Jet-age designs land at Annual Concours d’Elegance

Melissa Preddy, Car Culture

Ritzy antique motors like Duesenbergs, Cords and Pierce Arrows with their ornate appointments and elegant styling are a hallmark of classic car shows. Burnished to gleaming perfection, they are impressive artifacts of automotive design and engineering.

The 1956 Powell sport wagon was based on a refurbished 1941 Plymouth chassis and powertrain. Some say the chrome trim was scavenged from used Fords.

They’re lovely to look at, but I find myself drawn more to the sort of vintage vehicle that would have been at home in the garages of ordinary car-owners. And that sort of auto will be out in force at the 38th Annual Concours d’Elegance of America, scheduled for July 31 at the Inn at St. John’s in Plymouth.

Several classes fit the bill, including the muscle car category and one called American Popular Cars, which will pay homage to 20th-century models like the Chrysler Airflow.

But the exhibit I’m most looking forward to is another in the series of “jet-age” designs, curated by Gregory Cockerill and Tony Hossain. Over the past 10 seasons, the volunteer team has presented mid-century lineups showcasing station wagons, pickups and the cream of the crop from various model years, heavy on chrome, fins and attitude.

This year’s grouping offers a rare look at the ancestors of today’s SUVs. Dubbed “Jet-age Travel Trucks,” the category celebrates early rugged utilities like the Suburban and the VW Microbus.

“We always try to come up with something that will make people say ‘Hey, I’ve never seen that before – and probably never will again,’” said Cockerill.

Pull-out drawers on the 1956 Powell sport wagon were meant for fishing rods and rifles.

Among this year’s rarities is the 1956 Powell sport wagon. Yes, Powell, and you aren’t alone if that marque doesn’t ring a bell.

“It was one of those companies that popped up in California after World War II,” Cockerill said. And indeed a number of web essays relate the story of the California scooter-maker that turned to custom trucks in the late 1940s and early ’50s. The sport wagon is based on a refurbished 1941 Plymouth chassis and powertrain, and some sites claim the chrome trim was scavenged from old Fords. “Imagine trying to sell a new vehicle with old parts today,” Cockerill said.

Only five of the 100 manufactured sport wagons survive and only three are drivable, organizers say. One neat feature to look out for: long narrow drawers that hide inside the fenders and slide out from the rear of the car, to hold outdoorsy cargo such as fishing rods and rifles.

The other nine cars in the class are just as cool, including a rare 1959 GMC version of the Suburban, which usually bears the Chevy brand but “for many years had the peculiar distinction of having the same model marketed under both brands,” Cockerill said.

Two early Willys Jeep utilities will be making an appearance, including a stunning black-and-white model and the limited edition 1961 “Maverick” version, named for the James Garner TV character whose show the carmaker sponsored.

For the road-trip set, Hossain and Cockerill have gathered a few very retro self-contained campers. Two editions of the VW Microbus will share the spotlight, including a never-restored, mint Westphalia camper van with only about 2,000 miles on the odometer, and a rare 1967 21-window Samba. A 1963 truck camper, based on a Corvair pickup, is the only survivor of models created way back when by third-party customizer Sani-cruiser; Cockerill says the restoration job on this one “will absolutely knock your socks off.”

For fun, the curators also enlisted a 1965 Airstream trailer as part of the display; it and a couple of the trucks will be open so visitors can check out the period details and accessories.

The Powell motor scooter company turned to custom trucks in the late ’40s and early ’50s.

The volunteers are satisfied at assembling these increasingly rare motors; unlike luxury cars, trucks and campers didn’t get a lot of loving care in their prime, making decent examples scarce today.

“There is an awful lot of attrition in working vehicles,” Cockerill said, noting that this exhibit took some 14 months of detective work, networking and other means to locate entrants. “Parts are hard to find, and people tend not to restore them back to stock, either — but I think we ended up with a good mix of vehicles you don’t see anymore.”

While a variety of concours-related tours and ancillary events run throughout the weekend, the car show itself is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, July 31.

If you go, be aware of one big change: Regular visitors may be accustomed to zipping off M-14 directly into the parking lot of the old disused Ford plant on Sheldon Road, and catching a shuttle to St. John’s. However, the factory is under renovation, so organizers say this year’s free parking will be at Northville High School on Six Mile west of Sheldon. Courtesy buses will transport visitors to the concours.

A complete list of concours activities and vehicle categories is available at

Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via