Those "Concours d'Elegance"

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The Concours d’Elegance has departed forever from its original role of a contest in the Mediterranean sunshine to decide which near-millionaire had contrived the most elegant individual example of the coachbuilder’s art, on the latest Rolls-Royce, Hispano-Suiza, Isotta-Fraschini or similar chassis, the Judges being encouraged in their task by the presence of the entrants’ ladies, as exotic as the motor cars, who posed beside them. Then there was no question of originality, because all the cars were new. Nor was there any question of cleanliness—if a car wasn’t absolutely immaculate its chauffeur would have sacked immediately the second-chauffeur or groom!

Today such competitions, although taken very seriously indeed by many participants, are simply displays of old vehicles, which by a combination of age, originality, polish, rarity and cleanliness, carry off such awards as are offered. Some clubs realise that when entries are apt to range from Trojan and Model-T to Rolls-Royces and Bentleys “elegance” can be a decided misnomer, so they invent new titles like Concours d’Etat, “Pride-of-Ownership”, etc. Most of it, however, boils down to a Pretty Cars frolic….

Mark you, it does no harm to have such events, providing the Judges know sufficient to prevent the more horrid cars from getting into the public eye and thereby distorting the better motives behind veteran and vintage vehicle preservation. But things have tended to get out of hand with the present multiplicity of such gatherings, as distinct from race, rally and other driving activities on the part of old-vehicle owners.

For example, too many Elegance entrants trail their cars to venues. Apart from the main purpose of owning and caring for a motor vehicle being to enjoy motoring in it, a car which isn’t driven to the field is apt to keep far cleaner than those which have arrived on their own wheels, which gives an unfair advantage. Not only are more and more old vehicles arriving on trailers and transporters but some of them have engines which haven’t smelt petrol for years. Vintage motorcycles, which are comparatively inexpensive to run, are notorious offenders, judging by recent minor beauty-shows we have attended. One cannot see the point of meticulously rebuilding and painstakingly refurbishing a machine without ever starting it up. This smacks of pot-hunting in preference to riding and in that case you might just as well enter for the biggest-vegetable prize as bring a motorcycle you cannot start—at least the vegetables are edible and thus more genuine than a machine which is never run. Even at Crofts the doggies are required to walk round the show-ring….

The solution could be for beauty-show Judges to pass over all entries the engines of which cannot be started by the owners in, say, 30 seconds, and for prize-winners to be asked to drive up to get their awards. Judging to set rules is often advocated but on the contrary we think varied approaches to this difficult task should be encouraged, if only to scatter the chances of awards over a greater expanse of entrants.

Clubs usually provide Judges with elaborate score cards, on which marks for originality of engine and bodywork, cleanliness, age, and so on are entered, sometimes elegance or desirability in the eyes of the Judges being included. Yet we have known one Judge, a Chief Constable, to concentrate instead on efficient servicing, looking for neglected oilers and grease-caps, frayed brake cables, low battery acid level, incorrect tyre pressures, etc., and another Judge, an Army Commandant, to simply stand and watch the cars driven past, deciding which he would most like to have owned. These variations seem to us permissible, whatever purposeful pot-hunters may feel about it.

Another grouse we have is over the casualness of many entrants. Whereas we condone less-than-pristine pre-war cars which are used regularly on the road or in active competitions, indeed, tend not to care for too-immaculate examples tarted up to look better-than-new, if the contest is for static vehicles under the misleading elegance heading, at least some attempt should be made to clean off surface dirt, finger-marks and road dust, which are an insult to public and Judges alike. Originality often quite rightly outweighs showroom appearance, so bonnets should be opened to the Judges’ gaze. One veteran Humberette encountered recently had an apparently hermetically-sealed engine cover but, by lying beneath it, the absence of a chain on the water-pump drive became apparent. Plastic plug leads and “crinkly” water hoses mean deduction of marks difficult as it is to obtain correct ones, as does a magneto converted to coil ignition, seen on a certain Edwardian Star, and those incorrectly “brassed” fuse-boxes, etc., on a number of vintage Austin Sevens, and other makes. More than one impressive veteran and Edwardian has been spoiled because of a non-period copper exhaust tail-pipe, which looks even worse on a post-vintage product. We have encountered a very nice Riley Imp with the inserts to its friction shock-absorbers, its spring clips, its petrol piping, etc., of polished brass or copper and have wondered if this could be authentic, away from a Motor Show stand.

The cost and scarcity of gas and oil lamps notwithstanding, a Judge is apt to be put out on encountering impressive much-brassed head lamps which do not match, an oversize rear oil-lamp and particularly acetylene lamps unconnected to adjacent gas generators—and how many such lamps would light, anyway? Originality is another matter, remembering that no mechanical device will remain that way for life, unlike human beings. When upholstery is found to have lasted without too much evidence of wear for some 60 years it is very satisfying but Judges must sometimes regard “original” as covering new leather fitted with correct buttons as originally located, new paint brush applied. If true originality is the criterion, engines would cease to run because of worn-out carburetters, pistons sloppy in oval bores, etc. Rebuilding such components with the right materials to conform to original specification must soon, if not already, be a frequent conception of originality.

Another aspect is whether Trade entries deserve as many marks as private ones. At first sight, no. But the owner of a small garage employing one grease monkey does not necessarily have any better facilities, financial or workshop, than a wealthy amateur using professional services to rebuild that 57S or P2. But the non-removal of advertising matter is vexatious and the very plaques awarded at these contests, together with Brighton Run souvenirs, present a problem, because displayed, however discreetly, on an entrant’s vehicle they undermine authenticity of appearance. Finally, few if any Judges are competent to decide all originality conundrums in a field of mixed makes, which pin-points the wisdom of getting experts to deal with one-make classes. The writer still suffers pangs of conscience when he recalls marking down a Trojan as having impossibly large tyres, only to have the owner confront him years later with a catalogue proving that these were fitted to certain Colonial models. Even Judges can’t always win!

It is unduly casual to present a car from which the plastic bags over the lamps have not been removed, even if the Trade Plates have, and although there may be nothing in the regulations of the contest to prevent a pot-hunter from winning two premier awards in as many days by trailing the winning vehicle to events, might he not have had more fun, and earned more appreciation from the purists, by spending some of the time driving his immaculate possession to one of the contests?

The so-called Concours d’Elegance, 1970s style, helps to maintain old cars in presentable order, draws the attention of their owners to what is, and what is not, mechanically and structurally original, and enhances the movement in the eyes of the public. Which is all to the good. And as a reasonable-size entry is desirable, one would not wish owners of the less worthy, the not entirely pristine cars, to become discouraged and stay away. But organisers, judges and entrants might do worse than give this class of old-car event some concentrated thought, concerning much overdue improvement.

Unless the proud recipient of the Car of the Show Award is able, and willing, to drive his vehicle at least as far as the prize-giving dais before getting it back onto its trailer, the whole thing becomes a farce. Although, as with all aspects of the game, taking things too seriously can be a perversion of the pleasure it undoubtedly gives.—W. B.