Gentlemen, Start Your Engines

After 16 years in Paris, Europe's most prestigious fête d'automobiles classiques

The Europeans have always loved their cars: the older, the grander, the more eccentric, the more luxurious the better. And they love nothing more than celebrating those automobiles with lavish, ceremonial fanfare. (As one longtime habitué of many grand fêtes d'automobiles classiques throughout Europe says, "Cars are treated here almost as if they were Cézannes or Picassos.") But nowhere, perhaps, is the car celebrated with more respect and joie de vivre than at the annual Louis Vuitton Classic, virtually a pilgrimage destination for the savvy collector, serious connoisseur, and the simply curious.

For 15 years, this extravaganza of vintage-mania took place on the resplendent grounds of Parc de Bagatelle next to the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. Last year, the show decamped across the Seine to Le Domaine National de Saint-Cloud, site of a palace owned by Marie-Antoinette (lost to fire in 1870) and, obviously, a very estimable venue as well. In 2004, the event moves once again, but not to another location in Paris—this time, across the English Channel. On June 5, the French LV Classic absorbs its one-time English subsidiary at the Hurlingham Club and unfolds on the sweep of grassy lawns and manicured grounds at Waddesdon Manor, a rambling 19th-century estate in Buckinghamshire, northwest of London. Built by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild to house his venerable collection of 18th-century French furniture, Renaissance art, and Sèvres porcelain, the manor should offer just the right backdrop to celebrate an automotive pièce d'art like the 1937 Talbot T150 C SS coupé Figoni & Falaschi, a swooping two-seater and Art Deco masterpiece more commonly known as the goutte d'eau or "teardrop." The freshly restored Talbot took the prix aérodynamique in last year's show. This merged event, which will alternate each year between England and France, marks the end of the English LV Classic as a private event, an invitation-only black-tie affair anticipated as much for the lunch and party as for the automobiles.

"Combining the show will broaden our audience and keep things from becoming monotonous," explains founding judge Christian Philippsen, a dapper 60-year-old who lives in Monaco. "And I quite like the idea of traveling, of taking the show to different places. It very much fits the theme of Louis Vuitton." The French company, after all, has a long-standing connection with the motoring industry. Rolls-Royces in the 1920s and '30s, for example, came outfitted with elaborate and very specific Vuitton "transport baggage." And Louis Vuitton's son, Georges, that master craftsman and stylemeister extraordinaire, invented accessories—picnic baskets and spare-tire covers—that were absolutely de rigueur. It was this rich historic link, along with savvy marketing insight, that first prompted the company to become a sponsor of the show in 1989, and then to completely take over what was, 15 years ago, a small classic car show inspired, as it happens, by a couple of visits to the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance in California. This annual American event showcases some of the world's foremost examples of antique vehicles. "I was amazed by what I saw there," says Philippsen, who made his first visit in 1984 and now serves as an honorary judge at the California show. "I was so excited that I went back a second time expecting to be disappointed, but I wasn't. So I decided, 'Let's bring the concours d'élégance back to France, where it started."

The original concours d'élégance, held during the glory days of bespoke coach building between the two world wars, were part car exhibition and part fashion show. The autos, like the clothes, were new, exciting, and très chic. And, of course, they showed off the best and most advanced technology and designs of the day. During those years, even the finest luxury marques produced only the chassis and running gear; bodywork was completed by privately commissioned stylists and coach builders like Gurney Nutting, Mulliner Park Ward, Zagato, Vanden Plas, and Million-Guiet. But by the end of World War II, the few luxury auto manufacturers that survived had gone mass market—or descended from couture to ready-to-wear—and the trade of designing coachwork suddenly became as irrelevant as, say, the fold-down baggage rack made for strapping LV trunks to the back of the 1923 Rolls-Royce 20 HP.

One of those very same 1923 Rolls-Royces, with coachwork by Landaulet Hooper, was among the 86 cars on display at the 2003 Louis Vuitton Classic. Like many of the vehicles at the show, the Rolls is very much still in use—the owner drives it to fetch his morning dailies. Near it was an Aston Martin Ulster LM7, an exceptionally rare factory racer entered at Le Mans in 1930 that now belongs to Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, whose daughter, Chloe, drove it over 200 miles from London to Paris for the show. And while the 2003 Classic included many other aged rarities, such as a Mercedes Simplex 60 PS from 1907, a 1930 Bentley Speed Six "Blue Train," and a 1912 Pic Pic F2 (only eight survive), all of them, including the one-off new concept cars on display—like the bizarre Peugeot Hoggar buggy—were required to be in perfect running order, their engines startable at any judge's request. Regardless of the obscenely high value of many of the cars shown at a Classic, the event organizers (and the owners themselves) are much more interested in driving than collecting.

"I've always rather disliked the term 'collector': it sounds like someone putting pins in butterflies," explains Mason, who races all the cars in his collection, from the LM7 shown at Paris and his other inter-war Astons, to his Ferrari 250 GTO and McLaren GTR. "I prefer 'enthusiast.' "

As per custom, the 2004 Louis Vuitton Classic features nine different judging categories, of which only three are preselected by the chairmen—Christian Philippsen and Mick Walsh, editor in chief of Classic & Sports Car. Since 2004 is the 150th anniversary of Louis Vuitton, this year those three categories were conceived as a tribute to the company. For example the "Gallic Greats" category will focus on early-20th-century French cars, among them two Panhard-Levassors. The "Step on It, Bertie" class for British sports cars of the 1930s, including a rare 1936 Squire sports car, will serve as an acknowledgment that the first Louis Vuitton shop outside France opened in England. And "Wild Horses," which marks the first celebration of the American muscle car at a European concours, is inspired by the importance of the American market to Louis Vuitton. (The other great market is, of course, Japan, but because its automotive industry only started in the '60s it lacks an adequate number of antique vehicles for a proper prize category. Instead, four Japanese marques—Mitsubishi, Honda, Toyota, and Nissan—have each been invited to show a concept car.)

The six other awards categories are determined each year by the particular nature of the entrants. For 2004, for example, the field includes two cars commissioned by maharajahs (a Rolls-Royce and a Cadillac V16), and thus was born the "Spécial" category, featuring vehicles built for royals and nobles. And the availability of a Le Mans-winning Ferrari 375 Plus provoked "Latin Legends," the class for Italian racers of the 1950s. Once the categories are decided, the field of applicants is reduced to those that fit the agreed-upon criteria. This means trimming an average 250 entries by two-thirds. "There is a limit to what one can see, admire, and remember," Philippsen explains.

After the contestants have been winnowed down, the cars in each class are assessed by three judges, each of whom has a different field of expertise: design, history, or engineering. The condition of each car is evaluated from the minutest detail of the interior (seats, for example, must be covered in material that matches as closely as possible what was originally installed) to the quality and historical accuracy of any engine or chassis restoration. Finally, each car is judged on the basis of its emotional appeal. The Best in Show, which is drawn from the individual category winners and debated by all 30 judges, is invariably the one that stands or falls by this most visceral of criteria. "The Best in Show," Philippsen says, "is the car everyone wants to take home."

Hold the Polish

If you had strolled through the Louis Vuitton Classic last year, you would have noticed an apparent contradiction: The most eye-catching cars appeared to be those restored to a like-new state and buffed to a blinding sheen—yet most serious collectors seemed more interested in cars from the same vintage that were dented and showed their age.

"The whole trend these days is towards unrestored cars," collector Victor Muller volunteered, as he surveyed a faded black 1936 Mercedes-Benz 540K Spezial Roadster. "All the money in the world can't bring back genuine authenticity."

Indeed many afficionados regard as anathema the habit at most international shows of awarding top prizes to impeccable Duesenbergs and Packards restored so as to look better than new. According to Mick Walsh, editor in chief of Classic & Sports Car and co-chairman of this year's Louis Vuitton Classic, the most interesting car he has seen recently was a Bugatti Type 59 with faded black paint that was worn through along the upper edge of the driver's door by a bouncing elbow and forearm—the elbow and forearm of King Leopold III of Belgium.

"There has always been a passion in England for anything old," says Colin Warrington of Christie's of London, which in late March is auctioning a minimally restored 1927 Austro-Daimler, expected to fetch over $130,000. "Making something look as good as new can destroy the patina of age."

The Perfect Fit

The connection between the luxury-automobile industry and the fine-luggage business may seem tenuous nowadays, but this illustrious collaboration is nearly as old as the automobile itself. Louis Vuitton had its first automotive commission in 1907, when the company was enlisted by the Dutch auto builder Spyker to prepare a special set of cases to be used in the Peking to Paris rally. Bags were mounted on the outside of automobiles back then, and the Spyker team wanted cases sufficiently rugged and water resistant to be left in place when crossing brooks and streams. In 1908 Vuitton teamed up with the coach builder Kellner to design an externally mounted auto trunk that held what was virtually a mobile home, including toilet kit, tool chest, fold-out three-sided mirror, sleeping bags, and an awning. Vuitton went on in the 1920s to create sand- and dustproof baggage for the famous Citroën half-tracks that made the run from Algiers to Madagascar, and later, followed Marco Polo's route from the Mediterranean to the China Sea.

As a result of racing and rally commissions, assignments to equip the finest contemporary luxury cars followed, and by the 1930s Vuitton was making special fitted shoe boxes, picnic hampers, and other such luggage for marques like Hotchkiss, Alfa Romeo, Bentley, Hispano-Suiza, Voisin, and Rolls-Royce.

Now that the motorcar is used less frequently for long, luxurious tours (and wears its luggage on the inside, anyway, rather than on top of the trunk), the demand for specially crafted cases has decreased. The tradition continues, however, at the highest end, primarily in the form of fitted pieces designed to make the most efficient use of space in individual car trunks. Aston Martin's leather shop, for example, has made fitted bags for its cars since the DB cars of the '50s. And while its latest offering for the DB7 was discontinued with last year's model, the upcoming DB9 will be offered with a custom three-piece set. Ferrari has a custom set for its GT as well, and Bentley will offer luggage for its new Continental GT that includes three different suitcases, a hold-all, a vanity case, and even a golf bag. Rolls-Royce will soon make similar furnishings available for the new Phantom.

Louis Vuitton, meanwhile, continues to offer whatever its customers request: luggage designed to fit any trunk or need, designed in its custom shop by the company founder's great-grandson Patrick-Louis Vuitton.