The Fairfield County Concours D’Elegance is to men (OK, car enthusiasts) what Carrie Bradshaw’s closet is to women (right, sorry, shoe enthusiasts). Say what you want, but the correlation holds valid for a mutual appreciation of quality and design. While a handful of Concours hangers-on in the 5,000-plus crowd may not know the difference between a Veyron and an Enzo, and do not understand the staggering value and history of the racing and road automobiles and motorcycles in arm’s reach at this annual event, they, nevertheless, can recognize that look of love in the true enthusiast’s eyes. Roll an Aston Martin in front of this type of man and he’ll respond like the air was swept out of his lungs — gasping, unable to speak, holding his chest, eyes wide. Don’t call 911. He’s fine. His visceral experience makes imagination seem real, like at an IMAX film — fall off a snowcapped cliff but grab padded armrests. He’s not only looking at a car, be it a Mustang or a Maserati, he’s also experiencing it. While his heart is pumping erratically, it’s so out of synch with reality, he’s actually enjoying the detachment. To blame? Purity, performance, prestige, power: Machine! It makes a grown man weak as it flows through his all-too-human system. Isn’t that beautiful?
This September 12 and 13, there are hundreds of chances to see the look of love as the popular Concours displays 200 classic automobiles and rare motorcycles at the Fairfield County Hunt Club. Whether you live and breathe vintage American road cars or modern-day European sports cars, or you simply enjoy the aggressive V-shaped nose of a brand you would be hard-pressed to name, people can’t help but appreciate the pure excellence of collector vehicles.
Of course, the more you understand the significance of the lines, their pedigree, and the exacting care these machines receive, the more you can appreciate what is laid out before you. In a pinch, you can sneak a peek at the car card, or essay plaque, written by event cofounder John Shuck, an easygoing man whose accent reveals Southern roots when he says, “We put in a little history of the car, the particular owner — maybe the car had a famous owner or maybe the person dug it out of a swamp five years ago and restored it. People want to connect with that story.”
“There’s a lot of us,” says Bill Scheffler, whose rapid-fire, direct manner of speaking is all energy to Shuck’s steadiness, “who find the engaging part of the hobby is the research. It’s fascinating. John is embarrassing — he should be fed into a program. You need Car Addicts Anonymous,” he advises him in good humor. For all their personality differences, these two men equally share an obsession for cars and the Fairfield County Concours d’Elegance. They founded it in 2004, because, Scheffler says, “John and I, and a third guy, Dan Long, are hopelessly besotted with cars, just hopeless.”
From day one they have worked to present a multifaceted event to appeal to a wide audience. “We really find cars that people have never seen. It’s fun for car aficionados because they see something like they saw last year: Ralph Lauren’s Ferrari, which is a $30 million car. It sat in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston as an exhibit,” says Scheffler. “For someone who cares, that’s a breathtaking experience. And for people who don’t care — and we concede that’s the majority of the people on the planet, we understand that really well,” both men laugh, “we provide the essay, or they can shop. We also have vendors who bring car-related art and automobilia.” There are also auction items and children’s activities. “There’s stuff for people whose idea of a car is that it takes them to the market and back.”
The first Concours took place at Veteran’s Green. Over the years, the popular event moved up to the Hunt Club (a venue the founders praise) and began hosting car seminars, exhibits, and demonstrations, with education at the event’s core. Other Concours have “cars that are very pristine and restored to a certain level,” Shuck says, “but we like to see cars that are driven and compete in vintage rallies. We also have a preservation class, a car that hasn’t been restored at all but is nicely preserved. It may have a ding or two, but it’s seventy years old and someone’s actually driving it.”
The committee goes to great lengths to involve what these cofounders routinely call “non-car people.” One way is education. The event includes eager-to-educate experts and lecturers, via wireless microphones, such as David Kinney (a member of the advisory committee) and Westonite Miles Morris, from Fédération Internationale des Véhicules Anciens, who once handled the international car auctions operations for Christie’s and now helps source cars for the Fairfield Concours. He also helps arrange the vehicles in chronological order. “The first thing guests see, when they enter, is the oldest car on the field,” says Scheffler. It’s immediate gratification, but more. “They are guided, chronologically, through 100 years of cars.” Guests gain an appreciation of how “the car changed and became more aerodynamic, and how the running boards used to exist, and then went away, and why a radiator looks like a radiator, because it had to be up front to get all the cold air from the outside to cool the engine. All of this happens over the course of the walk.”
“No one else does it,” Scheffler adds, “and, frankly, I don’t know why. It makes so much sense. It’s surprising to me that it hasn’t been done before by a major show.”
Aside from the special exhibit of Alfa Romeos this year, a jewel in the Concours crown is the world’s first display of an example of each Packard concept car ever built. The event cofounders persuaded a collector to send six and the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Indiana, to contribute the last concept car built by Packard: the 1956 Predictor.
Scheffler explains that concept cars are made by every car manufacturer, to a greater or lesser extent, “to test ideas — to see how they actually look when they’re put into metal. One of the great American design statements, in the 1950s, were fins on the backs of cars,” he says. “You can make an argument that they were profoundly ugly, but, nevertheless, they were popular for a while. They started off as a design idea.”
An example of his point won the 2008 Best in Show, foreign car: the Tatra, made in Czechoslovakia. Shuck explains, “It was technically advanced. It had a rear engine, air-cooled.” He cites two other famous manufacturers that made rear-engine cars: VW and Porsche. “In fact, Ferdinand Porsche helped design this particular car, the Tatra.”
Along with Alfa Romeos and Packards, judges will determine the best Porsche, which may prove to be more difficult than non-car folks might think. “People who own vintage Porsches,” says Scheffler, “have a reputation — I guess it’s deserved — for being really crazy about, really obsessive about how their cars look. Corvette people are the same way. They try to make it look as good as it can be.”
Shuck adds quietly, “Q-tips, the works.”
Yet another special exhibit this year is the Pontiac. “They’re going to go out next year,” Scheffler says. “GM said bye — can’t do that anymore. So we’re doing a search for the oldest Pontiac still on the road.” Three weeks into the search, the Concours staff had already bagged a 1927; the first was 1926. It has lined up assistance from United Airlines, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York City, limousine service and a car transporter to help woo the lucky owner.
Above and beyond
The Fairfield County event celebrates a race venue each year (this year Bridgehampton) and other nationally recognized Concours (this year Meadowbrook). “It brings in cars that have won in other Concours to our show for our guests to see,” explains Scheffler, “and it celebrates the idea of automobiles as art and the Concours as a legitimate way to exhibit this type of art.”
That’s not the only difference. Here, in Fairfield, there are no barriers, no ropes between cars and guests. Shuck says, “A guy in town had a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing — probably a $650,000 car — and he was reluctant to do the show, but I said, ‘Come on, try it, we’ll watch it.’ So he was there, and at the end of the show, he had little kids, total strangers, in his car, working the doors and windows, and he had this big grin on his face. It seemed like the whole process of spending money on this car, and doing all of the work for it, came to a real point for him right then, because the kids were enjoying it and so many people got to come up and really look at the car.”
The Fairfield Concours invites youth judges, too. “We coach them a little bit on what to look for, and they judge the field and pick a winner according to their criteria.” The criteria might be vague, but, apparently, no match for the Ladies’ Choice Award. “That’s kind of a dark area,” Shuck says. Both men laugh.
Scheffler is quick to polish the comment, saying, “It’s an absolutely serious award, it’s a field-won award, and, in fact, the women of the senior staff make the choice.” His attempt to salvage the reputation of the ladies’ award weakens when he says, “None of them are car people.” His attempt completely crumbles as he admits, “We can’t for the life of us figure out the criteria. We took a lot of static one year because they picked a car exclusively because of its color.”
This unguarded moment reveals the tone and intention of the show, which Scheffler says is “relaxed, not formal, but completely proper and legitimate.” The heart of it is about sharing car appreciation — and doing good. The event benefits Next Steps Developmental Center, a partnership of AIND/Giant Steps (a Southport school) and Hall-Brooke Behavioral Health Services (a wholly owned subsidiary of St. Vincent’s Health Services), which helps children and young adults with autism. Scheffler says the goal of the event is “to show cars that people just don’t get to see,” but, he must realize, it does more than gather car lovers — it builds community.