Concours d'Elegance: The Making Of
"I am going to Blah Blah Blah Concours d'Elegance next week", or so I often declare during the summer months to anyone who will listen. Most know a Concours involves fancy cars, but is this activity just a car show with a fancy French name, or is there something more substantial behind these automotive peacock displays? Well, yes, no, and maybe... perhaps the best way to answer this is to examine the common elements making up a Concours d'Elegance.
History of Concours d'Elegance
If one believes Wikipedia, the Concours d'Elegance was born back in the 17th Century when posh French folks would show off their horse drawn carriages to each other in an effort to display their wealth and importance. Any cursory examination of human nature would support that theory, vanity being a powerful motivator... did I just mention peacocks? Fast forward a century or two, material progress meant the disappearance of horse and carriages and the arrival of internal combustion engines and motor vehicles. Vanity remains a force to be reckoned with however, so the Concours evolved.
The Concours d'Elegance became an important tool in the years between the two World Wars for the coach building industry to promote its creative offerings. Back then cars were not built on a unitary basis but were a combination of chassis and coachwork. In the 1930's the French car industry in the shape of Bugatti, Delahaye, Delage, Talbot-Lago and Voisin were in the vanguard of chassis design, especially in the luxury market segment.
Manufacturers produced lower profile designs that allowed the great coachbuilders of the time to produce some of the finest automobiles ever made, these are truly works of art. The output of such greats as Figoni & Falaschi and Pourtout stand comparison with any art from the contemporary period. I looked at Marcel Pourtout's masterwork, the Embiricos Bentley, in some detail last year and the post can be seen HERE. Concours were sometimes attached to other events, such as rallies, in order to give those with a non-competitive nature something to aspire to.
In the '50s the Monte Carlo Rally was not the flat out blast that it is today, and part of the competition was a Concours. So the Concours d'Elegance is not just a collection of cars for our general amusement, it is a performance, an exhibition, an appeal for admiration of the individual who is custodian of the vehicle - perhaps hoping that we will perceive in the owner some of the qualities of the car in question. There is a thought that some dog owners resemble their canine friends, could the same be said of automobiles? If so I am in trouble, my once sporty collection of Bavaria's finest is now replaced with a Korean box-on-wheels. Am I growing up or just getting old? I digress...
Setting the Stage
Performances take place on stages and so is the same with Concours d'Elegance, the setting is all important. Two of the pre-eminent US shows, Pebble Beach and Amelia Island, are held on top-flight Golf Courses at seaside locations.
In Europe, stately homes and palaces form the backdrop for the Villa d'Este, Salon Privé and recent arrival, the St. James Concours of Elegance which kicked off in 2012 at the Upper Ward of Windsor Castle, the real home of Queen Elizabeth II. For 2014 the formal gardens of a former Royal Palace, Hampton Court, will be the location for the show... within walking distance for me!
Organizing the Concours
With the stage set, the next important element to be introduced is the Organising Committee, invariably under the leadership of a largely benevolent despot, such as Amelia Island's Bill Warner. Here Bill awards the swag to two winners of his show, which illustrates another important feature of a good show - decent trophies and some bubbly, preferably from the Champagne region.
The person in charge is vital to the success of the show, they have to display many skills in setting the details. Diplomacy in spades is necessary in dealing with the car owners - almost all of whom are successful individuals with clear ideas about their own importance and that of their vehicles.
In general, of course the purpose is to be a celebration of things automotive, but the finer points must be decided...special exhibits, revenue, charitable causes. When I attended Amelia, the great Richard Petty was the target of a special exhibit with some of his more famous racers on display at the the approach to the 18th hole.
Gathering the Exceptional
Alliances must be forged with suitable partners, obviously the motor industry being the first target. These arrangements suit both parties well, as most manufacturers have a rich heritage that they are only too proud to show off. I mean who can resist a proper Batmobile?
Alfa Romeo keeps its collection under wraps these days, but a decent show tempts them out.
Anniversaries are also a good hook to lure in the car companies - 2014 will see much Maserati activity, as did 2013 with Aston Martin, both brands celebrating the centenary of their founding (even if neither actually produced any cars for a few years after that). The official collections are uncovered and brought out to meet the public while private owners are cajoled into adding their treasures to the occasion as well.
Increasingly these events are also attracting aspirational brands looking to appeal to a particular demographic. Simply put, if you are following the Concours circuit, then you are probably well heeled - and these folks would like to sell you something expensive and desirable.
Car clubs are also encouraged to add their shine to the proceedings, sometimes that works better than others... F40 anyone?
Of course in California they lay out the red carpet.
Adding to the Festivity
Organising a rally or Tour as part of the event is also popular with those showing cars as they get to run around the public highway in a convoy. Not many have the fortune of having a police escort, at least not one led by a Chevrolet.
I was lucky enough to join in one of these runs last year and wrote about it HERE . I have been offered a repeat performance in something of a similar vintage but from the other end of the motoring spectrum - this coming September all will be revealed.
Some events such as Salon Privé have a "Ladies Day" much in the way that some famous horse races such as Ascot do. An excuse to put on a posh frock and look as glamorous as the cars, well at least for Ladies, we Chaps must content ourselves with being "suited and booted."
One aspect that is almost always a feature of a Concours nowadays is an auction, and with the insane rise in prices of classic cars in the past few years, you can see why. One only has to read the news to see how insane the classic car market has become. Recently a Ferrari 250 GTO was sold at auction for $52 million - it cost £6,000 when new, but has since seen a 533,233% increase in its value. These vehicles are desirable objects, arguably some are works of art - form as well as function. With money being debased in recent years, without our consent, buying something that will hold its value is the prevailing wisdom. Soaring prices add a false sense of security, but as with all bubbles this one will burst and many will be left poorer - I suppose that the consolation will be that they still own a car.
Owners and Judging
Maintaining the quality and variety of the displays is perhaps the biggest challenge faced by the organisers. Keeping the content fresh is vital to creating a successful event. Diplomacy is required in turning away cars from shows, one never knows what an owner might buy next and you would not want to lose it. The owners are also beneficiaries, they get to network with like minded folks, and, who knows, some mutual benefit might accrue. There is also the pleasure in people appreciating your work of art and in these days of rocketing values for classic cars there is also the prospect of 'a nice little earner' if your vehicle catches someone's eye and they get an unstoppable urge to buy.
So the location is set, the partners signed up, the owners persuaded, now someone must serve the place of judge. One might expect that these will be drawn from the ranks of the motoring great and good, but not necessarily so. While experts are usually on hand, sometimes there is talk of bias due to whatever specialty or business these experts are in. Celebrities, talking heads, actors, pop stars, designers, even the media, get a chance to be part of the panel, adding to breadth of experience - whether that qualifies them as Concours judges is anyone's guess. As far as the cars in the show, the most important elements are the condition and originality. Just as at country clubs, good provenance is essential. The aim is to have the car in the same or better state at the time of being first delivered.
We are lucky to have so many great events to choose from, ranging from the well established such as Pebble Beach and Amelia Island to the upstarts such as Concours of Elegance and a new French contender at Chantilly. There is almost the danger of overkill, in theory there is only a finite amount of automobile exotica available to tickle our palates, organisers tend to be resourceful folk however.
Which show is my personal favourite? Possibly the next one as there is always something new and exciting to see. Of course an agreeable lunch being offered has the ability to sway my opinion...