Concours D'Elegance: High-End Car Shows Weather the Recession

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Sep 21, 2011

WESTPORT, CONNECTICUT—I’ve been to thousands of car shows. There’s quite a range, neatly tracking the dimensions of the American class system. The folksy local ones have rows of 57 Chevys, 50s rock blaring on an overheated PA system, and dogs sizzling on the grille. The more formal ones, with a lofty name (concours d’elegance) that’s even in French, feature a lot of blue blazers, classical music, Grey Poupon and million-dollar one-of-a-kind coachbuilt classics from the 1930s and 40s.

I went to one of the latter last week, the Fairfield County Concours d’Elegance, which has grown up in the shade of the older and very successful Greenwich Concours. Both are held in very tony Connecticut enclaves, and they bring out big-deal sponsors—the Westport event was “presented by Porsche.” The fringes are lines with bespoke supercar stands from Bugatti, McLaren and Maybach. Attire tends toward blue blazers, not t-shirts. My fellow Car Talk blogger Jamie Kitman has been a judge at this show, which has grown a lot since the 2004 launch.

I’m of two minds about high-end events like this. I totally appreciate the blue-collar shows, because the owners tend to work on their own cars, actually drive them, and the pride in their accomplishments stand out. At the upscale shows, the cars are delivered fresh from the restorer in covered transport (these owners mostly sign the checks), and nobody drives them. Can you imagine picking up groceries in a Duesenberg?

On the other hand, I actually have Grey Poupon tastes and appreciate the exquisite detailing of those coachbuilt exotics more than rows of ’57 Chevys. And a few of those owners are actually hands-on. My friend Alden Sherman bought his 1938 Bugatti 57S convertible, exhibited in Westport, in 1959 for all of $2,200. He’s a machinist, and he not only does his own work on the car, but also restored a pair of basket-case Type 37 race cars. And he does pick up the groceries in them.

Some cars I really liked at the concours: a pristine early-edition 1965 Sunbeam Tiger (with Ford V-8 power, it’s the Cobra nobody knows about); a 1964 Lancia Flaminia and a 1960 Alfa-Romeo Giulietta Sprint Speciale (showcasing the effortless style displayed by Italian designers of the period); a 1951 Buick Roadmaster woodie that had lived an adventurous life (including time in Africa and France); and a whole lot of Jaguar E-Types (some of them fresh from the barn). I love derelict cars.

The Westport event also includes a field of “barn finds,” and the highlights this year were a 1952 Cunningham C-3 Coupe, still sporting a layer of leaves from its long-term storage outside a Connecticut barn, and a dented, rusted Type 57 Bugatti, which was in the attendant Bonham’s auction and had been sitting since 1966. It sold for $337,000, and the new owner must have a few hundred thousand dollars on hand to “again its former light restore,” to paraphrase Shakespeare in Othello. There were plenty of high-end restorers on hand displaying their wares. The end result would undoubtedly be better than the original car. Over-restoration is a real peril in this business.

I was fascinated to sit in on the Bonham’s auction, not because I was going to bid on anything—I’m a writer, remember? But because I wanted to see how classic car prices are holding up in a recession. As might be expected, the sales results were a mixed bag, with some cars fetching good money and some finding hardly any takers.

Just $13,000 for a ’57 T-Bird with an interesting history. (It was a gift from Edsel Ford?) It was rusty, but running and intact. A very original ’57 Olds 88 Holiday Sedan also seemed cheap at $7,000, but this was a foreign car crowd. Someone had fun with a low-mileage ’86 Fiat Bertone X1/9 for $5,000, and a very nice ‘25 Peugeot Quadrilette for $13,500 (the British auctioneer learned to drive on one).

Other cars did very well. Maybe I’m missing something, but $11,000 seems like a lot for a 1979 Honda Civic CVCC Wagon with 100,000 miles on it. And $43,000 for a barn-find Jaguar XK-150 Roadster? You’d spend at least that much again restoring it. I once turned down one of these for $1,700. (See my story on the cars that got away.)

A bunch of cars weren’t sold, and the online results inventory omits those. A ’55 Austin-Healey BN1 Roadster wasn’t sold at $44,000, probably because its upgrade to 100M spec wasn’t original. I was amazed nobody seemed to want a slightly worn but eminently drivable 1987 Maserati Quattroporte III sedan. It didn’t get any bids, and eventually changed hands for just $2,000. That’s not a misprint.

But then I thought about it, and the result made sense. Like certain V-12-engined 2+2 Jaguar E-Types, cars like this are massively expensive to restore, but don’t fetch a lot on the collector market—everyone wants the sportier models. A four-door Maserati with an automatic? Still, I would have paid $2,000 for the cool-looking thing, which had one of the most sumptuous leather interiors I’ve ever seen. You’d have a lot of fun with it before you drove it into the ground. And there was even a parts car available.

Lot 728, a gorgeous Lancia Flavia convertible from 1964, was a cautionary tale of getting in over one’s head. The owner spent more than $100,000 restoring it, but the car was bid up to only $42,000 before going home a no-sale. Another big red flag: An Aston-Martin DB7 Vantage convertible from 2000, which cost $153,940 new, was bid only to $38,000 (and another no-sale). Super cars just don’t retain their value.

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