The placid waters of Italy's Lake Como might not have been whipped into a froth by the two hours of exuberant auctioneering conducted on its shores in late May, but the $32.8-million spent on 32 "investment quality" automobiles created sizable ripples and a couple of big waves of excitement among those attending the event held as part of this year's haute-posh Concorso d'Eleganza Ville d'Este.
The sale, staged by Canadian-based RM Auctions, reached its high-water crest with a 1955 Ferrari 375 MM Berlinetta, on which the hammer came down at $4.7-million. But not far behind in fiscal amplitude and easily one of the most visually stunning examples of flamboyant French design from the 1930s was the 1938 Talbot-Lago T150-C SS Teardrop Coupe, which sold for $4.4-million.
The rest of the top 10 big money machines included: a 1957 Ferrari 500 TRC Spider ($3.9-million); 1959 Ferrari 250 GT LWB California Spyder ($3.53-million); 1967 Lamborghini Marzal ($2.12-million); 1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K Cabriolet A ($1.96-million); 1939 Delahaye 135MS Grand Sport Roadster ($1.1-million); 1970 Lancia Stratos HF Zero ($1-million); 1957 BMW 507 ($1-million); 1954 Aston Martin DB2/4 Competition Spider ($942,000).
The Concorso d'Eleganza Ville d'Este was first held in 1929 and became the showplace for exotic automobiles before fading away after the Second World War. It was re-born in the 1990s and has regained its former stature, becoming one of the highest-calibre concours on the classic car calendar.
It bills itself as one of the most significant celebrations of the historic car mystique, where visitors "can breathe the air of authentic automotive aristocracy without the slightly commercial atmosphere of other events." Although the rapid turnover of $32.8-million at the inaugural RM auction must have added at least a "slightly" lucre-tive tang to the usual aromas of oil-perfumed exhaust and metal polish.
Ferraris are a few million-or-so a dozen these days but with only 16 built, the Talbot-Lago T150-C SS Teardrop Coupe - with its streamlined, Art Deco-inspired bodywork by French masters of the coach-building art, Figoni et Falashci - is a rarity worth a closer look.
First, there's the actual car underneath that wonderful "goute d'eau" or teardrop bodywork, perhaps the most famous created by the legendary design house.
The Talbot-Lago concern was created when Italian-born engineer Antonio Franco (Tony) Lago took over the Talbot/Darracq portion (located in Paris) of Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq, a complex French/British creation and one of the industry's first multinationals. It was created to market the three vehicle brands but was never particularly successful and was broken up in 1935.
Lago was keenly enthusiastic about fast and luxurious cars and his first efforts involved developing a new and more potent 4.0-litre, 140-hp engine (fitted with a Wilson pre-selector gearbox he'd helped design) for the rather stodgy T120. With this powerplant and other alterations, he created the 185-km/h T150-C that carried the Talbot-Lago name and with which he went racing. The marque would compete in Grand Prix events and at Le Mans and Indianapolis and continued to do so after the war.
But the Talbot-Lagos that most capture the spirit of the 1930s era - a time of depression-induced durance vile for most but an often outrageous flaunting of automotive fashion and over-the-top style by those who still had money to spend freely - were the Figoni et Falaschi-bodied street versions of the T150-C SS. The 'C' stands for competition and the SS for Super Sport.
Joseph Figoni was born in Italy but raised in Paris and partnered with Italian Ovidio Falaschi to establish their high-fashion coach-building concern. In the automobile's early days, manufacturers often provided rolling chassis to customers who then took them to the automotive equivalent of an haute couture fashion house to be "clothed" in unique style.
Figoni's ultra-streamlined look emerged with bodywork created for a Delahaye in 1935 but began to establish its ultimate expression with the arrival of the first of the Talbot-Lago "goute d'eau" coupes in 1937, commissioned by French businessman M. Jeancart, of which five were built. A second series of 11 made its debut at the New York Auto Show and was subsequently termed the "Model New York."
The 1938 example sold at Villa d'Este was ordered new by M. Troussaint, director of the casino at Namur in Belgium, who immediately showed it off at concours d'elegance there and in France. During the Second World War, it quietly disappeared, reappearing in the 1950s when it was acquired by the Belgian royal family. It was subsequently partially dismantled in preparation for a restoration that never happened, and was acquired a few years ago by the people who sold it last month.
This highly original example, with rare factory sunroof, was restored by RM Auto Restoration, a process that included letting in new wood where rot had intruded and new sheet metal where rust was evident. Chassis and engine components were completely rejuvenated as was the interior and, well, just about every detail.
Which paid off with three awards at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance in 2009, and the Car of Timeless Beauty Award at the Amelia Island and Best of Show at the Meadow Brook concours last year. And, of course, with the big cheque written for it at Ville d'Este.
Back in 1938
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Heavyweight boxer Joe Louis KOs rival Max Schmeling in the first round of their rematch in Yankee Stadium in New York.
A streamlined Art-Deco-aero steam locomotive called the Mallard sets a speed record of 126 mph in England then remains in service until 1963.
American pilot Wrong Way Corrigan (Douglas Corrigan) flies from Long Beach, Calif., to New York, files a return flight plan, but ends up in Ireland, blaming clouds and navigational error (he'd actually been denied permission to fly the Atlantic).
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