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Inside the Zoute Grande Prix

Inside the Zoute Grande Prix

James Nicholls takes a look at one of the motoring world’s best kept secrets.

The Zoute Grand Prix held at the chic, affluent Belgian coastal resort of Knokke Le Zoute is one of the motoring world’s best kept secrets. But the 9th Edition, held on 4–7 October, drew an amazing crowd of over a quarter of a million spectators to the elegant seaside resort, which is normally home to just 30,000 inhabitants.

And what was it that these Belgian, Dutch and French spectators had come to experience? Well, certainly not a Grand Prix in the normal motoring sense, despite the fact that according to the informed, former F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone did try to put the mockers on the name when he first heard about it. This Grand Prix is an amazing amalgam combining a rally for classic cars pre-1965; a GT Tour for modern super- and hyper-cars; a Flying Mile and a GT Sprint; an auction; a display of 15 ‘Top Marques’ including the latest releases from Mercedes-Benz et al; cocktail parties and gala dinners; and, my prime rationale for being there, a Concours d’Elegance.

Held on the fairways of the prestigious Royal Zoute Golf Club, oft home to the Belgian Open and other major tournaments and with a distinguished history dating back to 1899, the Concourse d’Elegance featured 107 magnificent automobiles, the oldest of which – a single-cylinder Benz Patent-Motorwagen – was built in 1886.

To judge the world’s finest

I had travelled to this part of Flanders to be a member of the Jury for the Concours, and was among distinguished company including Lorenzo Ramaciotti, former head of design at Fiat Group and now President of the Jury for the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este. I was honoured to be chosen to judge the class titled ‘Jaguar Icons’, and had to spend my time – in between being royally entertained by the most generous of host organisers – deciding which of the variety of splendid C-Types, D-Types and E-Types was most worthy to be class winner.

It certainly helped that in our team of four class judges, there was a car designer. And if you are in Belgium, then who better than a Belgian car designer – especially if he is one of the leading designers of the 21st century, Louis de Fabribeckers, Head of Design for Carrozzeria Touring Superleggera. Indeed, the name of Touring Superleggera kept on cropping up all weekend: the sublime Lamborghini 4000 GT Flying Star II, the one-off prototype displayed by Carrozzeria Touring at the 1966 Turin Motor Show and originally sold to the brother of the novelist Françoise Sagan. In current ownership for over 32 years and surely worthy of the Sagan quotation, “art must take reality by surprise”, the Lamborghini won the Shooting Brake class. Sitting alongside was another Flying Star by Touring, this time on a 2008 Bentley Continental chassis. Taking its inspiration form the Lambo, it was actually an early design by Louis, who is still only 40, and which won the award here for ‘Most elegant or special interior’ with its of strips of leather wound with fishing line. Louis told me that the fabric was created by a Belgian company and while very luxurious, is also most hard-wearing.

The Zoute Grande Prix

Classic elegance and modern grandeur

Louis had also brought along with him his latest creation. With its dark blue paintwork entitled ‘1001 Nights’, the 2018 Maserati GT Sciàdipersia celebrates the 60th anniversary of the bespoke Maserati 5000 GT, designed by Touring for the Shah of Persia. So, not a bad chap to be discussing with the merits and flowing lines of an E-Type (once described by no less than Enzo Ferrari as the most beautiful car in the world) or the curvaceous haunches of the D-Type. Louis extolled the virtues of the ‘sexy’ shape of XKD 526, a 1955 short-nosed D, but the unanimous class winner was of the long-nose variety. The 1956 XKD 603 is probably the most original of the six remaining long-nose factory racers built to win the Le Mans 24 Hour Race. In 1957 XKD 603 finished second behind one of its siblings. XKD 603 is incredibly authentic and unmolested – such a rare thing in a race car, especially one which between 1956 and 1959 was driven by seven Le Mans winners and took part in more World Championship races than any other Jaguar ever. Its history and provenance are awesome, and it is undoubtedly one of the greatest racing cars of all time. Therefore, it was an enormous pleasure, as a judge, to be allowed up close to pore over it in the minutest detail.

But there were also plenty of other racing beasts on display, including a dedicated class to Formula One, the winner of which was the 1984 Renault RE50-3 first driven at the Brazilian GP by Frenchman Patrick Tambay. At the other end of the Renault scale was the stately 1927 Renault 40CV, a limousine découvrable with unique coachwork by Binder, which won the prize for best restored car on show.

This being the 70th anniversary of Porsche, there was an absolutely astounding array of 356, 911 and other models across three classes dedicated to the designs of Ferry and Butzi Porsche. There was also a gaggle of BMW pro- and road-cars celebrating 40 years of the M1. Other notables to catch the eye were the 1938 Talbot Lago T150 C “Lago Speciale” Cabriolet with coachwork by Figoni, which was deemed the best pre-war car at Zoute, with the 1935 Lancia Belna F234 Labourdette first seen at the 1935 Paris Salon picking up a prize for special bodywork. I also liked the look of the incredibly original 1967 Toyota 2000 GT; while for the lover of the unusual, the automobile does not come more curious than the 1966 Sabra GT from Autocars of Haifa in Israel (no, I did not know that they made cars there either), with a glass-fibre body made by Reliant in the UK. Out of a total production of just 379 cars, over 20% were sold in Belgium.

And the winner is? After much deliberation by the jury in the Bridge Room of the beautiful Royal Zoute Clubhouse and by the narrowest of possible margins, it was decided that the winner of the Best of Show 2018 Zoute Concours d’Elegance was the 1948 Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 SS coupé, with coachwork by none other than, once again, Touring Superleggera. Originally delivered new to Antonia Mario Savino, the Minister of Industry and Trade for Argentina, it was described by one of the most eminent of all judges as “being perfect”.

I could tell you much more, but as a concourse judge, I am bound, like the priest in his confessional or the doctor by his Hippocratic Oath, to maintain my secrets.

Meanwhile, the Rally had also reached its conclusion, after over 625 kilometres of fast (but controlled) driving through the autumn sunshine taking in the sights through the polders, the low-lying land enclosed by dykes which is typical of the Flanders region.