When it comes to modern cars, I have an encyclopedic recollection of horsepower numbers, 0-to-60-mph times, and all manner of arcane statistics. My car-geek knowledge trails off considerably, though, when it comes to older cars. I mean, I know that a Chevy 400 was a small-block while a 396 was a big-block. I know a Wedge from a Hemi. But anything pre-1960 is probably a mystery to me. So when the Hilton Head Island Motoring Festival & Concours d'Elegance invited me to judge Class 02 (Production 1916–1948), I naturally accept. As a matter of principle, I never let ignorance prevent me from expressing an opinion.
Fortunately, the show organizers have the wisdom to group me with two other judges who have a slightly firmer grasp on the subject at hand. Our expert trio includes Bob Fuller, chairman of the Keels & Wheels Concours, and John Carlson, CEO of the National Association of Automobile Clubs of Canada. I'm outvoted two to one, which means that first place won't go to the monster truck that I saw in a nearby grocery-store parking lot. Not this year, anyway.
Armed with our score sheets, we approach our first entrant, a 1935 Ford Tudor sedan. The score sheet includes twenty categories evaluating every nuance of a car. Doing some quick math, I realize that we have twenty minutes per car, which means one minute each for the fuel system, the undercarriage, and eighteen other important things. If actual mechanics worked this fast, McDonald's would offer engine rebuilds while you're waiting for your Egg McMuffin.
Still, our first candidate is easy because it is basically what a 1935 Ford would look like if it were built on God's assembly line by a team of angels. At another event, it scored 996 points out of a possible 1000. "That's basically unattainable," Carlson says. "As close to perfect as you can get."
Carlson and Fuller chat with the owner and have him start the car and go through a quick inspection -- headlights, horn -- before we're on to the next car. This one, a 1930s Chevy, looks immaculate to my eye, but Carlson can see that it's not quite as choice as the Ford. "It's got some goofy stuff, like an alternator instead of a generator and incorrect tire valve stems," Carlson says. "He's made it into a driver, but that kind of stuff takes it out of a competition like this." I'd noticed that Carlson complimented the Ford owner on his valve stems, where no such comment was forthcoming here.
Farther down the line, we encounter a 1917 Paige Six-51 Brooklands with its owners standing nearby wearing period attire. Even I can see that the Paige is a little bit scruffy, with chipped paint on its wheels and incongruous aftermarket turn signals. I ask Carlson if presentation, or a car's story, figures into his calculations. "The owners here are dressed up, and they're charming as hell," Carlson says. "But you can't let that sway you. It has to be about the car and only about the car."
By the time we're done checking out the 1923 Stutz Speedway Four, it seems like the Ford is still the front-runner. Not that I've actually scored anything, because covering all twenty categories in the allotted time just seems impossible. It turns out that Carlson and Fuller mostly ignore the score sheets, too. They take notes, but they're pros and don't need to add up each category to figure out their top three.
"The real fuss-asses will add all that stuff up line by line, but if you do that you can have the wrong car win," Carlson says. If you do keep a more detailed tally of the individual categories, you should never, ever let an owner see your assessment. "Showing them the score sheet is the kiss of death," Carlson says. "Because then they might want to debate individual categories. Some people ask for it because they want to see which areas they need to improve, but at this level I shouldn't have to tell you. This is the big leagues."
I'd always assumed that concours judges are universally the type of people who delight in gloating over an incorrect gasket. But Fuller and Carlson are cheerful, engaging, and don't ever chastise the owners for their cars' imperfections. Certainly the judges noticed that you made your headlight reflectors out of Reynolds Wrap, but they're not going to make you feel bad about it. Your car just won't win.
Ultimately, you shouldn't feel too bad about that, either. "If you want to be better than everyone else, in this crowd, you're setting yourself up for disappointment," Carlson says. "There's always someone with something bigger, better, faster." He goes on to tell me about a guy he met who mentioned that he'd done a few restorations -- on his submarines. You think you're cool because you won something at Pebble Beach? There's a guy sitting out in the bay looking at you through his periscope and laughing at the limited scope of your ambitions.
After some discussion, my fellow judges concur that the '35 Ford is the winner. Hey, I'll buy that. Judging duties complete, I wander out to the front gate, where there's another sort of car show in progress -- a ride-and-drive from companies like BMW, Infiniti, Jaguar, and Porsche. As with Pebble Beach, this old-car event is ironically a great place to get your hands on the very latest new stuff. I head to the BMW tent and grab the keys to an i3.
It strikes me that the most interesting old cars are the ones that were ahead of their time -- maybe a little bit expensive and technologically daring for their day. And the i3, with its carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic tub, electric powertrain, and space-station-via-Ikea interior, is the most futuristic car I've driven in a long while.
I don't know if it's a candidate for the 2050 Concours, but I'm going to memorize the look of its valve stems, just in case.