Straddling the Concours Fence

American Driver

Concours d’elegance are kind of an acquired taste. You either love them or you hate them. Straddling the fence, I both love them and hate them. I love being surrounded by spectacular automobiles, but I dislike the antiseptic cleanliness of the enterprise. Cars are for driving. We Americans can’t seem to dabble in spare-time activities. We become obsessive and immediately start organizing committees to see if we can’t restructure the thing in such a way that it won’t be fun anymore. Then we decide that it’s a potential moneymaker. Then it becomes political. Then it’s time to leap into our spotless, brass-radiator Herpes-Simplex II and get the hell out of there.

I attended my first concours at Watkins Glen in 1954. The next one for me was Pebble Beach in 1956, and I was overwhelmed just to be there. I no longer feel that way. Pebble Beach today has grown out of its clothes. It has completed the cycle described above, and now it’s all about money.

Amelia Island has become the concours to attend if you still believe that high-zoot automotive events should also be enjoyable. This is partly because Bill Warner, the impresario at Amelia Island, is probably the best liked and most agreeable man in motorsport. Automobiles and the automotive scene are his life. He has no hidden agenda and no scores to settle. I sometimes think that Bill Warner was put here on earth so the rest of us could see how we’re supposed to deport ourselves.

The Bay Harbor Concours takes place seven miles from our farm in a spectacular setting on Lake Michigan. My wife’s 1951 Cadillac won its class there last year. Can’t miss that one.

Automobile Magazine has been a sponsor of the Greenwich, Connecticut, concours d’elegance for several years, and I’ve been the chief judge at least three times. America’s sports-car revolution began in New York and New England, where well-to-do young swells had been running races on resort roads and family estates since the ’30s, and they really did set the tone for the great upswing in sports-car enthusiasm that occurred when our troops came home from World War II. Because of that, there are a lot of nice old cars in garages all over that area, and I have never judged in New York or New England without seeing some sweet, unrestored car that I’d never seen before.

I also feel that I have a lot of kindred spirits among the crowd at Greenwich, or at the late and much-lamented Louis Vuitton Concours in Rockefeller Center. A car enthusiast in New York City is special. New York is a city that does absolutely nothing to encourage fun with cars, and yet there they are, driving their cool cars and taking their chances in America’s most inhospitable automotive environment.

There was an attempt last September to re-create the magic of the Vuitton events, this time in Central Park. Unfortunately, neither the magic nor the public were there. But they had some extremely nice cars-again, some that I had never before laid eyes upon-and a very likable contingent of European car owners. Larry Smith and I judged an exquisite, Touring-bodied 1935 Alfa Romeo 6C-2300 roadster that once belonged to none other than Il Duce, Benito Mussolini himself. I sought out the Italian owner after the award ceremony and congratulated him. He rolled his eyes skyward, placed his hand on his chest, and said, “My heart beats only for Alfa Romeo.” I love this guy!

Europeans, and especially the British, seem to prefer their cars with evidence of honest toil. They tend to be less shiny, less flashy than American concours entries. You get a pleasant feeling that they are driven a lot.

The Rolls-Royce Owners’ Club has a rule that ought to be enforced across the entire concours universe in North America. Any car built after World War I either must be driven to the event, or, if it arrives in a trailer, must be driven at least 100 miles before being shown. This would have a salutary effect on obsessive extremists who require that entered cars bear all the proper tags and labels that were in place when they left the factory. These are cars, fer crissakes, let’s treat them like cars.


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