The world might be gripped by recession and the luxury car business has been battered by the storm, but that was forgotten - or at least ignored - for one glorious weekend this month as the great and the good descended on Monaco, Europe's epicentre of wealth, for the greatest car show on Earth - Top Marques. The world's only live-action supercar show will come to the Middle East next year when it lands in Abu Dhabi, but it will be a task to match the romance of this supercar gathering at the home of the Monaco Grand Prix.
That's because Top Marques goes well beyond the remit of the average car show. Yes, the supercars are lined up inside the Grimaldi Forum without an average econobox in sight, but the real magic happens outside. Because lined up in the car park is a Gumpert Apollo Sport, the car that set the production car record at the Nürburgring, the SSC Ultimate Aero, a KTM X-Bow, a Wiesmann MF5, a Bentley Continental, a Koenigsegg, some Lamborghinis, a Rolls-Royce Phantom and more.
It's the ultimate playboy's car collection, and they're all ticking, burbling and waiting for action. Because at Top Marques, the car companies don't hide their wares away on a stand, they're ready to go and show what they can really do to would be buyers, enthusiasts and the occasional wide-eyed child. It's billed as a test drive, but they are actually chauffeur driven laps of the legendary Grand Prix street circuit. So the world's greatest live action car show is also the world's most expensive hitch hiking party, where each ride ends at the same place.
Traffic is a constant problem as the organisers simply cannot close the Principality down, and the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters tennis tournament running on the same week doesn't help their cause. The local police have their limits, too, as race driver and chauffeur Wolfgang Kaufmann found out to his considerable cost at a previous event with 15 separate visits to the police station and a fine each time.
So the action is limited to quick spurts of acceleration. But if buyers cannot be separated from their money with the seductive sound of a burbling borderline race engine bouncing back off the walls of the legendary tunnel, echoing through the harbour, Casino Square and round the knot tight Rascasse hairpin, they just left the chequebook at home in the first place. Rain hit the show this year and took just a touch of glitter off the Mediterranean tax haven, but that gave the skilled drivers employed by the manufacturers the chance to slip the rear wheels and show just how much fun the cars can be without hitting speeds that lead directly to jail.
The drama continued inside the show, too, even though Prince Rainier arrived two days late for the opening thanks to the cloud of volcanic ash that closed the airports. The most exclusive manufacturers in the world now often choose to showcase new wares at this more exclusive gathering, rather than the mainstream shows, as this is the place where actual buyers descend instead of sticker-collecting dreamers.
Perhaps the biggest launch came from GTA, the Spanish manufacturer that sprung a surprise with its biodiesel variant of the new Spano hypercar. It might be green, but the biodiesel car is even tougher than its petrol-powered sibling that also made its full show debut in Monaco, with a near insane 840hp in just 1,350kg of carbon fibre and Kevlar body. That will take this Spanish monster through 100kph in just 2.9 seconds and beyond 350kph, putting it right up with the Bugatti Veyron and one of the other Top marque incumbents - the SSC Ultimate Aero.
The American rocket took the Bugatti Veyron's crown as the fastest production car in the world in 2007 and, though Europe still has its doubts about the cornering capabilities and its fit and finish, there's no questioning its straight line skills and pure brute strength. With 1,100hp, a zero-to-60mph time of 2.8 seconds and a top speed of 255.83mph (411.72kph), verified by Guinness, it was enough to bring those with the cash to the stands to collect high-speed supercars like others collect stamps.
Canadian manufacturer HTT Technologies brought its three-seater Plethore LC-750 supercar for its first European viewing, as well. This stunning supercar comes with 750hp, a full carbon fibre frame and the kind of performance that will leave most of the established players in its wake. It costs $350,000 (Dh1,285,000) in the US, though, so don't expect a bargain. Italy was well represented, too, with Ferrari, Lamborghini and Pagani all present and correct. New manufacturer Tirrito bought its oddly proportioned Ayrton S supercar, to a mixed reaction.
Inspired by Ayrton Senna, this unusual sportscar isn't as easy on the eye as some, but then its 1,120kg kerb weight, assured downforce from a monstrous front splitter and retractable rear wing, and 627hp V10 engine make up for the odd collection of angles on the outside. Inside, it's a stripped-out racer, with carbon fibre everything and luxurious leather only on the contact points. It's exclusive, too - there will be just 50 and each one will cost an eye-watering 352, 400 (Dh1.75 million).
Marussia, the new Russian supercar manufacturer, brought its B1 and B2 prototypes to the show. Visually stunning, it looks like a Pagani/Lamborghini hybrid. The range-topping B2, meanwhile, is simply from another planet. Outrageous curves, vicious strakes and a front end that is only bettered by the Lamborghini Reventon mean the B2 will go down a storm with the monied, supercar-buying crowd that crave something a little different. If the firm can make the final production car look like these prototypes, then the thought of a Russian supercar might not seem so ridiculous after all.
Another Russian representative embraces ridiculousness, though. The Dartz Monaco Red Diamon Edition, an even more luxurious version of the Kombat T68 SUV, comes with gold plated windows, Tungsten exhausts and diamond encrusted gauges. The features list on this Dh5 million creation comes with three bottles of Russo-Baltique vodka that retail for around Dh392,000 on their own and are designed as art rather than a drink.
Dutch firm Savage also brought its bewilderingly entitled Rivale Roadyacht GTS: a four-seat convertible that opens up like a clamshell. Despite the bizarre opening mechanism, it still weighs just 1,280kg and comes with the full force of a Corvette ZR1 engine. Designed by two Dutch students, the car should go in to full production this year and they plan to make just 20 in total, which could be 19 too many.
The prettiest car at the show undoubtedly belonged to Veritas, which has turned its initial concept into a thoroughbred monster. The 5.0L V10 from BMW's M5 features once again in this lightweight roadster inspired by a 1940s racing car, this time with 600hp. You'll need a helmet to drive it, as there isn't even a windscreen, but the car is simply stunning to look at and, even with its Dh1.6 million price tag, should sell all 30 units in no time.
Of course, the big money coming through the doors and sexy cars on display brings the luxury brands like moths to a flame. Yachts, designer watches and even the world's most expensive golf cart featured at Top Marques. But it was the cars that were the stars of the most spectacular show on Earth, and next year we'll get to see it up close and personal. If it is half as good as the Monaco event, it will be amazing. firstname.lastname@example.org