One of the nation’s largest historic car shows got off without a hitch over the weekend. That might not seem like a story worth telling but for the fact that what had been known, for more than 30 years, as the Meadowbrook Concours d’Elegance made a major move this time, not only finding a new home but adding an assortment of new events – and nearly 50% more classic cars.
Renamed the Concours d’Elegance of America, the show abandoned its long-time venue at the old Meadowbrook estate, onetime home of auto pioneer Horace and Matilda Dodge. Its new home is the Inn at St. John’s a former Catholic Church retreat the far west edge of metro Detroit. The move had many long-time fans – and some organizers – worried. But the effort was rewarded by overflow attendance – never mind one of the best car collections the Concours has ever drawn.
Spread out across the sprawling grounds of the Inn were more than 325 vehicles – including 30 rare Indy cars tracing the 100-year history of the Indianapolis 500. Organizers also expanded the traditional definition of a classic car show by luring in eight legendary drag racing funny cars.
But the event didn’t abandon its classic roots, a 1933 Duesenberg Model SJ Riviera Phaeton Brunn and a 1938 Mercedes-Benz 540K Autobahn Kurrier sharing top honors as the best-in-show American and foreign cars.
The fate of the former Meadowbrook Concours had been in doubt for more than a decade. The event was originally conceived as a way to help preserve the massive Dodge estate, annual maintenance fees running well above $1 million. But organizers had an ongoing battle with the bureaucrats of Oakland University, the northern Detroit school that was built on the old Meadowbrook grounds and which was responsible for the hall’s upkeep.
A decade ago, the Concours split in two, one group led by former GM car czar Bob Lutz setting up a competing event at the Cranbrook school. Eventually, the two groups grudgingly reunited. But Oakland University officials seemed unimpressed and despite some promises did little to make the Concours feel welcomed. Last year, in fact, the car show had to shift dates because the school scheduled a wedding at Meadowbrook Hall on the traditional date.
Indeed, when organizers finally said they had enough, the university seemed blithely indifferent. “They simply said, “Fine, we’ll just schedule another wedding.”
For those who felt the Concours of America would be missing something without Meadowbrook Hall as a backdrop, well, there was little reason to worry. If anything, the new facility made it easier to attract more owners – and a bigger crowd – thanks to its hotel and dining facilities.
“Every Concours has its signature and location, so it’s difficult to move,” said Wayne Cherry, the former GM design director and a judge at the Concours, “but they’ve done a fantastic job. It won’t take them long to establish this as a signature location.
Bill Warner, a fellow judge – and the man behind the Concours on Amelia Island, Florida – admitted his own “pleasant surprise. When you change your venue you just don’t know if people will follow you. But when you get a crowd like this, it says there’s a definite future.”
It certainly helps to have “a lot more cars at a terrific place to display them,” echoed Tony Swan, a long-time automotive journalist and a member of this year’s selection committee. There were 325 cars entered into the formal competition.
The Indy Car display was particularly significant and a sign of the way the Concours organizers have expanded their reach. The rare collection covered the century of the Brickyard’s racing, starting with a 1912 National Speed Car.
Notably, organizers are looking for ways to expand the Detroit-based Concours, which has traditionally been a one-day event, into a multi-day extravaganza – much like that granddaddy of classic shows, the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Last Friday, the Indy Cars were put on display at Michigan International Speedway, 90 minutes to the west, while participants were given the chance to drive the long oval course.
There were other efforts to expand the scope of a show that has traditionally focused on the most exclusive and elite of automobiles – long-gone names like Bugatti, Duesenberg and Pierce-Arrow.
There was a first-time display of pedal cars, for example, including six owned by Michigander John Rastall. He’s gathered them all over the world, he explained, and when asked if that might not seem just a little, er, eccentric, he laughed and suggested, “I’ve been called worse.”
On a nearby patch of grass, Chris Baun was revealing the history of a collection of funny cars, including an original campaigned by the legendary Dick Horrell. “These are very rare cars,” he noted, adding that, “Most of them would get crushed or chopped up.”
The display shows that “tastes change,” explained Baun, who works for the local visitor and convention bureau. “While folks might have come here in the past to see a Duesenberg, now it’s a Hemi ‘Cuda.”
Leading into the Concours, RM Auctions collected $7.6 million as a collection of classics crossed the auction block, a Packard Twin Six Individual Custom Convertible Sedan topping the bidding at $1.1 million.
There were, of course, a few challenges with the first-ever show at the Inn at St. John’s, though organizer Brian Joseph sighed in relief when he realized it was nowhere near “all that chaos” he was fearing. “We’ve gotten huge approval,” he added, suggesting that this will make it easier to extend the reach of the Concours even further in 2012.