The Good, the Bad and the Very Strange at Amelia Island

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Mar 10, 2020

AMELIA ISLAND, FLORIDA—I’m driving down Scott Road on Amelia Island, braking for signs that warn of peacocks in the roadway. My mount is a 1964 ½ Ford Mustang with three-on-the-floor, and it’s my premiere ride in a first-edition pony car.

My 1964 1/2 Mustang--with three on the floor! (Hagerty photo)

Hagerty offers the ride-and-drive program for attendees of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, now in its 25th year. My other choices were a two-tone Citroen Deux Chevaux (“two horses”) or an open-topped Ford Bronco. Amelia Island on concours weekend is just a son et lumiere of automotive experiences.

The winnah! Gregory Mason of Jacksonville with his five-speed Cadillac Cimarron. (Concours d'Lemons photo)

Hagerty is also one of the sponsors for the Concours d’Lemons, which is a don’t-miss event. A repeat visitor was a Yugo convertible, a somewhat rare bird I remember driving around a track when it was a new car. This “chick magnet” came with a military police nightstick used to fight off over-eager females.

The "chick magnet." Did you know that Yugo even built a convertible? It was a Hail Mary pass at the end of the line. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Equally cool was a very well-made Geo Metro pickup truck. The owner was looking for Metro parts cars to finish his work—good luck with that. I haven’t seen a Metro on the road since Bill Clinton was President. Some cars were just too nice to be competitors. The Triumph TR8 convertible was a bit of an odd duck, but this one had had a concours restoration. And the VW Microbus didn’t look that bad. But, boy, cars sure could rust back in the day, couldn’t they?

Yes, the new Corvette is mid-engined, but this is the world's only factory rear-engined Corvette. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The overall Lemons winner was hometown favorite Gregory Mason of Jacksonville, whose entry was a much-ridiculed 1986 Cadillac Cimarron, though it could boast of being one of only four so-equipped that year.

The Bentley Continental, seen in downtown Fernandina Beach, is one of my dream cars. But were the shapely rear quarters influenced by the Cadillac sedanette? (Jim Motavalli photo)

The painful thing about million-dollar cars is that, while they were built to be driven, they seldom are. But some of the concours cars took part in a Reliable Carriers tour around the island, ending up in downtown Fernandina Beach for lunch. That was a great chance to see the cars with their engines spitting and spluttering. All of them made it under their own steam, which was not always the case with the vehicles on the show field—several had to be towed.

The Cadillac sedanette of 1949. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Downtown were such priceless million-dollar-plus cars as a Jaguar C-Type that had competed in the Mille Miglia in 2015, and a 1600-cc Porsche-powered Devin with competition history. The latter is a lightweight fiberglass creation with a tube chassis that could have either VW or Porsche power. The car had license plates from the U.S. Virgin Islands, which didn’t stop a bystander from asking if the owner had driven it to the event. “We have amazing powers, but not the ability to drive on water,” he said.

Just married! In a Fiat Abarth, which means close quarters. (Jim Motavalli photo)

There was not one but two AC Bristols. They’re rare under any circumstances. If you saw one you’d think it was an AC Cobra, but before Carroll Shelby got his hands on these cars they were powered by AC’s own four-cylinder engine or, even better, the Bristol six. Any variant is very worthy.

Starting them young. The collector car field needs new blood. (Jim Motavalli photo)

My dream car is the Bentley Continental fastback, and there was a gorgeous manual version in black on the tarmac. Interesting to note, a 1949 Cadillac with a very similar roofline (known as a “sedanette”) was parked nearby. Did the Caddy inspire the Bentley? They’d never admit it.

A Lozier racer with a pair of rakish pilots. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Another special car was a Lozier roadster. The seldom-seen marque was celebrated at the concours this year. Lozier only built cars from 1900 to 1915, but they made a mark as one of America’s top luxury brands. Six or seven made it to Amelia Island, including a sporting model with period-attired race drivers.

The 1934 Duesenberg was certainly eye-catching, but the public seemed to be more intrigued with the tiny two-tone BMW Isetta—with 300-cc power. The crowd-pleaser with the Isetta is opening the door—the whole front of the car is hinged, and opens with the steering wheel and dashboard attached.

This one-off Cadillac Elegante cost $30,000 to build--in the 1950s. (Jim Motavalli photo)

But nobody could miss the 1953 Cadillac Elegante custom that was three years in the making by Hartsdale, New York brothers Dick and Bob Birdsall. The car cost $30,000 to build, and via Italian coachbuilder Rocco Motto has a folding hardtop, dual exhaust through chromed ports, and bronze fittings plated with 24-karat gold. It would have been perfect for a 1950s science-fiction film. The car was found in a collapsed barn, then fully restored.

I never did get straight what this was, though it appeared to be attached to a car museum and charitable foundation called the Klairmont Kollection. (Jim Motavalli)

I also attended the dinner for Roger Penske, Amelia's 2020 honoree, who recently capped off decades of smart business moves with the purchase of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Despite being 83 years old, he has a razor-sharp memory of his formative years. While attending Lehigh, he bought and sold cars for spending money, and then called in sick so he could race on Fridays.

The world's only Godsal starred in a movie with the Man From UNCLE's David McCallum. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Penske shared a car with the late Bruce McLaren at Sebring, and later sold his friend a fast and race-winning car, the Zerex Special. Originally a Cooper, it was rebuilt for American sports car racing, then equipped with Oldsmobile power by McLaren (who called it the Cooper Oldsmobile). Some say that was the start of McLaren, the supercar company that was a sponsor of the dinner. The new McLaren 765LT was displayed on a stand at the dinner—the first public exhibit anywhere.

This record player was special equipment in a 1956 Desoto Fireflite Indy pace car. The special records played at 16 rpm, and skipped a lot. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The show itself was spectacular, and set an attendance record at 23,000. This happened despite coronavirus having recently spread to Florida. All the events were packed, and people could barely move in the host Ritz-Carlton.

This story could be twice as long if I recounted all the glories on the field, but let me point out just one—the Voodoo Gardner Special. It looked like one more red sports car, but it had a fascinating story. Jerry Gardner of Saugerties, New York began the build with a custom chassis and a Cadillac flathead V-8. He then custom-made a fiberglass body of his own design. The work was 50 percent done in 1956 when Gardner was drafted into the Army.

This classy interior belongs to the one and only Voodoo Gardner. It's headed for New Zealand. (Jim Motavalli photo)

By the time Gardner got back, sports cars were plentiful off the shelf, so he bought himself a Jaguar XK120 and left the Voodoo Special in the garage, in a state of suspended animation. It was still there when he died. Now the car has been fully restored by Jeff Hacker of  Undiscovered Classics, a specialist in fiberglass specials. It’s headed for new owners in New Zealand.

This picnic set was attached to a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost whose female owner was a Russian-born silent movie star in Hollywood. (Jim Motavalli photo)

There were hundreds of stories like this at Amelia Island. It’s not the biggest show in the U.S.—Pebble Beach can make that claim—but it’s more manageable, and always a lot of fun.

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