Judging the 2016 Concours d'Lemons at Monterey Car Week
The Bad and the Ugly
Rusty, scabrous heaps of peeling paint smoke, rattle, and roll their way onto the lawn of Laguna Grande Park as the ever-present fog lies low over Seaside. Laughter bursts in bubbles as throngs of T-shirted car geeks mill around the collected automotive atrocities. This is the 2016 Concours d'Lemons, and it might be the best thing I've seen at Monterey Car Week.
I'm here as a judge, one of a hand-picked (last minute) cadre of automotive journalism luminaries (folks who had somehow failed to make other plans for Saturday morning) who will decide the fates of the unfortunates arrayed with their homages to the weird, wooly world of vintage car enthusiasm. My area of responsibility? "Swedish Meatballs," the title that encompasses everything from our favorite Swedish carmakers. Today, however, there are no Saabs to be found, and the nearest Koenigsegg is rapidly putting as much distance as it can between it and these troves of Scandinavian filth.
Not all of the cars at the Concours d'Lemons are rust buckets, however. The best ones usually are--and they typically take home the awards, which are plaques with jokey slogans and bags of dollar store goodies. But many of the cars at this year's Concours d'Lemons are shiny, near-perfect examples of their breeds, some of them perhaps even destined for the proper lawn at Pebble Beach in another decade or three. One of those examples is in my class, a spotless 1956 Volvo Sport P1900 owned by Charles Goodman.
Just 68 Volvo P1900s were built, inspired by the fiberglass-bodied Chevrolet Corvette during one of Volvo president and founder Assar Gabrielsson's trips to the United States. Like the Corvette, the P1900 used a fiberglass body to wrap its roadster form in rather elegant curves. But not long after the start of production, Gabrielsson found the poor build quality and inherent structural issues with the tube-frame chassis to be so bad that he scrapped the whole project. In other words, it's possibly the worst Volvo ever built, even by Volvo's own estimation. Even a perfect example sits low in the pantheon of the wheeled gods. Its owner had just bought it the night before, and because of the unsynchronized gearbox, had to enlist the help of a skilled friend just to get it to the event.
Fortunately, a duet of Volvo 122s-one a wagon, the other a sedan—wearing a similar shade of cream paint washed with lichen, rust, and dirt, are also in the class. They provide a much more fitting tribute to the spirit of Lemons. The 1966 wagon in particular draws my eye, not least because its hood is covered in miniature Texas longhorn-style hood ornaments and tiny, hand-sculpted, solid silver sperm. Yes, sperm. Some of them even have small diamonds set in their heads. Why? "Because you've got to have something to do," says owner John Ramsden, a Monterey local and former Rolls-Royce engine mechanic.
The 122 sedan beside it, looking at least as rough as the wagon, minus the hood flair, its owner absent, dims in comparison. Fortunately there's a green Volvo 122 wagon in the group, too; it's wearing much nicer (if still deep in patina) paint, its problematic rust seemingly limited to the area just below the windshield. A perfect mix of old vinyl, gasoline, and squandered dreams wafts off the car as I walk by.
Two latecomers finish off the Swedish Meatballs, showing up in a P210 Duett and a PV445, both decked out as surf wagons, and both not far short of genuine concours restoration, too. They're fun, practical, and comely in that geeky old Volvo way, but they don't quite pack the personality of the 122 wagon and its wonderfully wacky owner.
My co-judge and I don't have to spend long in deliberation. We know our winner, scrawling his name and brief odes to his sperm-encrusted heap of Swedish rust. Our second pick? The P1900, for its sheer audacity of continuing to exist.
But my crapcan judging fiasco hasn't ended yet. I circle the whole lawn, sampling from Unmitigated Gaul (the French section), Rueful Brittania, Rust Belt American Junk, Der Self-SatisfiedKrauttenWagen, Warsaw Pact, and Soul-Sucking Japanese Appliances. My mission: to find the absolute worst car here.
What makes the Worst in Show at the Concours d'Lemons? Ask 10 judges and you'll get as many answers. There's a fine line to tread between the decrepitude of cars unloved and long-forgotten and those perfect examples of cars so bad even their makers couldn't love them. Both exhibit an aspect of the Lemons spirit, and both make compelling cases for their rise to the top. My personal favorite is a combination of American truckitude and rapidly decomposing sheetmetal embodied in a 1976 Ford Courier "Sasquatch", emblazoned with the most wonderfully rad graphics ever to emerge from the brown-and-orange filter of the 1970s. A pimpalicious gold-on-purple Mercury Grand Marquis of the same year runs a close second, lovingly restored to its royal splendor over the course of two years. Wayne Carini's entry this year, an utterly decrepit Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia suffering a bad case of paint dandruff, is also a crowd favorite for Worst in Show.
Ultimately, the award for Worst in Show goes to Christopher Blizzard's 1976 Bricklin SV-1, a phenomenally ill-conceived race car plastered in swear words and a neurasthenic orange paint job.
But awards aren't the point at the Concours d'Lemons. In fact, the winners are really just saving the organizers a trip to the nearest trash can. Ultimately, unlike the deep currents of ego and even deeper oceans of cash on display at other Monterey Car Week events, the Concours d'Lemons is a small but growing festival celebrating nothing but the simple love of cars by and for the people who love them, regardless of budget, age, type, obscurity, or provenance. For a jaded hack like me during a week like this, it's the rejuvenation my soul needs, reminding me that you don't have to own beach houses on three continents to come together and share your love for cars and the culture that grows up around (and sometimes in, or on) them.
Concours d'LeMons California 2016 results
Rust Belt American Junk (American cars)
Judges: Tim Suddard and Stefan Lombard
First place: Michael Johnson's 1972 Ford Squire wagon
Second place: Jeff Walker's 1968 Chevy Sportwagon
Unmitigated Gaul (French cars)
Judges: Jonathan Stein and Nigel Matthews
First place: 1988 Peugeot 505
Second place: 1961 Panhard
Rueful Britannia (British cars)
Judges: Dick McClure and David Lillywhite
First place: 1965 Wolsley Hornet
Needlessly Complex Italian (Italian cars)
Judges: Alan Galbraith and Tim Suddard
First place: 2005 Vespa Ape Coffee Wagon
Second place: 1960 Vespa
Der Self-SatisfiedKrauttenWagen (German cars)
Judges: David S. Wallens and Bill Warner
First place: 1959 Tempo Matador Camper
Second place: Volkswagen Karmann Ghia
Soul-Sucking Japanese Appliance (Japanese cars)
Judges: Bret Schrader and Rene Thomas
First place: Nissan Altima
Second place: 1992 Lexus
Swedish Meatballs (Swedish cars)
Judges: Abby Bassett and Nelson Ireson
First place: 1966 Volvo Wagon
Second place: 1956 Volvo P1900
Warsaw Pact (Eastern Bloc countries)
Judges: Jason Cammisa and Tim McNair
First place: 1989 Yugo GVL
WTF? Award: 1994 Lincoln Limousine
Kitschiest Original: 1965 Chrysler New Yorker towing Coleman trailer
Most Dangerous Car: 1974 MG Midget limousine
Dick Teague Award for Best AMC product: 1975 AMC Pacer
The Double Turd Award: 1988 Peugeot towing another horrible Peugeot
Worst of Show: 1974 Bricklin SV-1