Dating back from the early 1920s, concours d’elegance were automobile events, often organised by automobile clubs to display the most handsome cars and to get them to parade around like human models from the world of fashion. With origins that must have harked back to the competition for horses and carriages in Paris from the 17th century, the horseless carriages of the 20th century took centre stage during the summer months.
During Les Années folles (the crazy 1920s), the finest custom-built new cars from the coachbuilders were assembled together, sometimes with human models sporting the latest fashion, accompanied by an appropriately 'decorated' poodle on a leash, for a competition to judge which was the most attractive of them all. Paris was not the only city hosting such concours d’elegance—the chicest of resort towns, such as Nice, Cannes, Deauville, as well as Villa d’Este, along the banks of Lake Como, in Italy, vied to have the most flamboyant catwalks of cars.
The concours d’elegance (or concorso d’eleganza, as the Italians call it) at Villa d’Este took place for the first time on 1 September 1929, with 80 participants. In those years, the most outstanding new car design was awarded the gold cup, the Coppa d'Oro Villa d'Este. The war years interrupted the concorso, returning once again in 1947, and continuing until 1952, when the competition stopped. In the mid-1980s, the concorso d’eleganza at Villa d’Este was revived, with the current concept of awarding the most beautiful of classic automobiles. Owners of well-kept historic vehicles display their cars and judges decide which is the most interesting, the best restored, or the most beautiful.
Since 1999, BMW has been the main sponsor and, from 2005, the BMW group has been organising the Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este, together with the Grand Hotel Villa d'Este. Acknowledging that the history of the automobile is an intrinsic part of humanity’s recent heritage, BMW has always used the Concorso to showcase an interesting concept car as well, one predicting the future, with an eye to the past. For this year’s Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, held over 25-26 May, BMW unveiled a new car… from 1970…
The car, the BMW Garmisch, is brand new, and constructed over the past few months, but was a recreation of a design from 1970. Would it not have been simpler for BMW to just restore and show the car from 1970? They could not, because that car had vanished…
In the press release from BMW, they stated that they were “taking the occasion of this year’s Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este to unveil the recreation of the BMW Garmisch, a classic concept car that was designed by Marcello Gandini for Bertone and vanished after its debut at the Geneva Motor Show in 1970. With the newly created car, BMW pays respect to one of Italy’s most influential car designers and adds an exciting chapter to the company’s history.”
“Marcello Gandini to me is one of the grandmasters of car design and his cars always have been an important source of inspiration for my work,” said Adrian van Hooydonk, senior vice president of BMW Group Design. Mr Hooydonk has been intrigued by the BMW Garmisch since he first discovered a faded period picture of the car some years ago. “Building the BMW Garmisch for a second time gave us the opportunity to pay a tribute to Mr Gandini, to recall one of his lesser-known cars and to highlight his design influence on the evolution of BMW design”, says Mr Hooydonk.
Without any doubt, the world's greatest designer of supercars, having produced more superlative cars for Lamborghini, Maserati and Ferrari than anyone else, Marcello Gandini’s designs have not only shaped the legends of Lamborghini and Maserati, but also defined the family looks of marques such as Alfa Romeo, Audi, Citroen, Renault, Volkswagen and BMW. For the latter, the first design Marcello Gandini executed was in 1966, when working as the chief designer for the Italian coachbuilding and design house Bertone. Mr Gandini developed a proposal for project E3, which would then evolve to become BMW‘s flagship saloon, the 2500/2800.
In 1969, around the time when BMW was launching the 2500/2800 saloon, Bertone decided to ready a show car for the 1969 edition of the Geneva Motor Show, not only to cement its on-going relationship with the German giant, but also to propose a flagship two-seater sports car based on the saloon. The BMW Spicup concept, designed by Gandini, was a compact two-seater with a roll hoop that narrowed at the top and then flared out as if it was a spoiler, to accommodate the roof’s retractable metal section.
The same year, 1969, BMW requested Bertone to propose a possible replacement for their mainstay those days, the 1600-2 family of two-door sports sedans, which, by 1970, had been in production for four years. The brief was to get Bertone to design a more modern two-door sports sedan. Retaining the same wheelbase (of 2.5 metres) and the basic structure, Marcello Gandini drew up a proposal that was longer and wider, yet markedly lower than the ‘original’ 1600-2, but topped by a rakish coupe greenhouse.
When this secret prototype was ready to be transported by a covered truck to BMW’s headquarters in Munich, from Bertone’s facilities in Turin, a visiting journalist clicked a photo and the partially uncovered car was published in the Italian magazine Auto Italia. BMW was most unhappy, and for Bertone it was a major embarrassment. It was then that Nuccio Bertone took the decision to develop another BMW-based concept as a red herring. “The original idea came from Nuccio Bertone himself who wanted to consolidate our existing relationship with BMW by designing a surprise show car for the Geneva Motor Show”, remembers Marcello Gandini.
Thus, Gandini set about developing another concept. Using the more powerful 120bhp 1990cc version, the BMW 2002 Ti, as the base, Gandini designed the BMW 2002 Ti Garmisch (a trendy ski resort not very far from Munich). The concept was unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show on 12 March 1970.
With a markedly more rakish front windscreen and rear window, and with a linear motif running along the wings, the somewhat wedge-like Garmisch looked very sleek and sporty compared to the aging 2002. A glovebox in front of the front passenger opened out to form a writing table and a make-up mirror. Gandini remembered: “We wanted to create a modern mid-sized coupe that was faithful to BMW’s design language, but that was also more dynamic and even a bit provocative.”
Though the Garmisch was exhibited as a concept car from Bertone, with no official BMW involvement, the car, after the show, was sent off to Munich too, where the Garmisch and the prototype made earlier were internally codenamed as project E19. In retrospect an important ‘concept’ car, the Garmisch, as well as the earlier prototype, became the starting points for the first generation BMW 3 Series (the E21) launched in 1975. It was also in 1970 that Marcello Gandini designed the very first of the BMW 5 Series, the 520 (with the internal codename of E12), launched in 1972.
“At the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, we should reflect on the past, but we should also think about where we are going,” said Adrian van Hooydonk. “Marcello Gandini’s designs have always been very clear and very clean, but also very dramatic.” For Hooydonk though, the single most important reason was, “filling in the gaps and completing BMW’s history,” as the Garmisch had gone missing. How did it go missing? In all probability, it was destroyed.
In India too, we have been destroying significant parts of our histories, automotive included. Several of the 40-odd original Marutis made by Sanjay Gandhi’s Maruti Motors from the mid-1970s survived into the 1990s at Maruti Udyog’s factory in Gurgaon, even after the latter was well into the manufacturing activity of assembling Suzukis. Even if the original Maruti Motors project and the Maruti car was an utter failure, there is no ignoring the significance of this episode in India’s industrial and political history. Yet instructions were given to destroy the handful of survivors. With both Maneka and son Varun Gandhi as winners at the recent elections, what are the chances that at least one of Sanjay Gandhi’s original Marutis are recreated—to fill an important gap in India’s automotive history—once again?
(Gautam Sen is acknowledged globally as a leading automotive journalist, writer, automotive design consultant and expert from India. He founded the country’s first newsstand car magazine Indian Auto in 1986, followed by Auto India, Auto Motor & Sports and BBC’s TopGear. Mr Sen has also been directly involved with the automobile industry in India and Europe, and has worked with eminent designers such as Gerard Godfroy, Tom Tjaarda and Marcello Gandini