Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este - The glorious symphony of engines
I have now been going to the annual Concorso d’Eleganze Villa d’Este for well over a decade, and every time I come back fascinated as to how could the organisers top the cars and bikes on display for the coming year. And like every year I come back dazzled by the machinery, both original and restored, raced and preserved, unique one-offs to production trendsetters, the 2019 edition of the Concorso di Motociclette had them all covered. And even though there were just 33 motorcycles selected for the five classes, each of them was a worthy and onerous example of the ‘quality over quantity’ maxim.
Let’s take the example of Class D, headlined by its moniker of ’50 Years Ago: Trendsetters for Future Success.’ I think this was to celebrate and focus on the trends highlighting power and performance to the masses and among the six bikes making this eclectic selection, it was truly pleasing that the jury awarded the best in class to a 1969 Kawasaki Mach III owned by young Belgian lass Sofie Verheyden with the Mention of Honour (as the runner-up is addressed here at this event) falling to a 1969 Triumph T150 Trident from the Italian Collezione Venturi. This class was made to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Honda CB750 four-cylinder motorcycle that heralded affordable performance to the motorcycling millions. While there was an absolutely original example of the CB750 included in the class, the fact that Sofie’s 500cc triple cylinder two-stroke Kawasaki Mach III took the honours was significant for this bike was terrifyingly quick (‘Widowmaker’ among its many affectionately-mentioned nick names stood out) but it also somehow set the benchmark for affordable performance in its time. Apart from the Trident and the CB750, the three other bikes in the class included a 1975 BMW R 75/5, a gorgeous 1969 Laverda 750S and a 1969 MV Agusta 750 Sport.
The Concorso di Motociclette always has its classifications to include one or the other popular theme of motorcycle application and this year there was a class for military and police motorcycles titled ‘Two Wheeled Guards: To Protect & Serve.’ Thee were seven motorcycles that constituted this class and it was no surprise to see the Collezione Elvira Dal Degan’s 1965 Harley-Davidson FLH Electra Glide formerly used by the US Highway Police take top honours with Stefano Bartoletta’s 1968 Moto Guzzi V7 as used by the Italian Polizia find itself befitting for Mention of Honour in class. There was also another Guzzi V7, from 1975 in the dark blue and white colours of the Polizia Stradale while the quintessential European police bikes, as exemplified by BMW boxer twins were also featured here. There was a 1950 R50 as used by the Austrian Gendarmerie while the second BMW boxer was a R80/7 of the Rijkspolitie replete with an orange fairing, single saddle seat, radio and other policing paraphernalia.
However the two bikes that stood out for me in this class were both from France and totally unique. The first of these was the lesser known Ratier C6S, made by a firm better known for its aviation ancillaries. The French needed escort motorcycles for its head of state and other dignitaries and so Ratier came up with its own inspired take on the BMW boxers badged as the C6S but these 600cc twins were made in very low numbers from 1960 to 1962 and today these are prized as much for their rarity as also their provenance. Another French aviation engine maker Gnome & Rhone was tasked with making special motorcycles to escort high ranking French government officials and this is the X40 from 1942, powered by a 734cc boxer engine housed in a pressed steel frame.
The dawn of motorcycling and early machines that put motorcycling as one of the most favoured forms of personal mobility along with joy and freedom of movement is always well catered to at the Concorso di Motociclette and Class A demonstrated this to the hilt. Titled ‘Still in Action: Motorcycles more than 100 years old’ this was just as it mentioned with six outstanding examples of century-old machines, each as distinctively different yet with delivering the same appeal. The outstanding machine in this class was the 1904 Achilles 3.5 PS owned by Horst Klett while the Mention of Honour fell to the absolutely delectable 1905 FN of Wolfgang Staub. The Achilles was the handiwork of Anton Schneider & Compagnie based in Oberpolitz, Northern Bohemia and it was brilliantly engineered for its era with a gear-driven magneto for its 500cc single cylinder engine. The FN was at the other end of the scale with an inline four-cylinder engine displacing 362cc mounted longitudinally in the frame driving the rear wheel via a propellor shaft. Other machines in this class included a 1906 Rene Gillet with a 350cc vee twin engine, a 1901 Holcroft made by a British engineer Harry Holcroft using an American engine made by Mitchell which he housed in a Humber bicycle frame; a 1907 NSU 1.25 PS 211cc single-cylinder motorcycle and finally a 1914 Bianchi C75A powered by a very refined 498cc single cylinder engine.
If century-old motorcycles had their own class, there was also one for bikes upto 90 years old! Class B was titled ‘Sound & Style: The New Motorcycles of 1929’ and this was to honour the engineering, equipment and design progression of motorcycles of the 1920s onwards. There were seven bikes that made up this class and each and every one of them were fabulous for one or the other reason. The winner was the MGC N3A ‘Ecremeuse’ from France which in its entire lifespan from 1931 to 1937 only made a total of 227 units making this a very rare motorcycle. Its single-cylinder 490cc motor was housed in an aluminium monocoque frame cast by the Cran-Gevrier foundry along with the outer skin panels, tank, oil reservoir and steering head. The MGC marque was the brainchild of the Guiget brothers, Marcel and Joseph assisted by their friend, the engineer Emmanuel Mesly.
Mention of Honour in this class fell to the 1929 DKW Super Sport 500 which came with a liquid-cooled twin-cylinder two-stroke 494cc engine. At that point in time, DKW was probably the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer and this Super Sport 500 was its flagship model. The bike at the event came with a factory-built sidecar and matched the red and cream livery to stunning effect. Other bikes in this class included a Harley-Davidson 29-D 746cc vee-twin, a Henderson KJ with a massive 1302cc inline four cylinder motor longitudinally placed in the frame, a New Motorcycle (honest that indeed was the name of this bike!) with a single cylinder 475cc engine and a Wanderer K500 that was way advanced for its time and also was the first model that spearheaded the Jawa brand once Frantisek Janecek bought the manufacturing rights to it.
However, there was a seventh and very significant motorcycle in this class which was adjudged the Best of Show by the jury, Dominique Buisson’s Koehler-Escoffier with its 980cc vee-twin engine was among the first of the ton-up motorcycles made in France, capable of 100 miles per hour (160kmph) and with racing as its forte. More than racing, it was renowned for its speed and endurance records. This bike has been in the Buisson family collection for years and was handed to Dominique by his father about a decade ago and this was the first time ever that he had entered such an event and was gobsmacked to have won the Trofeo BMW Group for Best of Show by the jury! The bike certainly looked the part – purposeful and focused to the single application of going fast and faster still!
The fifth class focused on the theme of ‘Promenade Percy: Sportsman’s Wear’ which was, for all intents and purposes, solely centred on top-of-the-line offerings of various bike makers across the decades. Seven superbly-turned out bikes from as many manufacturers were featured and these included a fabulous 1952 FN XIII 450 OHV 422cc single cylinder from Belgium, a 1953 Gilera Saturno Corsa 499cc single, a rare 1954 Taurus B8 Super Sport with a 200cc four-stroke single cylinder engine, and a glorious 1957 Norton International. Mention of Honour in this class fell to a 1958 BSA DBD34 Gold Star from the Collezione Plahuta in Italy while the class honours though were bagged by a drop dead delectable 1938 Moto Guzzi GTCL (Gran Turismo Corsa Leggera) with the Guzzi trademark external flywheel, horizontally laid down 498cc four-stroke single cylinder engine, a very early example of a swingarm suspension layout with friction dampers and a host of lightweight alloy components enabled privateers to take it into competition.
The seventh bike in this final class was the 1953 BMW R68 of collector Hans Keckeisen, the German marque’s first machine to top the ton and this machine was painstakingly turned out and given its place in BMW and European bike history it went on to take the Trofeo Villa Erba given to the Best of Show as voted by the public. So a vee-twin and a flat-twin took Best of Show honours and both were richly deserved but the very fact that all 33 bikes making up these five classes were standout machines in motorcycling history.
However, that wasn’t all at the Concorso di Motociclette. Just as there is a class hinting to future trends for the cars so there was a class for concept motorcycles and there were two bikes in the fray here and both were Italian! MV Agusta’s Superveloce 800 was stunning to behold but even then was bested by the Ducati Hypermotard 950. There was an exhibition class for sporting 50cc off road bikes of the 1960s and 1970s and there were 11 such from different Italian makes, all coming from the collection of Domenico Zappieri. These included the likes of the Gitan Cross 50, Moto Guzzi Dingo Cross, Moto Muller 50 GT Cross, Ducati Scrambler 50, Guazzoni Matta Cross, Milani Cross 50, Morini Corsario Super Scrambler, Gilera Trial 50, Aspes Navaho CS Special, Fantic Caballero Regolarita Super 6M and Aprilia RC50.
Two-wheeled festivities actually kicked off a day before the main event on Sunday with the run through the streets of Cernobbio by all the vintage and classic bikes as they put in an appearance at Villa d’Este from their base at Villa Erba! It was as if time had stood still and yet ticked and the sight and sounds of progress could be seen in the here and now! Yes that’s what happens when the Concorso di Motociclette hits Cernobbio! Now on to preparations for the next year...