Stranger in a strange land

Donald Osborne is a regular face in the concours crowd. We sent him to an import show to see what he could see.

Don’t make assumptions. They’re seldom accurate, often unhelpful and many times prevent us from having fun and enriching experiences.

Given my past as a singer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and my enthusiasm for fine food, wine, art, history and travel, you could be forgiven for thinking that’s the entire range of my interests. I also regularly attend concours d’elegance events, including Pebble Beach in California and Villa d’Este in Italy, plus many other American and European events and vintage rallies.

All of which is to say that when Hagerty Executive Editor Stefan Lombard contacted me with a story idea, it was rooted in a place of assumptions. I’ve known Stefan a long time, and he knows my great passion for odd Italian cars and bow ties.

So when he asked me to attend an Import Face-Off event, popularly known as “IFO,” he thought I would be a fish out of water. How would I handle being in an environment quite unlike those I usually inhabit, and how would the regulars react to me?

When I attend a concours as a judge, emcee, participant or spectator, I find myself inexorably drawn to those people who are truly driven by a genuine passion for cars.

As an appraiser and consultant, much of my existence these days concerns values, and I find it increasingly difficult to relate to those who only see a financial aspect to classic car ownership. I also feel strongly that for true car enthusiasts, their interests span all forms of four-wheeled vehicles.

There may be cars you wouldn’t want to write a check for or live with for more than a day, but that doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate them. And nothing thrills me more than understanding why a particular car that I never looked at before triples someone else’s heart rate.

My first step in the day’s journey of discovery was to put myself in the right car. Because I was on my way to an import tuner show, I assumed — there’s that word again — that to infiltrate the Japanese car space, I needed to drive a “suitable” car. Well, that ruled out my garage.

My friends Scott and Sandy came to the rescue with their neat, and now rather rare, 1996 Subaru SVX coupe. This dark green, flat-six-cylinder, super sleek two-door is far from what you’d ever expect from Subaru, then or now. Designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, you could have put almost any Italian badge on it. Though I eschewed a bow tie for the day, I wore a favorite shirt I bought in Paris a few years ago, covered with images of the Citroën DS.

Thus armed, I was ready for the IFO show scheduled for Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. While theoretically most events are held rain or shine, the reality is that many owners treat their classic cars as if they are made of marzipan.

The forecast called for showers mixed with intermittent downpours in the morning, with clearing skies by the time the show opened. I drove through some near-biblical rain on the way, which made me doubt what I would encounter on arrival.

I was surprised to see any cars there at all, frankly, but the turnout was impressive considering the skies. I later found out that the weather did indeed keep some away; while there were more than 100 cars participating, the previous week’s event in sunny Bakersfield had seen over 200. Nevertheless, those who drove through the downpour simply dried off their cars on arrival.

Cliff Wallace is the man behind the Import Face-Off phenomenon. The 37-year-old Louisiana native describes his role as “…owner, founder, producer, director, DJ, tech, flyer-packer and media representative” of the organization. His passion for participating in events for modified imports drove him to start IFO at 22 years old, specifically when his local track had no interest in such an event.

It became such a success that IFO now produces 42 events annually — basically one every non-holiday weekend of the year — across the country. That’s one of the dramatic differences between this world and the “traditional” classic car universe. Ask most classic car club members how many concours or even cruise-ins they attend in a year and those who answer “seven to 10” would be considered “hard core.”

Most of the folks I met in Fontana told me they attend 20 to 30 IFO and similar shows in a year. This is truly a committed bunch. Another key difference between an IFO event and a concours, cars and coffee, or track day is that this competition comes not only with trophies, but cash prizes. Imagine Best of Show at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance coming along with a seven-figure payoff. According to its website, the IFO pays out more than $250,000 each year in cash, trophies and prizes, and a staff of eight works to make it happen week after week.

Try also to imagine a single spot on the Monterey Peninsula where you could find a concours with street cars, custom cars, competition cars and trucks, all at one race track, complete with on-track competition events, a contest for entertainment systems, a push-up challenge (but with gifts for the winner) and models wearing as little as possible while remaining appropriate for a family event.

The one very real thing about IFO is the deep level of enthusiasm and commitment to cars I found in everyone I encountered. All the participants have spent thousands of hours and dollars to create their personal visions on wheels. Here, no one talks about cars as “investment-class assets,” and no one cares if they’re upside down financially in their machines.

It’s accepted that you build to please yourself and to reach your objectives. Without exception, every car I saw, no matter how many times it may have been shown or the number of trophies it had already won, was still a work in progress. From national show winners to obvious driveway-built first efforts, all are accepted and appreciated for what they are right now — and for what they might become in the future.

Owners may begin with drivetrain mods on an otherwise stock car, then later add custom paint, then go on to enhance the interior. There are potentially 28 different classes in which to compete, depending on the turnout of cars. Judging is to a 100-point scale, with marks awarded for cleanliness, modifications, paint, stance and special features of the body, engine, undercarriage, wheels and interior, as well as overall display and appearance.

IFO makes it abundantly clear in the rules that it is “quality, not quantity” that wins the day; it’s not the number of modifications your car may have but how the work has been executed that counts. Simply piling on scissor doors, 24-inch wheels, iridescent paint, dozens of speakers and a candy-colored intake won’t guarantee a trophy.

Another revelation was that despite its name, about a quarter of the cars and trucks were domestics, although Hondas were most prevalent. This was true for both the show and the drag racing events. The entries also ranged in age from showroom-fresh Audis, BMWs, Hondas, Subarus and Mustangs to a plethora of ’80s Japanese cars, as well as the oldest car present, a ’72 BMW 2002.

Almost all the participants with whom I spoke expressed an appreciation for classic cars as well as the modern modified cars they had on display, and they either hoped one day to also own a classic or already had one. However, there was a disturbing aspect as well: When I asked how they defined a classic car, almost unanimously people replied that it was a vehicle restored to absolutely as-built condition and then never driven. This perception is unfortunate, as the tuner crowd could and should serve as a model for what we should all celebrate and what to me epitomizes “Value in Use.”

The whole point of most IFO entrants is to start with a vehicle that stirs your passions and spend what it takes to make it the best possible. Then, drive it to events as often as possible and share it with as many friends and strangers as possible in order to spread your enthusiasm as far as you can. The result will be that it won’t matter a bit if it doesn’t appreciate 5, 10 or 50 percent. The psychic pleasure will have given you full value.

At the end of the day in Fontana, I found I had far more in common with everyone I met there than I do at many fancier venues. And while I did get many compliments on my Citroën shirt, for the next time I might even find the perfect bow tie to wear.

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