Vintage aircraft are landing at classic car events

The story goes that Frank and Louise Hagerty had a small insurance agency on the shores of Grand Traverse Bay in northern Michigan.

1935 Chrysler Airflow Imperial Coupe and 1936 Waco YKS-6 at Hilton Head airport| Larry Edsall photos

1935 Chrysler Airflow Imperial Coupe and 1943 Boeing E75N1/PG-13D at Hilton Head airport| Larry Edsall photos

The story goes that Frank and Louise Hagerty had a small insurance agency on the shores of Grand Traverse Bay in northern Michigan, where so many of their clients had antique wooden boats that insuring such craft became the Hagertys’ specialty. But it didn’t take very long for the couple to realize that many of their clients also owned vintage automobiles and needed to insure them, and it was all hands on deck, so to speak. They called their son, McKeel, back from seminary to help and Hagerty grew into the world’s largest insurer of classic cars.

I suggested to a Hagerty staffer recently that perhaps the company should consider insuring vintage aircraft as well as old boats and classic cars. The response again showed that Hagerty does its homework. As it turned out, many of those who own vehicles designed not for water or land but for air don’t insure them, instead taking a more fatalistic approach because the chances are that should you fall from the sky, the damage will be well beyond the fender-bender category.

Wow. There’s a slap of reality. But there’s also this spreading reality: Vintage aircraft are showing up at more and more classic car events. A few years ago, Barrett-Jackson made headlines by selling a historic Ford Tri-Motor. Gordon McCall annually hosts the must-go-to party during car week on the Monterey Peninsula, a gathering of classic cars and vintage aircraft on the tarmac at the Monterey Jet Center.

1958 Chrysler New Yorker and 1957 Cessna 172

1958 Chrysler New Yorker and 1957 Cessna 172

Recently, the Hilton Head Island Motoring Festival & Concours d’Elegance staged its inaugural Flights & Fancy Aeroport Gala and Expo. The event featured pairings of aircraft and automobiles, as well as a celebration of the centennial of BMW, which was founded as an aircraft-engine manufacturer and which still uses a blue-and-white, spinning propeller-inspired logo on each of its road-going vehicles.

The Hilton Head airport is located less than half a mile from the site of the motoring festival and concours. The gala was a glitzy fund-raiser on Friday night but anyone who went to the motoring festival on Saturday could take a free shuttle over to see the airplanes and cars.

“Whether it’s cars, airplanes or boats, it’s about saving the heritage of motor vehicles,” said Preston Henne, who recently retired from Gulfstream Aerospace in nearby Savannah, Georgia, and who organized the aeroport event.

Henne said owners of vintage aircraft, automobiles or boats seem to be drawn to other motorized vehicles because of their engines and the technology that drives innovation, and by designs that are inspired by aerodynamics, whether to reduce drag in the air or on the land or in the water.

And after all, there already are shows that combine classic cars and wooden boats, such as Keels & Wheels in Houston.

Planning began several months before the event. Henne said his committee started with the aircraft — through various contacts “we got a good selection of old aircraft,” he said — and then worked with the concours’ car-selection committee to try to pair vehicles, in some cases because they were from the same era, in some cases because what aircraft and automobile had in common was their rarity, in one case simply because of the way both were painted.

In the later case, the owner of a Cirrus SR22 aircraft had his plane painted in the color scheme of the famed Gulf-sponsored Ford GT40 racing car that won at Le Mans in the 1960s. Naturally, the airplane was matched at the event with a modern Ford GT wearing the same blue-and-orange livery.

The events — gala and expo — were successes, but there was one big surprise for Henne and his team: Around 4 p.m. on Saturday, the airplanes needed to head back to their home hangars in South Carolina, Virginia, Florida and Virginia. Engines were started and the planes paraded to the runway and then took off to fly home.

Spectators who were still at the airport surged to the fence to watch the take offs. Henne said it was spectacular, the highlight of the two-day event, because it’s one thing to see airplanes on the tarmac but something else to hear them rev up and to see them take off and fly.

Next year there may be a gala, an expo and a special come-see-the-taxi-and-takeoff event as part of the Flights & Fancy celebration.

And inspired by such an event, next year there may be other concours and car shows adding an aero element to their programs.

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