The Art of the Car Concours

I should have known what I was getting into by the lack of an e at the end of Concours.  This denotes the French pronunciation, (say: kahn-core), which can be roughly translated as “a show full of cars too beautiful to imagine and nearly impossible to afford.”  But I didn’t.  I’ve been to countless car shows, sure, but this was a concours, an event generally prefixed by words like Pebble Beach and suffixed by others like d’Elegance.  I spent Sunday afternoon awash in a delirium of heat and beauty, and I saw things I never thought I would.  Not bad for Kansas City.

The Kansas City Art Institute has been holding the Art of the Car Concours for just seven years, but already it has begun to attract some of the most beautiful cars in America.  Unlike Pebble Beach, Art of the Car is an informal event, with no dress code and a $15 ticket.  Unless you’re a member of the press and have certain moments when you really love your job.

Sunday was another summer day in Kansas City, which means it was roughly 190 degrees outside and humid enough to drown small children and the elderly.  I wasn’t too angry when I had to park blocks away, either, because I knew if the event was drawing crowds like this, it would be worth my time.  Still, I was sweating through my H&M before I got to the gate.

There I was greeted by a 1965 Ferrari V-12 250 LM.  I was stunned.  Sure, the KCAI had left off the e, but I had expected some gorgeous Corvettes and Thunderbirds.  Maybe some British classics.  Not a one-of-32 Ferrari race car that won Le Mans in 1965, giving Ferrari their last overall victory La Sarthe.  Across the path a 1957 Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta stood sunning its Tipo 125 V12.  What?  Right next door was a 1954 Hudson Italia, beautiful and unique.  I’d never heard of one before.  Next to that, a 1957 BMW 507.  What was happening?

Jason Morgan, the intrepid photographer who had agreed to brave the heat and donate some pictures in exchange for a ride through on my press pass and another ride to the airport, hadn’t arrived yet, and I didn’t know how much time he would have when he did.  Like some kind of lovestruck, broiling squirrel, I darted from car to car, getting as many pictures as I could.

I talked to Gary Simmons, who owns one of the only narrow-body Morgan +8s in America, and loves it to death.  I saw the Mindrive VW Karman Ghia, which a bunch of students had converted to electric power.  Nearby a lady dressed in period hung about a 1956 Jaguar XK 140MC, which was only slightly more beautiful than her (no offense, miss).

This event was just so unlike the Greenwood Revival, my last car event, which threw everything from vintage Ferraris to track-beaten MGs into a big pot.  Not that everything here was in absolutely perfect shape.  Just 96% of it.  I did enjoy, however, a marked lack of snootiness, despite the fact that there was enough money represented there to buy Scotland.  Folks were just being folks, and were happy to humbly jaw about their perfectly restored masterpieces.

Even when I got caught in the Birdcage.  I had heard tales of the Maserati Tipo 61 “Birdcage” before.  Seventeen examples were built.  It housed a 2.9 liter, 250 hp straight-4.  It weighed just 1,300 lbs.  Its complex structure was visible through its windshield, lending the legend its unusual handle.  It was a racing monolith.  And here it was before me.  This was thought to be the example that Sterling Moss and Dan Gurney drove to victory at the  1960 1000km of the Nurburgring.

Sterling Moss was in attendance, by the way.  I’d planned to meet him, but I was too busy looking at cars to make that happen.  Shortly after getting to the Birdcage, I ran out of space on my memory card.  Curse and confound it all, I’d been shooting in raw the whole time.  This was a type of blessing, however.  It gave me a chance to slow down and enjoy the statuary around me.

I chatted with Rex Russell and his wife as they showed me their 1919 Stanley Steamer 735 7-Passenger Touring.  As the name suggests, the Touring was steam-powered, and Rex noted that it was “the simplest car to drive, but the most complicated car to operate.”  They walked me through the starting process, which included priming the pilot light, warming the boiler, “then you go in, have a cup of coffee,” and cleaning the fuel jets, among many other steps.  The handle I thought was a gearshift was an air pump.  It doubled, too, as a removable pipe you could blow through to put out fires, which would have occurred 2-3 times every week.

Shortly afterward, Jason arrived and started taking some decent pictures.  I cattle-prodded him from car to car, but we lingered for a while over a 1962 Lotus Super Seven, owned, and, until recently, raced by 82-year-old Bill Rinke.  It was perfect, clearly driven regularly and also clearly cared for very meticulously.  It was the first Seven I’d ever met in person.  It’s still a dream car.  Bill’s is for sale, but at $47k, it’s pretty far out of my reach.  If you’re interested, let me know and I’ll send you his contact info.

Bill seemed just as excited about the little Seven as he must have been when he bought it in 1989, reaching down to start it whenever a crowd gathered and letting kids get behind the wheel, though when I told him of my unreasonable love for Sevens, he told me that I wouldn’t fit.  He was smiling, but I knew he wasn’t joking.  A glance in the footwell showed me the unlikelyhood of both my feet actually finding clearance in there to move.  Whatever.  I still want one.

I think the Birdcage still trumped the Seven as my favorite car there, but a close runner up was the 1921 Daniels Landau Brougham.

Picture a mansion.  Then condense said mansion into a car that can carry a maximum of five Gatsbys, a chauffer, and a butler.  You’re all familiar with the Daniels, right?  Really, guys?  You’ve never heard of the Daniels Motor Company?  Me neither.  Daniels was founded in 1916, the era when you would write to the company with your specifications and have them build your luxury car however you liked.

I’m not sure how much of the exquisite detail on this example was included from the factory, but in 1921, it would have been the very epitome of luxury, and likely one of the most expensive American cars to be had – at just under $8,000.

As a whole, the Brougham was as pretty as any car of its era, but it was the tiny details that really drew me in.  I loved the individual oil ports on each of the big eight cylinders, with the accompanying oil dispenser strapped cleanly to the firewall beside what I presumed was an oil pump or a fuel primer.  I liked the little wooden brandy box between the jump seats, the tiny clock on the side pocket, and the burnished intercom tacked up beside the driver’s head.

The Daniels was a true museum piece, rightfully trailered everywhere it went, without a doubt.  But I was glad to see plenty of other cars at the concours that were driven regularly, especially on a race track.  As the old saying goes, a show car is not always a race car, but a race car is always a show car.  There were gutted and caged Minis, a formerly raced 289 Cobra, and a very unique Mercedes 2205, completely outfitted for racing and run in races all over the continent, from Pikes Peak to La Carrera Panamericana.

There’s so much more to tell.  Like the gorgeous, lowered, 4-speed ’62 Corvair wagon, whose owner told me usually carries a surf board on its roof rack, but wasn’t that day, because the concours organizers don’t go in for that kind of thing.  There was the unbelievable 1952 Allard J2X race car, the Supercharged Auburn, the Cord 812, and the strangely wonderful ’59 Berkley roadster, with a 492cc motorcycle engine and FWD.  And who could forget the British Racing Green ’34 MG PA, modeled after its much bigger countryman, the Bentley 4 ½ liter, external blower and all?

Like all great car events, I had to skip across the top of this one.  Every restoration was a story, every car a relationship.  Jason and I found some water and left a little dazed, but with some great pictures.  A few are listed here, but you can find the rest in full resolution on the Streetside Facebook or Google+ pages.  Help yourselves.

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