Thin Skins in the Classic Car World: Can Irreverence Get You Blacklisted?

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jun 21, 2013

I’ve been to a lot of classic car events lately. In advance of a major Dragone Classic Motorcars auction here in Connecticut, I got to pilot a supercharged Duesenberg around downtown Bridgeport, which believe me is nothing like Jay Gatsby’s East Egg. A few days later, I was at the Greenwich Concours D’Elegance with Lance, my stepfather, taking in such exotica as boattail Packards and bright yellow Cords.

Richard Esposito's 1952 Series 62 Cadillac convertible at the Greenwich Concours. (Jim Motavalli photo)Finally, Lance and I spent a blissful morning at the cheerfully informal Caffeine and Carburetors in the tony suburb of New Canaan. Nobody’s really in charge, and there’s no admission fee. It’s not about judging; the only prize you’re going to win is from the raffle. And yet it attracts a mind-blowing array of supercar Ferraris and Lamborghinis (Greenwich, hedge fund central, is just up the road).  
I don’t mind just looking at the cars — I’m an admirer of good design. But Lance is a mechanical engineer, and he isn’t satisfied unless the hoods are up. “Look at the 12-cylinder engine in that fire engine!” he said. To each his own. I like curvaceous fenders and lotsa chrome.

A 1929 Bugatti Type 40 Grand Sport on the block at the Dragone auction. (Jim Motavalli photo)For Craig Fitzgerald, a former Hemmings editor who now writes for Bold Ride and others, concours events are, well, boring. In a story called “Five Reasons Why Concours Suck,” he complained:

I can’t see why anyone would spend three figures to stand around on a hot golf course for entertainment. It’s like going to Sam’s Club and standing in the parking lot for eight hours. I like looking at cars, but in the unnatural setting of a golf course, it’s ridiculous.

A 1947 Plymouth Special Deluxe woodie gleams at the Greenwich Concours. (Jim Motavalli photo)Specifically, Fitzgerald doesn’t like the fact that the cars — many of which were hell-for-leather racers in their day — just sit there doing nothing, not even running. “The primary objective of a concours,” he said, “is for the cars to sit motionless as you listen to some crappy Dixieland band play the hits of the Jazz Age even your ex-flapper great-grandmother is sick of listening to.” Reached in Boston, he told me, "I appreciate what these concours events are all about, but they're just not for me. They have this attitude that it's all super-important, and they're preserving these cars for future generations, but you don't see a lot of kids roaming around."

He doesn’t like the blue-blazer-wearing judges doing white-glove tests for dust, or checking to see if your wiper blades are date-coded. And what about the fact that they give out so many awards that nearly everyone gets one?

Caffeine and Carburetors is an informal event on the streets of New Canaan, Connecticut. That's a Volvo 1800S, also known as the Saint's car. (Jim Motavalli photo)Frankly, I see Fitzgerald’s point but I’m not all that bothered. That’s just THE WAY IT IS. If you go to a ‘50s show, they’re going to sell you crummy hotdogs and blast Danny and the Juniors at you. There are a whole host of vintage races available (some connected to concours events like Pebble Beach) if you want to see ‘em run, and Fitzgerald acknowledged how great those can be when we talked. In Greenwich, there’s a “Grand Tour” before the event that gives the cars some actual exercise.

We could stop here, but the story gets even more interesting. Fitzgerald got a lot of response to his piece, and according to the Autowriters Newsletter, some of it was a bit thin-skinned. Whatever happened to the First Amendment?

Is that a gloriously original Cunningham convertible at Caffeine and Carburetors? You bet it is. (Jim Motavalli photo)Someone named Bethany Sullivan emailed to tell Fitzgerald he would now be persona non grata with a number of aftermarket auto companies involved in sponsoring concours events. A representative of the famed Amelia Island Concours D’Elegance weighed in to say that Fitzgerald would no longer get media passes. "Their reaction was, 'How dare you?'" Fitzgerald said. "But I'm a guy who's made a career out of making fun of people."

Geez. I hope there’s not some kind of unwritten code that you write positive things or else. C’mon, car shows in general are public events. The media’s job in covering it is to tell it like it is, without (as the New York Times would have it) fear or favor. Critics are critical.

Is that a real Porsche 550 Spyder, just like the one James Dean drove? I dunno, do I look like a concours judge? (Jim Motavalli photo)For the most part, the auto industry is good about this stuff. I regularly say nasty things about certain gas-guzzling SUVs, and nobody’s un-friended me on Facebook. I’m always complaining about something — it’s my job as a blogger.

Fitzgerald’s response takes the right tone — he’s not quaking in his boots. “People seem to like to read what I write,” he says. If he gets fired, he can always get his job back filling potholes for the Highway Department. But it’s unlikely to come to that. Gone are the days when some mogul can shout, “You’re finished in this town,” and have it actually stick. Actually, Fitzgerald says he's gotten calls from editors who want to hire him because of the whole contretemps. "It's been gratifying in a lot of ways," he said.

By the way, Fitzgerald also wrote a piece for his Clunker Nation blog about Tom and Ray's junk heaps--the much-discussed Dodge Colt Vista and 1952 MG-TD. Read all about it here.

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