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Flight of the Concours

Visiting the auto scribe’s natural environment

Jamie KitmanwriterTim Marrsphotographer

I can't speak for all auto scribes, but it seems to me once you've been writing long enough, interest in your automotive literary out-put, adventures, and car news tends to wane among family and friends.

"I've just returned from driving D-type Jaguars overland to the Bosphorus with Jackie Stewart, Henry Kissinger, and Linda Vaughn co-driving," you might apprise a loved one. Only for them to weigh the information thoughtfully and ask, "Have you seen my phone charger?"

It's one of the reasons that concours make such fine forums for automotive journalists. Like Capitol Hill reporters rubbing shoulders with congressional staffers, car writers find themselves in the presence of many who not only care about cars but who might have actually once read something they'd penned, unlike in, say, the real world.

That's one reason I accepted the generous invitation of South Carolina's Hilton Head Island Motoring Festival and Concours d'Elegance to attend its 16th annual event. Ogling the fine field of American and foreign classics (with Cadillac as the honored marque) was another. It made my first trip to the island worthwhile on a car-spotting basis alone. An impressive 1934 Cadillac Victoria Convertible Coupe took Best of Show, but a 1939 Cadillac Series 61 Opera Coupe, finished in two-tone green, won my heart.

A day earlier on a field filled with some of the best the local club scene had to offer, I'd also been startled to find myself standing in front of my beautiful green 1971 Mercedes-Benz 300 SEL 6.3, last seen by me when I sold it in 2009. It's in even better condition than when I de-acquisitioned it thinking it was too pristine for the likes of me to drive. Memories of the old Benz's titanic thrust came rushing back, followed shortly by shiver-inducing visions of 12 mpg and bi-annual hose and belt replacement bills running into the four figures.

Hilton Head wasn't always a resort destination, but it's always been rich in history. Native Americans came first, before Huguenots, Spaniards, and Britons arrived. Its Port Royal became a major Atlantic port in the Sea Island cotton trade and the slave economy of the South. In 1861, it fell to the Union army. As the area's plantation owners fled, many of their slaves stayed behind. Union Gen. Ormsby Mitchel helped them establish a self-governing community there, named Mitchelville after him. But following the defeat of the Confederacy, much of the land was returned to those same former plantation owners.

It was a lot to think about as the concours weekend began with a classic-car driving tour Friday. Behind the wheel of a 1971 1800E—supplied by South Carolina's newest automotive citizen, Volvo—the tour visited the site of Mitchelville, gone now but celebrated in an interactive presentation of word, song, and the Gullah culture. A mixture of English and African dialects, Gullah, still spoken by an elite few, is the language of former slaves who lived in the band of low country running along the rice-growing coast from South Carolina to Georgia.

Later, I'd catch a ride in the jump seat of a 1929 Ford Model A roadster belonging to Michael Hamby Jr. and his new bride, Sharon, who won the concours' best dressed award, a nice cap on a honeymoon spent attending the event. The 30-something Hamby showed his car alongside an A coupe belonging to his father. The two Fords had been kept as a pair in the same garage for decades before going their separate ways. The Hambys later reunited them. Hamby is the sort of collector the hobby needs in much greater numbers if it is to thrive. As it stands, it's mostly a bunch of old, wealthy folk. When they're gone, the cars have to go somewhere.

Speaking of going somewhere, the highlight of this landlubber's old car idyll came when I caught a lift from New York to Hilton Head in a Cirrus Vision Jet. A new breed of single-engine craft, it's an SUV for the sky. Its price tag of $2.5 million is a bargain compared to the $24.5 million Gulfstream G280 shown Friday night at the concours' Flights & Fancy Aeroport Gala charity fundraiser. Any self-respecting concours seems to have an aviation partner nowadays.

It was easily the most exhilarating flight of my life. As an extra measure of safety, a built-in parachute is standard equipment. An incredible feature, I began to explain, just as one young relation wondered aloud, "Where did you say you put that charger?"