Below is the reproduction of an interview of Christian Philippsen held on the 8th of June 2017.
CHRISTIAN PHILIPPSEN, WHO ARE YOU?
Question – Christian, who are you?
Answer – My name is Philippsen, Christian Philippsen. I was born in Antwerpen, in Belgium, in April 1944. A sister joined me two years later. My family was, as you would say in English, ‘upper middle class’. My parents were a happily married couple and gave us a good education. Although we lived in the Flemish speaking part of Belgium, we spoke French at home and I went to a French school.
Nowadays, I live in Monaco which I think is a little corner of paradise. I have a lovely companion, one daughter who lives in Sweden and am the grandfather of two healthy boys.
Q – When did your interest in cars start?
A – As far as I can remember. My father was a would-be surgeon but family reasons prevented him from becoming one and instead, he “operated” his cars. He was not a car enthusiast but could not resist “opening” and “closing” them. When he needed help, he called me. I did things like cranking the engine to bring the pistons to top dead center when he was adjusting the valve clearance, for instance, or pressing the pedal when he was bleeding the brakes. The cars were nothing exceptional and he used to keep them for ages : I have known only two in eighteen years ! The first one was a Standard Eight, the next one a Peugeot 203. But there were several car magazines at home and that certainly broadened my interest. Our family doctor was a true enthusiast. He liked to give me rides in his Jaguar XK 150S roadster and took me to the first races I ever saw.
Q – What was your first car?
A – Actually, I had two first cars and both were MG TCs. They were both very bad and I tried to make one good car out of the two – nobody paid attention to ‘matching numbers’ in those days! I was eventually forced to sell them to pay for all the tickets I had got! I had no money left as all had gone into the cars and my parents would not help me. I have recently purchased one, I guess nostalgia is catching up with me. I had forgotten how slow they are!
Q – You have the reputation of being a “Ferrari guy”?
A – In the fifties and the early sixties, Ferrari was really dominating the scene. Every day, when going to bed, I fell asleep at the wheel of a Ferrari on the screen of my eyelids! When I first looked for a job, I wrote just one letter, to Jacques Swaters, the Belgian Ferrari importer of Ecurie Francorchamps fame. I am sure you remember his yellow racing Ferraris. He interviewed me for a couple of minutes and said: “I like you, I do not know what you will do for me, but why don’t you start next Monday?” Those were the days. Soon after I had begun, he asked me to fetch Ferrari’s Sales Manager, Dottor Amerigo Manicardi, at his hotel and to take him to the Brussels Motor Show. This was in January 1966. Weather conditions were bad and the roads, slippery. Still, Swaters entrusted me with a 275 GTB. It was the first time ever I was driving a Ferrari for real! Of course, I spun on a patch of ice and hit a parked truck. Neither Manicardi nor I were hurt but my pride was and the car was severely damaged. I expected to be fired on the spot. Instead, I was ignored for several days by the entire garage staff … until I luckily sold a new car. We did not sell that many, about thirty per year, and one car did matter. I suddenly got back into favour ! Manicardi reported the accident at the Factory and, whenever I would go to Modena, they would call me l’Assassino. Manicardi had a good sense of humor. I have a collection of postcards he sent me from all over the world, writing: “I have just been offered a test drive in a new car, but I thought it was safer to decline” or “Someone else tried to kill me, but I escaped again”. The next time I came close to being fired is when I spent 110,000 Belgian francs (about US $ 2,200) instead of the authorised 100,000 to buy 0064M, a 166 Mille Miglia barchetta by Touring. The car, which Swaters kept until his passing away, is probably worth over 3,000 times that amount today. I have been forgiven. With Ecurie Francorchamps, we participated in the world’s most famous long distance races, like Le Mans, Monza, Spa Francorchamps, the Nürburgring, also Daytona, which was my first trip to the USA, in 1967, and I have wonderful memories of that period.
I left Swaters and Belgium after about five years but we remained close until he deceased in 2010. I wanted to be able to buy myself a Ferrari. I traded fun for some decent money and could soon afford one or, as Ferrari himself said, quasi una Ferrari (almost a Ferrari): it was a Dino 246 GTS which I purchased from Garage Francorchamps, of course. Others followed, including a 250 Mille Miglia, a 250 GT cabriolet of the first series, a 250 GT berlinetta, the one people call “short wheel base” – at the Factory, they used to call it culo tondo (round ass) –, a couple of Daytona’s, an F40… I have been quite active in Ferrari Clubs in their early days and did meet a lot of great people. They still are the core of my best friends around the world. I guess you can call me a “Ferrari guy” indeed.
Q – When you left Swaters, where did you go?
A – As I said, I wanted to earn some money and the path I had identified was to become an executive with a large company. I was hired by Michelin and started an international career that would take me to ten different countries in ten years! Tax refunds actually helped me to finance my first Ferrari. After 10 years with them, the 1970’s, I wanted to go to the USA and live the ‘American dream’. Michelin thought I was still too young for such responsibilities and I resigned.
Through the Ferrari Club, I had met Albert Uderzo who, with René Goscinny, had given birth to Asterix, a popular cartoon hero and a fantastic success story. Goscinny had passed away in 1977 and Uderzo offered me to start a company together. I settled in Paris and began a new career. Aside from publishing the books, we also owned the merchandising rights and I am still proud of the theme park Asterix, a successful adventure that was my brainchild. After another 10 years, I left and returned to cars. Uderzo being a Ferrari fan himself – he owned a 365 P2, a 512 S, a 512 BBLM and some more mundane models -, I could spend time with cars but not as much as I wished.
Q – Tell us about the Bagatelle Concours in Paris
A – With my friend Antoine Prunet, we had attended the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance at the beginning of the eighties. We were stunned by what we saw. We went back the next year and were still amazed. Wasn’t a concours d’élegance a French word and a French concept? They appeared in the early 1900’s and disappeared in the 1950’s. We worked at it and were instrumental in returning the idea to Europe. It must have been a right idea at the right time! Our first concours took place in 1988. Then, we approached Jules Heumann, now Chairman Emeritus of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance but at the time its co-chairman, and suggested we exchange our winners. There again, we had luck. That gave us international recognition. I was also invited to be an Honorary Judge which, I have to say, I enjoy immensely. “Bagatelle”, as the event is friendly called by most people, grew better every year. With the complicity of Louis Vuitton, who first sponsored the event and later owned it, we did our best to look after our guests and to bring them some French art de vivre. Another point that distinguished us was that, since the beginning, we wanted not only to look back, but also to look ahead. We invited cars of exceptional interest and they obviously included vintage and classic models, but prototypes and concept cars too.
Bagatelle lasted until 2002. A new mayor had been elected in Paris and one of his first acts was to forbid the access of public parks and gardens to cars. No exception! We tried one more concours in Saint Cloud, a suburb of Paris that wasn’t concerned by the decision, but the venue lacked that little something that made Bagatelle so special.
Q – What happened after Bagatelle?
A – I had an early morning brainstorming session with Vuitton’s CEO, Yves Carcelle, and his responsible for corporate events, Christine Bélanger, both fantastic to work with. We decided we would keep looking for a suitable venue to continue the concours but, until we found one – we never did –, we would nurse the relations we had developed with collectors and designers by giving two annual awards: the Louis Vuitton Classic Concours Award and the Louis Vuitton Classic Concept Award. The first was attributed by a jury to a car that had won Best of Show in one of the major concours in the world, the ‘Best of the Best’, so to say. The second was attributed to a recent concept car. Always the same approach of looking back and looking ahead.
Q – And you became a Founding Member of The Peninsula Classics Best of the Best Award?
A – Oui. In February 2014, at the Paris Rétromobile show, I bumped into Sir Michael Kadoorie, Chairman of The Peninsula Group. He is a great and knowledgeable collector and also a friend. When I saw him, I kicked myself for not having thought of him before. He was the obvious partner to relaunch the Best of the Best Award. He presented the idea to his board who followed him. Apart from myself and Sir Michael, the Founding Members also include Chip Connor and Bruce Meyer. A dream team, the best to handle the Best of the Best!
Q – We also see you judging at several concours?
A – Well yes! After we had established a contact with Pebble Beach, I was invited to judge and the ball kept rolling from there. I have judged and/or still judge in Europe (Bensberg in Germany, Ferrari 60th and 70th Anniversary in Italy, Het Loo in the Netherlands, Salon Privé in England, Uniques Special Ones in Italy and in Russia, Le Zoute in Belgium), in the USA (Amelia Island, Cavallino Classic, Pebble Beach – for almost 30 years and always a treat! -), in the Middle East (Kuwait) and in Asia (Bund Classic in China, Concours d’Elegance of Japan). I may forget a few…
I am also a Consulting Member to the International Advisory Council for the Preservation of the Ferrari Automobile (IAC/PFA) and a Charter Member of the International Chief Judge Advisory Group (ICJAG).
Q – Why do you like these events?
A – Of course, I love the cars. But, most of all, I enjoy meeting the people. From craftsmen to CEO’s, from engineers to racing drivers, from designers to collectors, where else do you have the opportunity to actually spend time with such fascinating personalities and characters? People like Enzo Ferrari, Sergio Pininfarina, Dave Holls, Bob Lutz, Mauro Forghieri, Gordon Murray, Phil Hill, Stirling Moss, Derek Bell, Jacky Ickx… I am blessed to know them, or to have known them as several have now passed away. I like to keep in touch with all of them. I guess the two key words are passion and friendship.
Q – Where you not involved with Christie’s at a certain time?
A – Indeed! And with many more companies over the years. I helped rebuilt the Motor Car Department team at Christie’s after the complete staff had left to launch their own auction house. It was a one year contract, starting in 1989, but they renewed it until 2002 and I became an auctioneer in the process. The core activity of Christie’s was however art and they eventually closed the Car Department a few years after I left.
Q – Your name is connected with Pininfarina too
A – I have known the Pininfarina family since the 1960’s, when I was working with Jacques Swaters. Leonardo Fioravanti and Lorenzo Ramaciotti were regular judges at Bagatelle and Sergio Pininfarina has been our Honorary Chairman, the only one we ever had. There was a relationship. When they decided to launch their Special Projects Department, they approached me. I introduced Jim Glickenhaus and participated in the well-known P4/5 adventure. The activity was discontinued after Andrea Pininfarina, the CEO of the company, was killed in a motorcycle accident on his way to the office. Jim, in the meantime, has become a constructor in his own right and builds his extraordinary SGC cars in very small numbers.
I also worked with the design teams of a few manufacturers who I can’t name because of confidentiality clauses. Being retained by a manufacturer to work on projects for the future is a rare compliment for it means complete trust in my services.
Q – What about publishing?
A – I have always loved books, the touch of paper and the smell of ink. Having been involved in publishing thanks to the Adventures of Asterix, I first committed a book about love – a field in which I do not have much expertise! – called ‘Love, a Celebration in Art and Literature’ and then, through circumstances, became the publisher of the well-known and respected annual ‘Automobile Year’.
Q – What are your favorite cars ?
A – This will be a short answer : the 8c supercharged Alfa Romeos of the thirties and the Ferrari sports racing cars of the fifties and the sixties – plus the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR ‘Uhlenhaut’ Coupé (see picture at the top) and the MacLaren F1. Great cars are designed by great people and my four favourites probably are Vittorio Jano, Mauro Forghieri, Gordon Murray and Rudolf Uhlenhaut. Actually, I would add a fifth name: Colin Chapman.
Seems like a wonderful life! Thank you, Christian