Sensed more than seen or heard, Duesenbergs, Packards, Rolls Royces and other grand dames of their era glide across the dewy fairways of the Golf Club of Amelia Island at Summer Beach like elegant ghosts of automotive history.
Suddenly, the morning's stately peace is rent by ear-splitting roars, snarls and gut-gripping coughs. The race cars have arrived, bucking along the fairways in fits and starts, unaccustomed to moving at such a slow pace.
Each car has its designated space and class for the Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance, the premier such show in the state of Florida and one of the top two in the country. The three-day event always runs during the second full week of March and begins this year Friday, March 9.
By 9 a.m. the Sunday of the event, the fairways will have become fields of glory and glamour where 250 examples of the finest design and engineering on four, three and even two wheels are arrayed for judging by the experts and examination by the envious. Priceless classics from the first days of automobiles, inventive curiosities, former possessions of royalty and celebrities, racing legends and unique motorcycles take the stage to entertain and fascinate an audience of thousands.
The cognoscenti, from famous collectors and celebrities such as actor Edward Herrmann, Car and Driver editor-at-large Brock Yates, three-time Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser and three-time LeMans overall winner Hurley Haywood will arrive early in the week. They and other enthusiasts gather at the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island for gala dinners, parades, genteel rallies, tours, white-knuckle test drives and panel discussions. These events are open to the public, though tickets are often snapped up far in advance.
Sunday is our day to gaze, talk to proud owners and racing legends, enjoy the beauty of the oceanfront surroundings and decide which of the beauties we would want in our garages.
It's a format followed by other concours d'elegance from Pebble Beach to Boca Raton. Never will you see brighter chrome, finer paint jobs or more lovingly recreated works of art and nostalgia.
Only at Amelia Island, however, will you see all automotive fraternities together on the same day.
That was the goal of founder and chairman Bill Warner, car collector, racer and member of the prestigious Road Racing Drivers' Club. Another goal was to benefit the community. More than $1.8 million has been raised for Community Hospice and other area charities.
"The Pebble Beach concours is rated a little bit higher as No. 1, but in my particular view, Amelia Island is the best concours in America," said former race car driver Brian Redman, three-time Formula 5000 champion and three-time winner of the 24 Hours of Daytona. "The actual people who take part as owners and judges enjoy it so much more."
Redman, who has been a judge since the first Amelia Island concours in 1995 and was its honorary chairman in 2000, explains that – even for VIPs like judges and concours car owners – merely reaching the site of the Pebble Beach show can be difficult, while at Amelia Island, they simply walk a short distance to the field of dreams from their rooms at the adjacent Ritz-Carlton.
Amelia Island's concours is more user-friendly for spectators, who can park at the Fernandina Beach Municipal Airport and catch a shuttle to and from the event for only $15. Admission here is $60 versus $250 at Pebble Beach.
Auctions also make the Amelia Island event special, according to Redman. In 2011, the RM Auction at The Ritz-Carlton, held the Saturday before the concours, posted a record-breaking $24.3 million in the sale of 103 classics. The star, a 1952 Ferrari 340 Mexico Coupe, brought in $4.29 million. Tickets for the auction run around $250, but the cars that will be auctioned can be viewed for free the day before.
Additionally, the Gooding & Company Amelia Island Auction, held at the nearby Omni Amelia Island Plantation, begins at 1 p.m. Friday, March 9, with viewing all day Thursday and Friday morning. The cost of admission is $30.
Still, most of the action occurs during the concours itself. Among the highlights:
- Ginger Rogers' 1929 Model J Duesenberg, the same one that appeared in The Gay Divorcee, the film in which she and Fred Astaire introduced "The Continental"
- The controversial radical rear-engine experimental Corvette XP-819
- Cowboy legend Tom Mix's supercharged Cord 812 roadster (the "coffin-nosed" model in which the daredevil movie star was killed)
- Natalie Wood's Mercedes Benz 300SL, which she had painted pink with "lipstick red" interior; now, it's back to a factory approved silver-blue.
In addition, these automobiles and events are scheduled to receive special attention:
- The Ferrari GTO
- Custom coachwork Cadillacs
- The 50th anniversary of the Shelby Cobra
- A selection of winning entries of the state's legendary endurance classics at Sebring and Daytona, both of which have been won by Elford
Recognized will be honorary chairman "Quick" Vic Elford, a racing legend on both sides of the Atlantic; illustrator Stan Mott, creator of the 1958 Pignatelli GT; and famed driver and broadcaster Sam Posey.
According to 2006 Honorary Chairman Johnny Rutherford, a three-time Indy-winning driver, Elford is in for a good time.
"It was quite an honor to be added to the other names," Rutherford said. "It's a beautiful event and it's always good to be the leader."
Judging is done in the morning; the parade of winning vehicles and the presentation of awards fills the afternoon. Winning owners admire their awards and accept congratulations from peers who silently vow to return with an even better car next year.
By dusk, the car curious are home perusing the photo-filled program and dreaming of what might be in the garage some day.
Florida's 2012 Concours d'Elegance Schedule
- Boca Raton Concours d' Elegance, Feb. 24-26, 2012, bocaratonconcours.com
- Amelia Island Concours d' Elegance, March 9-11, 2012 (always the second full week in March), ameliaconcours.com
- Celebration Exotic Car Festival, April 12-15, 2012, celebrationexoticcars.com
- Winter Park Concours d'Elegance, Nov. 4, 2012, winterparkconcours.com