The Hillsborough Concours d'Elegance in Hillsborough, California
Hillsborough Concours d'Elegance

American Concours d’Elegance: Fine Cars, Beautiful Settings

May 9, 2019

America loves cars, and the concours d’elegance is the supreme expression of that love. As the phrase indicates (it’s French for “competition of elegance”), these events started in Europe, but Americans have raised them to an art form. Few visions are as stunning as the sight of dozens of magnificent vintage machines against the backdrop of a gorgeous green lawn. Each regional event is an individual expression, created afresh every year by people who adore automobiles and want to celebrate and share them. The effort lavished on American concours d’elegance proves that cars are much more than devices for moving from here to there. They embody the extremes of human creativity and ingenuity, and they test the boundaries of what counts as art. The best, most beautiful Duesenbergs, Ferraris, Rolls-Royces and their rivals are transporting — literally and figuratively.

Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance

Pebble Beach, California • August

Best of show, a 1937 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Touring Berlinetta, at the 2018 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance at Pebble Beach, California Kimball Studios

Pebble Beach is not the oldest concours in the world, but it was the first held in the United States, and it remains the most prestigious. Founded in 1950 in Monterey, California, the event soon moved to what would become The Lodge at Pebble Beach, where it still takes place. Organizers array the vehicles on the 18th fairway of the Pebble Beach Golf Links course, overlooking Carmel Bay. The first edition featured three dozen machines at most. By 2018, its selection committee vetted about 1,000 potential entrants, and 200 made the cut.

Collectors dream of receiving an invitation to show a car at Pebble Beach. A high finish in your class translates to auction gold; a Best of Show win bestows immortality. This concours also sets the tone for what the car-collecting world values and accepts. It began showing concept cars, now a staple that merits a dedicated lawn, in the late 1980s. In 1997, Pebble Beach showed hot rods for the first time, and in 2001, it debuted a class for preservation cars — machines that have survived largely as they were when they left the factory, without tarting-up or tampering from exuberant restorers.

Auction houses began holding dedicated elite car auctions during the concours in 1990, and they represent a strong but complementary draw. Seven of the 10 most-expensive cars sold at auction crossed the block in California in August during Pebble Beach Week, and that includes the world auction record for any automobile, set in August 2018 by a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO sold by RM Sotheby’s for $48.4 million.

Where to Stay: The Lodge at Pebble Beach

Audrain’s Newport Concours & Motor Week

Newport, Rhode Island • Debuting in late October 2019

The earliest motoring events in America took place in Newport, Rhode Island, at the turn of the last century, when cars were expensive novelties and the Gilded Age was at its height. In early October 2019, a debut event will celebrate and renew the town’s automotive legacy. The Audrain Automotive Museum, founded in 2014 and located on Bellevue Avenue, will hold the inaugural Audrain’s Newport Concours & Motor Week.

Jay Leno will chair the four-day event, and television personality and car enthusiast Donald Osborne will chair the concours, which will feature more than 160 cars on the back lawn of The Breakers. The 22 judged classes include several open to machines that roared and rattled along Newport’s streets in the heyday of the Vanderbilts and the Astors. The schedule will also feature a soirée at Rough Point, a mansion that once belonged to Doris Duke.

Where to stay: Castle Hill Inn

Greenwich Concours d’Elegance

Greenwich, Connecticut • Late May – early June

A 1930 Alfa Romeo 6C 1500 Super Sport Testa Fissa with coachwork by Zagato and 1964 Alfa Romeo Giulia TZ1 at the Greenwich Concours d'Elegance in Greenwich, Connecticut Bearded Mug Media

The Greenwich Concours d’Elegance debuted in 1996 with 100 entrants and soon established itself as the leading concours in the northeastern United States. It’s actually two concours in one, with Saturday devoted to American cars and Sunday reserved for European and other foreign examples. The show takes over every square inch of Roger Sherman Baldwin Park, and has grown to include motorcycles and marine vessels, too.

Early on, concours d’elegance events celebrated cutting-edge fashions as well as cars. While no one would discourage a modern entrant from donning a pricey bespoke suit or dress to present their exquisite machines, the emphasis on fashion has fallen by the wayside. It isn’t gone, however. Some concours entrants enjoy appearing in the haute couture of the year their car was made. Greenwich embraces the practice with an award for the best combination of car and costume. The 2018 award went to a 1915 Dodge Brothers Five-Passenger that featured a six-member retinue, including one dressed as a World War I nurse, another as a soldier, and two women in white standing on the running boards and clinging to the car’s roof.

In 2018, the Greenwich concours began awarding four Best in Show honors, two for each day. On Saturday, a 1934 Packard Convertible Victoria claimed Best in Show – Elegance and a 1952 Cunningham C-3 received Best in Show – Sport. Sunday saw the Elegance honors go to a 1935 SS1 Tourer and the Sport award to a 1957 Ferrari 335 Sport Spider Scaglietti. Attractions in 2019 include a special class for cars bodied by the noted Italian coachbuilder Zagato, and classes for motorcycles and automobiles produced by “orphan” marques — companies that no longer exist.

Where to stay: Homestead Inn

Concours d’Elegance of America

Plymouth, Michigan • July

If you suspect that one of the best American concours takes place near Detroit, the historic heart of the country’s automotive industry, you’re right. Launched in 1979, it’s called the Concours d’Elegance of America, but it was long known as Meadow Brook after Meadow Brook Hall, the Rochester, Michigan, mansion that hosted the show for more than 30 years. By 2011, the desire to have a hotel close to the display lawns prompted event organizers to move the event to The Inn at St. John’s.

One of the many ways the Concours d’Elegance of America distinguishes itself is by choosing an Enthusiast of the Year and a Collector of the Year. Both honorees select a group of automobiles to show that reflect their passions. The 2019 Collector, John D. Groendyke, will bring several of his Cadillac V-16s. The 2019 Enthusiast is Bill Warner, founder of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance (see below), who promises to pull together some of his “all-time favorites.”

Where to stay: Detroit Foundation Hotel

Hillsborough Concours d’Elegance

Burlingame, California • July

The Hillsborough Concours d'Elegance in Hillsborough, California Hillsborough Concours d'Elegance

Begun in 1956, the longest continuously running concours in America came into its own in 2010, when they moved the event to the 18th fairway of Crystal Springs Golf Course, sought corporate sponsors and, at long last, served alcohol during the festivities.

The inaugural Hillsborough Concours d’Elegance featured about 100 cars. The 2018 edition featured twice that number. Event organizers select two marques per year to showcase, one foreign and one domestic. In 2018, they paired Lamborghini and Buick, and a 1966 Lamborghini 400 GT won Best of Show honors. Hillsborough highlights local automotive history as well. The event first included hot rods in 2014 and has since displayed collector John Mumford’s 1932 Ford three-window and coachbuilder Steve Moal’s legendary Gatto, a cobalt-blue bespoke creation with the sensibilities of a mid-century Italian sports car.

Past Best of Show winners include a 1964 Ferrari 250 LM, a 1936 Mercedes-Benz 290 and a 1934 Duesenberg J that once belonged to Mae West.

Where to Stay: The Battery

Hilton Head Island Concours d’Elegance & Motoring Festival

Hilton Head Island, South Carolina • Late October – early November

The BMW M1 anniversary class, including a 1979 BMW M1 from Bobby Rahal and a 1981 BMW M1 Group 5 from Lance White, at the 2018 Hilton Head Island Concours d’Elegance & Motoring Festival in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina Rob Kaufman, Kaufman Photography, Hilton Head Island, SC

Founded in 2002, Hilton Head followed the path of many top American concours, evolving from a smaller local event to a national draw. It’s also longer and more sprawling than most others. Held over a span of 10 days, it begins with the Savannah Speed Classic, which takes place on a different island in a different state — Georgia. (Hilton Head Island and Hutchinson Island, the site of the racetrack, are about 40 miles apart.) The festivities end with the concours on a Sunday in early November. Hilton Head may be the only American concours to include vintage boats, vintage planes, motorcycles and automobiles as prominently as it does.

Hilton Head avoided the pressure to split its Best of Show award by instituting three classes that are likely to produce a winner: Best Rolling Art, for the classical, swoopy, pre-World War II cars that traditionally win Best of Show at elite concours; Best Performance/Production; and Best Road & Track. The three 2018 category victors were, respectively, a 1931 Stutz DV32 Convertible Victoria, a 1967 American Shelby GT350 Fastback and a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing. The Stutz went on to win Best of Show in 2018.

Where to stay: Montage Palmetto Bluff

Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance

Amelia Island, Florida • March

Best in Show, 1957 Ferrari 335 S, at the 2019 Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance in Amelia Island, Florida Photography by Deremer Studios LLC

First held in 1996, the concours takes place on the 10th and 18th fairways of the Golf Club of Amelia Island. It set itself apart right away with its honoree class, a judged class of cars with historic connections to the concours honoree, who is chosen from among the luminaries of the automotive world. In 2019, honoree Jacky Ickx was reunited with four of the six cars he drove to victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race.

Amelia has also featured significant Japanese cars. In 2017, it gathered the first Japanese-made winners of Le Mans, the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring. And back in 2006, Amelia began splitting its Best in Show award into two categories: Concours d’Elegance and Concours de Sport. “Race cars should be recognized as well as classics,” says Bill Warner, the aforementioned founder and chairman of the event. “I caught some heat from some folks for two Best in Show Awards, but everyone understands now.” A 1957 Ferrari 335 S and 1938 Mercedes-Benz 540K Autobahn-Kurier claimed the top prizes in 2019.

Where to stay: Ponte Vedre Lodge & Club

La Jolla Concours d’Elegance

La Jolla, California • April

A white 1959 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadster followed by a red Ferrari 458 Italia and a rare silver BMW Z-8 at the La Jolla Concours d'Elegance in La Jolla, California Michael & Kate Photography

La Jolla debuted in 2004 but did not evolve into a concours until 2010. Its organizers managed to build it into a world-class event fairly quickly. In 2017, it mustered a jaw-dropping display of 30 Packards, which included a unique 1934 Packard Twelve Model 1108 Runabout Speedster by LeBaron, a 1931 Packard 833 Five Passenger Two-door and a 1942 Packard formal sedan.

The choppy seas bordering Ellen Browning Scripps Park don’t allow for glamorous lineups of vintage boats or sleek yachts. Instead, the concours favors wings over water. Since 2014, organizers have offered flyovers and static displays of aircraft from the Lyon Air Museum, the Allen Airways Flying Museum and the San Diego Air & Space Museum. In 2019, a black and orange 1935 Duesenberg Gurney Nutting rolled away with the Best in Show award.

Where to stay: The Lodge at Torrey Pines

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By Sheila Gibson Stoodley Hideaway Report Contributor Sheila Gibson Stoodley is an independent writer and editor who specializes in travel, luxury, art, design, collectibles and many other subjects. She authors The Hot Bid, a blog devoted to intriguing and delightful lots coming up at auction.
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