book of European history and partly a romantic landscape. You guys, it’s idyllic AF.
Villa d’Este is the perfect location for a luxury car show and, since 1929, it has hosted the Concorso d’Eleganza. The closest analogue we have in the United States is the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, arguably the pinnacle of American automotive events. But now that I have had the chance to attend both, I have to say that Villa d’Este is Villa d’Best. Here’s why.
Smaller is better
Villa d’Este does not have the vast area of the competition lawn at Pebble Beach. And because of that, it limits the number of cars present. Pebble has about 200 of them. Villa d’Este? Not more than 50.
You might think that would make it less interesting, and I admit that after my first walkthrough I thought, “Uh, I guess that’s it.” Turns out that’s totally a good thing. I could spend more time with each car, dwell on the details and listen to the owners tell their stories. I found myself walking past cars noticing things that I hadn’t noticed before. Oh, and most importantly, the slower pace made it easier to enjoy all of these beautiful landscapes. Also, no more coffee and champagne breaks.
There is a greater variety of cars
With only 50 cars present – in fact, 47; there have been three no-shows this year – the organizers of the Villa d’Este make a point of avoiding duplication. And when there are similar entries, they’re at least different enough to be interesting, like the Mercedes-Benz 300SL Alloy coupe from 1955 and the 300SL roadster from 1963. Don’t get me wrong, I love that Pebble Beach offers whole courses for a certain automaker or a specific car – where else are you going to see a whole bunch of Porsche 917s? But the finely tuned strain of Villa d’Este is one of the reasons she is so special. Each entry is truly unique.
In addition, Villa d’Este allows a broader representation of the history of the automobile. This year I went gaga over the entire class of 1990s hypercars – none of which you will find at Pebble Beach. For someone like me in my mid-thirties, cars like the Bugatti EB110, Ferrari F50, Isdera Commendatore, McLaren F1, Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR and Porsche 911 GT1 are absolute icons. I had so many posters on the walls of my room; seeing them all in one place, it’s just … well, let’s say I had a moment.
The car that won the 2021 Concorso d’Eleganza was a 1956 Ferrari 250 GT Tour de France, which in itself is important as it’s rare for post-war cars to win big competitions like this. It just shows that Villa d’Este is moving in a more progressive direction than Pebble Beach, making it more accessible to younger generations. These shows aren’t just for old money, after all.
Auto makers didn’t make it an auto show
The Pebble Beach Concours takes place at the end of Monterey Car Week, which is such a big event and so filled with debuts and first drives that we treat it pretty much like a full-fledged auto show. And while the contest itself is limited to old cars, there’s enough spinoff from the rest of Monterey Car Week that it’s hard to ignore the big business presence. Companies have concession-style displays on the aisle leading to the main pavilion and executives organize roundtables and interviews for the media in attendance. Hell, the whole green of Pebble Beach turns into a delineated concept lawn, where half of the cars on display aren’t concepts at all. #Brands.
This is not to say that Villa d’Este is devoid of car manufacturer involvement; this year theand Hispano Suiza Carmen were on display up front, as well as , although I am giving a pass as this is essentially a reborn 1971 prototype. Beyond that, the BMW Group is the main sponsor of the Concorso d’Eleganza, but even then the new connections with the cars are limited. Outside of the event space, BMW had a small exhibition of and models, and in one of the Villa’s courtyards, . BMW has also used the Villa d’Este as a place to launch new concept cars, although like the aforementioned Lambo, .
But even with that limited involvement, Villa d’Este feels largely organic in comparison. At Pebble Beach, the judges’ field is lined with hospitality suites from automakers, and participants can enter a raffle to win new Lexus or Mercedes-Benz crossovers. I know corporate sponsorship is what brings events like this to life, but a scaled-down approach like Concorso d’Eleganza is so much more enjoyable for everyone.
I hope it will stay like this forever.
Editor’s Note: Travel expenses related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.