The president of the South Carolina event explains how it went from a local car-show fund-raiser to a national collector car gathering
The long-forecast rain finally arrived Sunday afternoon, shortening the awards ceremonies at the Hilton Head Island Concours d’Elegance in coastal South Carolina, yet having little to no effect on the upbeat conclusion of this special collector car event.
Concours president Carolyn Vanagel’s perennially cheerful grin was undiminished by the cloudburst as she celebrated another well-attended weekend of splendid classic automobiles, along with vintage boats and aircraft, held in a relaxed atmosphere of Southern hospitality.
In its 17th year, the Hilton Head concours has taken its place among some of the nation’s top automotive events, a notch lower than Pebble Beach and Amelia Island concours, but with its own special blend of prestige and accessibility.
“I think a lot of what we have done is develop our own Hilton Head model,” Vanagel said in an interview with the ClassicCars.com Journal during the recent concours. “Last year, we had 12 different concours (organizers) attending our event to see what was so special about Hilton Head.”
Vanagel explained how all the pieces come together for this far-flung event, which has risen so far as the final major U.S. concours of the calendar year.
The festivities began a weekend earlier with the Savannah Speed Classic, vintage sports car races held just across the state line in Georgia. This year, the Speed Classic was dedicated to early race cars as the event celebrated the 110th anniversary of Savannah hosting the first grand prix race in the U.S.
The concours weekend is also a full slate of events, which along with the Savannah racing is organized under the Motoring Festival banner. It starts Friday with the Aero Expo Exhibit, a wings and wheels affair with vintage aircraft joining the classic cars at the Hilton Head airport.
On Saturday, the concours fairways are filled with the Car Club Showcase, which is an impressive show where national and local car clubs gather some of their best offerings, with more than 10,000 spectators attending.
Among those clubs taking part are the Classic BMW Club, the Porsche Club of America, the Lowcountry Oyster & Motorcar Driving Society, the Heart of Georgia Corvair Club and the Peachtree Cadillac LaSalle Club. British sports cars with American V8s were featured this year with a large turnout from the national clubs of Allard and Sunbeam Tiger owners.
Vanagel said it takes a small army of dedicated staff and volunteers to pull off the mashup of events. She emphasized that the Car Club Showcase is nothing like a casual cruise-in but is a highly organized show with various clubs competing for space, and with a rolling annual schedule of ever-changing automotive entries.
The distinction is crucial in maintaining Hilton Head’s status as a high-caliber automotive weekend, she said.
“When we created this event, we did it very thoughtfully that this had to be a destination event,” Vanagel explained. “Hilton Head is not sitting in a major metropolitan market. In order to make it a destination event, you had to make it a multi-day event from the very beginning.
“So, we starting out with our Saturday Car Club Showcase as a paid event that emphasized the quality of the car clubs. From the very beginning, it was not a cars and coffee, ever. It was always that every car that is on the show field is the best of the best.
“The car clubs are vying to be invited now. They are allowed to select their top 10. The cars have to change out every three years, so you’re never seeing the same things over a three-year period.”
The public has been very responsive to the back-to-back shows, she added.
“What’s interesting is that we sell more two-day tickets (for both the car club show and the concours) than anything else.”
Partnering with the racing organization that conducts the Savannah Speed Classic, the Motor Festival brings everything under one roof for organization, promotion and hospitality, Vanagel added.
“It’s under the Motoring Festival umbrella with the concours being the signature event,” she said. “It’s pretty complex what we’re dealing with.
“Rather than having separate organizations holding their events around our events, we made it all part of our event.”
Vanagel started with the concours 15 years ago, working part-time as an advertising manager after leaving her former corporate career and moving with her family to South Carolina. Gregarious and energetic, she soon found herself in a leadership position, helping to mold the future of the concours, which was started by a group of local car enthusiasts as a fund-raiser for the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra.
In doing so, she was able to draw on past experience with a different sort of horsepower – she was a competitive horseback rider specializing in hunter-jumper and other equestrian events – and was able to apply her experiences with those high-level events to what was needed to advance the concours.
“I saw the opportunity with this event 15 years ago,” Vanagel said. “I like cars aesthetically, but I’m more of an event person than a car person.
“When I first came, it was just a car display, so we added in all these different elements of art, of shopping. A lot of it related to cars, but people would come in and have something else to do. It’s part of creating a destination. That really works.”
The tagline for the Hilton Head concours is Art Moves, which speaks to the focus on car design and beauty rather than pure performance. The classic automobile as artwork has broad appeal that attracts people who otherwise might not be interested in a car show.
“I come from a family that had interesting cars,” Vanagel said. “My mother was an artist and she was fascinated by the art of the car. Thereby, when I was looking at cars, I was looking at the aesthetics of the car.
“So that is a motivator for me, which is creating and looking at pieces of art, and a lot of our marketing campaign is around that. People are getting it, and it resonates with them. They are coming even though they, in some cases, have never been to an event like this.
“It’s interesting how many people are coming for the aesthetics of cars, the lifestyle traveler. The whole Art Moves concept resonates not only with gearheads but with the broader audience. That’s something we’ve really worked at.”
Another piece of the puzzle was attracting car collectors from the highest echelon with fantastic vehicles that would be acceptable at such concours as Pebble Beach and Amelia Island, she said, and the most recent selection of Hilton Head cars shows the success of that outreach. Part of that was to create the annual Pinnacle Collectors award for the highest-level of classic car enthusiasts.
“We created that Pinnacle award in order to attract collectors who would never consider or who have never been to Hilton Head,” Vanagel said, rolling off the names of renowned collectors who have taken part in the Hilton Head concours, such as noted Los Angeles collectors Peter and Merle Mullin, Joseph Cassini (whose spectacular 1931 Stutz LeBaron convertible won Best of Show) and Miles Collier.
Those top classic car entries also speak to the aesthetic side of collector cars, such as the three stunning pre-war French-coachbuilt beauties brought by the Mullins, who were honored this year as 2018 Pinnacle Collectors.
“I am drawn to the Peter Mullin cars,” Vanagel said. “I am drawn to the truly artistic cars. I do love the art form those cars represent.
“How do you get that translated? When you see that Delahaye sitting out there, anyone would say, it’s stunning, it’s a piece of sculpture.”
But at the same time, the concours seeks to maintain its diversity and accessibility, with a broad range of vehicle types and values designed to appeal to all comers. The committed hobbyist or enthusiast restorer is offered an opportunity to show his or her pride and joy at a prestigious concours d’elegance along with the big guns of the collector car world.
Hilton Head’s charity aspect is directed to the future. Called Driving Young America, the cause is dedicated to young people.
“The charity is really catching on, which is terrific,” Vanagel said. “It has a two-pronged mission. First, to support the youth organizations that provide volunteers for our event. One of the groups is the Boys and Girls Club, and Special Olympics.
“The other side is, we give scholarships to kids who have an interest in the automobile industry. It goes all the way down to the secondary education level,” she added, noting that Volvo and Michelin are among those corporations involved with the designer aspect of Driving Young America.
For the second year, Michelin presented its Junior Design Challenge Program, part of its global Design Challenge, presenting awards to kids for their automotive designs.
“This year’s theme was Concours 2040, their vision of what car in the future will be a collector car,” Vanagel said.
Although she admits that she’s not entirely a car person, per se, Vanagel has been struck by the enthusiasm that collector cars generate as she keeps an aesthetic eye on her favorites. But more than anything, her focus is on the quality of the Hilton Head weekend, and how it affects people.
“What motivates me is creating an event in which people will walk away with a smile on their faces,” she said. “I’m very much strategically looking at how people come in and one of the first things that they say is, ‘I had no idea’.”