Who Doesn’t Like Bill Warner?
The Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance organizer knows a car show isn’t just about the vehicles – it’s about the people, too.
He doesn’t have the largest garage. He isn’t the biggest collector. But when it comes to sheer volume of friendships and well-wishers, there may be no one richer in the hobby than Bill Warner.
With his Florida drawl and unpretentious manner, Warner is the quintessential guy you’d love to spend a Saturday with in a garage, talking cars and swapping stories over a few beers.
Now in his mid-60s, Warner has lots of car experiences to draw from, given his days as a writer for Sports Car Graphic and Road & Track, his amateur road-racing career, and his award-winning photography.
Without question, however, Warner and his wife, Jane, are best known as the founders and reigning heart and soul of the Concours d’Elegance held each March at The Ritz-Carlton in Amelia Island, Florida. Thanks to their efforts, more than $1.6 million has been donated to Community Hospice of Northeast Florida.
And because of the Warners’ sweat equity, the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance has become one of the year’s most anticipated automotive events, with heavy media attendance and an always-entertaining mix of classics, sports cars and racers – along with some of the living legends who created and drove them. Warner has run the event since 1995, when a representative from The Ritz-Carlton called to ask if he would consider organizing a concours on the grounds of the resort. “I told them my wife and I would help as long as the proceeds went to various charities,” Warner says.
Since then, it’s become a 365-day-a-year vocation for the Warners, who do the work with three full-time employees and a small cadre of dedicated volunteers. Bill handles the car selection with the help of specialists in critical marques. Warner likens the relationship between Amelia Island and the more established Pebble Beach Concours to Carlisle and Hershey. “There’s a Carlisle because Hershey wouldn’t accept certain cars,” he says. “Each is very entertaining but has different themes. I knew we couldn’t go toe to toe with Pebble Beach on the classics. It’s why we do serendipitous themes, such as ‘cars you never knew existed,’ and center the show around great racing drivers and the cars they raced.”
Warner adds that the success of Amelia Island is as much about people as it is about cars. “If you go to a NASCAR race, your chances of walking up and talking to the drivers are pretty slim,” he says. “But you can come to Amelia Island and talk to Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Brian Redman or Hurley Haywood – and even get your picture taken with them.”
Warner is famous for hosting seminars, usually holding one Friday and Saturday of the Concours weekend. The Friday version is open to up to 500 local high school kids. In 2009, it was a custom car seminar, with Chip Foose, George Barris and Dean Jeffries in attendance. The year before was a Great Race theme, with Jeff Mahl talking about his grandfather, George Schuster, driving the Thomas Flyer, which coincided with a Great Race display on the show field. “It was fascinating to the kids, who’ve grown up in an era of Internet and GPS,” Warner says. “After all, the Thomas Flyer drove around the world when there were no maps or roads.”
Racing reunions are popular at Amelia, too. “Last year we did the Indy roadster drivers – Parnelli Jones, Jim Rathmann, Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser, with David Hobbs and Tim Considine as moderators,” Warner says.
In like fashion, Warner managed to coax all five owners of the Corvette Grand Sports to bring their cars to Amelia for a reunion in 2003 – only the second time the cars had been reunited in their history. Along with the owners and cars came legendary racers Jim Hall, Delmo Johnson and Dave Morgan, who drove them originally.
Like most collectors, Warner is driven by the impressions of his youth. “When I was 10 years old, I saw a 1953 Corvette at the Roosevelt Hotel in Jacksonville, Florida, roped off with swags. I begged my dad to take me downtown. He dropped me off and I stared at that thing for four hours. It affected my whole life.”
That same year, Warner attended a western at the local theater where cowboy star Lash LaRue was making a personal appearance. LaRue pulled up in a Muntz Jet, hopped out and went inside, trailed by a mob of kids. “But I stayed outside and just stared at the car,” Warner says. “He saw me and came out to ask if I knew what kind of car it was. I said, ‘Yes, sir, that’s a Muntz Road Jet.’ And he said, ‘Get in boy, we’re going for a ride.’ ”
Today, Warner owns a Muntz Jet. He also has owned a pair of Corvettes and currently has a Pennant Blue 1955 in his 12-car collection. Also in his garage are a 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible, a 1958 Eldorado Brougham, two Group 44 Triumph race cars, a 1971 Porsche 911, a new generation Ford GT, a Mercedes 450SL, a Maserati Ghibli and a Ferrari Daytona.
Warner’s most famous and valuable collector vehicle was the 1934 Ford concept speedster built for Edsel Ford that he sold at a recent RM sale. “I chased that car for 20 years,” Warner says. “But it got so valuable that Jane and I couldn’t take it out anymore. I have a rule that when the car starts to own you, it’s time for it to go away.”
Now, as he ponders what’s next for his car collection – and his life – Warner deserves to let off the gas a bit and take life a little easier. But for him, that might just be impossible.
To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Winter 2009 issue of Hagerty magazine.