Is patina just as important as cleanliness on the show field?

I’ve always believed that the term “elegant design” encapsulates something of a broad-ranging minimalist philosophy. Perhaps it is best described by famed architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who once said, “Less is more.” 

Excess seldom satisfies. I’ve tried, wherever possible, to make those words a personal mantra for my own work. Over the years, I have come to discover that it’s also an important theme that resonates with other creative people I admire. I’m as moved by a great piece of art, engineering, music or prose as I am by watching a great racing driver cut an impossible line through impenetrable traffic, or just watching the late-afternoon light silently fall across a beautifully designed automobile. 

That point of view may sound like it defies the very essence of over-the-top French coachwork of the ’30s, but if one really dissects the best of that era of swoopy opulence, it’s easy to see that a certain Gallic restraint prevented the Parisian masters from going too far. The designs may indeed have been extravagant, but the best examples still display complete control of the medium, and that is proof enough of elegance. One has to judge elegance by the era in which it was created. 

Every automotive era has its glaring examples of poor taste. Most, like GM’s Aztec, are soon forgotten because we tend to dismiss the ineffective or uninspiring, no matter how practical. Some, like the badly compromised Edsel, survive simply because the excess or lack of taste is so egregious, or even humorous, that it reaches the extreme end of the era’s spectrum that marks a return to sanity.

The word “elegant” isn’t just about the exterior appearance or “presence” of an object, although some concours competition judges I’ve recently talked with are now claiming that elegance shouldn’t have anything to do with how an automobile is judged on the fairway. Huh? The whole point of a concours d’elegance is specifically about defining the best in refined design and beauty. 

The definition of the word is getting so twisted in car show competition that in some events it isn’t considered correct to lift the hood to inspect an engine or even look in the car’s storage areas. Why? Because spots of grease or oil may somehow sully the car’s image and detract from its “elegance.” 

Hey guys, these are automobiles—machines that require lubrication and cooling fluids. The finest restored examples seldom leak and, if they do, so what? It’s an automobile’s appearance, sound and even aroma that remains after it has passed that create our perceptions of its beauty. 

Some random smudge or droplet of liquid (not to mention that errant blade of grass caught in the tire tread) shouldn’t begin to affect how an automobile is scored. Cleanliness may have something to do with presentation, but shouldn’t real patina, that proof of loving use, have just as much weight? This standard should be up to the judges’ expert discretion. 

Remember that the true concours, as they originated in Europe, were about cars in motion, complete with haute couture fashion to enhance the effect. Automobiles should be appreciated as pieces of kinetic sculpture that stimulate our senses, not judged on the basis of some negative, detracting nonissue, like a burned-out tail lamp, that has nothing to do with the car’s design. 

A concours d’elegance isn’t about determining who can afford the best restoration or overlooking a stunning piece of machinery for Best of Show because of some miniscule issue. A fine automobile’s reputation is based partly on history and its known performance.

The world’s greatest examples of design and craftsmanship were meant to be used, sometimes in brutal competition, which only adds to their mystique, history and provenance. To penalize such fabulous equipment because of some distracting, irrelevant detail that has nothing to do with its creator’s vision is missing the whole point.

Important racing cars always have a difficult time at concours because there’s a strange notion among inexperienced judges that elegance applies only to exterior aesthetics. Elegance is as much about inspired engineering and refined execution of the designer’s vision as the automobile’s exterior appearance.

Function, no matter how bizarre, should count equally with great coachwork. Is Jim Clark’s Indy-winning Lotus, with its brilliant offset chassis and bundle-of-snakes exhaust, any less striking than a Figoni et Falaschi Talbot coupe or Touring-bodied 8C 2900 Alfa roadster? They’re different, yes, but defining the best, as concours judges are required to do, is more than just difficult; it’s almost impossible. 

It requires a great sense of history as well as impeccable taste. Since automotive art is often judged under such extremes, and the controversial results for a single winner are seldom appreciated, it is probably best to separate the track from the street and award two Best of Shows. 

This practice was inaugurated years ago by visionary promoter Bill Warner at his always deliciously wonderful Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. Amelia is held in March of each year near Jacksonville, Florida, and the event offers twin awards for Concours d’Elegance and Concours d’Sport. A broad scope of incredibly rare and wonderful cars appear at Amelia each spring, and we’d never get to discover these machines if it weren’t for the fact that good judgment and good taste have, over time, come to live there comfortably side by side. Thanks, Bill. 

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Daisy911 New Reader
1/9/22 11:08 a.m.

Peter, it's funny you should mention Amelia (and Werks Reunion). I met you at the 2017 Amelia island concours and Werks; they were both incredible events. I saw you talking to Hurley and you looked familiar, but I couldn't quite figure out who. I believe it was Hurley who told me your name. Needless to say, I was floored as I always admired your cars. I still have issue 1 of Porsche Classic with your signature.

Enough digression; I Live in Philadelphia, and love the Daytona coupe that Dr. Simeone has in the museum. It was the very first car in the National Register, and it is still driven regularly on the fantastic demo days put on by the Museum. 
I believe that Dr. Simeone is of the same opinion as you; maintain but not restore to the nth degree. The Daytona's body is well worn, as are many of the other cars there. Yet, they are taken outside in the back, driven by Dr. Simeone, and driven in mild anger by Kevin. They have the patina of loved and well used race cars. It's one of the things that makes the Simeone a very special and unique museum.

wspohn SuperDork
1/9/22 4:06 p.m.

I am reminded of a Rolls Royce that appeared repeatedly at our local show in primer without chrome.  I never asked the owner whether he had just run low on money during the restoration or whether it was a statement he wanted to make about over restored cars or about overly priggish Rolls owners.

I can see retaining the scars of battle in a vintage racer that ran the Mille Miglia or some such and came off the track and was put away as is, but I can't agree with cars that aren't in that league and are not refurbished to at least a decent degree because the owner just doesn't want to bother.  Their choice of course but the question is whether it should be welcomed at a concours show.

1/10/22 2:31 p.m.



I agree with your view of "concours" automobiles and how they may appear. Bill Warner indeed has allowed race cars to be part of his exibition. they add a wonderful excitement to his event. Years ago we went to the Amelia event when the Trans-Am reunion along with you and other greats were represented.

We were walking the fairway display with the lovely classic autos on the left and Trans Am cars on the right as you toured the grounds. The Trans Am fellows (you know the type) thought they would light up the procedings by starting their respective cars. The roar was huge, like "gentlemen start your engines" huge. When the noise started, it looked as though someone had tilted the fairway as everyone moved toward the Trans Am side. The mechanics and caretakers of those cars just laughed. Concours indeed.

Best wishes,

Larry Hoboken

coupe 57

tolyarutunoff New Reader
12/21/22 3:31 p.m.

decades ago robert wiliams (don't call me bob) ran his ex-lemans cunningham in vintage races all over.  he cleaned it of course, but the french bugs that were embedded in the paint were there to stay, as was a general front 'racing discoloration.'  people were always telling him to restore it, and eventually he did.  i think the last time i saw him was in chicago around '90.  i bet he wouldn't do that today, but the vintage scene in the '70s and '80s was definitely different from that of today.

frenchyd MegaDork
12/21/22 4:33 p.m.

In reply to tolyarutunoff :

I admit when I was cutting out the tree that had grown up through the Black Jack spl. All I could see was the finished car polished and bright.  Not this ugly used up piece of detritus with multi different layers of paint and thick bondo goobered over the damaged fiberglass. 
    But when I sold it nearly 40 years latter oi left the stone bruises and original  paint  as Patina.   Last I heard it sits in the Packard museum  that way.  

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