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Report from the 2015 Concours d'Elegance of America

July 31, 2015 Innovation Impact

Our Betty Belly Tank Lakester stands out among the Bonneville streamliners -- and portable speed shop -- at the 2015 Concours d'Elegance of America.

Concours d'Elegance automobile events seem to be popping up all over the country these days. More prestigious that standard car shows, these “competitions of elegance” generally feature automobiles that come by invitation only and include scrupulous judging by experts in automotive mechanics, design and history. We are fortunate to have a top-tier concours here in our own backyard: the Concours d’Elegance of America at St. John’s, held in Plymouth, Michigan, each July.

Our 1928 Cleveland joined other two-wheelers in the motorcycle class.

This year’s show, on July 26, did not disappoint. More than 270 cars from as far away as California, Montana, Texas and Florida made their way to St. John’s to thrill visitors under perfectly sunny skies. As in the past, The Henry Ford was there -- this time with two vehicles from our collection. Tom Beatty’s 1951 Belly Tank Lakester had an honored place among the class of Bonneville Streamliners while our 1928 Cleveland 4-61 motorcycle joined a group of other bikes from 1918-1929. Both vehicles were much appreciated by the crowds -- particularly the Cleveland, which had not been on view for a few years.

Hearses, like this 1893 Cunningham, are a fast-growing segment in collector vehicles. People are dying to get into them.

Exploring the show field this year, I got the distinct impression that the St. John’s team set out to attract new people with some unconventional vehicles. First and foremost was the group of six hearses. Apart from limousines, professional cars of any sort are rare at a concours-level show, but funeral cars are decidedly (and somewhat morbidly) unique. St. John’s featured a nice assortment of these vehicles, from a 1916 Winton to a 1959 Cadillac. The real standout, though, was an 1893 horse-drawn affair by James Cunningham & Sons of Rochester, New York. Built for the World’s Columbian Exposition, the Cunningham hearse spent its working life in Detroit. Today it is a part of the Detroit Historical Society’s collection.

Dream cars of the 1980s, like this 1982 Ferrari 308 GTS, appeal to younger collectors.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the concours made a clear play for younger visitors with its “1980s Dream Cars” class. Duesenbergs and Packards fired the imaginations of the Greatest Generation, and Mustangs and muscle cars wowed the Boomers, but us Gen Xers are more likely to thrill at a 1982 Porsche 911 Turbo or a 1986 Ferrari Testarossa. These foreign supercars scream “Decade of Excess” like nothing else (with the possible exception of this photo). Shifting demographics suggest that these cars, along with more humdrum C4 Corvettes and third-generation Firebirds, will be the next hot collectibles.

Unconventional in appearance and performance, a replica of the Dymaxion Car dreamed up by Buckminster Fuller in 1933.

Far and away, the most unusual automobile in the show was a replica of one of the three Dymaxion Cars designed and built by Buckminster Fuller in 1933-1934. (Yes, the same fellow behind the Dymaxion House.) That streamlined body was exceptionally aerodynamic and the front-wheel drive car was capable of 90 miles per hour. But the rear-wheel steering (one wheel, at that) made the car frighteningly unstable at anything above 35. The replica is owned by Nashville’s Lane Motor Museum.

The new additions to the show line-up were quite welcome, but the old favorites were still there. The “Jazz Age” class, consisting of American cars from 1915 to 1929, included a most exotic 1924 Studebaker Light Six with a South Bend-built chassis but an aluminum body made in Shanghai, China. The car is now in the collection of the Studebaker National Museum. Meanwhile, the “Muscle Cars” class offered a stable of high horsepower ranging from one of only eight 1969 Pontiac Trans Am convertibles to a 1970 Plymouth AAR ’Cuda sold to homologate the ’Cudas raced by Dan Gurney and Swede Savage in the Trans-Am series.

All in all, another great year at St. John’s. It’ll be interesting to see what they come up with, next year, to top the surprises on the field this time.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

Buckminster Fuller, Michigan, by Matt Anderson, events, car shows, cars

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