What do you think of Concours d’Elegance? I ask because while through my day job testing road cars and sitting on the Car of the Year jury I get to judge modern machines all the time, I’ve not until now looked at older cars that way.
And then I was asked to join the panel of judges for this year’s Salon Privé, held in Syon Park last week. It was, of course, an honour to be invited, but I did wonder whether, as someone who has always banged on about cars being built to be driven and not merely gawped at, I was not being a touch hypocritical in accepting.
But also being a naturally curious journalist and never yet having had a bad time when surrounded by beautiful and interesting cars, I duly accepted and pitched up to the Park not knowing quite what to expect.
I was heartened by my fellow judges who included Derek Bell, Vicki Butler-Henderson, McLaren F1 designer Peter Stevens, RAC Chairman Tom Purves, McLaren design chief Frank Stephenson (below) and the chairman of the Pebble Beach Concours, Sandra Button – the latter appointment showing just how seriously Salon Privé is now taken in the Concours world.
We were split into groups, the task of judging post-war competition machinery and the Porsche 911 category falling to myself, David Piper and Ford’s chief concept designer, an unreconstructed petrolhead called David Woodhouse.
What I had failed to appreciate until that moment was just how important the history and provenance of each entry can be, at least at this particular Concours. As a judge you can knock off points for every little blemish in the paint or smudge on the upholstery, but so too can you choose to mark such imperfections quite lightly and then add a load of additional points if the car is particularly important, has an interesting tale to tell or has been sympathetically restored.
Which is why we ended giving the competition prize to the Lindner Nocker E-type, the last racing Jaguar ever to be prepared by the works. It sat as a wreck for over 40 years after a fatal accident at Montlhery before 7000 hours were spent finding its original components and restoring it to how it would have looked when it was new. It is the very definition of a sympathetic restoration and the opposite of the shiny show queens with their chrome, modern paints and upholsteries that so often result when more money than thought is thrown at restoration projects.
Second came Sally and Dudley Mason-Styrron’s competition Daytona whose slightly shabby interior speaks so eloquently of its life at Le Mans and, latterly, a much-loved eventer. Third place went to another Ferrari, a 1955 2-litre Mondial that has never been restored in its life and sat resplendent in the fabulously patchy original blue paint found by the owner under several layers of rather more obvious red.
Among the 911s, the winner went to the 2.8RSR that won the 1973 Sebring 12 hours, the first major victory by a homologated, factory-developed 911, followed a pair of 2.7RS Carreras because both were beautiful examples of their breed which required me to be at my very most nerdy to spot any variances from their original specification.
Almost as compelling as the cars were their owners, most of whom were encyclopaedic about their much-loved charges and who all looked quite forlorn when we had to move onto the next in line.
In the end it was a car from another category – a long wheelbase Ferrari 250 Spyder California – that won Best in Show and if you take the literal meaning of Concours d’Elegance, it was a very hard car to argue against. But I was pleased to see the Lindner Nocker take the prize for the most sympathetic restoration, particularly as I know how close it came to winning the event outright.
I was most pleased to visit a Concours that did much to dispel my preconceptions about such events. In the end it was a place full of amazing cars with interesting, passionate owners. And if you can’t enjoy that, you’re probably in the wrong job.
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