The Best of Show winner, a deep blue 1937 Delahaye 135M Roadster Cabriolet, rumbled up Horseshoe Drive and past the panel of judges to the fanfare quintessential at a classic car show.
A car so meticulously restored and chic was to be expected at a classic car show. The location, however, was far from typical – the Concours d’Elegance was held for the first time at the Detroit Institute of Arts, a Beaux-Arts museum in the heart of America’s Motor City.
“Remarkable as it may seem, there has never been an auto show of this caliber in the city of Detroit,” said Richard Vaughan, a veteran auto designer who is part of the advisory team for the event, which begins on 9/18. that an event celebrating the automobile should be held in the city of Detroit, the city that put the world on wheels.”
Events like the Concours d’Elegance, which showcases classic cars from the first half of the 20th century, are usually held at upscale resorts like Pebble Beach on California’s Monterey Peninsula or Villa d’Este on the shores of Lake Como in Italy . With the Detroit event, organizers wanted to celebrate the city’s automotive history.
It was also an attempt to expand the reach of exhibits like these, traditionally aimed at high-end collectors and wealthy individuals. In the heart of the city, Detroit Concours organizers were able to remove some of the physical and financial barriers to exclusivity and make it more accessible to residents.
The vehicle categories known as Classes reflected Detroit’s unique role in the industry. On the museum grounds, 1932 Ford hot rods as well as one-of-a-kind cars from the famous Autorama show, which has been held regularly in Detroit since the 1950s, shared space on the museum grounds with sculptures by Alexander Calder, Auguste Rodin and Tony Smith.
There were also limited production cars from the big three domestic automakers – Ford, General Motors and Chrysler (now part of the global Stellantis group). There were even rare muscle cars of the kind that may have once burned rubber on Woodward Avenue, the street in front of the museum and a thoroughfare long associated with cruising and street racing.
“If you look at our top classes, it’s all about celebrating Detroit,” said Soon Hagerty, senior vice president of brand strategy at Hagerty, the publicly traded classic car insurance company. The company recently bought the rights to the Detroit Concours and numerous others across the country with the aim of preserving and enhancing them for the next generation.
“We really care about what the guests want to see?” said Ms. Hagerty. “And here they want to see the cars that make Detroit so special.”
The Henry Ford Museum, which houses an important classic car collection in nearby Dearborn, Michigan, displayed his radical 1962 Ford Mustang I, a sports car concept that bears little resemblance to the production car that would be named a few years later.
“We look at it as a sort of event in our hometown,” said Matt Anderson, transportation curator at the Henry Ford Museum.
The weekend was structured to encourage local engagement across a wide range of audiences and automotive interests.
On Saturday, two additional exhibits aimed primarily at appealing to younger people were shown at a Cars & Community event in the parking lot of Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers.
On one side of the lot was the Concours d’Lemons, which attracts models like the AMC Gremlin, the Ford Pinto, the Chevrolet Vega, and other oddball vehicles that were primarily made during the American auto industry’s rock bottom of the 1970s and early 1980s . On the other side was a display sponsored by RADwood, a Hagerty events brand, of vehicles from the 1980s and 1990s, many of which have appreciated greatly in value in recent years as they have been prized by aspiring collectors.
Nearby, hundreds of children, many decades from being old enough to get a driver’s license, created their own license plates and keychains, played with toy cars or had their caricature drawn while sitting in a cherry-red convertible.
“It’s a much younger audience,” said Mr. Vaughan. “We want that. We want to invite these people into our hobby and give them a place. And over time they will fall in love with these older cars too.”
Hobbyists hope the opposite is also true – that older collectors are beginning to see the validity of collectibles from more recent decades.
“I always point out that when the Pebble Beach Concours started, the cars they were looking at were only 20 years old,” said Mr. Vaughan.
Hosting a show with more than 3,200 attendees in the heart of Detroit presented its own challenges. For example, parking was limited in the dense neighborhood surrounding the art museum. There was also the question of where, how and in which order the more than 100 precious vintage cars, which are transported individually in closed articulated lorries and lined up early in the morning in front of visitors, are to be unloaded. In addition, organizers had to manage the crowds of pedestrians on one of Detroit’s busiest streets while keeping the museum open to the public.
There was also the question of how to integrate the event into the city.
“We could have looked at it two ways,” said Ms. Hagerty. “One is, let’s find a central place and do everything there, like on Belle Isle,” she said, referring to a park on the Detroit River designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. “Or shall we show this beautiful city?”
The organizers chose the latter. They held a launch event at Beacon Park in the revitalized downtown area. A panel discussion and dinner were held at the historic Argonaut Building, an early GM research and design office now known as the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education and part of the city’s College for Creative Studies. Organizers also coordinated ride-and-drive events in a variety of 1960s-era cars — a Ford Bronco Proto SUV, a Lincoln Continental convertible, a Pontiac GTO muscle coupe — up and down Woodward Avenue, taking attendees head-on into action.
In addition to showcasing the host city, the organizers wanted to represent a diverse spectrum of local car enthusiasts.
The weekend’s celebrations focused on two fascinating local automotive subcultures – one centered around custom Japanese sports compacts and another around contemporary Cadillac performance vehicles. There were also over a dozen cars from Midwestern brands like Studebaker and Packard, versatile and innovative brands that were discontinued in the 1950s and 1960s in the face of industry consolidation.
Some elements of Detroit auto culture were notably absent from the events, such as donks, domestic coupes and sedans with candy-colored paint jobs, bright underlighting, and hugely oversized and often color-matched wheels; baroque Cadillacs or late 20th-century Lincolns with their modified grilles, headlights, Continental tire packs and hood ornaments made famous in blaxploitation movies like The Mack and Super Fly; and lowriders, the hydraulically lowered, little wire wheels, airbrushed, and pinstriped staples of countless, mostly Latino, auto clubs.
The organizers recognized that creating a broader representation of the city’s contemporary car culture is a goal for future events.
“These cars deserve to be celebrated,” said Mr. Vaughan. “You know, this is the first year here. Let’s see how that goes.”