With the classic and prestige car gathering at the Chantilly Arts And Elegance concours d’elegance, France reclaimed a cultural institution it evolved almost single-handedly over the first half of the 20th Century. The chateau hosted almost 10,000 spectators at this first edition of the event, with the visitors strolling amongst some 100 hand-picked cars displayed in the Le Nôtre gardens. Many of the cars were prototypes or special-order one-offs from motoring’s greatest names past and present; Delahaye, Bugatti, Bentley, Jaguar, Ferrari and Maserati.
Although over recent years the concours d’elegance has largely become a classic car event, it was originally, in its pre-war heyday, as much a celebration of fresh designs and new machines. These automotive garden parties were held at such hedonistically fashionable locations as Cannes, Le Touquet and Biarritz. Furthermore, each car was usually accompanied by an elegant and fashionably accoutred lady. With this memory in mind, Chantilly sought to make a few ‘‘improvements’’ to the current interpretation of the once-French institution.
Some legendary and singular machines were on display, including the huge and imposing 1930 Bugatti Type 41 Royale coupe, and probably the most famous Le Mans winner of all time; the Ford GT40. As well as the ‘‘classic’’ concours categories, which included such groupings as Italian-bodied British cars, a homage to Bugatti, and Maserati road and racing cars, Chantilly opened a class for modern prototypes. Here it was able to score quite a coup, with some models – Peugeot’s Exalt, the DS Devine and Zagato’s Aston Martin Shooting Brake – actually being shown ahead of their major motor show debuts. Ultra-exclusive McLaren allowed its rarefied P1 GTR to materialise here before appearing anywhere else in Europe.
But it wasn’t necessarily the calibre and excellence of the cars which set Chantilly Arts and Elegance apart from – and above – other events of this type; it was the depth and richness of the pageant. As well as the rolling, al fresco motor show, Chantilly was a celebration of French culture and art. As they rolled out their picnics on the grass, the visitors themselves became part of the theatre.
Strolling the cobbles, elegantly-attired guests (there was a suitably informal but chic dress code) could learn and try for themselves the finer points of formal floral decoration or the millinery arts (with a faintly fifties theme). They could consider such fabulous beasts as the contemporary alloy-sculptured unicorn’s head on the courtyard, or they might pore over ancient volumes in the chateau library – under the gaze of the bust of the great Conde, Victor or Rocroi. In the kitchens, no less than seven Michelin-starred chefs worked on rich and complex flavours, while the chateau itself was given over to exhibitions of how the great French house developed the Arts de Vivre. In the driving arena, models from the fashion runways of Europe strutted beside the modern concept cars, each wearing an haute couture design from a different fashion house; especially crafted to complement the car they accompanied.
While Chantilly Arts and Elegance certainly needs to be on the calendar of anyone interested in that most rarefied strata of unique and desirable cars, it is as much a celebration of passionate and exuberant living, of striving for the best as a celebration of life itself. To broaden that passion to take in every aspect of life, is a very French quality, so it isn’t so hard to see why the concours d’elegance had to come home to reinvigorate the genre.