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Concours d’Elegance in Florida seeks to entertain

Larry Printz
Tribune News Service

Tradition has long guided the world of the Concours d’Elegance, a series of invitation-only high-end car shows where car owners compete for awards bestowed by old men wearing blue blazers, straw hats, tan slacks and frowns.

It is best typified by the granddaddy of the genre, California’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, a once fascinating show that has degenerated into a glossy, over-hyped and overfed spectacle.

By that standard, the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in Florida is the Southern rebel, despite retaining certain elements found in other concours. Yes, the judges still wear blue blazers, and the cars are suitably old and/or rare. But imagine walking onto a field of rare Packards, Pierce Arrows and Porsches, only to find a class of ... Corvairs. Or yellow Italian sports cars. Or beach cars.

They would never do that in Monterey. And that’s the point.

“If we didn’t come up with some goofy classes, it wouldn’t be Amelia,” said Bill Warner, the Jacksonville, Florida, businessman who founded the show 20 years ago. The Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance was held last weekend at the Ritz Carlton in Amelia Island.

“I think that most shows are done for the wrong reasons,” Warner said. “What drives the show first is to raise money for charity. But after that, it’s to educate and entertain.”

That’s why, unlike its California forebear, this event is more than a display of the cars of the rich and famous. It is a chronicle of the broad spectrum of automotive lust, and this year’s show featured special classes that cater to the car enthusiast, such as historic BMW 328s, Chrysler Town & Country woodies and Lancia rally cars.

But what distinguishes this show is its sense of humor.

“First you have to come up with an idea that’s a crowd pleaser,” said Warner. “And we always want to do a class for people who don’t like cars.” This explains why this year’s show will have a class of cowboy cars.

Beyond that, however, Warner usually displays a model that he perceives as a silk purse, once seen by others as a sow’s ear and shows that it’s really a silk purse. This explained this year’s lineup of Porsche 914s, a car oft-derided, but when lined up at Amelia, proved the naysayers wrong.

But that’s Bill Warner: He sees what so many others miss.

“Those two fairways are my canvas and the cars are my oils,” said Warner of his show field at the Ritz Carlton. “Everyone has the same canvas; everyone has the same oils. You just have to have the creativity to come up with something special.”

Usually, Warner and his staff come up with more ideas than they can use in a year. “It’s like Johnny Mercer said. He was once asked how he wrote so many great songs and he said that he had to write them down when he thought of them or else someone else would.”

If the offbeat classes and respect for history reflect Warner’s sensibilities, then his penchant for inviting famous racecar drivers and car designers reflects his love of people.

So, this year’s show reunited Sir Sterling Moss with the Mercedes-Benz he drove 60 years ago.

“Everyone likes to see their heroes, shake their hands and get their autograph; that’s what we give them the opportunity to do,” he said. “If you are a baseball guy and you could have an evening with Babe Ruth, you’d think you had died and gone to heaven. It’s that way for me every year.”

Still, one wonders how long Warner can continue to be involved with the show, one that takes up much of his time. “I give it a thought every day,” Warner said. “I think the hardest thing for me to pass on is my demented automotive mind. You have to understand the feng shui of the show. It’s not just about lining cars up.”