Automobiles and art at the Chantilly Arts & Elegance Richard Mille 2019

“The superfluous is very necessary!” said Voltaire, the French philosopher and writer. And nowhere is this more evident than among the splendour and historic grandeur of the Château de Chantilly, rebuilt after the French Revolution by Henri d’Orleans duc d’Aumale in the late 1870s to the new design of Honore Daumet on the site of the original dating back to 1484!

Set amid the large forests of France 30km north of Paris, Chantilly is the Newmarket or Kentucky of France, a mecca for horse breeding and racing. Indeed, the Château features the most remarkable stables imaginable. The Augean Stables of the legend of Hercules would be hard pressed to equal the splendour of the equine quarters here. Re-watch the 1985 film A View To A Kill starring Roger Moore as James Bond, after visiting and you realise that the setting for the horse auction scene is not fictional at all!

But for the car lover even more importantly it is the home of Chantilly Arts & Elegance Richard Mille. There cannot be many better settings than the gardens of the Grand Château in which to display a selection of some of the most artistic automobiles of all time. Very apt as an Italian tribunal in Bologna recently ruled that a car indeed can be classified legally as a “work of art”.

Over 120 cars in 17 classes were gathered together on the manicured lawns on one of the hottest days in French record. The bright sunshine reflected harshly off the gleaming metal as the members of the jury, including such luminaries as designer Marc Newson CBE, supermodel Yasmin Le Bon (was it just a coincidence that her rock star husband of Duran Duran fame sang the title song to that James Bond movie?), and Coldplay’s bassist Guy Berryman, who’s also a qualified mechanical engineer. Celebrity car buffs, true, but nevertheless real car experts in their own right, shoulder to shoulder with the design directors of Peugeot, Volkswagen, Bugatti, Renault, writers, historians, pilots, and collectors from all parts of the globe.

This event might not yet be as well- known as Pebble Beach or Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, but in only its fifth iteration, Chantilly Arts & Elegance is pushing them very hard. Truly living up to its name, the public were treated to cars and gardens, cars and carriages, cars and paintings, cars and château, and cars and elegance. Invited guests, meanwhile, were fêted and pampered to the very point of incredulity – a welcome champagne dinner on the lawns; a rally to Louis XV’s Château de Compiègne; a gala black tie dinner in the aforementioned stables where horses galloped and danced in the aisles and five-star chefs presented an outlandish haute cuisine extravaganza accompanied by the finest wines; a super-buffet in the castle itself under the watchful gaze of paintings by Poussin, Gerard, Delacroix
et al, all the while being supported by the bubbles of a seemingly never ending stream of Champagne Castelnau Réserve. No wonder the aristocracy lost their heads in this part of the world!

But there is no such thing as a free lunch and as a member of the jury as well as enjoying the immense hospitality, there was ‘work’ to be done. Maintaining one’s objectivity when surrounded by so much splendid subjectivity is not an easy task though – adjudicating the machines in the Special Bentley Centenary Pre-War Open Car Class. Working with chief class judge, historic lady racer and elegance personified, Nicola von Donhoff from Germany, and the highly respected specialist and raconteur, Adrian Hamilton (son of legendary Jaguar C-Type and D-Type driver and 1953 Le Mans 24 Hour winner Duncan Hamilton), on a stiflingly hot day we undertook the process of determining the best in class from a bevy of Bentleys celebrating the British marque’s extraordinary 100 years. Old Number 3, the Bentley Speed Six which crashed at Le Mans in 1930, was our eventual pick after much consideration and deliberation from a very strong field.

The next morning, a slight breeze helped the combined group of judges to determine the Best of Show, both pre- and post-war, from the 17 different class winners. At a tense jury meeting and after a couple of count-backs the incredible 1931 Bentley 8 Litre Foursome Coupé came out victorious as Best of Show Pre-War by the narrowest of margins over the gorgeous 1935 Voisin C25 Clairière, the creation of Gabriel Voisin, an aircraft manufacturer who in 1919 founded the Avions-Voisin automobile company.

Best of Show Post-War was a little more clear cut and despite competition from some amazing vehicles, including the 1959 Aston Martin DBR1 Le Mans 24 Hour winner, they all had to cede victory to an impossibly beautiful 1948 Talbot- Lago T26 GS.

For many, including the young fan photographing its bespoke coachwork by Figoni & Falaschi of Paris, this was a pretty straightforward choice after it had won its class, Cars at the Paris Motor Show in the Grand Palais up to 1961. In this class it defeated, amongst other marvels, another incredibly stylish but more restrained Talbot-Lago T26 Grand Sport by Franay. This unique automobile created on what was regarded as “the best chassis in the world”, which had amazing Hermès interior and luggage fitted for Marlene Dietrich, was also exhibited in 1948 at the Grand Palais. Situated just off the Champs- Élysées, the Grand Palais was the home to the Salon de Paris from 1901 to 1961, the oldest motor show in the world established in 1898.

The sun shone, the champagne flowed, the crowds applauded, the horses trotted, the children laughed, and the cars sparkled like the jewels in the crown of this most opulent event celebrating the centenaries of Ballot, and Bentley, 110 years of Bugatti, Iso Rivolta, 25 years of Endurance GTs, Aston Martin, Facel Vega, Japanese sports cars, racing McLarens, Voisin coachwork, the Salon de Paris, Marcello Gandini, Porsche 917, and a host of concept cars.