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Best of Showstoppers

Gary Witzenburg

Earlier this summer, as the 61st annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance was approaching, we enlisted 20 automotive-design authorities to choose the most elegant cars ever made. The following pages feature the 10 models that received the most votes, along with background information about each car; the cars are arranged chronologically according to their initial release dates.

We also presented the panelists with what might have been an even more challenging task when we asked them to define elegance. The Pebble Beach promotional material acknowledges that elegance is subjective, "a matter of the eye and the heart." However, Ed Gilbertson, chief judge at the Pebble Beach Concours, has developed a definition for the purpose of evaluating autos. "Elegance is purity in the design, styling, and presentation of an object," he says. "The various elements are integrated in such a way that the balance and harmony of the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts."

Most of the panelists’ definitions included balance and harmony. Taste­fulness, beauty, style, refinement, and gracefulness also appeared in many of the definitions.

The idea of judging cars based on their elegance quotient and the origin of the term concours d’elegance—French for "parade of elegance"—date to at least the early 20th century, when Parisian fashion houses employed the luxury automobiles of the day to showcase their latest collections. Female models would drive or be driven in Bugattis, Delahayes, and other top French marques through the city to a reviewing stand, where, to the delight of the audience, they would emerge from the vehicles wearing outfits as stunning as the cars’ custom coachwork.

The autos that captivated onlookers who had come only to see the fashions would fit the definition of an elegant car offered by Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance founder and chairman Bill Warner: "A car that makes a statement to people who don’t even care about cars."

Famed photographer Ansel Adams cared enough about cars to once serve as an honorary judge at Pebble Beach. In his view, an elegant car should serve not as a couture showcase but as a coffin. "My definition of an elegant car," Adams once said, "would be the kind of car I would like to be buried in."

Bugatti Type 41 1926–1933
Better known as the Royale because of its intended customer base, the Bugatti Type 41 was an enormous car. It weighed 3.5 tons, stretched 21 feet, rested on 24-inch wheels, and was powered by a 12.7-liter straight-eight engine. Opulent details included the radiator cap, which was a sculpture depicting an elephant standing on its hind legs. It was created by Rembrandt Bugatti, the artist brother of company founder Ettore Bugatti.

Ettore planned to build 25 examples of the Type 41 and sell each to royalty, thus the Royale moniker. But the car, which could cost $40,000 or more when new, depending on the bodywork, arrived a few years before the world economy plummeted into the Great Depression. Consequently, Bugatti built only six, each with unique bodywork, and sold only four. Bugatti did not sell any of the Royales until 1932, and not one of the buyers was a king or queen, prince or princess. All six Type 41s still exist, including the Coupe Napoleon, which was Ettore’s personal car.

 

"The epitome of refinement. The elegance of this coupe is as infinite as the length of its bonnet." —Gorden Wagener

 

"Of heroic proportions, it pushed all the buttons: long hood, sweeping fenders, enormous alloy wheels, and a relatively small passenger compartment." —Robert A. Lutz

 

Duesenberg Model J/SJ 1928–1937
When E.I. Cord, owner of Auburn Automobile Company and other motoring-related concerns, acquired the failing Duesenberg Motors Cor­p. in 1926, he retained company cofounder and chief engineer Fred Duesenberg and challenged him to design the biggest, fastest, and most expensive car ever made. More than two years and a couple of rejected prototypes later, Fred, who along with his brother August had produced Duesenbergs that won the French Grand Prix in 1921 and the Indy 500 in 1924 and 1925, delivered the 265 hp Model J.

The company built 481 examples of the Model J and its variants, including the supercharged SJ (said to be capable of 140 mph), which debuted in 1932, shortly before Fred Duesen­berg died of pneumonia. He contracted the infection while recovering from injuries he sustained in a crash involving his personal SJ.

When fitted with its custom coachwork, a new Model J could cost as much as $20,000, a price that, despite the arrival of the Great Depression, did not deter captains of industry, Hol­lywood stars, and European royalty from acquiring Duesenbergs. Owned by such luminaries as the kings of Italy and Spain, the queen of Yugoslavia, the Duke of Windsor, William Randolph Hearst, Howard Hughes, Clark Gable, and Gary Cooper (the latter two drove the only two 400 hp SSJ short-wheelbase convertibles), the Model J became a symbol of wealth and glamour.

"Long, elegantly flowing lines, with a powerful sense of forward thrust." —Gorden Wagener

 

Bugatti Type 57 1934–1940
Bugatti built a number of Type 57 variants, including the original, designed by Jean Bugatti, son of company founder Ettore Bugatti. The car had an expansive 130-inch wheelbase and 53.1-inch-wide track and weighed more than a ton. The car featured a smaller version of the horseshoe-shaped grille that graced the front of the Type 41, better known as the Royale, which Bugatti had stopped building a year earlier. In addition to a lower chassis, the Type 57S (the S stood for surbaissé, or "lowered") had a V-shaped dip at the bottom of its radiator.

Bugatti produced only four examples of what has become the most coveted Type 57S body style, the Atlantic. Only two of those cars have survived; one belongs to Ralph Lauren, and the other is displayed at the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, Calif. The Atlantic’s signature design element is the pronounced dorsal seam that runs the length of the car. The seam contained the rivets that held the aluminum body panels together.

"Great proportion, elegant details. Simply beautiful." —Tom Matano

 

Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B 1937–1938

With a top speed of 120 mph, the 180 hp 8C 2900B was touted at the time of its debut as the world’s fastest production road car. It marked the debut of the Superleggera (Italian for "superlight") body by Touring, the Italian carrozzeria that designed and built custom coachwork for nearly all of Alfa’s 8C models. The Superleggera construction method involved forming the frame of the car with small-diameter tubes and then covering them with thin alloy panels. In addition to reducing the weight of the car (and thus increasing its speed), the technique also allowed for innovative body shapes such as the one on the 8C 2900B Mille Miglia Spider. Alfa Romeo built a total of about 30 2900B models.

 

"Superb proportions, balance, and gracefulness of form and line." —Wayne K. Cherry

 

Talbot-Lago Type 150 C 1937–1939
When the anglo-french Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq group collapsed in 1935, former STD executive Anthony Lago acquired the French portion of the Talbot company and established the Talbot-Lago marque. Under Lago’s direction, the company produced cars that were fast—the sporting models won their share of races—and flamboyant. The 150 C’s signature teardrop silhouette is credited to Figoni & Falaschi’s Joseph Figoni, an Italian coachbuilder who had opened a shop in Paris in the 1920s. Figoni’s design is said to have been inspired by the aerodynamic pontoons that covered the landing gear of that era’s aircraft. Many of the 14 150 Cs that Talbot-Lago built also displayed Figoni’s innovative use of metallic paints and two- and three-tone color schemes.

 

"Pure art on wheels. More rolling sculpture than any other automobile." —Frank Stephenson

 

Bentley Continental R-Type 1952–1955
The Continental was the two-door version of the R-Type, a car that, except for a larger trunk, looked similar to its predecessor, the Mark VI. The automobile also bore a close resemblance to the Silver Dawn built by Rolls-Royce, which owned Bent­ley Motors during that era. Bentley built about 2,500 R-Types during the model’s production run, and 207 of those were Continentals. H.J. Mulliner & Co., now the custom coachwork arm of Bentley Motors, bodied most of the Continentals, fashioning them as fastback coupes. Powered by a 4.6-liter (later a 4.9-liter) straight-six engine, the Con­tinental achieved a top speed faster than 100 mph.

"A beautifully refined automobile with an abundance of elegance. Very sophisticated with uncomplicated surface language." —Gerry McGovern

 

Ferrari 250 GT 1954–1964
Ferrari produced a variety of high-performance 250 GTs—cabriolets, berlinettas, spyders, and coupes—bodied by Pininfarina, Vig­nale, Scaglietti, and Boano and nearly all powered by the lightweight Colombo 3-liter V-12 engine. Perhaps the most revered of the 250 GTs is the 250 GTO, which Ferrari manufactured from 1962 to 1964.

Ferrari produced 36 examples of what has become known as the Series I 250 GTO (and three Series IIs in 1964), and those that have survived are among the world’s most valuable collectible cars. They are coveted for their rarity, racing heritage—Ferrari’s team of 250 GTOs won the world championship of its racing class in each of the car’s three production years—and the beauty of their slinky Scaglietti-built bodies.

 

"Racy elegance. Low slung. One sexy beast." —Larry Erickson

 

"One of the best examples of an elegant sport GT." —Tom Tjaarda

 

Jaguar E-Type Coupe Series 1 1961–1967
The first of three distinct versions of the E-Type is regarded as a work of art—not just by auto enthusiasts, but also by museum curators: The car, in convertible form, has been featured in exhibitions at London’s Design Museum and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Academics have interpreted the sensual silhouette of the E-Type (known as the XKE in the United States) as a symbol of national optimism for England, which, by the time of the car’s debut in 1961, had finally and fully recovered from World War II. The E-Type’s design may have been symbolic, but it was also pragmatic. Its bulletlike shape is based on arcane mathematical formulas employed by designer Malcolm Sayer, an aerodynamicist who had worked in the aircraft industry before joining Jaguar.

Sayer’s design plus a 6-cylinder, 3.8-liter engine (increased to 4.2 liters in 1964) enabled the vehicle to reach a top speed of nearly 150 mph. The car’s high performance and relatively low price (about half the cost of a comparable Aston Martin or Ferrari) led to combined sales of more than 72,000 for all three E-Type series before the production run ceased in 1974.

 

"Excellent proportions and overall balance, purity of form, and sleekness. Trendsetting, timeless beauty. Thematically simple, with refined surface execution. The epitome of flowing, graceful, and elegant shapes." —Wayne K. Cherry

Lincoln Continental (fourth generation) 1961–1969
Originally a proposal for the Ford Thunderbird, Elwood Engel’s design for the Continental has been credited with saving the Lincoln marque from extinction. Robert McNamara, Ford’s president for a brief period at the end of 1960 before resigning to become John F. Kennedy’s secretary of defense, was prepared to terminate the Lin­coln brand because of declining sales. But he saw sufficient promise in Engel’s Thunderbird design to reconsider that plan. McNamara instructed Engel, who would later leave Ford and become chief of design at Chrysler, to convert the Thunderbird coupe into a sedan. McNamara then rebranded the car as a Lincoln.

The new Continental was 2 feet shorter than its predecessor. Ford presented the decreased length as a selling point when it produced a magazine advertisement showing a woman parallel parking the car. That promotion notwithstanding, the car was an immediate and long-term success, achieving sales of 25,160 its first year and more than 30,000 each of the next eight years.

 

"One of the most sophisticated contemporary design statements of a volume luxury entry." —Jack Telnack

"Brave and elegant antidote to the excess of the era." —Moray Callum

Lamborghini Miura 1966–1972
The Miura, the first viable mid-engine sports car, might be Lam­borghini’s most celebrated model, for both its mechanical and aesthetic attributes, but company founder Ferruccio Lamborghini did not initially champion the automobile. Knowing that their boss planned for the then newly formed marque to produce refined grand tourers instead of race-ready sports cars, the engineers initially developed what would become the Miura in their spare time.

When Ferruccio eventually became aware of the project, he saw the marketing potential of a high-priced ($20,000 when new), high-performance (350 hp from a transversely mounted 3.9-liter V-12) sports car and allowed a rolling chassis prototype to debut at the 1965 Turin auto show. Though the car lacked a body, showgoers still placed orders for it.

The Miura, then called the P400, received an even greater reception at the 1966 Geneva motor show, where it appeared with bodywork that was designed by Bertone’s Mar­cello Gandini.

 

"When the world was just trying to execute mid-engine cars, Lamborghini leapfrogged the competition with a brilliant transverse, compact, mid-engine configuration." —Ed Welburn

 

"The most beautiful supercar ever." —Ralph V Gilles

The 20 Who Picked the Top 10
The following designers, executives, educators, experts, and aficionados composed the panel that selected the 10 all-time most elegant cars. The panelists cited nearly 50 different marques, with Bugatti garnering the most votes and Buick getting one. For some of the more prestigious brands, the panelists spread their votes across a broad range of models, preventing any one of those marques’ cars from making the top 10 list. Thus the absence of any vehicles from Mercedes-Benz, Rolls-Royce, or Aston Martin. —G.W.

Ian Callum, director of Jaguar Design for Jaguar Land Rover
Moray Callum, executive director for Ford Americas design for Ford Motor Co.
Wayne K. Cherry, retired design vice president of General Motors
Larry Erickson, chair of the transportation design department at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit
Ed Gilbertson, chief judge for the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance
Ralph V. Gilles, president and CEO of SRT Brand and Motorsports; senior vice president of product design for the Chrysler Group
Ken Gross, automotive historian and museum consultant
Brian Joseph, selection committee chairman for the Concours d’Elegance of America at St. Johns
Robert A. Lutz, retired vice chairman of product development for General Motors
Tom Matano, executive director for the School of Industrial Design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco
Gerry McGovern, director of Land Rover Design for Jaguar Land Rover
Stewart Reed, chair of the transportation design department at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.
Larry Smith, former chairman of the Meadow Brook Concours d’Elegance
Frank Stephenson, design director for McLaren Automotive
Jack Telnack, retired design vice president for Ford Motor Co.
Tom Tjaarda, designer of the Ferrari 365 GT California Spyder and many other automobile models
Dirk van Braeckel, director of design for Bentley Motors
Gorden Wagener, head of design for Mercedes-Benz
Bill Warner, founder and chairman of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance
Ed Welburn, vice president of global design for General Motors

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