They call the coastal area south of Charleston, South Carolina, the Lowcountry (one word) because that’s what it is, a scenically marshy region that sits barely above sea level. The major draw to the region is the wealthy tourism enclave of Hilton Head Island, which every year hosts one of the finest and friendliest car weekends in the nation.
Called the Hilton Head Island Concours d’Elegance and Motoring Festival, the events actually begin a week earlier with vintage racing in nearby Savannah, which claims the distinction of being the birthplace of Grand Prix racing in America – from 1908 through 1911, cars and drivers from around the world competed on a 25-mile course south of the city.
This was my first trip to South Carolina, not knowing what to expect as I geared up to cover the Hilton Island Concours last Sunday and, as it turned out, an unexpectedly impressive Car Club Showcase that takes place the day before on the same fairways of the Port Royal Golf Club.
And while I did expect the Sunday concours to be pretty great, judging by what I’d heard and read, I was happily surprised by not only the top-drawer collector cars on the field but by the terrific range of automobiles and motorcycles from every level of value and interest, and the stories their owners told.
“People love those individual stories,” said Carolyn Vanagel, the affable president of the automotive festivities, who has been with the event for the past 15 of the concours’ 17 years.
Diversity is an important concept for the concours, Vanagel added, which serves to set Hilton Head apart from similar events around the country.
From the top collectors in the world – renowned French car collectors Peter and Merle Mullin of Los Angeles received an award as 2018 Pinnacle Collectors – to the dedicated enthusiasts who bring their prized possessions to show, everyone seems to have a place here.
“A lot of it is you have the woman or man who has the one car in their collection, that’s still very much a part of our event, with the individual story, as well as the big collectors who we all know,” Vanagel said in an interview during the event. “We don’t want to lose those, that individuality, of getting the diversity of what we’re offering on the show field as well as the diversity of collectors. And that really has become signature at Hilton Head.”
The show was indeed a relaxed smorgasbord of more than 200 vehicles, from stunning coachbuilt classics, such as the fabulous trio of French beauties that the Mullins brought, to such quirky rides as a class of three-wheeled Morgans from the U.K. and a gaggle of odd little micro cars.
There were magnificent antiques and fine classics, as well as American muscle cars, and such ultra-valuable classics as a 1932 Mercedes-Benz 500K roadster and a 1938 Peugeot Darl’Mat Special Sport, as well as a 1957 BMW Isetta 300 bubble car and an unusual 1965 Citroen 2CV with a wagon back, loaded with fresh flowers and groceries.
Ford Model As and Jaguar XKs, Packards and Buicks as well as Siatas, Delahayes and a 1928 Isotta Fraschini boattail speedster, three classes of motorcycles and a showcase of vintage boats on trailers, there was truly something to appeal to just about anyone who cares a lick about cool cars. Or boats.
Included among the weekend guests were a number of high-level car designers who handed out special awards – Ralph Gilles of Fiat-Chrysler, Morey Callum of Ford, Bob Boniface of Buick, Robin Page of Volvo Cars and Jay Ward, the creative director of Pixar’s Cars movies.
The featured category for this year’s concours was Life Along the Orient Express, which continues Hilton Head’s annual “Life” compilations of unique classes. Here were some of the most-interesting cars of the concours, the rare and the avant garde that patrons of the famous rail line might have driven when they weren’t on the train.
The Best of Show prize went to the well-deserved 1931 Stutz DV32 Convertible Victoria owned by prominent collector Joseph Cassini of West Orange, New Jersey. The handsome Stutz earlier had won the Best Rolling Art award.
The ultimate winner of the 2018 concours was from the highly competitive class of true-classic convertibles from 1925 through 1931, populated by magnificent automobiles from such marques as Duesenberg, Auburn and Cadillac.
“I think it’s the understated elegance,” Cassini said as he accepted the top prize. “That’s what’s instrumental in this car having won the award.”
Other concours winners included:
Road & Track Award – 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing coupe owned by Jeff Files of Durham, North Carolina.
Best Production/Performance vehicle – 1967 Shelby GT350 Fastback owned by Hunt and Pat Palmer-Ball, Louisville, Kentucky.
Best Motorcycle – 1928 BMW R63 owned by John Landstrom of Norcross, Georgia.
People’s Choice – 1929 Ford Model woody station wagon owned by Thomas and Donna Fitzgerald. The wagon was done up as a vintage camp car with a wooden canoe on its roof and a tent trailer in tow. Tom Fitzgerald, dressed as a camp “ranger” to suit the theme, also won the male best-dressed award.
Top winners in the Car Club Showcase on Saturday were:
Best of Show – 1972 Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona owned by John Phillips.
Best American – 1951 Buick Roadmaster Riviera 2-Door Hardtop owned by Robert Brooks.
Best European – 1934 BMW 309 owned by James True.
People’s Choice – 1957 Ford Thunderbird owned by Anthony Bastardi
The Sunday concours was cut short by a drizzling rain that started at around 2 p.m., but all the awards were given out and it seemed that most folks went home happy after what was still a full day.