The Best of Show winner, a dark blue 1937 Delahaye 135M Roadster convertible, climbed the horseshoe and passed the judges’ stand with typical classic car show fanfare.
Such a meticulously restored and racy car was to be expected at a vintage vehicle show. The location, however, was anything but typical – the Concours d’Elegance was first held at the Detroit Institute of Arts, a fine arts museum in the heart of America’s Motor City.
“As remarkable as it sounds, there’s never been an auto show of this caliber in the city of Detroit,” said Richard Vaughan, a veteran auto designer who sits on the event’s advisory team, which took place on the 18th. “We really believed that an event celebrating the automobile should take place in the city of Detroit, the city that put the world on wheels.”
Events like the Concours d’Elegance, which tend to feature classic cars built during the first half of the 20th century, are usually held at upscale resort towns such as Pebble Beach on California’s Monterey Peninsula or Villa d’Este on the shore of the lake. Como in Italy. By holding the event in Detroit, the organizers sought to celebrate the automotive history of the city.
It was also an attempt to broaden the reach of exhibitions like these, which traditionally appealed to high-end collectors and wealthy individuals. In the center of the city, the organizers of the Detroit competition were able to remove some of the physical and financial barriers of exclusivity, making it more accessible to residents.
The vehicle categories, called classes, reflected Detroit’s unique role in the industry. Sharing space on the museum grounds with sculptures by Alexander Calder, Auguste Rodin and Tony Smith were 1932 Ford hot rods as well as one-of-a-kind cars from the famed Autorama show, held regularly at Detroit since the 1950s.
There were also limited production cars from the big three domestic automakers – Ford, General Motors and Chrysler (now part of the global Stellantis group). There were even rare muscle cars, the kind that may have burned rubber on Woodward Avenue, the road outside the museum and a thoroughfare long associated with cruising and street racing.
“If you look at our top classes, they’re very focused on celebrating Detroit,” said Soon Hagerty, senior vice president of brand strategy for Hagerty, the publicly traded classic auto insurance company. The company recently purchased the rights to the Detroit contest and many other similar contests across the country, with the goal of maintaining and elevating them for the next generation.
“For us, it’s really about what the guests want to see?” said Mrs. Hagerty. “And here they want to see the cars that make Detroit special.”
The Henry Ford Museum, home to a sizable collection of vintage vehicles in Dearborn, Michigan, has exhibited its radical 1962 Ford Mustang I, a concept sports car that bears little resemblance to the production car it would lend its name to. several years later. .
“We consider this a kind of hometown event,” said Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum.
The weekend was structured to encourage local engagement with a wide range of automotive audiences and interests.
On Saturday, a Cars & Community event in the parking lot of Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers, offered two additional exhibits intended in particular to attract the youngest.
On one side of the lot was the Concours d’Lemons, which draws models like the AMC Gremlin, Ford Pinto, Chevrolet Vega and other quirky vehicles produced mostly at the low end of the American auto industry in the 1970s and early 1980s. On the other side was a display sponsored by RADwood, an event brand of Hagerty, of vehicles from the 1980s and 1990s, many of which have risen significantly in value in recent years as they have become prized by emerging collectors.
Nearby, hundreds of children, more than a decade away from the age required for a driver’s license, created their own license plates and key rings, played with toy cars or had their caricature as they sat in a cherry red convertible.
“It’s a much younger crowd,” Mr Vaughan said. “That’s what we want. We want to invite these people into our hobby, give them a place. And they will also fall in love with these older cars, over time.
Enthusiasts hope the reverse is also true – that older collectors begin to recognize the validity of collectibles from more recent decades.
“I always stress that the Pebble Beach Concours, when it started, the cars they were looking at were only 20 years old,” Mr Vaughan said.
Putting on a show with over 3,200 attendees in the middle of Detroit came with its own set of challenges. For example, parking was limited in the dense neighborhood around the art museum. There were also the questions of where, how and in what order to unload more than 100 priceless vintage cars, which must be transported individually in closed semi-trailers and laid out on the lawn early in the morning before visitors arrive. Additionally, organizers had to report on handling crowds of passers-by on one of Detroit’s busiest avenues while the museum remained open to the public.
There was also the question of how to integrate the event into the city.
“There are two ways we could have looked at this,” Ms Hagerty said. “The first is to find a central location and do everything there, like Belle Isle,” she said, referring to a Detroit River park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. “Or are we going to showcase this magnificent city?”
The organizers chose the latter. They held an opening event at Beacon Park in the revitalized downtown. A panel discussion and dinner took place in the historic Argonaut Building, an early GM research and design office now known as the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education, part of the College for Creative Studies in the city. Organizers also coordinated ride-and-drive events in a variety of 1960s cars – a Ford Bronco proto-SUV, a Lincoln Continental convertible, a Pontiac GTO muscle coupe – along Woodward Avenue, putting attendees in the heart of action.
In addition to showcasing the host city, organizers sought to represent a wide range of local car enthusiasts.
The weekend festivities featured two intriguing local automotive subcultures – one club focused on custom Japanese sports compact cars and another on contemporary Cadillac performance vehicles. There were also more than a dozen cars from Midwestern brands such as Studebaker and Packard, eclectic and innovative brands that were discontinued in the 1950s and 1960s in the face of industry consolidation.
Certain elements of Detroit car culture were notably absent from the events, such as Donks, domestic coupes and sedans with candy-colored paint jobs, bright underlighting, and extremely oversized and often color-matched wheels; late-20th-century baroque Cadillacs or Lincolns, with their modified grilles, headlights, continental tire sets, and hood ornaments of the type made famous in Blaxploitation movies like “The Mack” and “Super Fly”; and lowriders, the small, metal-wheeled, airbrushed, and hydraulically-lowering pinstripe staples of a myriad of mostly Latino car clubs.
Organizers acknowledged that creating a wider representation of the city’s contemporary motoring culture was a goal for future events.
“These cars are worth celebrating,” Mr. Vaughan said. “You know, it’s the first year here. So let’s see how it goes.