Amelia Island – Trendsetter for 24 Years

On the eve of Amelia Island 2020 Concours d'Elegance, a look back

We’ve just gotten home from the 24th annual Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, arguably the greatest automobile show on earth. These are clearly fighting words, given the panoply of special, important, and standard-setting events around the world.

Bill Warner, the genial and infinitely connected founder and spirit of the event, has created a very special gathering place for a weekend that like Brigadoon, emerges, enchants for its allotted time, and then dissolves back into dreams and mists until next year.

Amelia Island Concours founder and chairman Bill Warner (right) with honored race driver Jacky Ickx. Photo: Bryan McCarthy

Let’s consider the elements that make this event special. The Amelia Island Concours reflects a point of view. For 24 years, entrants and spectators have been admitted into Bill Warner’s mind. Other shows, perhaps viewed by some as more prestigious, are rigorously professional events whose solemn imprimatur catapults automobiles, their owners, and restorers into the circle of elite connoisseurs. Yes, such standard-setting hierarchies of attainment and connoisseurship emerge only through the most exhaustive judging, the most careful and serious curation. Make no mistake — These great events, the Pebble Beaches and Villa d’Estes of the world, fulfill an important role: the maintenance of standards and established taste.

Amelia Island is horsepower of a different color. It is all about trend setting. Think of the introduction of panel discussions as part of the concours experience that Bill was the first to adopt 20 years ago. Think of a giant Cars and Coffee held the day before on the actual concours lawn. At the Amelia Island Concours, there is an omnivorous appreciation for all things automotive. In one place we meet the transcendent and the trivial. The single unifying principle is that everything is interesting. This year, Bill Warner’s impish sense of humor was again evident in the mix of classes, which were brought to life through his rigorous curation. In the Mercedes-Benz 500/540K class, we could examine Mark J. Smith’s as-found, unrestored 500K tourer, standing in contrast with a horizontal flight of restored cars, ranging from Special Roadsters, open and covered spare tires no less, to Cab As — and, to top it off, Deborah and Arturo Keller’s 540K Autobahn-Kurier, this year’s Best in Show, Concours d’Elegance winner.

Two contrasting Mercedes-Benz: the unrestored 1934 500K of Mark J. Smith and the 1937 540K of Richard and Melanie Lundquist. Photo: Johnny Miles

In our travels of the field, we were treated to comprehensive displays of dominant racers from different eras, the Ferrari 250 GT SWB and the Porsche 962. Simultaneously, the show delighted with a Volkswagen custom coachwork class that included Rometsch- and Hebmüller-bodied cars in company with a filigree-bodied Beetle, one of six built for the Mexican catered-wedding market. Then, for a true out-of-body experience for the champagne-quaffing concours world, we encountered a display of vintage, blown fuelie dragsters that encompassed everything from funny cars, hyper-thyroidal roadsters, an AA/FA Fiat Topolino coupe, and, among others, Don Garlits’ skeletal, mantis-like top fuel dragster. If, like me, you are unencumbered with knowledge about drag racing and its history, you encounter a potential epiphany: a whole new world of incredible (to the untutored mind) new machines, people, stories and technology. Certainly a few quick conversations reveal that I am out of my comfort zone in this new conversational world of the Dover Dragstrip in Wingdale, NY, circa 1973. We’re not in Pebble Beach anymore.

“Filigree-bodied” Volkswagen designed for the Mexican catered-wedding market. Photo: Bryan McCarthy

The magic of Amelia is this sense of possibility. Around any corner can be found something unexpected. You have encounters with the most profound and patrician cars, say, the wholly unrestored ex-Caracciola, Lord Howe 1929 Mercedes SS in its time-machine originality, redolent with age and marks of historical derring-do. In the next moment, we see a white 1998 Cadillac DeVille “Pope-mobile” with an articulating throne seat built for the Pontiff’s visit to Mexico City. The serendipitous and the possible are combined with abandon in a phantasmagoric variety of cars that reflects the psyche of true “car guys” of either gender.

Despite success beyond anyone’s imagination, and the involvement of sponsors, vendors, and countless volunteers, this mad proliferation of automobiles continues to reflect Bill Warner: unconventional, open, creative, and passionate in a way that carries us along in his wake. Bill still has the heart of a racer. In Bill’s world of racing cars and racing men, heroes and knaves, winning and losing, racing’s joys and profound losses inform the choices of classes and cars. Where else are there two Best in Show awards, one for Elegance and one for Sport, allowing Bill’s beloved racing cars to share the limelight?

Dragsters open a new door of automotive inquiry. Photo: Deremer Studios LLC

This brings us to the judging. Elsewhere, concours judging reminds us of that last MRI we had where the doctor saw something that he wanted a little better look at. Time stands still in a limbo of anxiety. Will the judges, so resplendent in disarming blue blazers and a pleasantly brisk bedside manner, find that little blemish that signifies our doom? Not so at Amelia Island. The judging involves an almost Italianate unconcern for rigor, method or, indeed, any known system at all. Judging becomes another opportunity to talk about and celebrate the marvelous cars that have brought us together. The mundane fact that awards must be given out is a minor inconvenience that an apparently random sprinkling through each class handles just fine. Long-time Amelia Island Concours entrants know this all too well, and that knowledge makes for an anxiety-free experience where awards are like door prizes. What is more valuable is the conversation with a former four-time Le Mans-winning driver on your judging team, which later leads to an amusing encounter in the bar.

It is paradoxical that such an event — one that self-consciously breaks the rules of the other important concours around the world — has risen to be one of the top shows globally. It excels by virtue of the quality of the experience and the sheer enjoyment that participants, volunteers, and spectators derive from it; and therein lies its success.

The race cars of honored F1, Le Mans and Dakar veteran Jacky Ickx. Photo: Johnny Miles

This sense of delight and serendipity should be the trend forward for the world of concours. While the cars are always engaging, the concours community has become hermetic, closed off to new ideas. It was only by the hardest road that hot rods were admitted to Pebble Beach, and then only episodically. Certainly, concours lawns can accommodate only so many automobiles; and that space must be budgeted carefully. Certainly, we would be willing to agree that the Amelia Island Concours has more real estate to work with than does Pebble Beach. Nevertheless, the participant experience at Amelia is one that the other, more dignified events need to consider. The fluidity of Amelia Island’s classes from year to year, with eligibility dependent on variety and even sheer eccentric interest, is a recipe that admits a broader, more varied assemblage of enthusiasm

Deborah and Arturo Keller’s Mercedes-Benz 540K Autobahn-Kurier, this year’s Best in Show, Concours d’Elegance winner. Photo: Bryan McCarthy

Recently, Don Osborne, appraiser, writer, and Italian car authority, told us that young car enthusiasts engaged in the tuner-car world of largely inexpensive Japanese and German sedans appreciate “classic cars.” Astonishingly, however, they saw such cars as things to be meticulously and authentically restored and then never driven again. Amelia Island, with its heterodox view of the car world, could easily adopt a tuner class at a future event allowing next-generation car enthusiasts to meet, charm, and exchange views with our classic-car users.

Sheer love of the automobile was the unspoken theme of Amelia’s Cars & Coffee. Photo: Deremer Studios LLC

Along with demolishing silos, the Amelia Concours has begun to flirt with an entirely new idea which is yet only notional. First advanced by Keith Martin, the publisher of Sports Car Market magazine and the ultimate advocate of using old cars, comes the idea of the concours as a pop-up museum. Rather than just logically amass cars by type, marque, or model, why not curate one or more groups as a proper museum exhibit for the exploration of larger ideas, such as the automobile’s role in the trajectory of modernity, as a change agent of history? Displays of make and model series (Porsche 962’s for example), while also educational, are still showing cars divorced from their historical and social context. However, Bill Warner and his concours have been nibbling around the edges of this idea with the annual display of the collected cars from the career of the event’s honored racing driver, as well as a 2017 class of winning racing cars displayed with their respective trophies. In this case, Le Mans winners were displayed with the actual Le Mans winning trophy, Indy racers with the Borg-Warner Indy 500 victor’s trophy, and so on. Such a display would be almost impossible to create in any one museum, but here it was at Amelia presented as a pop-up exhibit. This class was a small but important step in the transformation of concours from being focused solely on connoisseurship, to engaging with the larger meaning of the automobile.

A natural for a pop-up museum would be such classes as streamlined automobiles or micro cars. It would be a small step to sharpen the curation of these themes by selecting the proper cars and creating a simple narrative that could be presented with the class. Certainly, we could think of a small group of French cars of the Thirties to be shown with authentic period couture, as was done in period when fabulously bodied automobiles were displayed alongside beautiful women attired in the latest Parisian fashions. Of course, the Amelia show commences with a costume and car display, so only minor tweaking could unroll this concept as part of the judged show using authentic vintage couture. As a point of visual intensity and excitement in a normal concours field, such a pop-up museum display would of necessity involve a brief explanatory narrative. This expansion of the concours to a bigger arena would involve and engage new people and new paradigms to enrichen and strengthen concours.

Bill Warner and the Amelia Island Concours have shown the way by being unconventional while focusing on the celebration of interesting automobiles that stimulate and move us. The variety of new car people broadens our human relationships. Of all the major, established concours, the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance is in the best place to redefine our common automotive heritage in ways that unify and simultaneously broaden our community.