Detroit's Concours d'Elegance has a unique Motor City heritage

PLYMOUTH, Mich. — There are concours d’elegance, ultra fancy gatherings of ultra fancy classic automobiles, held at exclusive venues from coast to coast. The most famous in the United States is staged each August at Pebble Beach on the California coastline of the Monterey Peninsula.

Detroit has its own concours, the immodestly named Concours d’Elegance of America, which may not really be so immodest after all considering that Detroit is the world’s Motor City, the place which took the horseless carriage from being affordable only by the wealthy and made the car affordable to seemingly every family.

All concours d’elegance feature classes for wonderful classics of a bygone era, whether it be hand-cranked vehicles a century old, the large sedans and convertibles produced during pre-war prosperity, or the exotic sports and muscle cars of post-war times.

Such cars are the stars and take home the top awards — the best in show honors.

It is no different with Detroit’s concours. This year, the best in show among non-domestic vehicles was a 1933 Delage D8S coupe roadster bodied by de Villars and owned by Jim Patterson of Louisville, Ky., and the best in show among American-produced vehicles was a 1933 Chrysler Imperial dual cowl Crown phaeton with Le Baron bodywork owned by Joseph and Margie Cassini III of West Orange, N.J.

But what makes Detroit’s concours different from the others is its inclusion of some not-so-typical categories as it celebrates its unique Motor City heritage. Thus the concours annually includes a special display of drag racing cars and, since moving last year to the Inn at St. John’s, has room as well to showcase a starting grid alignment of racing machines. Last year it was Indy cars. This year is was a celebration of the long-time and historic sports car racing rivalry between the Chevrolet Corvette and the British Jaguar. (Next year it will be Can-Am racers and NASCAR stock cars from the early years.)

Another special class this year was the Jet-Age station wagon, those full-size, rear-drive, three-row — and often with a rear-facing rear seat — vehicles in which baby boomers grew up in that now bygone era before the minivan and sport utility vehicle.

Not only were the station wagons the first vehicles to greet the 10,000 or so people who attended the event, but they were parked in a large circle and carefully designed so that they could be roped off in a star-like design so people not only could get a good view of the front of the wagons, but could have access to the wagon sides and even peek into those “way back” seats.

Of course, each vehicle on the St. John’s lawns had a story. This is just one of them:

When Frank Wrenick of Cleveland married Elaine, she came with a brand-new 1964 Rambler convertible she’d just purchased. After nearly 20 years on the road, the car needed to be restored, but the Wrenicks found parts very hard to come by. But they did find them, and figuring others might also want to restore their Ramblers, the Wrenicks started the AMC Rambler owners club, which currently includes some 1200 people around the world.

Frank Wrenick’s personal car collection includes 18 vehicles, only half of them Rambler/AMC products. The one he brought to the Concours d’Elegance of America was a 1958 Ambassador Custom Cross Country station wagon.

Wrenick found the wagon more than 30 years ago. He knew such wagons were rare. It turns out that only 294 were produced and that his is one of two that still remain — and the only one in running condition.

Wrenick’s wagon didn’t win one of the judges’ awards at the concours. Red ribbons in the wagon group went to a 1959 Buick LeSabre owned by Joseph Carfagna of Mendham, N.J., to a 1959 Mercury Colony Park owned by Richard Saute of Peshtico, Wis., and to a 1959 Cadillac Broadmoor Skyview owned by Robert Waldock of Sandusky, Ohio.

The best-in-class award for the wagons went to a 1961 Chrysler Imperial New Yorker owned by John and Lynne Cote of Guilford, Conn.

But just like all of the other cars at the concours, Wrenick’s wagon and its story brought smiles to people’s faces as it took them on a road trip, a trip back to another time.

Larry Edsall

Larry Edsall is a Phoenix-based freelance writer. You can reach him at ledsall@cox.net.