Not far from the bustle of Paris is an idyllic, lake-encircled swath of old world opulence. Chantilly, France is home to a sprawling château, painstakingly manicured gardens, and the Chantilly Arts & Elegance Concours, which descends upon this haven of serenity every September (the 2017 edition runs this weekend), dotting the grounds with an abundance of classic automotive excess, from remarkably preserved turn-of-the-century relics and elegant sleds from the golden age of coach building to 20th century supercars and future concepts.
Chantilly challenges the world’s top Concours d’Elegance— think, Pebble Beach, Villa d’Este, Amelia Island—with an alternate spin on the celebration of classic and vintage automobilia. But does the world really need another high-end car gathering, and can the French newbie compete with the big boys? We embedded into the annual event and rubbed elbows with automotive aristocracy to get the scoop on this historic car gathering and find out.
A world-class concours would be nothing without a strong sense of occasion, and Chantilly is no exception to that unwritten rule. In fact, the guidelines are practically spelled out in the printed program, which includes a rather explicit dress code: “A tight and/or short leather dress won’t make the woman wearing it the most noticeable guest,” the text advises, “neither will a deep cleavage nor nails painted in three different colors.” I witnessed a sloppily dressed fan turned away at the gate, proof that Chantilly’s dress code was not meant to be broken, much in the same way the U.K.’s Goodwood Revival adheres to its mandate of period-correct garb.
That said, Chantilly is closer in mood to Lake Como’s oh-so-Italian Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este than events like The Quail and Pebble Beach, which combine elements of dress-up with a certain sense of California casual. The delta makes sense; Chantilly’s backdrop is Domaine d’Chantilly, a centuries old château that makes Hearst Castle look like a quaint guesthouse.
As the weekend gets underway, cars fill the property by parading past the tranquil waterway and occupying various sections. From rows of natty car club stalwarts like evocative Mercedes-Benz convertibles and midcentury Jaguar sedans to auction offerings that include Bentleys, Porsches, Rolls-Royces and the like, the early arrivals are alluring yet relatively attainable.
However, the main attraction comes Sunday, when a head-turning array of classic exotica makes its way onto the impeccably manicured Le Nôtre Lawns for a dozen or so classes, including the Belles Voitures du Monde (“Most Beautiful Cars in the World”) Concours d’élégance. A black tie-clad crowd assembles on Saturday evening, and a quick survey will reveal familiar faces. In 2016, that crowd included Former Scuderia Ferrari and FIA boss Jean Todt and his wife, actress Michele Yeoh, actor John Malkovich, and sprinter Wayde van Niekerk, who had come fresh off his gold medal winning sprint at the summer Olympics. The glitterati is not surprising; after all, this is automotive event formed by a company that makes watches that can cost as much as half a million dollars.
Exceptional Automotive Eclectica
Chantilly draws a remarkably eclectic field of cars, one that reflects a broad swath of collectors and enthusiasts. Random samplings from last year’s lawn: A row of Schumacher-era Ferrari Formula 1 cars offset by a several 1960s-era Prancing Horse F1 examples; a smattering of Group B rally cars; pre-war beauties from Alfa Romeo, Bugatti, Osca, and Talbot-Lago; a coven of Citroens including a gorgeous 1965 Citroen Henry Chapron-bodied DS19 Majesty Spécial; a row of Zagato-bodied road cars, which were part of a Zagato retrospective.
Manufacturers also peddled their not-so-ordinary wares: Mercedes-Benz Classic brought out its restored 540K Streamliner while the modern division showed off its outlandish Maybach 6 concept; BMW dusted off their Mille Miglia Concept Coupe and their fired up an evocative Bimmer plane with their logo projected onto the prop; Bugatti, McLaren and Rolls-Royce also showed off their latest and greatest.
Motorcycles were on hand too, including a smattering of classic and modern Beemers, the debut of the Zagato-bodied MV Agusta F4Z concept, and Midual’s imaginatively ambitious Type 1 naked bike.
While the spectrum of participants is varied enough to offer something for every classic motorhead, the serious contenders for the top spot are often the same players you’ll find competing at Villa d’Este, Pebble Beach, and Amelia Island—there are only so many places for these one percent of one percent cars to end up. Case in point: 2016’s winner, Jon Shirley’s stunning 1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Berlinetta by Touring, also took the top prize at the Pebble Beach Concours in 2008.
(Very Expensive) Watch Origins
Chantilly was launched in 2014 by watchmaker Richard Mille, whose horological creations have been worn by athletes like Felipe Massa, Bubba Watson, and Rafael Nadal. Mille’s wristwatches are wonders of advanced engineering that were developed using real world R&D: they are put through the ringer by athletes during training and competition until they break, enabling Richard Mille’s team to find the weak spots in the tiny movements and re-engineer the watch until they’re durable enough to sustain extraordinary forces like the swing of a golfer’s club, the violence of a Formula 1 driver’s track battle, or the snap of a tennis player’s racket.
“I love to do extreme watches for extreme conditions,” Richard Mille told Automobile. “Philosophically, my watches are very complex but they can be worn in any condition. They are not pieces to be put in the safe waiting for the next generation, they’re watches you put on the wrist and you live with.”
As such, Mille demands that a sponsored athlete doesn’t just pose with the watch for podium and PR photos; he or she must wear them while training and competing. Michael Schumacher famously wanted to partner with Mille until he was told he must wear the watch while driving. With that stipulation, the notoriously rigorous racer opted out and stuck to his tradition of only wearing gloves on his hands.
Richard Mille’s watch movements are remarkable exercises in form and function. Nadal’s timepiece, for instance, is so seemingly weightless, it can float in water and enjoys its status as the world’s lightest automatic wristwatch. In a business where the average mechanical (i.e. self-winding) watch is accurate to within 4 to 8 seconds per day, Mille managed to engineer a piece that keeps time to a remarkable 1.03 seconds per month. By using nanotechnology, ultra-low friction finishes, and techy materials like titanium and carbon fiber—many of the techniques you’ll find in a Formula 1 engine—Richard Mille’s watches are remarkably accurate while also being able to sustain as many as 5,000 Gs of force. They can also be dizzylingly expensive; prices for a Richard Mille wristwatch can easily reach into six figures, and offerings top out with three sapphire tourbillon models priced at $1.9 million apiece.
Room For More
Even if you’re a globetrotting bon vivant who regularly makes the rounds at the world’s top automotive events, it’s hard not to become intoxicated by the Chantilly Arts & Elegance Concours experience. Beyond the predictable champagne-sipping, pinkies-out scene, the beauty of being surrounded by exceptional vehicles in this gorgeous setting is seductive for virtually anyone with a pulse, let alone a hankering for automotive extremes. Add Chantilly to your concours bucket list, where you can witness one of the most elegant automotive events the world has to offer. But be sure to pack accordingly; those dress codes aren’t messing around.