The best of the worst: Concours d’Lemons at the 2017 Concours of America

What’s going on here? The Concours d’Lemons is supposed to be a ragtag collection of automotive excrement, the antithesis of a Concours d’Elegance and its exquisitely perfect vintage and exotic cars. Walking through a Concours d’Lemons field should make you want to retch, right? That’s what we thought.

But at this year’s Michigan event, held in conjunction with the Concours of America, we saw more vehicles that we’d like to take home with us than we’d like to see towed to the scrapyard. Chalk it up to evolving tastes and desires, we suppose. The 1970s and ’80s metal that looked like beater trash just a few years ago is starting to hold new appeal.

1976 AMC Pacer

AMC Pacer

“It’s a Pacer,” Gilbert J. Pepitone says of his 1976 AMC, “so by default, it qualifies as a Lemon.” Truth is, Pepitone’s Pacer is in fine shape, and he’s made it more livable by installing cruise control, XM radio, a CD player, and power windows and locks. “Everything that this car needed in order to be usable, I’ve done to it,” says the retired engineer, resplendent on the Concours green in his vintage AMC windbreaker. “I drive it all over. I just came from New York, and I drove it there from my home in Florida.” Pepitone proudly scored the Worst in Show Trophy, but this car doesn’t deserve that description.

Audi 50 GL

Audi 50 GL

Bret Scott imported his tiny old Audi from Serbia after finding it for sale on a UK used-car website. The license plate—IN HW 86—signifies Ingolstadt, the German city where Audi is based; Hartmut Warkuss, former Audi design chief; and 86, the internal Volkswagen/Audi designation for the platform upon which the 50, Audi’s version of the VW Polo, was built. “I drove it back to Michigan from the port in Baltimore very, very carefully,” Scott says, “as it was riding on 1980s tires.” Warkuss did great work; check out the crisp line where the hood meets the grille.

1981 DeLorean DMC-12

1981 DeLorean DMC-12

When asked how his pristine DMC-12 qualifies as a Lemon, Joe Vitale chuckled. “In some circles, the DMC-12 is considered an exotic dream car. For some people, especially people who are into the whole Back to the Future thing, it’s like meeting your hero. In other circles, it’s considered a lemon.” Vitale bought his DeLorean a decade ago and is only the second owner. He cleans it with stainless steel polish, the kind “like you’d use on a refrigerator.” But the car is no appliance. “The joy I get from my DMC-12, is sharing the car, seeing it through the eyes of someone who’s never seen one before.”

1975 Cadillac DeVille

1975 Cadillac Sedan de Ville

“My parents had a 1973 Cadillac when I was growing up in Philadelphia,” Scott Werst says, “and I wanted something from the same era.” His mandarin orange four-door hardtop, with medium saddle Maharajah cloth interior, certainly speaks to mid-1970s ideals of luxury and comfort, at least as interpreted by General Motors Design. Werst, who now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., said the baroque pile lasted 42 years because it spent most of its life in Texas, where it sat unused for 15 years. He is the fourth owner of the Sedan de Ville, which is decked out in brocade upholstery and new-for-1975 hinged interior door pulls. Werst points out the half-height B-pillars and laughs. “When you close the doors, the entire body of the car shakes! I wouldn’t want to flip this thing!”

1966 Panhard 24BT

1966 Panhard 24BT

Ken Nelson planned to bring his 1962 Humber Super Snipe, a British curiosity, to the Concours d’Lemons, but it broke down on the way, so he returned home and selected another weird old foreign car from his garage. After parking his 1966 Panhard 24 BT, he lifted the hood and exposed the air-cooled, two-cylinder Hemi—single carburetor sitting majestically on top, perfectly centered in the engine bay. “It makes 60 horsepower,” Nelson says. “Good for 100 mph.” Nelson’s Panhard was one of the last of the breed, as Citroen bought the automaker, a competitor, only to put it out of business in 1967.

1965 Chevrolet Corvair

1965 Chevrolet Corvair

There were at least a dozen Corvairs at this Concours d’Lemons, and many of them were in great condition, but Pete Kohler’s was not among them. His is truly a Lemon. Both the windshield and rear window are sealed into their frames by blue “flying pig” tape. The rear seat is missing, there is a tow strap in the passenger footwell, and the trailer that hauled the Corvair was conveniently parked nearby.

1989 Honda Acty

1989 Honda Acty

This tiny blue Honda, a Japanese Kei truck with the happy H logo on its grille, looks more like an outcast from the Island of Misfit Toys than a Lemon. Utility vehicles of this ilk are a common sight in Japan, as they’re small enough to negotiate the narrow streets and alleys of Japanese cities. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) designer Adam Hubers, who worked on the exteriors of the ACR Viper, the SRT Dodge Durango, and the new Dodge Demon, was attracted to the outright “otherness” of the little Honda. He plans to replace its 550-cc three-cylinder engine with the engine from a 2008 Honda CBR 1000RR. “That’s going to take power from 42 horsepower to 180 horsepower,” he says with a grin. “In a vehicle that weighs 1,400 pounds.” We approve.

1984 Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais Hurst

1984 Hurst/Olds

Mary Beth Tacy and her husband, Peter, clearly understand the ethos of Concours d’Lemons. Their tired old Olds looks like something they dragged out of a junkyard. No wonder it won (lost?) the American Class. “We bought it two years ago and almost immediately had to replace the entire powertrain,” Mary Beth admits. “And, of course, it has no air conditioning. But we’ve driven it a lot because it drives really well.” If you say so, Mary Beth. The couple also owns two Saabs and a 1927 Packard roadster. We’d better not see any of those cars next year.