By Ken Gross
Combine South Carolina “lowcountry” hospitality with an array of stunning cars on a scenic fairway at the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort and Spa and you’ll have a recipe for success. The Hilton Head Concours d’Elegance, which is held in conjunction with the 12th Annual Savannah Speed Classic, attracts top collectors and enthusiasts who enjoy the event’s low-key ambience, gorgeous setting and proximity to a pair of enticing cities – Savannah and Charleston.
There are a great many Concours d’Elegance nationally, so for a regional event to succeed and continue, there have to be a few distinctive elements. Carolyn Vanagel, the Concours’ President says, “we are known for our special two-day exhibits which include curated car displays from esteemed collectors, as well as our themed ‘Life’ programs like, ‘Life on the Road’ and ‘Life on the Silver Screen.’”
This year’s theme, “Life for 24 Hours” presented racecars that competed at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. To Ferrari’s chagrin, beginning in 1966, Ford’s GT40 won the Le Mans event for four years in succession. To celebrate this, The Revs Institute brought GT40P-1049, one of its two historic Ford GT40 endurance racers. A pair of 2006 Ford GT ACO Spec racers, reminiscent of the original GT40s, also graced the field.
The Hilton Head Concours also sets itself apart by honoring top collectors each year with its coveted Pinnacle Collector Award. These collectors are invited to bring a portion of their collection for display, which allows the attendees to view some exquisite, not often seen automobiles. This year’s co-recipients were Savannah philanthropist Bob Jepson, whose 1929 McFarland, 1929 Cord L-29, 1927 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8-AS and 1925 Model 48-9 Locomobile were displayed on the green at the entrance to the Concours – and this author, who was cited for his ten exhibitions of fine cars in fine art museums nationwide, beginning in 2010.
Four collectors sent cars representing several of these exhibitions. Miles Collier, last year’s Pinnacle Award recipient, brought the Collier Collection’s stunning 1937 Delahaye 135MS roadster by Carrosserie Figoni and Falaschi. With its sweeping lines, fully skirted fenders and well-preserved original scarlet leather interior by Hermes of Paris, this French masterpiece drew appreciative crowds all day. The Delahaye starred first in the critically-acclaimed 2013 “Sensuous Steel: Art Deco Automobiles” exhibition at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, and then again in 2016 in “Sculpted in Steel, Art Deco Automobiles,” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
William E. “Chip” Connor II sent his 1937 Bugatti Type 57S Atalante, which had appeared in the “Allure of the Automobile” at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in 2010 and in 2011 at the Portland (OR) Art Museum.
Designed by Govanni Savonuzzi, and developed in a wind tunnel, the sleek 1955 Chrysler Ghia Streamline X “Gilda” was featured in “Bellissima! The Italian Automotive Renaissance.” at the Frist Center in 2015. The lender was Buzz Calkins, from Denver, CO. The car was inspired by Virgil Exner, based on a model by Luigi Segre, and styled by Carrozzeria Ghia designer Giovanni Savonuzzi with the help of wind-tunnel testing.
And the General Motors Heritage Center kindly loaned the 1959 Cadillac Cyclone, a bubble-topped, jet-age-inspired roadster, and the last of the famed GM Motorama Showcars. It was one of the stars of “Dream Cars, Innovative Design, Visionary Ideas” which was presented at the High Museum (2014) and the Indianapolis Museum of Art (2015).
At Hilton Head, the 2017 Honored Marque was Cadillac, so it was fitting that the Best of Show award was won by a massive 1934 Cadillac V-16 Convertible Victoria by Fleetwood, owned by Steven Plunkett of London, ON, Canada. This Cadillac’s enormous sixteen-cylinder engine, with its delicately sculpted ebony valve covers and porcelain-finished exhaust manifolds, had received as much attention from GM stylists as did the car’s lovely body.
As automobile use tilts toward autonomous driving, interest in historic cars could fade away if the hobby doesn’t increase its appeal to younger people. To boost engagement with the next generation, the Hilton Head Concours works closely with the College of Charleston’s Preservation program. Students, deputized as apprentice judges, learn about old cars while shadowing the Concours judges as they make their rounds. Carolyn Vanagel also remarked that “this year, we launched the Junior Design Challenge, called ‘Le Mans 2030,’ in Beaufort County Schools. Winning entries were displayed and students received scholarships from our charitable fund, ‘Driving Young America’ and from our sponsor, Michelin.”
The Hilton Head Concours d’Elegance is well worth a visit. The judges here, many of the best in the country, use the same scoring system as Pebble Beach and other noted Concours; the cars are always top quality, and the setting is divine.
I’ll be back.
After his Naval Service, which included a tour in Vietnam, Ken Gross began writing about cars in 1972. Formerly the Director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, he’s a 28-year Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance Chief Class Judge and a member of the Selection Committee. An International Chief Judge Advisory Group (ICJAG) member, Ken judges at Amelia Island, Boca Raton, Hilton Head, Greenwich and Hershey. The author of 21 catalogs and books on automobiles, Gross contributes to many national periodicals. His curated exhibitions have appeared at major North American Fine Art Museums. He has been honored with the Automotive Hall of Fame Distinguished Service Citation, the International Motor Press Association’s Ken W. Purdy award, the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Bachelor Award and the Lee Iacocca award. He lives in Hamilton, VA with his wife, Trish Serratore, President of the National Automotive Technicians Educational Foundation.