AMELIA ISLAND, FLORIDA—The Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance is, as the name implies, elegant, and thus far too toney for the likes of me. Or so I thought, anyway. This year I finally made it down—it helps that my brother moved to Fernandina Beach five miles away—and I found that founder Bill Warner sets the tone—it’s pretty down to earth, with Southern hospitality the keynote.
So in the spirit of Amelia Island I won’t write about the high-end, million-dollar cars—of which there were many—but about the screwy one-off concepts that were abject failures in their time (but pretty fascinating now). The category was “Concepts Beyond Detroit,” meaning these were visions unfettered by the Big Three. They began with big dreams—series production!—and ended with a few, or just one, built. Every one of these entrepreneurs wanted to be Elon Musk, but there’s a reason Tesla is the only really successful automotive startup since Chrysler in the 1920s.
Exemplar I. The car, built in Italy in 1967, was supposed to make Ford, GM and Chrysler forget all about chrome. It didn’t work, but the Exemplar stands as an endearing tribute. I told the full story of it in the New York Times here. The car took “Best in Class” at Amelia.
The Manta Ray. This jet-age car, with a freestyle fiberglass dash seemingly borrowed from the Flintstone chariot, was constructed on a 1951 Studebaker chassis by Glenn Hire and Vernon Antoine. It’s like a 1949 Ford on steroids, with a neat jet airplane nose cone. The public hasn’t seen the Manta Ray in 60 years.
According to Autoweek:
[T]he car is…an interesting example of the kind of creative cross-pollination that was happening between automotive designers and customizers in the postwar era. In the Manta Ray, we have a couple of California builders running with a design cooked up by Harley Earl, who got his start in the West Coast coachbuilding scene before developing the Buick Y-Job.
Covington Shark. In which a perfectly good 1962 Porsche met its demise to serve as a donor for Henry Covington’s Shark, built along “scientific principles.” Godawful, really. The Porsche survives in the instrument panel and the steering wheel. Six Sharks were made, and a convertible version was shown at Amelia in 2013.
Paxton Phoenix. The manufacturer of the famous supercharger, Robert Paxton McCullough, had big car dreams, and had noted stylist Brooks Stevens design this baby circa 1953. One ultra-cool feature is the retracting cable-operated hardtop (long before Ford pulled off the same trick). McCullough wanted steam power, and spent $1 million on that quest. The actual car, which still has only 900 miles on it, now has a Porsche engine and transmission.
Ultra Modern. A fellow named Leo Lyons built this car based on a 1950 Mercury. It looks like “the car of the future” as seen in sci-fi comic books. But it was a nice, professional construction job, and has been beautifully restored. Plans were made for 10 of these but, alas, the Amelia example is the only one. Great attention to detail, down to the rocket-ship instruments.
Mohs SafariKar. I nominate the Mohs as the ugliest car ever built, bar none. A product of Bruce Mohs’ Mohs Seaplane Corporation in Madison, Wisconsin, it was designed for hunting big game in Africa—the two rifles in the back hinted at that use—but it never went overseas. A 1969 International TravelAll is the base. Unique features include three-abreast seating and doors that slide out on metal rods. Three were built; two survive. Somebody cared enough to spend 4,800 hours on the restoration.
Standing outside in the pouring rain with my cameras getting soaked, a short but freakishly odd-looking truck rolled by. Or was it a Rolls Royce beaten senseless with the Ugly Stick and hopped up on steroids? I had no clue, but then I heard someone behind me say, “Hey, there’s a SafariKar!
The Fascination. This emerged circa 1962, and it must have been the absolutely weirdest thing on the roads of Sidney, Nebraska. Built by Paul M. Lewis under the influence of something or other, it’s shaped like a teardrop with a long, long tail. It’s exceptionally narrow and long enough to make parking difficult, but passengers sit in splendor on crushed red velvet.
The aim, once again, was the car of the future, capable of 130 mph and 180-degree turning capability. Lewis had a partner—tractor cab manufacturer Egging Manufacturing of Gurley, Nebraska—and the construction quality is really good. The Amelia car was built in 1974, so the dream stayed alive for more than a decade. Lewis said he would power the car with a Noble Gas Plasma Engine, but that never happened. Five Fascinations were built, all survive, and are in the hands of just two obsessed owners.
Are cars like these being built today? Sure. Dreams never die. We’ll be celebrating them at Amelia Island in 2060. As a bonus, here's video on another quixotic creation, Preston Tucker's Tucker automobile. The last one built was on the Amelia Island show field, and it's going for auction in Fort Lauderdale next month. Estimate: $950,000 to $1.2 million: