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Nashville Scene Autodidact

Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance matures into "Pebble Beach East"

By Marc K. Stengel

MARCH 28, 2000:  It is playfully fitting that the venerable Oxford English Dictionary has reserved the word autodidact for one such as myself "who is self-taught"--in this specific instance, about vintage automobiles and the rich, colorful history of cars and motorsports. It is fitting because I have just returned from the fifth annual Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance, presented by Mercedes-Benz USA for the benefit of North Florida's Hospice Foundation for Caring. There, amidst priceless restored vehicles, race cars vintage and modern, exotic contemporary sporters, and of course a dizzying array of Mercedes-Benz (ne Daimler) models dating from 1886 to 2001, I marveled that my indefatigable passion for motor vehicles should persevere since my own showroom debut over 40 model-years ago. At the same time, I must confess being startled by the gaps in my knowledge of the motorcar's vast, intricate, multifarious history.

There is no museum, book, or individual owner's garage that can compare with the experience of being at Amelia Island's annual event north of Jacksonville, Fla., which is beginning to rival even the grand père of them all, the annual Pebble Beach Concours near Monterey, Calif. To stand aside as an immaculate 1907 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost makes its stately way to the reviewing stand is somehow to slip backwards momentarily into a lost British time and place when, as Robert Graves has described in Good-Bye to All That, "a man with a red flag was required by law to walk in front of every motor car."

When this particular Silver Ghost was hand-built before World War I, it was unquestionably the most expensive motor car in the world--and arguably the most valuable industrial product of any kind intended for individual ownership. Today, it is an essentially priceless legacy to the future, lovingly paraded and maintained by prominent Rolls Royce collector Millard Newman of Tampa, Fla. And yet, in its concours setting, Mr. Newman's Rolls is but one vehicle in a traffic jam for the senses filled with the exotic likes of Locomobile, Jaguar, Ferrari, Cisitalia, Mercer, Porsche, Stutz, Marmon, Lola, Duesenberg, and easily a hundred names more.

All told, more than 210 vehicles preregistered for this year's Amelia Island event, with estimates at show time rising to between 270 to 300 vehicles vying for honors within 29 different vehicle classes. From the chain-drive, three-wheeler AC Sociable of 1912, with its rear-seated driver steering by means of a boat-type tiller, to the 1962 Ferrari 250GT SWB "California Spyder" boasting a 260 horsepower 3.0-liter V12 and an estimated valuation over $1 million, the panoply of sights and sounds was simply overwhelming. And while there was something to sate every automotive appetite, there is no reasonable way to describe systematically how to experience or observe an Amelia Island concours, so various impressions will have to suffice:


Sports cars

The very foundations of a baby-boomer's infatuation with the automobile are grounded in the postwar category of sports and performance cars. Here is where the various pan-national legends reside Porsche 365 "bathtub" roadster, 904 Carrera GTS, and 911 Turbo "whale-tale"; Mercedes-Benz 300SL "Gullwing" coupe from the golden-era '50s, and the "Most Elegant Mercedes-Benz" award winner, a '61 300d Cabriolet (not quite a sporter, but still plenty sporty); the Ferrari 42 America Pininfarina Cabriolet, 365 GTB/4 Daytona Spyder, and mid-engine 246 GTS "Dino."

Personally, my own preferences gravitate to the more offbeat, like the tiny Cisitalia 204 Spyder Corsa from 1950, for example, which combines minimalist, low-slung architecture with terrorizing potential for 100-plus-mph speed mere inches above the pavement. Yet in a breakneck world where convertibles (e.g., spyders, cabriolets, roadsters) are king, I nevertheless fell willingly under the spell of a '65 Aston Martin DB5 fastback coupe, whose James Bond reputation, I suppose, confirms my total surrender to self-deluding fantasy.

Not that the American reputation for heavy-metal muscle cars goes unrepresented at Amelia Island. A 1970 Plymouth Hemi 'Cuda convertible was a blast from the TV-cop-show past. And the Plymouth Superbird from that same year, with its enormous proboscis and basket-handle rear wing rising three feet over the rear deck, is a poster-car of exultant excess, American-style. More understated and coldly calculating is the '62 Pontiac Catalina SD ("Super Duty"), whose aluminum bodywork and lightweight front-end provided an incomparable ambush advantage at the weekend drag strip.


Motorsports

I daydreamed much of my teens away staring for hours at a time at the road racing posters from the French magazine Sport Auto that I had meticulously pinned to the ceiling of my room. One favorite, which I own still, depicts a Ferrari 312P carving at obviously obscene speeds through a medieval Sicilian hamlet on its way to winning the 1972 Targa Florio endurance trial. This is the car with which two heroes, the Brit Brian Redman and the Swiss Clay Regazzoni, dominated nearly every race they entered that year.

Because they had opted out of the Targa Florio in '72, it is not they who are depicted in my poster; but it was Brian Redman with whom I had a brief handshake and conversation at Amelia Island before then finding his own Ferrari 312P racer on display. Redman served as honorary chairman of this year's Amelia Island event, and a career's worth of his various race cars from Ferrari, Porsche, Lola, Chevron, and BMW comprised a featured display. There was a time when it was the cars that I revered for their savage external beauty and power. But the image of stately Brian Redman--stalwart still after shunts and scars, yet flinchingly modest about being described the "most successful sports car racer in the world"--has by now convinced me that the real soul of motorsports resides only within the cockpits where certain men have sat.


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