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Judgin’ Cars at a Ritzy Concours d’Elegance for the First Time

Straw hat on my head and a clipboard in hand—I’m ready

I'd observed them many times over the years: khaki-clad packs roaming concours grounds with their clipboards—ducking heads into engine bays, getting on hands and knees to examine undercarriages, looking for reasons to deduct points. And now I'm going to be one of them. It's time to do some judgin'.

But first, I need a straw hat. I duck into the pro shop at the Port Royal Golf Club, the site of the 2018 Hilton Head Concours d'Elegance. Whew, they have some. My outfit complete, I'm ready to head out onto the field as a guest judge.

At the judges' breakfast meeting just prior to the 17th annual Hilton Head event, chief judge Gerald Greenfield distributed some words of wisdom to us newbies: Follow the lead of your chief class judge; take good care of the owner; authenticity is extremely important—it's about elegance and historical significance.

Or as one of the other lead judges bellowed, "This is a concours d'elegance, and we don't want no ugly cars to win."

I'm assigned to Class 06: American Performance. I grew up a muscle car guy, and this group is in my smoky-burnout wheelhouse: Mustangs, Camaros, and Mopars. I'm attached to judge with Mike Tillerson of Philadelphia and Fred Jones of Cincinnati.

Tillerson is our team lead and has been a regular at Hilton Head since its inception. He seems a no-nonsense, matter-of-fact guy, very serious about his role. In other words, a consummate judge who's done it here and at countless other events for a long time. Jones, meanwhile, is an affable guy with a great laugh. He's deeply involved with the Cincinnati concours and has attended Hilton Head for several years now to judge. Both of them are also huge car guys (shocker, I know) with deep experience wrenching, racing, and collecting.

We have 10 cars to get through and 15 minutes tops for each car. Here we go. First up is a 1970 Dodge Charger R/T. The owner breaks down the car for us. It's a rare color combination: one of one, he says. It has an awesome Hurst pistol-grip shifter and a 440 six pack. I watch Tillerson and Jones closely as they ask the owner to start the car, run through the light banks, honk the horn. They dutifully walk around the Charger, running through their 20-point checklist with five points for each section, everything from Wheels, Rims, Tires, Spare, and Tools to Electrical System Including Battery. It's all a bit dizzying at first. Am I looking at the right things? Am I looking hard enough?

Afterward, we huddle like a group of NFL referees making sure they got the call right. While this car has some rarity to it given the color, it's a well-worn example. Nothing wrong with that, and it's obviously being driven, which isn't a bad thing. But it's a car in need of some additional restoration to get it to top-tier concours quality. OK, I think I'm on their wavelength.

With each passing car, I build more confidence in my judging chops. I whirl around each one inside and out, supplying what knowledge I can for the team here and there. There isn't a car in this class I don't like, and they just kept getting better and harder to nitpick: a '69 Boss 429, a '70 Dodge Challenger T/A with a white vinyl top, a '67 Chevy SS 427 convertible.

It's also a blast hearing stories from owners like Gerry and Mitzi Bailey of Prosperity, Pennsylvania. Their immaculate 1967 Camaro RS/SS was dubbed the Midnight Special by Mitzi after all the late nights the pair spent working on the car in a bid to get it to a winner's circle. A couple that wrenches together stays together.

After rolling through the class, we narrow it down and eventually land on Hunt Palmer-Ball's stunning 1967 Shelby GT350, proclaiming it the class of Class 06. Palmer-Ball, of Louisville, Kentucky, bought the car when he was 19 and has put roughly 8,600 original miles on it since. He's raced it. Dated his wife in it. It's scored several class wins at other events, and it was easy to see why, even with my inexperienced judge's eye. It also made the finalist podium for Hilton Head's overall Best of Show award.

My experience at Hilton Head was yet another poignant reminder of how deep our love of cars goes, from the judges to the entrants to everyone who helped to put on a great concours and to the people who attend the show to gawk at the cars. And now that I have my hat, I'd be honored to judge some more.

Ever judged a concours event or entered a car in one?
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