The pre-war class of MG sports and racing cars was a special little corner of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, held Saturday after the weatherman faked us all out by declaring Sunday a rain day, which it turned out not to be.
Here was an impressive group of the doughty little cars, celebrating the 90th anniversary of the first of them rolling out of Morris Garages in Oxford, England, to start the MG Car Company.
MGs have always been favorites of mine, so I naturally gravitated to the cluster of cars that ranged from the famed aerodynamic 1935 MG PA/PB race car known as Leonidis to an authentic 1933 MG L1 Magna police car and a lovely green 1935 MG Pa that, along with its costumed owners, eventually won the Most Fashionable award at the concours.
While admiring the MGs, I encountered a familiar and quite-unexpected face, that of Jeff Zwart, the Pikes Peak Hill Climb champion driver, author and filmmaker, who is best known for his love of and loyalty to the Porsche brand.
Last year, Zwart showed a car from his personal collection at the Amelia concours, one of the very first Porsche 356 Gmund coupes produced in 1949. The day before the 2018 concours, he was an honored presence at the Porsche Werks Reunion.
Yet here he was, not with the large contingent of Porsches at the show but with the MGs. And with good reason. Zwart was showing another rare early car, a baby-blue 1929 MG M Type that belongs to his 90-year-old dad, Bob Zwart.
Of course, the erudite Zwart had a wonderful story about it.
“My parents met on a blind date in an MGTC; they just had their 65th wedding anniversary, so it’s pretty cool,” Zwart told me. “It always meant a lot to the family, the MG brand, so he had the opportunity to get this one. He found it in the Penny Saver little newspaper.
“He couldn’t really afford it and wanted to buy it and didn’t know what do. He carried the ad in his wallet in his back pocket for months. I finally told my mom, get the ad out, I called the lady and it was still available, so I bought it for him and surprised him with it on his birthday.
“He spent 10 years restoring it himself, and it sits here today. He can’t drive anymore, but I can give him rides in it and everything’s OK. I drive it quite bit.”
Zwart’s parents’ names, Bob and Margie Zwart, were on the show’s placard with the car, although they were unable to attend. But Jeff seemed to be doing a great job of keeping the MG flame alive, just as he does for early Porsches.
Then there was that MG police car, owned by Bill and Sarah Richey, with Bill appropriately dressed as a member of the British constabulary. He carried an antique billy club and an ancient set of handcuffs.
“This is a 1933 MG L1 police car from Lancashire, England, one of seven delivered in 1933,” Richey said before ringing the raucous bell that’s set in front of the radiator. “Only two are left, now. The other one’s in Japan.
“It’s about an 80-mph car, put back totally the way it was originally. I have the bill of sale and a picture of it at the police department, so we went from there and put it back the way it was originally. It’s a pretty rare car and a lot of fun.”
The MG Class winner was a famous race car in England during its era, a 1934 MG NA Special, now owned by Brenda B. Benzar, who wore an old-school crash helmet with a checkerboard pattern around its brim.
This MG was originally owned and driven by an illustrious female driver of the 1930s, Doreen Evans, said Benzar, who held a thick scrapbook about the car’s history, rich with period photos of Evans’ exploits. Benzar pointed out that Evans also at some point drove the Leonidis, which was standing nearby.
Benzar’s MG was one of three identical cars purchased new by Evans’ father, a garage owner and motorsports enthusiast, for Doreen and her two brothers to drive in competition. The cars came without bodies, Benzar noted, and were fitted at the garage with lightweight aluminum bodies without doors.
“If you look back at the literature from the ’30s, their pictures are all over the place,” Benzar said. “You can see them together campaigning.
“It was a trials car, which is why it has knobby tires on the back.”
Once the MG was restored, Benzar continued its competitive streak, taking part in a number of historic road rallies, including the famed Mille Miglia in Italy.
“It’s a wonderful car that my daughter and I entered in the Italian Mille Miglia,” she said. “This is her helmet! I wore it in honor of her; she couldn’t come. We had such a great time with this car. We finished (the rally) and she was such a great navigator.”
Benzar spoke of how the MG was plagued with electrical problems during the Mille, and she and her daughter, Kira, were forced at one point to drive at night by flashlight.
“She held it over her head and lit my way because we had no headlights. It was a fabulous time.”
Moving up a small hill at The Golf Club of Amelia Island at the Ritz Carlton, where the concours was held, I came upon the class of Auburns, this year’s honored marque, with the beautiful cars from the late 1920s and ’30s in a stunning array.
Five of the Auburns standing in a row were strikingly similar, all brilliantly painted with dark-gray bodies and purplish-blue fenders and trim. All from 1933 or 1934, they were each different versions of Auburn’s top-drawer V12-powered models.
Not surprisingly, they were all owned by a single couple, Bob and Barbara Parfet of Hickory Corners, Michigan.
“We have a little museum there,” Bob Parfet said, speaking of the Gilmore Museum. “It’s one my grandfather started that I now run. It’s open to the public. It’s quite a place, starting from the very beginning (of the automobile). We have 400 cars on display.”
Parfet told a condensed version of the Auburn story from the time his cars were built.
“The Auburn Motorcar Company in the early ‘30s was struggling, as were they all,” he said. “So in 1933, they decided they’d throw a Hail Mary. They took their car and tried to upgrade it. They put a V12 Lycoming engine in it, two-speed rear end, power-assisted brakes, all this stuff, and came out with five models that year. They’re pretty well sought-after by Auburn people.”
The first one of the Auburns that Parfet bought was a Phaeton four-door convertible, and the group evolved from there.
“Then I got the Speedster,” he said. “We redid it and decided to make it the same color we had on the other one. Then someone said, you ought to buy all five. You’ve got the Phaeton, the Speedster, the Cabriolet, the Sedan and the Brougham. They’re all restored to original in the same colors.”
While the Auburn “Boattail” Speedster is the best-known model among the five, the two-door Brougham pillarless sedan is the rarest and, Parfet said, his favorite because “it runs the best.” He and his museum people totally rebuilt that car after its body was found in a field and, amazingly, the correct-numbered chassis was found some time later.
“There’s only two of them left,” he noted. “I gave the Speedster to my wife. She’s very possessive of it.”
After the classic Auburns, I took a sharp turn to a more-quirky class, Chrysler Concept Cars from the 1940s through the ’60s. There among the oddly advanced-looking vehicles, as luck would have it, I ran into the perfect car guy, Ralph Gilles, the head of design for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and a regular at the Amelia Island Concours.
Gilles pointed out Chrysler’s “bold and experimental” concepts that came from the fertile mind of legendary designer Virgil Exner, famed for his sleek tailfins, as well as Ghia of Italy. It was kind of amazing chatting about great Chrysler designs with the main man while surrounded by the company’s concept cars from an earlier time.
“Obviously, Virgil Exner’s XNR starts off the whole conversation about how important design is to the automotive scene,” Gilles said. “It always has been, and I think the Americans and the Italians kind of figured it out, man.”
Another piece of brilliant design was parked on the other side of the field among the sharply evocative Ferraris, including N.A.R.T race cars. The Italian beauty was a 1970 Ferrari 365 GTB/4, part of a special concours class of the so-called Daytonas that marked a half century since the Pininfarina-penned coupes first appeared on the streets and competed on race tracks.
Tom Pappadopoulos of Huntington Station, New York, was showing the ’70 Daytona, a so-called “plexinose” model because of the broad band of plastic composite that spanned the front of the car, covering the headlights in a clear, aerodynamic form.
“It’s a very early plexinose Daytona, very reminiscent of the car that was introduced at the Paris Salon, the first iteration of the Daytona,” said Pappadopoulos, owner of the Autosport Designs restoration business that was founded by his surgeon dad, Dino. “Having been the fastest car of its day, they’re great GT cars, and we restored this one top to bottom.
“It actually came from California, and it was in pieces. All together and matching, but the engine was out of it.”
The plexinose is original, he noted, which is a good thing because “They’re quite expensive, but you can still get them.”
Autosport Designs is located on Long Island just outside Manhattan, Pappadopoulos said. “We’ve done many Ferraris, Astons, Porsches; it’s a labor of love.”
This Daytona, though spectacular, is no garage queen, he added. “Since restoration, which was about four years ago, it’s done four-and-a-half thousand miles.
“It gets driven seasonally, obviously because we’re in the Northeast. It’s maintained regardless, and in this case, it got a hefty cleaning so we could bring it to the concours.”
Standing in the warm Florida sunshine while NYC suffers through another brutal winter, Pappadopoulos noted how much he enjoys coming to the Amelia Island show.
“I think it’s better than Pebble Beach (Concours) on occasion,” he said. “It’s more laid back.”
Every year, the Amelia Island Concours impresses with at least one very imaginative special class. This year, it was a class of Hunting Cars, the vehicles specially outfitted for driving through rough terrain by well-heeled hunting parties.
Among them, a 1926 Rolls-Royce P1 Shooting Brake, or station wagon to us colonials; a strangely transformed Jeep wagon; a rare 1958 Porsche 597 Jagdwagen, designed for the military; and the incredible 1949 Buick Kimeno, uniquely designed by General Motors engineers for use specifically on the sprawling King Ranch in South Texas.
Just as impressive was the presence of the fifth-generation co-owner of the family spread, Tres Kleburg, who spent the day regaling spectators with tales of the Kimeno and life on the famous King Ranch.
“I’m fifth generation and my grandkids are seventh generation,” he told me. “I’m Richard M. Kleburg, the third, my grandfather was senior, my father was junior, and I’m the third. But I go by Tres, which is three in Spanish.
The Buick was something of a gut reaction by GM folk after learning in the 1940s that the King Ranch used Fords for its hunting cars, Kleburg said.
“In the mid-40s, 1946 somewhere in that time frame, a group of General Motors executives came down to the ranch to go hunting with Bob Kleburg, my father’s brother,” he related. “At that time, all the hunting cars we had were converted versions that were cut down with wooden boxes on them, canvas tops and leather seats. But they were all Fords.
“They said, why don’t you have any General Motors cars, and he said because the Fords were more durable so that’s what we drive. When they are no longer usable as driving cars, we converted them to hunting cars because the bodies rust out and all that.
“So they went back to General Motors and went to their engineering department and said, guys, we’re going to build a hunting car. It took them three years and in October of 1949, they delivered the car to my grandfather. Its debut was the National Field Trials that were being held at the ranch in November.”
Seven-year-old Tres went out with the Buick driven by his uncle, but he huddled on the floor in the back of the topless car “because it was so cold.”
“The judge (of the field meet) sat in the front seat and that was what we went around in all day,” he said.
The car had been sitting in a museum in Kingsville, about 250 miles south of San Antonio, since 1970, he added. They enlisted the help of a neighbor and experienced car guy, Bob Smith, to get the car in running condition and in shape to show. “He talked us into getting it restored and getting the engine running so we could get it out here.”
Kleburg pointed out a repaired hole on the left side in one of the rifle racks built onto the car.
“My dad was putting his rifle in one of these, and when he pushed it in, it went off and put a hole in that thing,” he said. “Lucky no one was near it.”