Unique Special Ones Russia is more than a just classic car enthusiast’s prestigious event. It is, as the organisers promised, a really unique and luxurious lifestyle event set against a backdrop of magnificent St. Petersburg. The organiser and Chairman Sandro Binelli of the Mac-Group had dreamed of bringing this event to Russia, having organised the famous Mille Miglia race for five highly successful years. “This concours is a first of its kind in Russia and what better place to hold it than in St. Petersburg, home of the Czars,” he told me.
I was a guest of the company, and their meticulous planning included a stay at the recently opened Lions Palace Four Seasons Hotel, a nineteenth century former Russian palace. It took over seven years to restore, and it certainly must be one of the Four Seasons’ most impressive locations, situated beside St. Isaac’s Cathedral. With its marble staircases, subtle and sophisticated interiors and impeccable service, I wasn’t surprised to hear that President Obama and his entourage chose to stay here during the G20 summit. It was a fitting start to this exceptional classic motoring event.
That evening, Stefano Ricci, one of the leaders in Italian luxury goods and sponsor of the event, invited us to a reception at his newly opened shop by the banks of the River Neva. The Russian glitterati were out in force and showed great interest and enthusiasm for Ricci’s products, which encompass everything from the Blue Cashmere coffee set to classic fine fragrance and exquisite leather briefcases.
On the following day, the sun shone in Kirov Park, a great backdrop for this concours of rare cars. Spanning a timeframe of some forty years, the cars ranged from a 1938 Alfa Romeo 6C 2300B Mille Miglia (one of the first ever produced with the Superlegga system), and Carrozzeria Bertone’s interpretation of the Aston Martin Rapide, named “Rapide Bertone.” Something of a one-off, the vehicle keeps the mechanical engineering of the original model unchanged, and was commissioned (somewhat unsurprisingly) by an Aston Martin collector.
Whilst Bertone is well-known, so too is the company’s design director Michael Robinson, who has spent many years in the design departments of top car companies. As well as the “Rapide Bertone,” Robinson also displayed a Bertone Nuccio, which was gathering much Russian attention. His futuristic designs are now including self-driven vehicles – something that he says will inevitably change driving as we know it. With over one million deaths worldwide on our roads, this can surely be the only way forward. He went as far as to suggest that this could happen as early as 2040, giving a truly fascinating insight into the world of car design and the future. What will happen to the real “petrol heads,” I wondered, whose only passion is to drive and race their cars?
Of course, one cannot speak of Bertone without mentioning Lilli Bertone, the wife of the company’s founder, who I met whilst she was preparing to present “Rapide Bertone” to the curious Russian public. Still flying the flag of the company her husband started in 1912, she really is a remarkable lady.
The next part of our trip was a private tour to the Winter Palace, which is now the State Hermitage Museum. The museum’s collection features more than three million works of art and artefacts of world culture, including paintings, graphic artworks, sculptures and archaeological finds, but we were there to enjoy a spectacular private concert, all whilst surrounded by the beautiful paintings of the Winter Palace.
Another cultural highlight of our visit was Mikhailovsky Castle, a beautiful architectural phenomenon in the heart of St. Petersburg, for the Best In Show celebration.
Whilst I was in St. Petersburg, I was fortunate enough to speak with Joanne Marshall, the only female Judge at the Unique Special Ones Concours. Now Head of Communications for Ferrari for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, she has been a lover of cars ever since her first Matchbox car at the age of three. A qualified banker by trade, Joanne joined the world of cars when she moved to Italy to set up as a journalist and photographer, getting work by convincing manufacturers to let her test-drive their cars. “I never looked back,” she confessed, before adding, “I was the first female journalist to test-drive a Ferrari.”
So, why be involved with Unique Special Ones? “Classic cars have been a passion of mine since I was fourteen,” she revealed, “so the classic car scene is very close to my heart.” But what does she think about Unique Special Ones being hosted in St. Petersburg? “It’s a bit of a bet, but one the organisers hope will pay off,” she said. “They are hoping its reputation spreads through word of mouth, but the Russians have no background in classic car collectorship. Russia is interesting, but I don’t think the market is there yet. There isn’t that awareness of what a concours is about, but you go where the cars are.”
The Best In Show prize was awarded to a delightful couple, Hans Ribbens and his wife, who had travelled especially from Holland for this event with their 1951 Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 SS Coupé Villa d’Este, which was built by Touring Superleggera. This car won the Gran Premio Referendum at the Villa d’Este Concours and there are only twenty cars like this left in the world. This specific car is considered one of the most elegant ever realised, thanks to its beautiful lines. The car won the favour of all judges, who were together responsible for identifying the most beautiful car (from a technical and stylistic perspective) amongst those taking part in the event.
The group of judges consisted of prominent names from the world of design and the automotive industry like Tom Tjaarda, and Head of Style for the Fiat Group, Lorenzo Ramaciotti; they had the hard task of carefully scrutinising all the entries, in accordance with rigorous judging criteria. “The winning Alfa Romeo differed only a few tiny points from the car that reached second place, another Alfa Romeo, a 1938 6C 2300 B Mille Miglia Berlinetta” says Adolfo Orsi, a well-known personality in the automotive world and head of the international panel of judges. The Gazprom – Neft Special Prize was awarded to the best car entered by a Russian collector – the model was the one-off 1943 6C 2500 S Cabriolet Pinin Farina, belonging to Kostantin Moshkin.
Who knows if there will be a future for classic car collecting in Russia but if the Unique Special Ones Concours is anything to go by, then a European lifestyle event featuring a superb display of historic cars with beautiful designs can only can set a precedence. Watch this space!