Bill Warner invited me to be a judge at his very first Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance twelve years ago. I accepted, despite the fact that my preferred venue for admiring vintage cars had always been anywhere that showed them in motion, not a lawn party. Warner seemed to think it funny that I called concours events "dead car shows."
I quickly found out why. Amelia Island is about as far from a boring lawn party as a concours gets, never mind that it is sprawled across the manicured fairways at the luxurious Ritz-Carlton. That first event had every kind of motorized vehicle, from Ralph Lauren's Pebble Beach Best of Show-winning Count Trossi 1930 Mercedes-Benz SSK to a fleet of vintage motorcycles to the legendary Swamp Rat III dragster of Don "Big Daddy" Garlits. Whoa, how cool was this? And Warner knew every owner and the story of every vehicle on the field. It had the feeling of an impromptu gathering of friends and the cars they all drove there. (Only they didn't all drive there.)
I suddenly felt guilty about being a judge, what with my bad attitude and all. "All" being my distinct lack of worthy judgelike attributes. "Attributes" being actual vintage-car knowledge. And the regulation blue blazer. But Warner, a fellow veteran of Brock Yates's One Lap of America rally, assigned me to endurance racing champ - and my 1994 One Lap co-driver - Hurley Haywood for laughs. And it stuck.
Through thick and thin, rain or shine (or gnat swarms), Haywood and I have marched that Ritz-Carlton golf course looking for supreme elegance, mostly judging the amazing variety of racing-car classes for which Amelia has become known (there were ten this year, from beach racers to Trans-Am cars). I have known nothing about any of them that I didn't find out from the owner on the spot. Haywood can speak for himself.
But two years ago, Warner promoted me to what can only be described as my very own area of expertise: the Promotional Vehicles class. The Zippo Lighter car! George Barris's original V-8 Juice roadster! Yes, I could be the undisputed queen of the Wienermobile cars.
Unfortunately, it was a one-off moment. I mean, how many vintage Wienermobiles are out there? But Warner created another perfect opportunity for my bizarro sensibilities. This year, Haywood and I opened our notebooks at the judges' breakfast to discover we would be judging Class UV - Cars You Never Knew Existed.
"Who did we piss off?" he muttered. I knew better. Sure enough, the seven entries in the UV class possessed a heavy cool factor that had us oohing and aahing from one to the next. There was the 1937 Rena Phaeton, a miniature roadster built, on a cut-down Renault chassis with a Ford V-8, for Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms. It was exquisite. The closer we got, the tinier it became. We gave its owner Robert Pass (founder of Passport Transport) a special-mention Amelia Award for being so preciously elegant.
There was a four-door 1987 Porsche 928, built by the factory for Heinz Prechter, the late founder of American Sunroof Corporation. The Lane Motor Museum in Nashville - always good for an oddity - showed a wooden, three-wheeled 1950 Martin Stationette, a bizarre one-off designed by James V. Martin to be "America's economy car of the future." Think "Isetta woody." Right.
The real prize in our class was a 1938 Tatra T77a, the Czechoslovakian car developed by Hans Ledwinka and noted zeppelin aero engineer Paul Jaray. It is truly nutty-looking, having a rear-mounted, 75-hp, 3.4-liter V-8 and an astonishing drag coefficient of 0.21. I saw Tatras in central Europe during my road trip to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, and they were beat to hell - nothing like this gleaming silver vision owned by John Long and Helena Mitchell.
To make that "dead car show" point, Automobile Magazine awards the Driving Enthusiast trophy to an entrant who loves to drive his or her car. Who better than Richie Clyne, who's crisscrossed the country from north to south and east to west in his 1909 Thomas Flyer Flyabout 670? Clyne built the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and put together the Imperial Palace's car collection in Vegas. Clyne owns about 150 cars and prides himself on making sure all are driven. He has a couple of Duesenbergs he drives almost as much as the Thomas. Gotta love it.