Some people are into model trains, so they buy model trains to play with. There are some people who build elaborate train sets that cost six figures and take up all the space in their attic. Some people like to jog, so they jog. For fun, some people train for a marathon until their toenails fall out and their knees are shot. Some people like cars. So they buy nice ones and drive them to car shows to meet the other car people. And then there are Concours d'Elegance, which take the whole liking cars thing to the level of six-figure obsessions and missing toenails, but for antique racers and luxury cars.
Concours d'Elegance are car shows, but they take the concept so far beyond what’s usually meant by that term. It’s like calling the U.S. presidency a government job – technically accurate, but not quite capturing the scope of things. All over the world, owners of some of the most amazing, expensive, luxurious and famous cars ever made compete to restore and maintain their classic automobiles at above-mint condition. These cars are trucked (and sometimes flown) to special competitions where points are awarded for how amazingly perfect they are. Judges scour every square inch of the vehicles looking for faults, which are often decades-old classics or high-end race cars from the ‘50s, and vehicles have been disqualified for having a single barely noticeable chip in their paint.
In the 90 years since the first Concours d'Elegance was held in Italy, in 1929, these events have grown into an over-the-top holy sacrament in the church of the automobile. So, of course, we have to tell you all about them.
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The first Concours d'Elegance in the United States was in 1950, on the world-famous golf course at Pebble Beach. In the beginning, Concours were meant to show off the latest in automotive engineering and get people excited enough to buy the latest models of luxury and performance cars. That makes sense, since what kind of “classic” cars could have been put on display back in 1928, when the first show was held? The first few Pebble Beach events kept the focus on the latest and greatest, with the first Best in Show (out of maybe 30 competitors) in 1950 being an Edwards R-26 Special Sport Roadster that was built specifically for that show, but over time the events started drifting into classic cars territory. Eventually, the focus drifted away from the engineering of the cars to the absurd lengths owners would go to in order to restore classic cars. By the time the 1956 Hillsborough Concours started, on the golf course at Crystal Springs, elaborately restored classics were winning every time.
Concours d'Elegance and golf seem to go together. Of the 26 major events held each year in the United States, at least half are staged on exquisitely manicured golf courses. That’s not a coincidence – by the time a man can afford to bring a Rolls Royce Silver Spirit back from the junkyard with all-original parts, he’s probably spent enough of his life working 60-hour weeks as a business executive that golf is the only sport he’s physically able to play. There’s also a certain whimsically aristocratic feeling to it all – there’s nothing like spending maybe $3,000 to truck your maybe-$300,000 classic car out to a private golf course that unfashionably poor people can’t afford to join, then parking it on the grass that somebody got $15 an hour to manicure for you the day before.
Not just any car is Concours d’Elegance material. Your ’68 Charger might be classic enough to qualify in the first round, but if you want a place on the fairway you’d better make sure it has a fresh coat of orange paint and the Confederate flag on its roof is laser beam-straight from corner to corner. Every event has its preferred range of cars – some split into sub-events for pre-WWII, postwar and classic race cars, for example – while a lot of the smaller events are strictly for a single type of car, such as all ‘20s touring cars or all ‘50s street machines. Every event also has its own standards for what kinds of parts you can use to restore the vehicle and whether you’re allowed to stick any aftermarket accessories on the thing.
If you’re thinking about joining an event, it’s not a bad investment to hire a contract lawyer and have him explain the vehicle requirements to you a year in advance. A lot of the rules for Concours run into the dozens of pages, and the judges are famously merciless when evaluating entries. If the rules for your event say you aren’t allowed to use modern parts, you’d better find an original air filter from 1965, or you and your $26 million Ferrari 275 GTB/C Speciale are out of contention, whether Steve McQueen used to own it or not.
Participants in Concours events have had decades to develop obsessive-compulsive disorder to a high art form, and it shows in the way they treat their cars. To prep a vehicle for the main event --- where everything in the car is being judged, and it’s all on the table -- might take months of careful repair and replacement of absurdly expensive parts. Though standards vary by event, vehicles are generally judged by:
tires, upholstery or interior is the kiss of death. Get the brake dust off the discs, dig small pebbles out of the treads with a pocket knife, and hire a team of orphans to clean the dead bugs out of the grille with toothpicks.Engine – All original parts, no exceptions. And it all has to work since you’re expected to drive the car a short distance from the unloading area to the display area. You can’t push it or have it towed, so everything has to be good for at least first gear. If your car is some kind of handmade custom deal from 1893, and the factory that built spare parts for it closed down during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1919, talk to event organizers and find out if you can use a more modern carburetor or whatever. The answer might be no, but sometimes a rule can be bent if you’re bringing something nice to the table.
Concours d’Elegance events take place in a dozen countries year-round, and each has its own local flair. The Salon Privé event at Oxfordshire, UK, for example, takes place on a broad green lawn in front of that mansion from the Pride and Prejudice movie, where Mr. Darcy proposed to that girl who was in Pirates of the Caribbean. Event organizers insist on a dress code for men they describe as: “Smart, hats optional,” and for women as: “Glamourous, hats a must.”
If you have hangups about headwear and can afford the fare to Italy, the Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este might be more your speed. This was the first Concours d’Elegance to be run, and it’s still going on in Cernobbio, north of Milan, every May. The event is organized by BMW, which is ironic since none of their cars has ever won. The 2018 winner was a 1968 Alfa-Romeo 33-2 Stradale Scaglione Coupe, for example.
Alfa-Romeo also won Best of Show in the 2018 Pebble Beach event, this time with a 1937 8C 2900B Touring Berlinetta that looks like Scrooge McDuck’s limousine as sketched by Robert Crumb. The year before that, the big winner was a Barker touring car from 1929 that was built on a semi Roi-des-Belges 40/50 chassis and nicknamed The Silver Ghost, probably because that sounds really cool.
Not entirely. Like everything people do that’s frankly a little bit much, many Concours d’Elegance events are done partly to raise money for charity. The Pebble Beach event, for instance, raised close to $2 million in 2018 alone for Autism Speaks, which is a little close to the mark when you consider the neurotic attention to detail that goes into prepping the cars for the show. Other events raise money for AIDS charities, veterans’ groups and, in one case, (Cincinnati Concours d'Elegance) children with arthritis. It could, of course, be argued that the $15 million you spent on your 1961 Ferrari 250 GT Spyder California SWB could have just been given to the kids with arthritis instead, but how about you shut up and stop trying to ruin everything for once, huh?
As with anything high-profile and overpriced, celebrities find themselves drawn to these car shows. Not all of them are fame-whoring though. Or at least, not entirely. Talk show host, car enthusiast, and long-time Doritos spokesman Jay Leno, for example, occasionally turns up in the pit at the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion at Laguna Seca, where he accidentally winds up on camera giving interviews and getting press notices. He’s no amateur, though. In 2008, he arrived at Pebble Beach in a 1953 Chrysler that had been customized with a – get a load of this – 28.4-liter 1792 cid V-12 Continental tank engine with a giant supercharger that pushes 1,600 hp through what has to be one of the most ridiculous vehicles in Southern California, not counting the other cars in Jay Leno’s garage, of course.
So, how high-end do these cars get? Since Concours d’Elegance is all about taking car love and car quality to the limit, where exactly is that limit? How crazy do these things get?
This crazy: In 2018, a Ferrari 250 GTO sold at the Sotheby’s auction attached to the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance for $48 million. That’s Four-Eight-Million. Like, you know how many people communism killed in the 20th century? Give every one of those people 50 cents, and together they can afford this one single car.
Even better, the guy who sold it was Greg Whitten, Microsoft’s 15th employee, who joined the company in 1979. He said he picked it up in 2000 for less than $5 million. If you’re wondering what you have to do to get into the glamorous world of elite car shows, it’s simple. Be the kind of person who applies for a job at Microsoft in 1979, AND who can buy a car, hold onto it for 18 years, and then sell it for 10 times what you paid for it, instead of losing a third of its value when you leave the lot, the way you’ve been doing.
As ridiculous as the high-end entries can get, you don’t actually have to be an eccentric billionaire to participate in a Concours d’Elegance. In fact, a lot of events are downright neighborly about new participants dipping their toes in the pool, and several have entry-level events with less demanding requirements you can try to get started.
Your car still has to be beyond perfect, of course, but it’s a lot easier to take part in an interior/exterior judging event – where only the cosmetic appearance of the car will be considered – than it is to scrub every last molecule of soot off of the engine and chase down the specific spark plugs from 1928 that the rules say you need. Even the less demanding events still call for more diligence from you as a car owner than you show as a parent for your children. Just washing a car for the interior/exterior judging, for instance, is ideally done with distilled water to minimize spotting. If you can’t spare $50 worth of Evian to rinse the baby shampoo off your fender, it’s recommended that you try washing the whole car one small section at a time, so you can quickly dry it with lint-free cloths. One source suggests using cloth diapers, which is again, probably more care than you showed your actual baby growing up.
Concours d’Elegance events are exclusive and a little snobbish. They draw celebrities in for photo ops. The machines on display cost a fortune, and they’re usually organized to raise money for charity. It goes without saying that the tickets aren’t going to be cheap, no matter which event you’re planning to visit.
If you plan to attend the Pebble Beach Concours, it’s a good idea to buy in early. Tickets for 2019’s event start at $375 each and then hop up to $450 on August 1. If you have no conscience and don’t care about stiffing a charity, it’s actually not too hard to get in for free if you start a YouTube channel called “Motor-America Media,” or whatever else sounds likely, and ask for press credentials. Otherwise, your admission fee might wind up going to the United Way.
The Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance, which takes place in Florida every March, sells tickets for $250, with proceeds going to a local hospice, a spina bifida charity, something to do with local police, and the 4-H Society.
If you’re closer to San Diego than Monterrey, the La Jolla event in April offers VIP passes for $350, which their website helpfully tells us is worth $430, so you’re actually saving money there.