What makes a concours special? | Part 1: Going behind the curtain

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

Part 1 in a series. More to come: judging explained, meet a perfect concours car, and discover what it’s like to show a car at Monterey. 

If you’re inviting everybody to come and bring what they have, that’s a car show,” explains Bill Warner, creator of The Amelia. A concours, he stresses, is different: “Each car on that field has to be there for a reason.”

The raison d’etre for a concours, at least initially, was to showcase modern style. “As it was envisioned by the French,” he continues, a concours would pair “the latest coachwork with the latest fashions.”

Following that logic, he argues, today’s auto shows could be considered concours. “That means that the Detroit auto show is a concours,” he muses. “It’s the latest car show.”

The early days of Pebble Beach, likewise, gathered the latest machines–although it was originally conceived as an effort to broaden the weekend’s appeal. “The Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance began in tandem with the Pebble Beach Road Races in 1950, but in truth the concours was a last-minute addition–a social gathering intended to add a bit of style to the much-anticipated main event,” the event’s website explains.

The winner of that first Pebble Beach concours? Sterling Edwards’ take on the ultimate dual-purpose machine, his 1950 Edwards R-26 Special Sport Roadster. Entering it in the concours was a last-minute decision, though, as Edwards’ focus was the race. In fact, he helped conceive the idea of the wheel-to-wheel contest, where he finished in 14th place; Phil Hill won it in a Jaguar XK120.

The first winner at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, surprisingly, wasn’t a prewar machine. It was Sterling Edwards’ then-new race car. Photography Credit: Courtesy Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance

The following year, a 1951 Jaguar Mark VII Saloon took top honors. New cars from Jaguar and Austin-Healey continued to claim the top prize until Phil Hill’s 1931 Pierce-Arrow won in 1955. Since then, however, postwar cars took best in show only two more times: a 1964 Maserati Mistral Coupe in 1968 and a 1954 Ferrari 375 MM Scaglietti Coupe 46 years later. 

A concours has to present something that’s out of the normal,” Warner explains. “If you’re charging somebody $175, you don’t want them to see something that they can see Saturday night at the Wendy’s.”

Pebble Beach has retained its stature over the generations by assembling cars that most people simply never catch a glimpse of: the ultra-rare, the ultra-exotic, the ultra-special. 

They get cars that are shown for the first time,” Warner notes, adding that he had to go in a different direction when launching his Amelia Island event in 1996. “We couldn’t get the classics or the French cars for the first time, so we’d get the race cars or the goofy cars for the first time.”

Vision Matters

Having a reason for each car’s inclusion in a concours comes from curation, Warner explains: “A concours has to be by invitation only. And the person running the concours has to have a vision on what he wants, and has to have specific certain themes, and has to celebrate certain milestones of the automobile.”

He brings up the Ford Mustang as an example. “Everybody remembers the Mustang,” he says, noting how a concours could include all the early rarities that people don’t normally get to see: the prototypes, the wagons, the versions that never made it to the dealership. 

“And if you do a stock Mustang, you get a 289 Hi-Po convertible as the base,” he continues. “Here is the standard Mustang,” he says of the production convertible. “Here are the Mustangs you’ve never seen,” he notes of the rest. 

“You just can’t roll out Mustangs. It becomes a car show when you roll out Mustangs. It’s gotta give the people something they’ve never seen.”

If a concours is going to feature early Mustangs today, how about including the shortened, fiberglass-bodied 19641/2 factory show car? Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

As that first Pebble Beach concours was added to the weekend’s card to increase its appeal, classes can achieve something similar today. “I love the year we did the cars of ‘Big Daddy’ Roth,” Warner says. That 2018 showfield was awash with whimsical styling, candy apple paint and all the chrome. 

The field even included the Beatnik Bandit, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s famed 1961 hotrod. Roth paraded his pearlescent white creation around the country in the early ’60s, while Revell released its 1/25 scale version in 1963. Five years later, the Beatnik Bandit was further immortalized as one of the initial 16 die-cast cars from Hot Wheels. Hot Rod Magazine has since named it one of the top 10 hotrods of all time, and it’s now part of the National Auto Museum (The Harrah Collection).

At Amelia, attendees got to peek inside the clear bubble top, where, instead of the traditional controls, they found just a central joystick for speed, direction and brakes–along with plenty of white Naugahyde. 

“They were bizarre, they were off the wall, they were a form of artform of the ’60s,” Warner explains of the Ed Roth cars. The grouping also appealed to another important type of attendee, he notes: the non-car enthusiast.

A car without history can still have a story to tell. This 1970 Dodge Charger R/T is one of just two painted Panther Pink and also fitted with the 440 Six Pack engine option. But for historical machines, it’s hard to top the Beatnik Bandit. Photography Credits: David S. Wallens

Cars Matter

Each car should tell part of a story dictated by its class. But how do you ensure that element of prestige?

For an example, Warner points toward his group’s desire to highlight Japanese cars. But he faced a problem: “A Datsun is a common car.”

His solution: “We’re not going to put just any Datsun on the field.” He and fellow organizers came up with a class structure for 2017 that featured the deep cuts: Japanese firsts. 

After a year of negotiations with Honda, he recalls, they landed the first Japanese car to win a Formula 1 race, the 1965 Honda RA272 driven by Richie Ginther. The famed single-seater, built right as the brand was expanding from motorcycles to road cars, required 24/7 supervision and couldn’t touch the grass. 

“Then,” Warner continues, “we had the first Japanese cars to win Daytona, first Japanese cars to win Le Mans, first Japanese cars to win Sebring.”

The Amelia field also welcomed the U.S. debut of the 1964 Prince R380, a closed-top prototype racer billed as one of Japan’s first purpose-built competition cars. 

When Amelia Island presented Japanese motorsports milestones, it welcomed one of the country’s first race cars, the 1964 Prince R380, to American shores. And instead of just any Datsun 510, it has featured the BRE legend. Photography Credits: Tom Suddard (Prince), David S. Wallens (BRE)

The machine, constructed upon a Brabham BT8 sports racer chassis, made its first competition appearance in 1966 at Fuji Speedway’s Japanese Grand Prix. Also on the grid: Porsche’s new 906, both of Toyota’s lightweight 2000GT 311S racers, and CSX 2300, the Shelby Daytona Coupe driven by Bob Bondurant and Jochen Neerpasch at the 1964 Tour de France. Tadashi Sakai would run as high as second in his Daytona Coupe before suffering a DNF. 

Of the four Princes built and entered, the one piloted by Yoshikazu Sunako finished first–and that was the example shown at Amelia. It’s believed to be the only survivor and came from Nissan’s own collection as the two brands merged in 1964.

While listing all the Japanese firsts showcased in Amelia that year, Warner pauses after mentioning one of the country’s initial SCCA titles. The Datsun 240Z famously prepared by Peter Brock’s shop and driven to the 1970 and 1971 national championships by John Morton was crashed badly soon after. 

While plenty of people have built tributes, only Randy Jaffe’s features parts salvaged from the original. “The result,” Brock said in the pages of Classic Motorsports, “was a perfect recreation of Morton’s racer.”

“Why do you accept a clone car?” Warner rhetorically asks. His answer: “The original car doesn’t exist.” Jaffe’s Datsun, Warner explains, is as close as one can get to the original, with its backstory presented up front.

But, he continues, the organizers need to vet those cars and know the entire story. There can’t be any surprises on the field. “We’ve turned down several cars that have won other shows because we couldn’t prove they were what they were represented to be,” he adds. 

Fairness Matters

A concours is a display but also a competition–one that should be fair, Warner stresses. “The organizer has to make the classes in a way that some dumbass judge doesn’t embarrass you,” he quips. 

For example, he continues, a show shouldn’t class a Ferrari 250 GTO alongside a Mini Cooper under the heading of European race cars. One is simply more elegant and rarified than the other. 

“If you put a Mini Cooper in the show at all, you create a class for it,” he explains. “You call it Significant Rally Cars and you find the one that won the Monte Carlo Rally.”

Or, he counters, you could create a class for cute cars–as Amelia Island did for 2020 with its That’s Cute class. Class honors went to the diminutive 1956 Fiat-Abarth 750 GT MM, a podium finisher at the tragic 1957 Mille Miglia.

Timing Matters

Another part of assembling a concours: timing. When Warner’s group ran the event–Hagerty acquired the concours in 2021, renaming it The Amelia in the process–they constantly monitored big anniversaries on the horizon. They’d look at least three years out, he says. 

Upon Chevrolet’s announcement of the mid-engine C8 Corvette for 2020, for example, Amelia responded with a class for one-off Corvette prototypes featuring the engine behind the driver. The lineup included machines rarely seen in person, like CERV I (1960), the open-wheel, single-seater development car; CERV II (1964), the closed-body prototype that could top 200 mph; XP-819 (1964), the rear-engine test bed; and Corvette Indy (1986), the swoopy, Indy-powered special that kept the driver informed via three CRT monitors.

Milestones also matter. To celebrate the arrival of the mid-engine C8 Corvette, Amelia Island showcased mid-engine Corvette prototypes from the model’s past. Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

Again, Warner stresses, it all comes back to a curated experience for both owners and guests with the entire production telling a story and fulfilling a vision.

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essjatee New Reader
3/14/23 8:32 a.m.

This is a great article and looking forward to part 2. 

I would take exception with the Bill Warner quote "A Datsun is a common car"

From 1960 to 1970 Datsun produced 40,000 roadsters, where as Porsche produced 80,000 356's. Of the 40,000 Datsun Roadsters produced, perhaps as few as 5% remain today...(hardly common). Those Porsche's- it is thought as many as 60% are still around.

I can trip over several Porsche 356's at any local Cars and Coffee, but a Datsun Roadster- and one that has been highly restored...a unicorn.

There is a shifting demographic in the Classic Car hobby and the above quote is obviously of an older generation.

An enlightened Concours show curator would recognize this (hopefully)

murphmi New Reader
3/26/23 7:05 p.m.

I attended Amelia this year--the first Concours this 73 YO has attended in my life--and I didn't really understand why the cars there had been selected until I read this article.

It still feels to me that the whole concours judging is the car enthusiast's version of classical music today. The people in charge are very rich and snooty, and there's not much room for all of us who have spent our lives enjoying cars but are left out. 

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