History of Italian Coachbuilding and the “Concorso d’Eleganza di Villa d’Este”

The Villa d’Este Concours was perhaps the most typical European Concour d’Elegance of the pre-war years. Started during the Belle Epoque, just before the 1929 crash, it was based in an area of upscale tourism, near to the prosperous town of Milano. It was also backed by a strong national automotive Industry and by a number of rich and creative stylists and coachbuilders. Only France could compete, with its Biarritz and Cote d’Azur shows.

Before the automobile developed the mighty and globalized industry we know today, automakers – especially those catering for the high end market - designed and produced the rolling chassis only, i.e. the mechanical parts of the car. Their well-to-do customers then could contact a series of artisans, or small entrepreneurs, who would create a body made to measure for them. 

Sometimes they would only make a small series of a few dozen similar units, but they were always able to personalise them according to the customer’s taste. Just like a good tailor, the coachbuilder had to find the balance between the customer’s requirements and the style trends of the day, his whims and his budget, his possible bad taste and the defence of the House’s reputation. The best ones managed to grow and prosper thanks to their abilities and their customers’ word of mouth.

This strange world had its rules and its rituals, among which were the “Concours d’Elegance”, nothing less than automotive fashion shows. Here new trends were launched and customers’ orders hopefully harvested.

The most important Italian show was held at Villa d’Este, and has thus contributed to the development and success of the “Carrozzeria Italiana” between the two World Wars. Italian automotive style had rapidly become the world’s most influential, due to its ability to innovate, from a technical and aesthetic point of view. We could call it “Body Art”, or anticipating a trend of fifty years later. It represented Italian creativity and attitude to design and created products that united both formal and functional research and anticipated the great success of Italian Design of the ‘50s and ‘60s, as well as that of Italian Fashion Design which was to take off in the late ‘70s.

Before this, the only Italian stylists known worldwide were Alessio, Farina, Castagna, Sala, Bertone, Zagato, Pinin Farina, and Carrozzeria Touring. We can therefore say with pride that Villa d’Este has had an important role in the evolution of Italian Coachbuilding, and of the Italian design.

Alfa Romeo and Carrozzeria Touring

Founded in 1910, Alfa Romeo immediately found a key role in the world of luxury and sporting motor cars. Developing into a big engineering concern, whose main business was producing aero engines, Alfa created some of the “absolute” automobiles, among which were the 6C and 8C designed by genius Vittorio Jano. 

Driven by the great champions of the 1930s, such as professionals like Nuvolari, or aristocrats like Varzi, Brivio, Howe, Cornaggia Medici or Lurani to name but a few, Alfa Romeos won everything.

After the 1500, 1750 and 2300, the 6C (six cylinder) motor cars, found their ultimate development with the 2500, launched at the end of the 1930s with some exceptional mechanical refinements. It was produced in three models: Turismo, S and finally the SS, which sported a shorter chassis and a more powerful three-carburettor engine. Racing 2500SSs had a brief but glorious prizelist, but was cut short by the war in 1939. 

At the end of the war, Alfa Romeo had been almost wiped out, but slowly restarted production of the pre-war models in very small numbers, while preparing for a new strategy of mass production that was to get under way in the ‘50s.

One of the most significant specialists, who best interpreted the Alfa chassis of the period, was Carrozzeria Touring. Founded by two gentlemen from Milan’s high society, it prospered due to their discreet elegance, thorough study of forms and structural engineering, the sensitivity to the problems of production and use, which have always informed the Milanese school of design and architecture.

Alfa Romeo 6C 2500SS Coupé Villa d’Este

Just after the war, a new series of style trends flourished, following the general simplification of society and lifestyles brought by the long conflict. Motor car bodies were simpler and less decorated, and the specialists started developing innovations that made production easier, and their use more comfortable.

The classic example of this is the disappearance of the separate wings (fenders for Americans) and their gradual ‘melting’ in the car’s side. By eliminating the typical running board (the last to go was that of the Volkswagen in the ‘70s), the sides of the body could move out, creating more space and comfort inside the car.

With Pinin Farina, Touring was one of the drivers of this evolution, experimenting with increasing success on the Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 chassis between 1947 and 1949. Every single car represented a small step forward and, car after car, Carlo Felice Bianchi Anderloni (the owner of Carrozzeria Touring) got nearer to perfection. As his son Alberto said during the “Villa d’Este Style” event in June this year, this was the first car his father created all by himself, without his own father’s help. 

The two-seater Coupé shown in September 1949 at the Villa d’Este Concours d’Elegance by Mrs. Fontana had reached just that perfection: with few simple details, like the profiles underlining the wheel arches, the car lost its plain look, and acquired a new elegance and grace. The public understood this and voted it as the winner of the Referendum Grand Prix. 

This success was later amplified by the press, and Alfa and Touring decided to offer copies of that motor car, which acquired the name of “Villa d’Este”. As the 1949 version was to be the last of the original Concorso d’Eleganza di Villa d’Este, that car remained forever the last and definitive winner of this historic Show.


This rakish Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 GS, bodied by Touring and named “Flying Star”, won the Gold Cup during the 1931 Villa d’Este Concours, anticipating her successor by eighteen years.

In the 1935 Concours, a Pinin Farina bodied Alfa Romeo 6C 2300B, pictured in front of the Ercole Stairway in the Villa d’Este Gardens. The sports car had become closed, and the Italian stylists called them ‘berlinetta’ .

In the same year of the “Villa d’Este”, Ghia showed this ponderous formal saloon, on a 6C 2500 chassis. Its lenght, the need for interior space and the adoption of straight sides –an innovation which was not yet mastered- created this car which today we like to dislike. The 1949 jury thought differently, as this car got two prizes.

The comparison with Carlo Felice Bianchi Andrloni’s masterpiece, here at Villa Olmo during the 1949 Concours, shows that the more compact proportions of the SS chassis and the stylist’s impeccabile vision created the opposite result: a car that received no official prizes but was welcome as the best by the public and by history.

The pictures are taken from the book "Villa d'Este - the Italian Concours" (Le Edizioni dell'Opificio)