Dick Cooper - September 2010

 

Concours d’Elegance Rolls into CBMM
by
Dick Cooper

 

In the time when most cars are designed in wind tunnels and one make looks much like the next, the St. Michaels Concours d’Elegance is a reminder of the age when a motorcar was as much a statement of style and grace as it was transportation.
On September 26, the cars of the Concours d’Elegance, with their sweeping fenders, chrome-plated grills and inlaid interiors will display the artisanship that was once a standard in the gilded age of the automobile. From the sensual Italian lines of the Bugattis to the testosterone-enhanced hoods of the Deusenbergs, the cars reflect their owner’s personalities as well as the size of their wallets.
This year, the fourth-annual show in St. Michaels, is moving from the Inn at Perry Cabin to the grounds of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. “We were running out of space at Perry Cabin,” says St. Michaels Concours founder and chairman George M. Walish, Jr. He said the move to the museum’s 18-acre campus allows the show to expand past 50 cars. He said the added space gives the show room to display vintage boats as well.
Walish says the move will make the show more accessible to the public. In the hopes of drawing a wider audience, the ticket price has been dropped from $50 to $35. All of the proceeds will go the Museum. “We are delighted by the prospect and opportunity to bring such a rich event to the maritime museum,” says Langley R. Shook, CBMM president.
Walish says he started the St. Michaels Concours as a way to keep busy after retiring as the head of Rolls Royce’s North American operations in 2005 and moving to Talbot County. “This is an all-volunteer operation with no paid staff,” Walish says.
While he was with Rolls Royce, he was involved with several national and regional Concours d’Elegance shows as a sponsor and thought the concept would work in Talbot County. “There was really nothing like it between Radnor Hunt (in suburban Philadelphia) and Hilton Head, in South Carolina,” he says.
The Concours d’Elegance concept has it roots in the haute couture auto and fashion shows of Paris when the French capital was the world center of style and design. The manufacturers of fine motorcars would display their wares on the grounds of the Parc des Princes, once the hunting grounds of the French royals.
These were not vintage car shows. They were the equivalents of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, where consumers and journalists from around the world go to see the latest concepts in design and engineering.
Walish says before World War II, most of the major upscale auto makers built the drive train and chassis and coachbuilders, most of whom had evolved from making carriages for the rich and famous, built the bodies. “The coaches were custom-made for the new owners,” Walish says.
The Fleetwood is a good example. For almost five decades, Fleetwood was a model of Cadillac that epitomized the large American luxury car. But the name comes from Fleetwood, Pennsylvania, a small town in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. The Fleetwood Metal Body Company supplied bodies for Packard, Pierce Arrow and Cadillac. It was considered one of the best in the nation and was purchased by General Motors in 1931.
In the Post-War era, carmakers became a one-stop-shop, supplying the completed vehicle from their factories.
In 1950, an auto show was held at Pebble Beach, California, in connection with the first Pebble Beach Road Race. That Concours d’Elegance has developed into a premier international weeklong event that includes an auto auction by Gooding & Company where rare and exotic vehicles routinely sell for seven figures.
Walish says that the name Concours d’Elegance is in the public domain and now there are a several similar events held around the country every year. The events are independently owned and operated. “It simply means ‘Parade of Elegance,’” he says.
Included in the top shows in the country are Pebble Beach, Amelia Island, Florida, Hilton Head, South Carolina, and the Concours d’Elegance of America, which was started in 1977 at Meadow Brook Hall, near Detroit. The Radnor Hunt Club event in suburban Philadelphia started in 1997 and has grown over the years. It now has 100 cars on display.
Walish says that what distinguishes the Concours d’Elegance from antique car shows is that they are invitational events. Owners must apply and be accepted before they can put their cars on display. The cars have to date from before 1942. “We have owners from throughout the East Coast, Mid-West and for as far south as Alabama, who have applied,” he says.
Most of the owners are car enthusiasts who have assembled collections of rare cars including local collectors Judge John C. North II of St. Michaels and Gale and Henry Petronis of Royal Oak.
“When I started the first one, they were my safety net,” Walish says of North and the Petronises. “I knew we could get some good cars.”
While the event is only open to the public on Sunday, September 26, the events start for entrants on Friday with a reception. On Saturday, there is a road tour of the cars through Talbot County and on Saturday night, there is a VIP dinner under tents at the Museum for 200. “Last year, we could only seat 110 at Perry Cabin and we had to turn people away,” Walish says.
Car collector Michael Tillson says he plans to bring his 1930 Packard to this years show. Tillson, a racecar driver and car builder from Philadelphia, is the founder of the Radnor Hunt Concours d’Elegance. He says the event began as a small show for him and some friends to display their cars but now is an international attraction.
“It (the St. Michaels show) has been received very well,” Tillson says. “It was fashioned after Radnor Hunt and will do well as long as it is kept small and intimate and manages to keep the quality up.” Plus, he says, it will raise money for its charity.
For more information about the 2010 Concours d’Elegance, go to its website, www.smcde.org.

Dick Cooper, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, and his wife, Pat, live and sail in St. Michaels, Maryland. He can be contacted at dickcooper@coopermediaassociates.com.