On a sunny late April morning in Monte Carlo, 42 exceedingly rare vintage cars from around the world assembled on the plaza in front of the famed casino. The roar of revving engines in high-net-worth autos ranging from a 1913 Isotta Fraschini IM to a token modern concept car reverberated through our bones as we awaited the start of the Louis Vuitton Classic Serenissima Run. The brand, which claims travel as a core theme, has sponsored seven Louis Vuitton Classics around the world since 1993. Serenissima’s route took drivers and navigators 1,400 kilometers (about 870 miles) over four days on a scenic Alpine journey to Venice with overnight stays in Menthon-Saint-Bernard, France, Stresa, Italy, and Verona. Valued at more than $300 million, the field included Arturo Keller’s 1938 Mercedes-Benz 540K, which claimed the best of show prize, Bruce Meyer’s 1929 Bentley 4 ½ liter, Michael Leventhal’s 1950 Ferrari 166 MM, and Thomas Price’s 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO, a model so rare that one recently sold for more than $30 million. Christian Philippsen, who is in charge of the jury and car selection, piloted a one-of-a-kind 1939 Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 SS “256.”
The first leg of the race challenged the cars with a long climb of winding switchbacks through the Mercantour national park in southern France. “These cars are like sculptures, they are truly art in motion,” said Philippsen as we descended the serpentine road following lunch at Napoleon’s Retreat. “Cars can feed the senses: You can look at them and see the shapes, proportions, and colors; you can touch them, smell them, and listen to the engines. If you buy a painting, you just put it on the wall and leave it there.”
Philippsen reviewed about 120 applications to make the selections. Race organizers approached well-known collectors, many of whom had participated in prior Louis Vuitton rallies, and asked which vehicles they might be willing to enter. The final selections were based on a variety of criteria including the designated route. “First of all, the cars have to be exceptional, and secondly, we don’t take any duplicates,” explained Philippsen. The social aspect is also important as maintaining a friendly atmosphere is a priority, so participants at the rallies are often members of a familiar core group from various geographic locations who enjoy spending time together while sharing their passion.
Sports Director René Metge and his team spent two years planning the event and plotting the course. Metzge, who won the Paris-Dakar Rally three times, organized the first Louis Vuitton Classic and has been working with the brand ever since. “The starting and finish lines are the most important things to choose,” he explained during a garden party lunch at a private pallazzo in Venice. “Once you have chosen them, everything else comes together. We select the cars according to the itinerary, which is why there are so many Ferraris this year.” The route was planned to take drivers through mountains and by lakes for spectacular scenic vistas in the Alps—from Chamonix to the Simplon Pass—with a stunning leg through the Dolomites and along the shores of Lake Como and Lake Garda on the way to Verona.
Winners for each class were awarded trophies at the final gala on Venice’s Piazza San Giorgio overlooking the Grand Canal. The event’s grand prize was awarded to a 1923 Bugatti Type 23 piloted by Giuseppe Radaeli and his son. John and Tamsin Bentley of England drove an open 1932 Alpha Romeo 8C 2300 and won a prize for their exuberant embrace of the adventure. “The course was challenging,” said John. “We were doing 11- to 12-hour days, but we had the right car for it. The guys with large, heavy cars had quite a workout in the mountains.”
Of course, things do go wrong when driving vintage cars hundreds of miles, and a handful of cars did not finish. The third leg from Stresa to Verona proved especially challenging for many of the drivers, some of whom did not arrive to display their cars on Piazza dei Signori until after 9 pm.
After breaking down in a construction zone in Como, Jack Thomas of St. Louis called the event’s mechanics, who got his 1955 Ferrari 375 America running again but warned him not to kill the engine for 100 miles. “We made a wrong turn in Riva del Garda, and the car ultimately conked out,” he continued. “We were a mile off route, and we speak no Italian, but we were rescued and befriended by several locals, who got us into a garage. Ultimately, we could not get it started, so we made our triumphant entry into Verona on the back of the flatbed.” He and the mechanics worked all night to get the car running for the final leg, which included a lunch stop at Louis Vuitton’s shoemaking atelier in Fiesso d’Artico, near Venice. “If Louis Vuitton is about the spirit of travel and adventure,” he added. “We certainly experienced it.”