A chill breeze whips through the pre-dawn darkness, an out-of-tune generator noisily providing the power for the sole spotlight marking the start of the “Dawn Patrol.” Passing cups of coffee and sharing old war stories, folks like Hans Wurl and Jeff Orwig wait for the signal that will begin the day’s events.
“Go, go, go,” shouts the woman in the day-glo vest, waving her yellow flag as if chasing away a swarm of hornets. Within seconds, a score of ancient engines have fired up, a 1937 Duesenberg Town Car Cabriolet leading the procession down onto the field.
By the time the sun has risen high enough to boil the dew off the beach grass, most of the old machines have taken their places, the majority getting there under their own power – “trailer queens” not being favored here. But a few must be towed to their spots on the manicured golf course greens, like Don Prudhomme’s impossibly long old rail dragster.
Finally, the gates open and the public descends, ooh-ing and ahh-ing as the annual Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance gets underway.
Despite the refinement the name suggests, the Concours “franchise” is almost becoming a glut on the market. There are shows seemingly everywhere these days short of Jersey City and Gary, Indiana.
But each year brings two Concours classics truly worthy of the name, one in Pebble Beach, the other on a barrier beach not far from Jacksonville, Florida.
The latter is the relative newcomer, this year celebrating its 16th running. Yet, the Amelia Island Concours has rapidly established itself as one of the premier events for collectors and fans of classic cars, drawing each year some of the most exclusive vehicles ever to run on four wheels, or even three or two.
There are Duesenbergs and Bugattis, Benzes and BMWs. There are long-forgotten marques, like Pierce-Arrow and rare Marmons.
Amelia Island organizers have proved particularly adept at finding truly rare models, and this year brought out the oft-rumored barn finds, like Steve Schuler’s 1950 Allard J2 Le Mans race car, which he purchased in 1988.
“When I got it,” he recalls with a laugh, “all the parts were hanging on the walls of a barn.” The previous owner had spent 31 years planning to do a full restoration, it turns out, but never quite got around to it. Schuler, who brought the Allard from Capistrano Beach, CA, finally completed the job and has since clocked more than 60 vintage races in the J2.
Reggie Nash, of Richmond, Virginia, had only a bit less work to put into his 1904 Rambler Mode L, and as the gates to the event open, you can find him doing some last-minute polishing of the ancient machine’s brass lamps.
He first discovered the Rambler in 1967, but the then-owner – only the second – wasn’t ready to sell. It wasn’t until 1982 that Nash got a call asking him if he still wanted to buy the vintage horseless carriage. But before he could write a check, he had to pass an interview. “He wanted to make sure I was the right one to be selected caretaker,” recalls Nash, who has dressed for the event in the classic coverall “uniform” that early automotive pioneers were fond of wearing.
Not just anyone can drive a car onto the Ritz Carlton golf course on Concours Sunday. Organizers spend a tremendous amount of time searching for the rare and distinctive automobiles that true collectors and automotive aficionados will talk about until the next year’s event.
But for all the million-dollar Bugattis that grace the field, there are also the oddball entries. The Amelia Island Concours has developed a reputation for turning out rarities – like the custom-made race car built for Edsel Ford I, that was exhibited a few years back – and some true oddities, such as a collection of customized Chevrolet Corvairs.
This year brought out a collection of rarities that have, over more than half a century, graced the cover of Hot Rod magazine, including the 2007 Dragster Showboat, with its customized 32-cylinder engine.
“These funky classes and weird cars show the sense of humor behind the Amelia Island Concours,” suggests McKeel Haggerty, who manages Haggerty Insurance, one of the largest carriers specializing in classic automobiles.
This year, a pair of battleship-sized Mercedes 600 Pullman landaulet limousines are on display, arguably representing opposite ends of the ecumenical spectrum. One was used by Pope Paul VI, the other the personal property of Hugh Hefner — a bunny-mobile, and Pope-mobile, if you will.
Credit Bill Warner for the event’s distinctive, occasionally eccentric feel, say those who have participated and attended on a regular basis – and there are many of them who wouldn’t dream of missing the Amelia Island Concours.
Warner made his money as founder of an industrial filtration company, though his heart has always been in motorsports – where he operates a small team – and car collecting. He created the Amelia Foundation, for which he serves as chairman, to help raise money for the Community Hospice of Northeast Florida, and other charities, though it was also a good excuse to bring together his many friends to show off their car collections.
Warner is a man of unpretentious humor, who is likely to be found running around the vast lawn in a golf cart, barking orders into his headset and, if you’ll listen, complaining about whatever he is trying to deal with at the moment.
“It’s a lot of work,” he lets out, “a lot of worry. It’s a million-dollar roll of the dice on the weather.”
But the crinkle in his eyes and the subtle smile suggest he wouldn’t have it any other way, even if a frantic call on the radio has him racing off to find racing legend Dan Gurney, who is late for a presentation.
Gurney is just one of dozens of automotive and motor sports greats who attend each year’s Concours. Sir Stirling Moss, one of Gurney’s long-time rivals on the race track, is also on hand. The field of judges, meanwhile, is a veritable who’s-who.
Like every other Concours, there are honors and prizes to be claimed, a 1933 Duesenberg Model J taking this year’s coveted best-in-show trophy. An award like that can add millions to the value of a classic automobile.
Yet, there’s a distinct difference between the Amelia Island Concours and what many would bill as its rival event, the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, held each August. Out West, the judging follows rigid guidelines that once would penalize an entrant found to have missed a blade of grass stuck in a tire tread.
While there’s plenty of debate and careful inspection involved in the process at Amelia Island, “It’s not about nitpicking the cars here,” contends Judge Roger Sanders. “Here, the focus is on the truest sense of what a Concours is supposed to be – about elegant automobiles.”
That, says Hans Wurl, is one of the reasons he attends the event as often as possible. Wurl manages the vast automotive fleet of Bruce McCaw, the fanatic collector and former telecomm mogul. This year, Wurl is in charge of five of McCaw’s cars, including three rare Allards.
“I love Pebble Beach, but the competitive nature there just isn’t in my blood,” he says. “Amelia is more personal and that’s a reflection of Bill Warner’s personality.”
“It’s like Spring Break” for the automotive set, chimes in Ed Welburn. His regular job is chief of global design for General Motors. “But after all the hard work, this is what makes it all worth it,” says Welburn, as he takes his clipboard out onto the field for one last look before heading back to Detroit.
Tags: amelia island concours, auto collecting, auto collectors, auto news, bill warner, bugattis, car collecting, car collectors, car news, classic cars, concours d'elegance, dan gurney, duesenbergs, paul a. eisenstein, paul eisenstein, pebble beach concours, rare cars, thedetroitbureau