When I think of classic car shows, I tend to imagine a village green with a Wolseley Hornet nestled alongside a Ford Escort RS Turbo, the faint smell of fried onions and gentle shake of charity buckets filling the air. Which is why I was totally unprepared when I was told I was going to Villa d'Este, one of the world's foremost Concours d'Elegance.
Not known for my sartorial elegance, I realised the gravity of the situation when my boss looked at me steely-eyed and, through gritted teeth, insisted that 'smart' wasn't quite good enough; I had to be 'funeral smart'. Whether it was a friendly piece of advice or a thinly veiled threat to my life I wasn't quite sure, but, sensing the collective gaze of the office fall on my Ice Ice Baby t-shirt and sunflower-patterned denim shorts, decided that a trip to the charity shop was in order.
On arrival at Lake Como, now suited and booted, I have to confess that I still didn't quite know what to expect. I'd been briefed about the glass of champagne that was thrust into my hand after stepping out of the 7-Series limousine, and the limited edition Rolls-Royce Wraith that was sitting on the lawn (the event is sponsored by BMW after all). But I was still in the dark about the proper cars at the event.
I had to wait until the next day before I got a real glimpse of the action, and I have to say I was utterly blown away. I was anticipating some pretty nice kit: the location, a holiday destination so expensive and timeless it doesn't turn up in travel agents' brochures, was proof enough of that. What came as a surprise was that almost every car I looked at was unique – or near as dammit.
Some of the cars I knew straight away: the XK120 with streamlined domed cockpit that looked a lot like the record-breaking Jabbeke car? It was the record-breaking Jabbeke car.
Likewise the Fantuzzi bodywork of the 1956 Maserati 450S, which went on to win Best of Show, was instantly recognisable.
But there were more that I'd never seen before, or in many cases never even heard of. Chief among them was a Fiat Abarth 2000 Scorpione, a concept car penned by Pininfarina and based on an Abarth ES010 Sport Spider. It was clearly as alien to most of the other visitors as it was to me, judging by the huge crowds that followed it over the course of the weekend. It normally lives in Japan, which goes some way to explain the lack of sightings of it in Europe.
Another incredibly rare sight was the Alfa Romeo 6C 3000CM Superflow IV. The stunning car had the tell-tale bulging flanks and boat tail of a Duetto, but was created by Pinin Farina fully six years before the later car entered production. The full Plexiglass roof, sadly, didn't influence any production models.
Again, I knew all about the Mercedes-Benz 300SL 'Gullwing'. But what I didn't know was that the example on show at Como was one of just 29 aluminium-bodied cars, built to give the few who could afford it a competitive edge in sports car racing.
Bernardo Hartogs' car narrowly missed out on winning the Gentleman Drivers class after being pipped to the post by a Ferrari 250GT Tour de France from the Destriero Collection.
It wasn't just the cars that made the show so special, but the friendly atmosphere and spirit shared by all the owners; I'll never forget the sight of a 1922 Hispano Suiza H6B tearing around the grounds of the hotel to horn blasts and backfires with three flappers perched precariously on the rear hood. Nor the at times uncomfortable excess.
If you have the means, I highly recommend you check it out – the second day of the event, held at nearby Villa Erba, is open to the public.