The first car I encountered on the grass of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance was the 1954 Jaguar D-type that a young Stirling Moss drove at Le Mans, where he soared through the Mulsanne straight at a record 173 mph.
When I saw the D-type early Sunday morning before the start of the concours, the car was dampened with morning dew, its short windscreen and covered headlights translucent under the haze of moisture.
These are always evocative-looking cars, and in that morning light, the dew-coated Jaguar looked ghost-like and mystical, like it had recently arrived from the murky past.
There were many such encounters during my first trip to the Florida concours, where about 325 superb vintage automobiles stood on golf-course fairways, every car worth admiring, not a one that was not exceptional in some way. Around 30,000 people crowded into the broad space, and if I had a nickel for every photo taken on Sunday, I would buy my own great classic car to enter next year.
And yet, despite all the pomp and pageantry – and an aura of great wealth – the Amelia concours manages to come across as a laid-back car show that just happens to include some of the greatest, most historic and just plain amazing automobiles on the planet.
This is the big league of classic car events, second only in stature and prestige to the granddaddy of them all, the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in Monterey, California. Though Amelia is quite different from Pebble, more accessible and less frenetic.
The week preceding Pebble is so packed with major events – concours, shows, seminars, auctions, you name it – that it’s essentially impossible to take it all in. And the traffic on the peninsula during concours week is mind-numbing.
I never felt so beleaguered in Florida, where it never seemed nearly as crowded or overwhelming as Pebble week. Even access to the concours was a breeze, compared with the crazy traffic jams and parking woes in Monterey.
Amelia Island may not have all the amenities or atmosphere of Monterey, but there are some fine places to enjoy food, drink and down time. The historic town of Fernandina Beach is small but packed with attractions. I had a terrific dinner with some friends at the famous Crab Trap restaurant. And, of course, there’s the nearby beach.
One of the most fun events during the four-day concours weekend happened Friday when around 35 of the concours cars were driven into downtown Fernandina Beach for a lunch stop during the annual Amelia Island Concours tour. Rainy weather that morning held down participation, but the throngs of people who showed up got a free look at the exotic cars and a chance to chat with the occupants. It felt quite a bit like Carmel, California, during the Pebble Beach tour lunch stop.
My favorite car that showed up at Fernandina Beach was the little 1934 Alfa Romeo 6C 2300 Pescara prototype sports racer, but each car was, really, oh so cool. Especially impressive were the soggy occupants of the various roofless roadsters, cars such as the Alfa.
Speaking of rain, when I flew into Florida on Wednesday the word from the National Weather Service was that heavy storms were forecast for Sunday, which pretty much would have trashed the concours. Saturday’s popular Cars and Coffee car show at the same location also was forecast to be rained out.
But lo and behold, the skies totally cleared Friday afternoon, Saturday was cloudy but dry and Sunday dawned clear as a bell, with a sparkling blue sky all day. Yeah, it was humid (an unfamiliar state of being for a desert rat like me), but you couldn’t have asked for a better day. Founder and chairman Bill Warner’s streak of good fortune continues.
This was Stirling Moss’s year at Amelia, the 85-year-old motorsports hero and his wife, Susie, basking in adulation. Moss was the first honored guest at the inaugural concours in 1996 and he was back to help celebrate the 20th anniversary.
The concours also celebrated Moss’s historic victory at the 1955 Mille Miglia, where he stunned everyone with his commanding mastery of the legendary road race in a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, finishing far head of the second-place driver, the great Juan Manuel Fangio, also in an SLR.
At the start of the Amelia concours, Moss drove the actual Mercedes SLR in which he won the 1955 Mille Miglia, which gave me goose bumps as it rolled past on its lap around the grounds. Bill Warner rode shotgun as they passed through the crowd that cheered wildly and, of course, shot lots of pictures. I’d say that on Sunday, Stirling Moss was the most photographed man on earth.
Sadly, another famous presence at Amelia Island was missing this year: actor and classic car maestro Ed Hermann, whose sonorous voice was such a familiar part of both the Amelia and Pebble concours award ceremonies. Hermann died in December after a long illness. I had spoken with him several times in Phoenix during past Arizona classic car weeks and I was always impressed by his graciousness and vast knowledge of classic cars.
Earlier in the week, I checked out three of the four collector-car auctions that happen before the concours: the newly renamed RM Sotherby’s, Gooding & Company, and Hollywood Wheels. I missed the Bonhams auction, which was covered for ClassicCars.com by East Coast editor Andy Reid.
I’ve been to many RM and Gooding auctions in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Monterey, and I found the Amelia Island editions to be pretty much the same classy affairs that I’ve seen in other places, with prices continuing to soar through the roof. RM Sotherby’s had a well-rounded selection of classic cars while Gooding offered a selection of mostly European sports and GT cars.
The two-day Hollywood Wheels sale, lower-end auctions I had never attended before, piqued my interest because of the all-Porsche auction on the first day with what seemed to be a selection of highly desirable cars, ranging from early 356s and 911s to later performance models and all-out race cars.
But despite the apparent high quality of the cars, the auction seemed like a major flop, with very few of the Porsches actually selling on the block. Hollywood Wheels has not released any results of either day of its Amelia sale. Can’t say that I blame them.
Sunday, the Amelia Island Concours proved to be first rate in every respect. Here are a few of my favorite things:
• The Jaguar D-type was in a class of more than 20 race cars that Stirling Moss had driven, often to victory, in his remarkable motorsports career, including those from Mercedes-Benz, Maserati, Ferrari, Jaguar, Porsche and Aston Martin. One of my favorites was the Jaguar XK 120 coupe that had been driven to a world speed record over a 24-hours period.
• Yee-ha, the Cars of the Cowboys livened up the place with their funky custom touches by long-ago western-film stars. There was not one but two insanely done up 1960s Pontiac Bonnevilles, one of them once owned by Roy Rogers. They were customized by western-wear impresario Nudie Cohn with more than 20 rifles and pistols, 200 silver dollars, chrome horse statues and horse shoes, actual saddles for consoles and, most notably, gigantic longhorns from steers mounted on their front ends.
Another car had a stuffed cattle head on its prow with eyeball lights that served as turn signals. Also, the 1937 Cord 812 roadster in which early western star Tom Mix died in a crash, which has been repaired and restored with all the badges and Old West touches as when Mix drove it.
• A wonderful class of hot rods representing the East Coast and West Coast styles, all of them brilliantly executed and many of them famous magazine-cover cars. The bright-red ’32 roadster that was used on the recent Post Office stamp was among them, and won the class.
• The four Lancia championship rally cars – 1969 Fulvia, 1975 Stratos, 1983 037 and 1988 Delta – brought for special display by Jacksonville businessman and car collector John Campion. I got to drive the Fulvia on part of the convoy trip of the four race cars to the concours (under police escort), so I’m partial to that one.
• The class of 1930s BMW 327 and 328 sports cars and race cars, which are small but stunningly beautiful.
• The class of “orphan” concept cars from automakers that no longer exist. My favorite among them was the bright-red and extremely low-and-long 1954 DeSoto Adventurer II.
• And lest we forget, the absolutely amazing and brilliantly constructed 1933 Dymaxion car that was faithfully re-created by the restoration experts at the Lane Motor Museum of Nashville. The undeniably strange contraption has three wheels – the single rear wheel does the steering and the front wheels put down power, even though the engine is in the rear of the complex, cantilevered chassis and suspension. The teardrop styling had some onlookers guessing that it had been built from an airplane. It wasn’t.
The car, which replicates the first Dymaxion car originally conceived and constructed by the visionary scientist Buckminster Fuller, was driven from Nashville to Amelia Island, a trip of about 500 miles. It is by far the oddest car I’ve ever laid eyes on. But in a wonderful way.