What It's Like to Judge a Prestigious Classic-Car Concours

An interview with automotive journalist, author, concours judge, and historian Ken Gross.

It's not hyperbole to call Ken Gross one of the preeminent automotive historians of our time. If you're a longtime Automobile reader, odds are you already know his name, as the award-winning journalist and author has written for us and just about every other automotive publication you can name. Gross has also served as the executive director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles and has curated numerous automobile exhibits for fine art museums across the country. But one of his most enduring roles has been as a concours judge. For some 30 years, he's been a chief class judge at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance and has adjudicated at numerous other prestigious events, including Amelia Island, The Elegance at Hershey, and Hilton Head during his storied career.

Automobile Magazine: You're the chief judge for Pebble Beach's Historic Hot Rod Cover Cars class this year. Tell us about that.

Ken Gross: In hot-rod circles, having a car on the cover of a magazine, long before there was Pebble Beach or even the Grand National Roadster Show or anything like that, a cover was kind of attainable, and for most guys, that's really what you hoped for. I really wanted cars that would surprise and delight not only the hot-rod community but also people who don't know too much about them.

You're a big hot-rod guy. What is it about them that fires you up?

When I was in high school, I worked in a gas station part time, and I had a couple of hot rods. It was all I could afford. I grew up north of Boston in an area that had a lot of classic-car owners. I've really come full circle. Over the years I've owned two Ferraris, a Lamborghini, but hot rods are something I grew up with and I can work on, and I generally like them.

What's the most rewarding part of judging a concours event?

I'm interested in a wide range of vehicles, and the great thing about judging at Pebble or other concours is that I get to study and learn something about the vehicles I'm judging.

Are all concours events judged in largely the same way?

There are primarily two different judging standards. The International Chief Judge Advisory Group (ICJAG), of which I'm a member, uses a 103-point scale, very similar to the Classic Car Club of America and a few other high-end clubs. For that, you really need to know what you're looking at and have a good sense of what's authentic and correct. Then there's what's loosely known as "French judging." It's done many ways from Amelia Island to The Elegance at Hershey. There's not so much of a formal scale; you're really looking aesthetically at a car, how attractive it is, and it's much more subjective.

Just a handful of postwar cars have won Pebble Beach's Best of Show. Do you see this changing anytime soon? Should it?

I was very excited when Jon Shirley's [1954] Ferrari 375 MM won a few years ago. That car fit what had long been the Pebble Beach criteria. In other words, a postwar car can't be a production body; it's got to be very special, it has to be custom. When something like this happens, I think people say this is progress and Pebble isn't afraid of change. Personally, I hope we see more of it.

What's your take on the over-restoration of concours cars, being brought to a level where they're better than new?

Over-restoration is a subject that has been frequently talked about [among judges]. There are ways you can dial that back. It means not using modern paint techniques. It means looking carefully at original cars or even photography that was done back then and saying things like, "That was polished, but this might not have been."

On the flip side are unrestored "preservation" cars. What defines an eligible car?

The preservation class is one of the most popular for people to apply to. We're not looking for barn finds. We're really looking for cars that have been specially preserved. We'd prefer a car that's been driven for 75 or 80 years carefully, where certain things have been replaced because they have to be, consumables like tires, but the focus is on preservation.

You've seen a lot of change over your career. What's your take on the future of the automobile?

You know, I hope—I guess that's the best way I can say it—that we will be able to continue driving for some time to come. Ultimately, we're moving toward autonomous cars and all sorts of guidance systems that couldn't have even been imagined in the 1920s and '30s. But then there's Jim Glickenhaus [of Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus] with a hand-built, specially designed, ultrafast supercar—that's really pretty exciting. That's like what a Bugatti Atlantic might have been in 1935. I admire the future, but I'm much more comfortable with the past.

You've driven so many cars in your lifetime. Give us one you haven't driven yet that you'd really like to.

I wrote a story about my [Ferrari] 275 GTB for Automobile many, many years ago. I like Ferraris, and I wrote the book on 250 SWBs, but I've only driven a 250 GTO for about 50 yards; that was in and out of a truck to put it in a car museum. So I'll say 250 GTO. That would be really wonderful.

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