Malta and the Valletta Concours

Judging classic automobiles in a historic island setting

Peter Stevens is one of the world’s best-known and most sought-after automotive designers. He is a consultant designer who is committed to the vital importance of design education. Alongside his consultancy, he lectures internationally and was until recently Visiting Professor at London’s Royal College of Art. Professor Stevens is well known as the designer of the acclaimed McLaren F1 road car which marked a paradigmatic shift in high performance car design. Produced between 1993 and 1997, the car remains extraordinarily influential.

The problem with overseas concours events is that they can be a bit like being part of a motor racing team; flight in – hotel – event – hotel – event – flight home. It is easy not to appreciate quite where you are. Malta, and Valletta in particular, deserves so much more attention, particularly for its art and architecture.

1939 Citroen Traction roadster.

For a country of a little over 400,000 citizens but with more than 3,500 registered “Classic” vehicles out of a total of almost 350,000 vehicles there is much else to see. My very good friend David Arrigo not only has the oldest car on Malta – a 1904 Cadillac – and quite a few of the wicker seat Fiat 500 Jollys, but he also still makes the little Fiat Barchetta that I designed in around 1989. David’s cars come from a set of tools he acquired from the original Maltese importer, along with a few built cars and the now deceased constructor chap’s charming wife!We spent a lovely day driving around parts of Malta that were new to me and saw specialist craftsmen engaged in all kinds of projects. There is a large and very skilled workforce who have all the experience needed to produce many of the excellent restored vehicles we judged at the Valletta concours.

One of the fascinating cars that David Arrigo has is a little 1938 Fiat 500A; it is still painted in the unique wartime Maltese camouflage. Because there are hardly any trees on the islands of Malta and Gozo, and bombardment and strafing were a daily danger, it was decided to paint small vehicles to look like pieces of dry-stone walls and larger ones to look like farm buildings. The idea was to park against either a wall or a barn and hope for the best. While I was driving around Malta in one of my open Fiat Barchettas, I saw quite a number of beautifully restored or lightly modified motor scooters and mopeds and it occurred to me that a class for two wheelers for entrants under the age of twenty-one could be a great starting place for potential young restorers – with any luck I could be invited back to judge a class like that next year.

David Arrigo's Fiat 500 Jolly.

Saint George’s Square in Valletta is where the concours organizer John Saliba held the Sunday event; this location is close to the Cathedral of Saint John where glorious Italian paintings are hung, including two Caravaggios, his alarming Assassination of John the Baptist being one of them. Clearly the Knights of Saint John, returning from the Crusades in the Holy Land, who then landed in Malta, had enormous wealth at their disposal. The finest architects from Italy were retained to build the magnificent cathedrals in the capital city of Valletta while the most illustrious painters were commissioned to decorate the interiors. St John’s Co-Cathedral, Malta’s most impressive church, was designed by the architect Gerolamo Cassar. It was built between 1573 and 1578, taking over from the Church of St. Lawrence in Vittoriosa as the place where the knights would gather for communal worship. The interior was revamped in the seventeenth century in exuberant Maltese baroque style, and it’s an astounding surprise after the plain facade. The nave is long and low, and every wall, pillar, and rib is encrusted with rich ornamentation, giving the effect of a dusty gold brocade. The floor is an iridescent patchwork quilt of marble tomb slabs, and the vault dances with paintings by Mattia Preti that illustrate events from the life of St John the Baptist. Beyond here, the oratory contains the two spectacular paintings by Caravaggio.

Saint John's Cathedral, Valletta, Malta.

Almost sixty cars were assembled for a team of international and Malta-based judges to enjoy on a typical bright sunny day where the air was as clear and clean as the Southern Mediterranean can be. The feeling of there being no pressure on the team, just a few kneeling down boards for the younger team members to have a look underneath and a simple score sheet to fill in was mirrored by the entrants easygoing friendship toward us and their fellow enthusiasts.

Best of show was easy: the spectacular Cadillac “All Weather” Phaeton V16 owned by Hans Emeren, perfect in every detail and beautifully presented. Battling against a Ford Model A and Model T Roadster Pickup, the V16 was almost bound to win, but the other two were both excellent cars. Lots of Jaguars, from XK120 to E-Type, were judged by a little team led by Jaguar expert Philip Porter. The Jaguar Class Up to 1980 was won by the Series 1 1963 E-Type while the Post-War Class 1945–1960 was also won by a Jaguar, Chris Cachia’s 1955 Jaguar XK140.

Best of Show-winning V16 Cadillac.

Among the Modern Classics 1981–1986 was one of most concours organizers’ favorites: a 1986 Hyundai Stellar. It was not one of Giugiaro’s finest works, but a third-place win for this obscure outlier was well deserved. Two classes had neck-and-neck contestants. In the Popular Classics Class two absolutely identical 1969 Ford Mark 1 Escorts could not be separated by even a late-sixties cigarette paper, and two lovely little Fiat Topolino Belvederes in the Post War 1945–1960 Class were just a point apart. The one judged to be the better was the earlier 1950 model that just beat the 1952 model. In one of the classes that I was judging, my fellow judge, designer Mike Robinson, caused us considerable debate. Did a nice-condition 1961 Chevrolet Biscayne – never a great favorite of mine – deserve the win over a glorious 1966 Pontiac Parisienne with reflections on its hood that looked just like one of the famed Pontiac brochure illustrations of AF and VK (Art Francis and Van Kaufman)? It even had the original and hideously vulgar clear plastic seat covers that it came with. Mike could see no pleasure in sitting on these awful covers on a hot late spring Maltese day! Once I had stuck to the seat I had to agree. A 1961 Aston Martin DB4 was considered to be the winner of the Elegance Class, but for me a 1939 Citroen Traction Roadster complete with lovely period Robri aluminum trim parts was the epitome of elegance.

It would be fair to say that the most popular winner at the Valletta Concours was David Arrigo who won a prize presented by the mayor of Valletta for the car that best represented the “Spirit of Valletta,” the little pale blue Fiat 500 “Jolly.” No one was jollier than David himself.