Car Shows – An Evolution

September 18, 2014 Comments (0)

Automobile shows officially began in America in Boston and New York in 1900. Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit followed in 1901. Today, most small towns and all the large ones have at least one car show and several billed as concours feature specific categories, makes, or countries of origin.

The words concours or concorso are French and Italian for contest. The often-added addendum d’Elegance or d’Eleganza are self-evident in meaning and often not a standard for entry.

By far the greatest number of car shows in America feature local cars on display for local enthusiasts. Most allow fellow competitors or the public to choose their winners. Some larger events are judged. Here winners are chosen based on the opinions of local enthusiasts possessed of varying degrees of competence for the tasks. The latter system can be more controversial than the first but since the stakes are but bragging rights and trophies, no one is harmed.

National level contests have burgeoned in the past ten years. Once the purview of Pebble Beach, Amelia Island and the now renamed Concours d’Elegance of America (formerly Meadowbrook), winning these events had, and still has, meaning for car owners. Today, with the expansion of national events to the stately golf courses in America and the stately homes and country estates of Europe, many more vehicles are receiving national and international attention. Despite that, only Pebble Beach and Amelia in America and Villa d’Este in Europe have gravitas in the eyes of national and international competitors.

For Pebble Beach, Amelia and Villa d’Este, considerably more is at stake at every level. For collectors, winning can mean a significant and immediate difference in the value of the vehicle and the remainder of the collection. It is also a valuable feather in the cap of the restorer. The crucial difference between events at this level and all others is the quality of the judging. Top tier events invest in recruiting and developing world class judges. This investment assures participants that their vehicles will be judged by recognized experts. Some well known collectors will not show their cars at events where they could be beaten as a result of poor judging. Such losses devalue the car in the eyes of the public and prospective buyers.

There will always be a future for both the top tier and the local car shows. The battle for survival is at the middle level. Each event struggles every year to differentiate itself from others and its own previous presentation. They all have the added burden of finding and maintaining sponsorship from national brands that have a growing demand for their resources.

Then there is the enthusiast. Unlike before the internet and 24-hour-live coverage of events, enthusiasts have a plethora of motorsports activity options every weekend. Attending a car show is just one of them. To draw people from a distance, a car show must offer more than 150 seldom seen vehicles on a famous golf course. Monterey Week is probably the best example of stand-alone events combining with local communities, government, and business groups to present visitors with choices. They have realized that to entice people to travel to their area and spend money, they must first present a variety of attractive options.

Two quite different events that have grown in stature are the Santa Fe Concorso and The Boston Cup.

In the case of the Santa Fe Concorso, they have a small population base from which to draw spectators, no major metropolis within convenient driving distance and an equally small car population to supply materials. Yet they continue to grow by focusing on what they do have, a small but beautiful city with a strong arts scene, great weather, interesting roads nearby, serious local racing figures in the Unsers and Denise McCluggage and just as importantly, a hospitality industry is focused on insuring that people come back. Unlike Monterey and Amelia, rates are not inflated because the car guys are coming to town and the base rates are remarkably low. This and a growing program that features a great drive, a museum tour with for real Indy greats, a movie night featuring Bullitt at a refurbished historic cinema and, finally, an interesting concorso that will keep people coming back again and again.

The Boston Cup people have taken a different approach. In the middle of a busy metropolis sits the historic Boston Common. It is huge and because it is a public space, the public have free access. The Boston Cup Sunday event is a celebration of an eclectic mix of cars from the early days of the 20th century and the latest electric cars from major manufacturers. Cars are drawn from local collectors with national stature, race teams – vintage and modern, and coaxed out of garages from throughout New England. Informal gathering for a Cars and Coffee and Arrive and Drive meetings take place on the common on Saturday and a cocktail party for participants is held at the Ritz on Saturday night. The organizers have succeeded in convincing a City Hall with a historically anti-car bias that cars on green spaces are good for both the merchants and the public. The location is very visible from the surrounding streets and pedestrian traffic on the Common is very high. For these reasons, major manufacturers want to be involved and this year BMW is doing a ride and drive program on the day prior to the main event. The judging for the Boston Cup is done by both the public and the participants. The whole atmosphere is relaxed.

These two car events will survive and are models for others to emulate. In the 21st Century, cars may continue to be the feature draw at car shows, but a combination of auctions, movies, tours, vintage racing, knowledgeable judges, and major manufacturers and local merchants and government support will be crucial to survival. Not a short list but this is a tough neighborhood with growing expectations.

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