A Concours d’Elegance is born

In Canada, you say?

The Great Lakes of North America are the largest such aquatic group on Earth, containing 21 percent of the world’s surface freshwater. Four of the big five — lakes Superior, Erie, Ontario, Huron — form part of the Canadian-American border and are connected by the St. Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes Waterway. And while the fifth, Lake Michigan, is the only one to rest entirely within the United States, even it is often considered a single water mass with Lake Huron, thanks to the Straits of Mackinac where the flow frequently reverses direction, as though Mother Nature herself favoured every opportunity for exchanges between Canada and the U.S.

On the southeast side of Lake Huron, located within the province of Ontario, lies the picturesque Georgian Bay and its historic town of Owen Sound. This is where our story begins, combining a family’s vision with a passion for the antique automobile that transcends frontiers and brings two national neighbours even closer together.

In 1998, at the venerable age of 85, businessman and philanthropist Willis McLeese, along with son Rob, purchased a 574-acre chunk of land in Georgian Bay for the purpose of developing it into a world-class resort community. Folks said the area with its breathtaking vistas reminded them of Pebble Beach. But since that name was already taken, Willis and Rob decided to call their property “Cobble Beach,” given the abundant cobblestones dotting the local shores such as those used in the pavement of early streets and roadways. The result was an award-winning links-style golf course equipped with its Nantucket-inspired clubhouse, luxurious amenities and gorgeous homes, all devotedly respecting the site’s pristine environment — a primary reason why visitors want to go and live there.

And if such a colossal undertaking were not enough, why not also create something unique for people to come and experience first-hand this enchanted place. Rob, a Porsche aficionado, thought: How about a high-end annual event celebrating the beauty, history and nobility of the automobile? Not just a regular car show, but a full-fledged made-in-Canada concours d’elegance modeled on the best found in the U.S.

“I had never done this sort of thing before, but knew that we had an ideal venue to make it work, including a spectacular natural setting and established upscale infrastructure. But two things were missing: a top-notch judging team and some stunning cars,” says Rob.

In January of 2011, now aged 97, Willis passed away — a major blow for Rob and his family, which only deepened their resolve to turn their carfest concept into a successful reality. Wife Rosemary, son Geoff and other siblings, as well as company staff and volunteers in increasing numbers, all buckled down.

During the months that followed, Rob managed to persuade sponsors and big names in the antique auto world to help him achieve the family vision. Entered on stage notables such as über Cadillac collector Steve Plunkett, MC extraordinaire Ed Lucas and ringmaster John Carlson as Chief Judge, under whose leadership an initial cohort of 35 expert judges from all over North America was assembled. Some 130 vehicles were also recruited from across the continent — four Canadian provinces and 10 American states in all — making this a truly international happening from the get-go. Local car clubs were invited to join the fun, including the opportunity to take part in a 60-vehicle countryside tour on the day before the concours.

There were a number of memorable firsts throughout the Cobble Beach Concours d’Elegance’s inaugural edition. Among those: 103-years-young Margaret Dunning of Plymouth, Mich., at the wheel of her 1930 Packard 740 Roadster. In her honour, a prestigious distinction was established: “The Margaret Dunning Spirit of Driving” award, which she presented herself to the winner. In that same spirit, Mark Lambert, one of the appointed judges, drove with his sweetheart Leslie by his side another Packard Model 120 Convertible Coupe 1936 all the way from Nashville, Tenn. — a roundtrip of 2,100 miles!

To complete the picture, Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital Helipad used mostly to help save trauma victims, was designated as the recipient charity: a judicious choice which convinced actor Jason Priestley of “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Call me Fritz” fame to join Rob as event Co-Chairman. An experienced race car driver, Priestley suffered a near fatal crash in 2002, which may well have killed him had it not been for the rapid intervention of a similar helicopter rescue operation in Kentucky.

Rob’s dearest wish from the beginning had been to cap his concours with a 100th anniversary birthday bash for Willis. Sadly, this was not to be. But as warm sunshine beamed down on the class winners rolling by the podium, it seemed as though dad made sure from his VIP gallery up above that the grand celestial projector shone its best and brightest light on each of the dazzling cars. He would, of course, have settled for no less. On that glorious September afternoon, millions of diamonds glittered joyfully on Lake Huron under a radiant blue sky. Many among the 4,000 attendees felt there was magic in the air. All agreed that Cobble Beach would never be the same, thanks to a rare work of art signed McLeese, McLeese & Company.

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