4 August 2011

Now I get it: Concours are a big deal

Impressive. That succinctly and appropriately describes both the 2011 Concours d’Elegance of America and the enthusiastic crowd that gathered for the annual event.

As a first-time concours attendee, I expectantly walked into the Concours knowing only a few things for sure:

  1. Since the title of the event is French, it must be a big deal;
  2. Since high-class cars and high-class people would be prevalent, it must be a big deal; and
  3. Since Hagerty’s Dawn Patrol would be out in full force, serving coffee and doughnuts at the crack of dawn, it must be a big deal.

I was right. It was a big deal.

The Concours d’Elegance of America, held on the meticulously maintained golf course at The Inn at St. John’s in suburban Detroit, was like nothing I’ve ever seen. It was a car show on steroids – with picture-perfect grounds and picture-perfect automobiles. And not just a few dozen million-dollar antiques, as I had envisioned, but 331 cars from all eras and marques – Jazz Age, American Popular, Post War European, Muscle, Color & Chrome and 16 other classifications. And the way the cars were displayed – in “rings,” flared out like petals on a flower, as opposed to the side-by-side parking typical of car shows – added to the presentation.

Long before the public was allowed to enter, I listened in as Brian Joseph, head of the vehicle selection committee, was interviewed on local television. He only confirmed what I had already discovered.

“If you enjoy cars, there’s something here for you,” he said. “There’s something for everyone.”

I love history, so I’m an easy sell when it comes to automobiles. Every car has a story. Of course, some are better than others. Like the 31 race cars representing “100 Years of Indy” – lined up in three parallel rows, looking as if they were ready to vie for the checkered flag at the old Brickyard. Three on display actually tasted victory at Indianapolis – the modern machines of 1988 winner Ricks Mears and 2001 champion Helio Castroneves, and the Miller HCS Special built by Harry A. Miller and driven to victory by Tommy Milton in 1923.

The beauty and rarity of John Groendyke’s 1933 Duesenberg Model SJ Riviera Phaeton Brunn, one of only three built, and Arturo and Deborah Keller’s 1938 Mercedes-Benz 540K Autobahnkurier, the only one in existence, were duly recognized and fawned over. Both claimed top honors – the Duesenberg as American Best in Show, the Mercedes as European Best in Show.

The beauty and rarity of John Groendyke’s 1933 Duesenberg Model SJ Riviera Phaeton Brunn, one of only three built, and Arturo and Deborah Keller’s 1938 Mercedes-Benz 540K Autobahn Kurrier, the only one in existence, were duly recognized and fawned over. Both claimed top honors – the Duesenberg as Best in Show: American, the Mercedes as Best in Show: Foreign.

Rarity wasn’t confined to the show vehicles at the Concours. On the eve of the event, RM Auctions offered a rare 1932 Packard Twin Six Individual Custom Convertible Sedan that sold for $1,100,000. Delivered new to famed entertainer Al Jolson for $6,600, the Packard convertible was one of only two built.

In addition to the Jolson car, a 1939 Pontiac Plexiglas Deluxe Six “Ghost Car,” America’s first full-size transparent car and a highlight of the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, sold for $308,000 as RM generated $7.6 million in sales.

But enough about my latest acquisitions. This is about the Concours.

I must say, I appreciated the event’s unique look at ladies fashion of the day, as models wore period-correct dresses matched to several cars that crossed the staging area.

But I questioned why many vehicles were given Lion awards, considering the local NFL team hasn’t won a championship since 1957. I soon realized the award was actually a good thing, as it was given to fine cars that did not win their class. Perhaps they should consider looking to the NBA and call it the Piston Award, which seems more appropriate anyway.

In the end, even with the temperature exceeding 90 and spectators drinking water like – uh – water, I enjoyed my first concours experience. And I can take pride in the fact that while I was there for the first time, no one in attendance has seen more concours at this location than I have. That’s because after 32 years at Meadow Brook, this was the first year it was held at The Inn at St. John’s.

I guess I’ll have to come back next year and make it 2-for-2 at St. John’s. Other than the new Packard and Plexiglas cars sitting in my driveway (I wish), it may be the only way I’ll ever be able to keep up with the Joneses.

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