Louis Vuitton—as a purveyor of custom luggage and expensive bags, and owner of elite subsidiaries such as Donna Karan, Veuve Clicquot and Moët & Chandon, Hennessey, Givenchy, and Tag Heuer—is one of Europe's most profitable groups, yet is not too proud to maintain links with the concours and retro-rally scene.
In fact, Vuitton's internal-combustion connection began in 1906, when Paris-based Georges Vuitton witnessed a fatality-strewn intercity road race, and thereafter adapted the family's line of purpose-made suitcases to the automobile. Family Vuitton had long supplied nigh indestructible luggage to nobility on the mandatory Grand Tour, and this reputation gained them entrée to early-day auto coachbuilders—hence that distinctive LV logo in the trunks of Bugatti, Delahaye, and Delage.
It was in 1990 that LV London invited a select group of historic-automobile owners to compete in the first Louis Vuitton Classic for a raft of coveted prizes. The prestigious event took on an even greater aura with the announcement that it would “conclude after midnight.” Motorcycles were added to the menu in 1995.
The Hurlingham Club in Chelsea—40 private acres beside the Thames—evolved as the traditional venue. Although an ideal location for bright-young-things, space was limited for the running of high-geared race machinery in the compulsory Evening Parade. But, thanks to the odd spot of wheelspin and copious blipping, plus a whiff of burnt bean oil, these less-than-sedate Parades ensured that Clicquot-quaffing black-tie guests were much amused. The hosts were happy.
However, to duly honor Vuitton's 150th anniversary in 2004, additional space was essential if full international status was to be achieved. The Classic was thus moved to Waddesdon Manor, Lord Rothschild's 19th-century French-style chateau surrounded by several thousand landscaped acres in leafy Buckinghamshire. Whilst LV's sophisticated annual gathering has latterly kickstarted the UK social season, there was still a concern that London's café society revelers might not venture an hour north of Chelsea. It was an anxiety which proved unfounded. Encouraged, possibly, by Lionel Ritchie's widely heralded appearance in the evening cabaret, said revelers decamped to the countryside en masse. And, for the first time, entrants had sufficient room to display and parade.
Twenty-five stunning motorcycles, chosen from more than 70 applicants, duly reposed opposite 60 equally pristine autos along the Manor's front drive amidst the statues and fountains. There was no fog, but sunshine was sporadic. The 85-vehicle field, insured for a cool $75 million over the 24-hour period, was 40 percent British, 60 percent rest-of-the-world, assuring an international flavor.
Motorcycles comprised three classes: Early Days (pre-1915); American Cousins (machines with USA connections); and Worldwide Racers (competition models of any type). Three bikes had sidecars attached, making them magnets for the sprinkling of fashionista in circulation, all with photographers conveniently in tow. Such peripherals are anathema to purists, but it didn't apply here, for many 2004 entrants were also gnarled ex-racers. Comp men, of course, can absorb a soigné atmosphere without blinking; the racers, needless to say, were unfazed by the proximity of a few models. And, we hear, several “gnarlies” have since been purchasing Vogue—checking to see if their pictures were indeed published.
With a reputed budget of $500,000 for an event of barely 18-hours duration, Louis Vuitton thrives or fails on the subsequent exposure it receives within high-end publications—a factor further influenced, if subtly, by the choice of judges. While they're drawn mostly from automotive design and publishing, there are likewise numerous film and music icons who are genuine petrol-heads and perennially keen to judge. A smattering of show-biz judges, you see, guarantees a mention in the gossip columns. Energetic celebrity-spotters enjoyed rubber necking the selection of thespians and minstrels, kneeling on the grass and scribbling on check-boards, as decision-makers must.
In a tribute to the late Barry Sheene, Colin Seeley, of frame-building fame, entered the same Suzuki on which Sheene gained his first-ever 500 Grand Prix victory, at Assen, Holland, in 1975. A total of 15 entries within the racers' class prompted a sub-division twixt tarmac and off-road machines. An evocative 1946 500cc Moto Guzzi Dondolino from Sammy Miller's Museum emerged as best black-topper, alongside a rugged 1972 750cc Norton Wasp motocross sidecar.
The 2003 1850cc 4-cylinder Indian Dakota, built in Scotland, scooped American Cousins, marginally ahead of an Oregon-made Norton VR880 Commando in 2002 spec, 1971 vintage. Had logistics been less difficult, there could also have been, we learned, a U.S.-built Vincent in this category.
Early Days judging was closest of all. Choice lay between an immaculate 1903 Advance and a tiny 1910 Douglas horizontal twin, each rated at 2.75 hp. Both were perfect restorations, presented as if exhibited, way back, by the original manufacturer. The tight finish here, mind, arose after the exclusion of a magnificent 1909 680cc 4-cylinder, shaft-drive Wilkinson, complete with steering wheel, inasmuch as its entrant—all the way from Austria—decided an eight-foot machine was too dangerous to ride on gravel. No ride equals no prize. The dinky Duggie got the decision.
Best in Show was the 350cc V-4 Jawa of Jean Francois Balde, a former French Champion. He'd journeyed 1,000 miles from the Mediterranean with his exquisitely prepared 1969 ex-factory road racer. Once started (and Balde needed little persuasion), it emitted a splendid cacophony—never mind the smoke—and consistently drew the crowds. “Must every ring-a-ding be outlawed?” was the question in this scribe's mind. The Jawa's win was universally popular.
LV's 14th Classic was a memorable day. Alan Cathcart, veteran racer-cum-journalist, unperturbed that his own superb 1962 50cc CR110 Honda was unplaced, neatly described proceedings: “A jolly good bash—and definitely the least strenuous day's riding experienced to date!”