Nicola Bulgari, 2008 Hilton Head Island Concours Honorary Chair, boasts an impressive love affair with America and American Autos.
The grandson of renowned jeweler and BVLGARI (bulgari.com) dynasty founder Sotirio Bulgari, Nicola Bulgari is a passionate connoisseur of works of art and world-class excellence. As part of Monthly’s annual Concours coverage, we were thrilled to learn more (via email) about what drives his passion, pride and interest in preservation.
HILTON HEAD MONTHLY: You have participated as an exhibitor with Concours in the past, and the organization was thrilled to announce you as the honorary chairman of their 2008 event. What inspired you to accept this role?
NICOLA BULGARI: Hilton Head Island is one of the most beautiful Concours venues and destinations in the country. The people who run the Concours are friendly and hospitable and historically respectful of all types of automobiles, not just grand classics and historic sports cars. I feel privileged to follow in the footsteps of previous honorary chairmen like Bill Marriott.
HHM: Will the 2008 Concours represent your first visit to Hilton Head Island?
NB: Unfortunately, yes. While we have sent cars for previous events and I’ve spoken with the organizers and other participants, my busy travel schedule has prevented me from attending. I’m sure this won’t be my last visit!
HHM: Like most, when I hear the name “Bulgari,” I think of works of art, luxury and excellence and consider you a well-respected connoisseur of the aforementioned. It does not surprise me that you have a passion for autos, but I was intrigued when I learned of your preference for American autos - particularly with your Greek/ Italian heritage, proximity to idolized Italian sports cars, etc. What ‘drives’ your attraction to American models?
NB: I fell in love with America and American cars when I was a child growing up in Rome and my love affair with America’s culture and rich automotive heritage has stood the test of time.
Growing up in postwar Rome, late-1930s and early-1940s American cars - primarily Buicks, Cadillacs and Packards - captivated me. These were the cars of choice of important and wealthy people, Italian government and the mainstay of the Vatican’s papal fleet. Majestic and powerful, they left an indelible impression on me.
As a young man, the stately, elegant Buicks and Cadillacs used by the Vatican impressed me. In 1966, I purchased a 1938 Buick 90L limousine with 40,000 miles and in like new condition from the Vatican. It had been one of two used as official parlor cars for Pope Pius XI’s outings to Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence. It also served as a papal escort car. Later I added 1947 and 1949 Cadillac limos that were part of the official Vatican fleet to the collection.
I should note that period 1930s thru the 1950s, movies from major studios like Warner Brothers and RKO always featured Buicks. They were the cars that the stars drove on the silver screen!
They, primarily Buicks, became my boyhood passion, my fantasy about life in America. I promised myself as six or seven-year-old child that one day I would own an American car and I would visit America. I bought my first Buick in 1960 when I was almost 19 years old and the following year my parents took me on a cross-country drive from New York to California so we could better understand life in America. I have always been seduced by the precision of a mass-produced, not handmade or coachbuilt, car. Never forget, it was America that put the world on the road in cars!
HHM: I understand you purchased your first vehicle, a 1937 Buick Model 48, for $30. Share your experience of selecting that particular automobile, how you felt driving it for the first time.
NB: Words cannot describe just how elated I was finding, buying, experiencing the one-and-a-half-year restoration and then driving my first Buick. Ecstatic best describes how I felt. It was not actually the first car I owned, though. Previously, I owned a lifeless, little Fiat that I’d rather not talk about!
Growing up, my passion was to own a Buick and, in 1960, I found an abandoned and dilapidated 1937 Buick (Series 40) Special Model 48 two-door sedan in a garage on Via Flaminia in Rome. It had incredible provenance. Giovanni Revedini, the Italian Consul General in Toronto, originally purchased it new in Canada. He brought it back to Italy in 1938 and later sold it to Roman aristocrat, Marquis Paolo Soranzo. During World War II, it had been requisitioned first by the Italian Army, then the German Army and finally by the American Army! The American military replaced the Buick’s wheels with Jeep wheels and tires (so they could be easily serviced). After the war, the Americans returned the Buick, with crates of spare parts, to the Marquis.
Compared with most of the Italian cars I drove at ages 18 - 19, the Buick was incredibly powerful, rode like a true luxury car and commanded attention wherever I went. Yo u never forget your FIRST!
HHM: I was told that your collection comprises 170 vintage restorations and unique originals. How do you determine which to include?
NB: First, you fall in love! And, I love ‘orphan’ brands like Nash, Studebaker, Hudson, Graham and others as I do Buicks, Cadillacs and Packards. I am less interested in collecting restored, perfect examples than I am about finding untouched, virgin cars that have survived and tell a real story. A car is original only once and original cars ‘talk’ to me!
I am driven by pure automotive passion and a desire to preserve an important, but overlooked part of American history. America’s automotive heritage is phenomenal.
HHM: What is your fondest auto experience?
NB: Age 7 or 8, while reading old issues of National Geographic, I was mesmerized by Buick’s luxurious 1935 Model 96S coupe. Buick created magnificent magazine advertisements for its Art Deco styled, long wheelbase sport coupe in the 1930s. The 1934 - 1935 Buick 96S represents one of the most exquisite automotive designs of the 1930s!
My fantasy was that someday I would see one in person. I couldn’t even imagine owning one. After searching for decades we found one in Michigan. It needed everything and was one step away from the graveyard. I bought it and made a commitment to a five-year body-off restoration that included an incredible amount of metal body and trim fabrication. Buick built only 41 of these masterpieces and just a few have survived.
My biggest thrill was debuting my childhood “dream” 1935 96S Buick at Pebble Beach in 2004 and winning a trophy.
HHM: In regard to your business [BVLGARI], of what aspect are you most proud/pleased?
NB: I’m truly proud of the more than 120-year evolution of our brand’s unique style and commitment to quality. And the renewed enthusiasm by collectors, myself included, for classic, elegant BVLGARI jewelry created some 70-80 years ago.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge my pride in our special relationship with General Motors. Cars, like fine jewelry and watches, represent ultimate expressions of imagination. Design elements have the same impact on cars as they do on fine jewelry and watches.
It was a privilege to work with our Design Team in Rome and Cadillac and GM Design Studios in Warren, MI, to create unique clocks, instruments and aluminum luggage for some very special Cadillac Concept cars. We created the designs for the instruments, clock and aluminum luggage for Cadillac’s 2000 Imaj, instrumentation for the Cadillac 2001 Vizon and the analog clock in the 2002 Cien V-12 Concept Supercar. The ultimate luxury-performance 2003 Cadillac Sixteen has a BVLGARI analog clock and instrument trim. In 2004-08, Cadillac’s limited-production Flagship, the XLR, featured BVLGARI-designed instruments and electronic key fob. Cadillac’s Escalades featured BVLGARI-branded clocks.
HHM: How do you enjoy spending leisure time?
NB: You mean in addition to driving my ‘gems’! My other passion is classical music and American jazz and enjoying personal relationships with great conductors, composers and musicians. I also support programs for young musicians, many who may be future legends. We often host concerts at my car collection in Rome and major classical music labels have recorded important concerts at my home in Tuscany. In 2001, Vermeer Digital recorded a Luisa Prayer (piano) and Luigi Piovano (cello) performance and in 2003 Sony DADC recorded the same artists. I am as passionate about the restored classic Steinway Concert Grand pianos at the collection and in my homes in Rome and Tuscany as I am about my cars!
HHM: What is the best advice you would give?
NB: My wonderful parents taught me by example the importance of preserving history and always sharing.’ Nothing gives me more pleasure than sharing my cars, whether it is at a museum, Concours, my collection or on the road. And sharing my automotive library and film collection as well. Without sharing, life is empty!
I encourage friends, journalists, industry executives and fellow collectors to join me on drives both here and in Italy and experience firsthand Americas proud automotive heritage. I usually allow them to choose the cars they want to drive and switch in and out of other cars on the drive.
To me, collecting cars is not about capital appreciation, winning the most trophies or owning the most toys. It’s about preserving history, sharing and falling in love! My advice to collectors: First and foremost, buy what you love and you will never go wrong!