Your nearest concours d’elegance is worth the pilgrimage

Sajeev Mehta

This isn’t a story about which car won (but it was the Horch), or which famous people attended, or any other metric normally covered in a report on a concours d’elegance. Instead this is about what you can experience as a ticket-clutching outsider looking in, and the struggle to keep such events alive and relevant for generations to come. As a native Houstonian, I attended the local-to-me Keels and Wheels Concours d’Elegance, a competition of elegance for both cars and boats at a local yacht club. What I saw was impressive both by design and completely by chance.

Take, for example, the show’s competing soundtracks: The main exhibition blasted modern jazz, R&B, and electronica, while the rest of the grounds cranked up 1950s rock ‘n’ roll. Even the audio sources shows that times are a-changing: The modern stuff played over artisan Sonus Faber drivers fed by McIntosh amplification, while the vintage tunes broadcast over the Yacht Club’s outdoor horn speakers. The contrast was sonically stunning.

Sajeev Mehta

Since this is Keels and Wheels’ Silver Anniversary event, let’s step back and consider what it (and events of its kind) offer on a regular basis: Invitation-only access for car/boat owners to show at the delightful Lakewood Yacht Club, a plethora of classes (40 for cars, 20 for boats this year) where winners receive beautiful trophies, featured marques (including Corvette, Packard, Porsche), famous guests (Barry Meguiar, Aaron Shelby, etc.), boutique shopping opportunities, and even child-centric activities. At Keels and Wheels’, this last category included a kid’s “Build a Boat” activity and a soap-box derby, in perfect harmony with the show’s automotive and nautical theme. So there’s plenty to like in a casual environment. Well, in theory.

Whether you’re a fan of Ann Peebles or Missy Elliot, everyone can agree that we can’t stand the rain that poured down on Saturday. Even one day of rain is painful, as Keels and Wheels is a weekend event aimed at both locals and tourists intending to make this slice of Texas’ Gulf Coast into a vacation destination. Owners and their crew rushed to put covers on the cars before and after judging, those without proper boots had feet soaked by muddy water, and show attendance dropped dramatically.

I heard that roughly 70 vehicles didn’t attend because of the weather, a dip in turnout that likely correlated to loss of ticket revenue—a big problem for a local concours d’elegance tasked with supporting three local charities. Put another way, the only people that hate a rainy Saturday more are the folks that work automotive retail.

Sajeev Mehta

I know many (all?) concours d’elegance purists loathe the presence of car dealers at their event, but I see the appeal outside of the obvious financial benefit. To wit, I give kudos to Mr. Nathan Berg, who honed his craft to expertly convince me to get inside this Cadillac Escalade so he could do a product demo. The big Caddy is a great concours d’elegance chariot: an appealing blend of interior tech with an honest rumble from its eight-cylinder mill upon startup; it all translated into a great segue from classic to modern metal. No matter, on to the main event.

Sajeev Mehta

While 2020 was a punt for everyone thanks to COVID-19, Keels and Wheels made 2021 a highlight with their main attraction: The Ford GT40 and the Ferrari 250 GTB featured in the movie Ford v Ferrari, complete with a supporting cast of beautiful Ford/Ferrari supercars. That said, the two “star” cars were movie props, not historical artifacts: The Ford GT had a modesty panel around its velocity stacked intake (what you hidin,’ bro?) while the Ferrari had a far more offensive look under the hood.

Older LS motors aren’t the stuff of legend (yet), but a Ferrari movie/tribute car still sounds the business with a Chevy motor exhaling from an open exhaust. And how many people at the concours really, truly cared about the deceit? Most attendees didn’t even know these were movie props, as one well-dressed, well-heeled lady asked me, “Where are the price tags? I want to buy one of these!”

Since I was in a Hagerty shirt at the time, I refrained from referring her to Nathan over by the Cadillac Escalade … but I sure wanted to!

Sajeev Mehta

While those who braved Saturday’s weather did see these beauties, they truly shone on Sunday thanks to sunny skies (not pictured here), and the caliber of modern Ford GTs and high-zoot Ferraris did not disappoint. That said, this is a good time to take a look at some of the less impressive “vehicles of note” and dig a little deeper.

Sajeev Mehta

Because Keels and Wheels draws influence from Houston-area car enthusiasts, sometimes I see a friendly bumper in the crowd of show-ready iron. No, not that Ferrari 512 M in the foreground, but the white Mondial behind it.

Sajeev Mehta

Concours d’elegance aren’t always about automotive royalty, and this Mondial packs a special punch. Thanks to the supreme skill and the generous nature of the father and son team who own it, this Mondial’s victory at a local Lotus club autocross makes it rather famous in the Houston area.

Not only was it the fastest car at said autocross, it scored third place when saddled with four passengers. Such elegance and grace under pressure doesn’t assure a victory at Keels and Wheels, but this Mondial will always be the champion in my heart.

Speaking of hearts, this Packard 6 Sedan looks great and has that classic restomod stance, but there’s a surprise under hood.

Sajeev Mehta

I walked up to this Packard and immediately remarked upon its Ford Modular V-8 valve cover. And as I turned ’round its prodigious fender, observed that it was indeed a very long valve cover for a V-8.

To my delight and astonishment, I eventually realized that I was beholding a Ford V-10 with a Whipplecharger, all painted factory Packard green!

I resumed wandering the grounds: Since this is Keels and Wheels, there were vintage boats aplenty. Some boats have exotic-car levels of pizazz, and this Donzi Model 16 is definitely an eye-catcher.

Which proves the point that a concours d’elegance is more than what you think it might be. And such surprises are worth your time, effort, and money! Even if boats aren’t on the docket at your nearest event, the odds of you being both surprised and pleased by at least one car in attendance are very, very high.

Depending on your age, you may already know this truth. But for those that do not, the time is now to attend (and thereby support) your local concours d’elegance.

Sajeev Mehta

Even with attendees from surrounding states and a built-in tourist support system (fun water activities, NASA’s just a stone’s throw away, etc.) Keels and Wheels isn’t as well-known in the circles that populate our local cars and coffee gathering, events by The Car Culture, and big out-of-state draws like TX2K. Which is a shame, because it would be nice to add museum-quality examples of the Toyota Supra, BMW E39 M5, or even a perfect Honda Civic Si for all to appreciate.

Even if some staunch concours aficionados would view such additions as out of place, my guess is that the added ticket revenue from those car’s owners/friends/social media followers just might win them over. So make yourself seen and write about it on your Facebooks, TikToks, and Instagrams: Odds are there is a Concours d’Elegance close enough to make it worth planning a vacation around it, and you won’t regret your efforts.

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