THE FIRST ART OF THE CAR Concours I attended was the third one, just a few weeks after I moved to the Kansas City area in 2009. I had been to vintage automobile museums and shows all over the country, but I knew nothing about the one that took place here in my new hometown.
I learned some things that day. The quality of the eclectic collection of vehicles exhibited — from prewar classics and brass era antiques to postwar European sports cars and Detroit iron from the ‘50s and ‘60s — was exceptional. As I wrote the following day to a friend, “I didn’t realize how good it was going to be, or else I would have invited you to come along.”
Also I learned that you needed to dip yourself in sunscreen and push fluids or go home burned and dehydrated.
Later I learned from Marshall Miller that the last weekend in June was chosen because, in 150 years of recording Kansas City weather conditions, that weekend has historically been the least likely for rain. And when you have million-dollar classics and open wooden- bodied antiques displayed outdoors in a grassy area, no rain is a good thing.
Who’s Marshall Miller? If Art of the Car was the television program Saturday Night Live, Marshall Miller would be Lorne Michaels. He conceived of the event. He approached the Kansas City Art Institute, on whose rolling green grounds the event takes place and for whose students the event raises scholarship money (more than a million so far). He selects the cars to be displayed, choosing from hundreds of applications from owners willing to contribute up to $200 for the honor of being part of the Concours. He amazingly persuades collectors and institutions to transport often multi-million-dollar vehicles to Kansas City to be exhibited outside for a few hours, then packed up and taken back home. Without Marshall Miller, there simply would be no Art of the Car.
The weekend of the Concours, Marshall, in his white shirt and wide brim hat, can be seen seemingly everywhere at once – pointing to a car that needs its tires chocked, calling out for people to help push a car into position, at the back of a darkened room during a panel discussion, and then suddenly, at just the right moment, at front at the microphone, thanking sponsors (39 this year), thanking volunteers (hundreds each year), thanking everyone who contributes to making the Art of the Car Concours the premiere car event in all of the Midwest.
The theme for the Concours this year was “Total Performance – Powered by Ford,” a celebration of Ford’s racing success in the period 1962-70 when Ford won world championships in Grand Prix racing and sports car competition, had four victorious years in a row at Le Mans, won the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500, and achieved other successes in drag racing, off-road, and road rallying events.
At the Saturday panel discussion, Cobra Daytona Coupe designer Peter Brock, Shelby Team driver Bob Bondurant, Shelby Team mechanic and driver Allan Grant, and Shelby collector Steve Volk recapped the story leading up to Ford’s capture of the 1965 World Sports Car Championship title.
As they recounted, when the GT40 replaced the Cobra as the car Ford would use for future championship competition, retired Daytona Coupes could be had for, literally, giveaway prices. Bob Bondurant told how he had bought one for $4000, sold it for $10,000, and thought he’d made a killing. When asked if he wished he had kept the car, worth about $8 million today, Bondurant said no. He had used that $10,000 to start his driving school where, for decades, he has trained future racing champions.
At the end of the 1964 racing season, another Daytona Coupe, showing the wear from racing at Daytona, a GT class win at Le Mans, and speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats, was in atrocious shape. Carroll Shelby found no takers among the employees of Shelby American for this now-obsolete race car, not for $800, or even for $500. At the Saturday night exhibitor’s reception, Marshall Miller announced that, among the 28 vehicles that would be on display representing the “Total Performance” theme, one would be this very 1964 Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe, once unsellable for $500, today worth an estimated $16 million.
FOR TWO OF THE THREE years I was a volunteer for Art of the Car, I had probably the best gig. I worked the morning shift of perimeter security at the field entrance. Each car enters the field from the west side of the grounds from where it is then walked by a placer, about one a minute, to its exact display location. I enjoy this vantage point because… well, every vehicle is a pretty piece of art once parked, but what are they like as machines? What noises do they make coming in, what pops and ticks and groans? Which ones blow blue smoke or sound as if they are running on only five of six cylinders? How expertly will the operator handle turning the beast from the street into the driveway, bringing it to a stop, and then getting it back in motion? And which low-slung British sports car will drag going across the curb onto the grass? Even after no longer being a volunteer, I still like to arrive early and watch from this spot.
And that was my intention to do again this year. The show officially opens at 10 a.m., but I arrived at 7. Before my feet had delivered me to the east entrance, I was passed by a Model A and a Lotus 7 and had observed a 1920s Cadillac being off loaded from a truck. Already parked were some motorcycles and a Tucker Torpedo sedan, disappointing to me since I’ve never heard one run. Then thirty feet in, I fell into my first conversation with an owner. I never made it to the west entrance.
Collector Peter Boyle sat on a low stone wall between the two exceptionally impressive automobiles he had brought from his home in Pennsylvania. To his right was a maroon and cream 1938 Steyr 220 Sport Roadster, a giant Austrian luxury car with flowing fenders and skirted rear wheels, one of only six ever built.
To his left was a black and red Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A SS, featuring the company’s famous twin lightning bolts across the radiator grille, brought to the United States in 1928 and fitted with a coachbuilt convertible body with a rumble seat and a boattail. Boyle pointed out the trim of nickel and German silver, the English walnut wood, and the ostrich hide leather, distinctively different from cowhide leather because of the marks left from where the feathers had been plucked. Later in the day, Marshall Miller described the Isotta as “Drop dead gorgeous.”
But collectors can be a strangely secretive bunch. Boyle told me that he had about ten cars. “What are some of the others?” I asked.
“I can’t tell you.”
Okay. Sure, we wouldn’t want the Russians to get a hold of that information.
“Have you other projects in the works?”
“I can’t tell you. Well, I could tell you, but you know what I’d have to do afterwards.”
Yes, yes, you’d have to kill me. Was he being funny?
Next I saw a red 1963 Ghia L6 4 with a beautiful tan leather interior. The large coupe, a marriage between Italian coachbuilding and American torque, was reliably powered by a Chrysler wedge engine.
“Are you familiar with the Ghia?” asked the man doing some last minute polishing.
“Yeah, Sinatra had one.”
“Frank had two,” he said, like he knew him personally, “as did others in the Rat Pack.”
I revisited this car later in the day, after the crowd had come, and I overheard someone exclaim, “That’s a Karmann Ghia!”
I was charmed by the somewhat petite black and white 1929 Bugatti Type 43/44 Roadster. I associate the name Bugatti with mammoth- size motorcars. The engine from the Bugatti Type 41 was later used to power railway cars. The Bugatti Veyron ‘s 16-cylinder engine put out 1000 horsepower. But, except for the massive drum brakes which left little visible daylight through the wheels, this little Bugatti seemed downright MG-sized.
For comparison, next was a 1934 MG PA, British racing green with a Union Jack on each side, with twin carburetors and a front-mounted supercharger. Owner Jack Kahler had found the car in New Zealand in 2000, brought it back to his home in Littleton, Colorado, and spent ten years searching the world for the parts to restore it. A nice extra touch — behind the folding full windshield were a pair of Brookland racing screens.
Next to attract my attention, because it was blowing a little steam from its radiator as it made its way to its display position, was a 1910 Maytag Model A touring car. Yes, we’re talking about the same Maytag that made washing machine so reliable that repairmen in commercials were lonely with nothing to do. But of more significance to automotive history buffs is that the Maytag was designed by Fred and August Duesenberg. And this particular motorcar still wears a faded but still readable “12061” painted on its radiator, how Nebraska identified registered vehicles in the days before issuing license plates.
Struggling up an incline to its display position was a red-with-tan-leather speedster whose appearance suggested mid-1930s England. But when the leather straps were unbuckled and the left-side hood lifted, instead of the tall ohc straight six I expected to see, there down low, immediately recognizable, was a Ford flathead V8. The car, I learned, was a prototype designed by Charles Godsal in 1935, with a chassis by Research Engineers and a body by Corsica. The transmission, from the pre-automatic era, featured a mechanical preselector, and the slippage issue was due to “bands not grabbing,” the owner told me. It never entered production, but the prototype had starred in a movie set during World War II, and then remained neglected in a London warehouse until discovered by Jerry Old of Leawood in 1977.
The car is in the process of being sold again, and, fearing more death threats, I didn’t dare ask Jerry for how much. But what car enthusiast doesn’t dream about discovering some one-of-a-kind prototype in a barn or a storage unit and being able to purchase it for a pre-inflation dollar figure a mortal might be able to scrap up? So, dear reader, to indulge your right time/right place/right price fantasy, I asked Jerry to share with us what he paid for the Godsal back in 1977.
He wouldn’t even tell me that!
Soon after I ran into local collector/restorer Victor Carter who was displaying his blue 1965 Austin-Healey Sprite. And, though I didn’t specifically ask, he was only too willing to volunteer a dollar figure.
“Three thousand dollars.”
He waved at the whole field. “I probably have less money invested than any other car out here. And twenty two hundred of that was for paint work, which I can’t do. But the rest of it…” He pointed to himself.
“Look, I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. I don’t run around at night. My wife always knows where I am. I’m out in the garage.”
And as Victor and I talked, our conversation was interrupted often by a steady stream of gentleman after gentleman of a certain age who came up to shake his hand and tell him about the Sprite or Midget from when they were young that they had had, they had drove, they had raced, they had loved, and they now missed.
While we’ve touched upon the subject of the collector car world revolving around gentlemen of a certain age (ignoring that they also tend to be of a certain socioeconomic category), allow me a moment to mention a couple of programs addressing the generational issue. Hagerty, a company that specializes in collector car insurance, sponsors the “Operation Ignite Youth Judging Program.” With the goal “to inspire a new generation of car collectors and connoisseurs,” participants, ages 7 to 16, get a t-shirt, get to interact with car owners, and “receive guidance from experienced judges.” Marshall Miller described the importance of the program this way: “If young people don’t become interested and involved, who’s going to buy our cars?”
And another question to ask is who is going to restore and maintain these cars? Luckily an answer comes from McPherson College, about three hours west of Kansas City, They have a nationally recognized automotive technology program (supported by collectors like Jay Leno) which offers the only bachelor’s degree program in auto restoration. At the Saturday evening reception I met Brian Martin, director of projects, representing McPherson at the Concours with a 1959 Ford Skyliner that had been restored at the school. I also met two McPherson students interning with Evergreen Historic Automobiles of Lebanon, Missouri, there to help with their three-car exhibit of a grand red 1907 Locomobile Model E, a grander black 1937 Delahaye 135M Cabriolet, and the grandest of all, a green 1932 Duesenberg Model J Derham Tourster.
BY THIS TIME CARS WERE COMING onto the field faster that I could keep up with. But one car in particular caught my eye. I knew local collector J.B. Hodgdson had recently picked up a ’36 Buick Roadmaster. I hadn’t seen it yet, but when a stunning, yellow convertible sedan with wide whitewalls and sidemount spares appeared, even from a couple of hundred feet away, I knew I could be looking at none other. When I caught up with J.B., he told me he’d had an interesting time making his way from Johnson County, Kansas, to the show in the 80-year-old car.
“I lost my brakes,” he said with a smile one can only have afterwards.
Max, J.B.’s mechanic, was following him in a ’36 Ford. “I saw J.B. shoot through a red light, and I thought, what is he doing?”
“It’s not really yellow,” I said to J.B., now seeing his Buick up close. “Butterscotch?”
“Honey mustard’s what I call it,” he said, again with that smile.
About four hours later, I heard Marshall Miller’s voice across the PA system: “J.B. Hodgdon, come up here. You have an award.”
Local steam car enthusiast Larry Delmont arrived with his red 1910 Stanley touring car, a reminder that, 106 years ago, there was not universal agreement on what a car should be like. The steering wheel is on the right. The chassis is highlighted, painted a bright yellow with pin stripes on the axles and leaf springs. And under the small round hood is not an engine but a boiler to produce steam to push the pistons in the two cylinders that can be seen when the floor boards are lifted.
The first thing Larry said when he saw me was “I still owe you a ride.”
Looking at all the knobs, valves, and other alien-looking controls, I had an easy answer: “I still very much want one.”
I saw a beautiful light blue 1970 Dodge D-100 pickup enter the field. I love that a select few light trucks are being included in the vehicle selection for Art of the Car, and it’s great to see a non-Ford-or-Chevy. It was not so great to look inside the otherwise time-capsule interior and see a modern audio system. It’s sort of like watching the movie Hoosiers and noticing the players are wearing Air Jordans.
Nearby and much more interesting from a car audio history point of view was a 1957 Imperial convertible equipped with “Highway Hi-Fi.” From 1956 to 1958, Chrysler offered as an extra-cost accessory a factory-installed, underdash record player with shock proof mounting and a high pressure stylus that played special low speed, 16 2/3 rpm records designed for operation in a moving vehicle. We make fun of 8-track tapes now, but it is easy to see that when they appeared in 1965, they were a vast improvement over earlier attempts at in-car selectable music like Highway Hi-Fi.
More vintage equipment could be seen on a 1955 Mercury Montclair convertible in Gulfstream Blue. The spare tire on the sturdy factory Continental kit didn’t just till back for trunk access but was mounted on a bar that swung the tire up and to the left out of the way. On the dash was an electronic headlight dimmer and a traffic light prism. Under it a swivel-out Kleenex dispenser. And under the hood was like looking at a 1955 color photo from the product brochure, with such perfect period details as the yellow air cleaner and the glass jar for the windshield washer fluid. Such restoration perfection had been no short journey for a vehicle purchased for $800 from a farmer’s field in 1994.
And then came the Dymaxion. It pulled onto the field and was already surrounded by a crowd before it could be backed into its display location, seemingly to the annoyance of its two operators. But seriously, what should they expect when driving a Dymaxion? Designed by Buckminster Fuller, the architect, systems theorist, and “Spaceship Earth” philosopher who envisioned a world where people lived and worked in geodesic domes who also imagined people being transported in teardrop-shaped microbuses equally at home in the air and water. Unfortunately the three-wheeled, front-drive, rear-steering Dymaxion — the name of which was coined by Fuller by combining the words dynamic, maximum, and tension — isn’t very much at home on the road, which might have explained the operators’ grumpiness. Or it could be because the fishbowl-like design must make occupants feel like ants under a magnifying glass. Three prototypes were built in the early 1930s, but the stability issue was never ully addressed, and the Dymaxion never entered production. This recreation was built in Pennsylvania and the Czech Republic for the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville.
I next came across a 1934 Lincoln KB All- Weather Semi-Collapsible Cabriolet, a sturdy looking beast and the 2014 Art of the Car People’s Choice Award winner. One of only two produced that Depression year by coachbuilder Brunn, this one was for the Hardenburg family, owners of the Plaza Hotel in New York. Like a town car, the chauffeur was usually left exposed to the elements, but the rear compartment had, behind the full rear doors, a fold-down section of the top so occupants could enjoy fresh air. But the rooftop cigar-smoke vent indicated that the top was typically left up. Looking inside at the wool-upholstered overstuffed sofa of a rear seat, one could picture a captain of the hospitality industry dressed in a dark, pinstriped, double- breasted suit enjoying such a smoke, hiding behind the Wall Street Journal while passing block-long breadlines at soup kitchens.
The Lincoln’s owner, Dennis Kiefer of Memphis, took a break from shooing people away from touching the car to show me some of the documents he had. Gull Gray was the color according to one piece of paperwork. He even had pictures of the original chauffeur who Kiefer had met in the 1980s, a small man who the Hardenburg family had generously allowed to live in retirement in a small bungalow on their estate. “They just didn’t expect him to live so long.” The lower class can have such bad manners.
I looked at the driver’s compartment where this small, jockey-like man worked. Ever the car romantic I am, I wondered if, with all the precision that went into the design and construction of the Lincoln, the chassis too reflected this. That giant steering wheel, the pedals that sink into the floor, and the torque monster of a 414-cubic-inch V-12, maybe operating this Lincoln wasn’t labor. Maybe the chauffeur’s work was a pleasurable joy he got to experience everyday.
“What does it drive like?” I asked.
Shattering delusions, Kiefer answered, “Like a big old truck.”
AT 10:05 A.M., MARSHALL came on the P.A. system and announced that “the last car is on the field.” So many vehicles, so little time.
My notebook became ridiculous at this point: “Healy 100M, ‘69 XK-E, George Barris-built ’41 Ford, ’64 Porsche 356C cabriolet, ’60 Metropolitan named Lucy, ’62 Ferrari 250 GTE, ’70 Mercedes 280SL, ’62 Silver Cloud II, ’59 Corvette, ’38 Packard Twelve formal sedan, ’25 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost Pall Mall Tourer, ’41 Nash convertible, ’52 Jag XK120, ’37 Chrysler Airflow, ’40 Packard 120 convertible, ’35 Chevrolet coupe, ’56 Chev Bel Air with dual carbs, ’57 AC Bristol, ’61 Pontiac Ventura, and ’32 Packard 902 Roadster Coupe with a custom-made Louis Vuitton rear-mounted trunk.”
Motorcycles fared no better: “Vincent HRD Rapide, ‘18 Indian Powerplus, ’47 Velocette Mac, ’11 Shaw, ’63 BSA Rocket Gold Star, ’53 Moto Guzzi Astore, ’75 Norton Commando café race, ’47 Indian Chief with a suicide shifter and a sidecar, and ’65 Kawasaki SG-50 with a solo seat, one of the first 50 Kawasaki motorcycles imported to the United States.”
There was no shortage of cars to represent the “Total Performance – Powered by Ford” racing theme: recreations of a 1919 Model T fairgrounds racer and the 1935 Miller-built, a Ford-powered Indy car, a 1964 Lotus-Ford Indy 500 car, a 1964 Shelby King Cobra pro series racer, a 1965 Shelby DeTomaso P70 Can Am racer, a 1968 Ford GT40 used in the production of the film “Le Mans,” a 1969 Ford Telladego, Ford’s answer to the Dodge Charger Daytona and Plymouth Superbird, and numerous original 289 and 427 Cobras.
Any number of cars were deserving of an entire magazine article.
- A 1952 Nash Healey, an Italian-bodied, American-powered sports car that might have competed better with the Corvette and Thunderbird had it not, at $7,000, cost nearly twice as much.
- A 1959 Rambler Rebel with “Nash seats” that reclined down to form a bed, a feature designed to be of convenience for campers and salesmen, but unsurprisingly was also popular with teenagers who parked in secluded locations.
- A replica of the 1938 Gulf Miller “Preston Tucker Special” featuring an aluminum body, four-wheel drive, and a six-cylinder Miller engine tilted on its side, the first rear-engine car to race in the Indy 500.
- A black 1936 Auburn 852 S/C Boattail Speedster with a dash plaque which read: “This confirms that this AUBURN AUTOMOBILE has been driven 101 miles per hour before shipment – Ab Jenkins.”
- A black and red 1930 Cadillac V16 Murphy convertible sedan.
- A 1953 Allard J2X, Cadillac powered and Carroll Shelby driven.
- A silver ’67 Aston Martin DB6 that James Bond, when he was still Sean Connery, would have been right at home in.
Sadly I paid little attention to Fred Fischer’s French racing blue with a red stripe 1957 Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta, which ironically also happened when Fred drove it to high school in the early ‘70s when his classmates were more crazy over Mustangs and Camaros than some old, skinny-tired import.
There was a stunningly beautiful 1929 Pierce-Arrow Model 133 touring car with no one around it. Anywhere but Art of the Car this might have been the star of the show.
OF THE PEOPLE’S CHOICE Awards, first place went to the Auburn Speedster, which also won the “Gatsby” Award. Second place went to the Tucker. The Isotta Fraschini came in fourth place and was also awarded Tivol “Jewel of a Car.” Fifth place went to the multiple-race-winning Shelby Daytona Coupe, insignificant compared to the trophies it won on the track fifty year earlier.
The People’s Choice Award for motorcycles went to the 1918 Indian Powerplus, though the Motorcycle Entrants’ Choice Award went to the 1953 Moto Guzzi Astore, and the Preservation Award to the 1947 Velocette Mac.
The award J.B. Hodgdon won for his 1936 Buick convertible sedan was third place in the Hagerty Youth Judging Experience. First place went to a 1960 Cadillac Series 62 convertible. I’ll draw no conclusion why the very visibly pregnant Hagerty rep Nicole Borghardt awarded the Hagerty “Most Like to Get a Claim From” Award to the 1959 Rambler Rebel. Maybe she and her husband really like Nash seats.
Other awards of note: The 1934 MG PA won Hyman Ltd.’s “Spirit of the Hobby” Award. Larry Carl with the Automobile Dealers Association of Great Kansas City presented the “One for the Ages” Award to the 1932 Duesenberg Model J Derham Tourster.
Two “Meet the Legends” Awards were awarded, one by Peter Brock to the 1938 Steyr 220 Roadster, and the other by Bob Bondurant to, no surprise, a 1964 Shelby Cobra.
And Marshall Miller, of course, was given the last word. The Chairman’s Award went to the 1929 Bugatti Type 43/44 Cabriolet.
OVERWHELMED AND HAVING SOON to be elsewhere, I left a couple of hours before the end. But the skies had become increasingly gray as the afternoon went on.
The following day, I checked with Victor Carter. I wanted to make sure that there hadn’t been a sudden downpour, and I had missed million dollar cars sliding into one another in the mud as everyone made a madcap dash to the exit. No such ending to the story. Victor told me, “They started to leave about 10 minutes early.” Driving his ’65 Sprite home, “It didn’t rain on me until Swope Park.”
Ten years and still not an Art of the Car that has gotten rained on. At this point, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Marshall Miller has that kind of pull with God.
All photographs by Bob Dinkins, the official photographer for the 2016 Art of the Car Concours.