The Greenwich Concours: Preserving and Creating History
GREENWICH, CT – The Greenwich Concours d’Elegance in Greenwich, Connecticut is a yearly tradition for the Car Show Safari team. We have witnessed a turnover in show production, the open-armed acceptance of custom cars and American hot rods into a traditionally high-brow event, and many years of auctions, awards and incredible vintage models audiences will rarely see again.
This year’s Concours d’Elegance, hosted on June 2nd and 3rd in Roger Sherman Baldwin Park continues that tradition of innovation, success and creative history, perhaps with an even closer look at never-before-seen models and a history few expert and even fewer casual enthusiasts are well-versed in.
It is worth starting with the acknowledgment of how seamlessly Mary Wennerstrom and her second-generation of Concours d’Elegance show producers managed this year’s event, complete with a once-in-a-lifetime show car exhibition and several unique and wild one-off cars that could easily star in museum exhibits all their own. Even the weather held out, despite a Saturday far too hot and a Sunday far too cold. But spring in New England did not prevent hundreds of enthusiasts from lining up Sunday morning – the Foreign Car Day event traditionally drawing a larger crowd than Saturday’s American Car Day.
Regardless, audiences were drawn to something new, something rare and something they will never see again, the nearly complete collection of Cunningham race cars, Vignale-bodied C-3 coupes, and cabriolets. A testament to the drive, determination, and creativity of Briggs Cunningham, the consummate sportsman, jet-setter and gentleman racer of the mid-20th century, 33 of the 35 remaining Cunningham-built cars, as well as the touring and racing cars he came so close to winning in, stood against the picturesque water of Greenwich Harbor and sparkled in the sun.
Quintessentially 1950s racing design, the cars bore uncanny resemblance to Corvettes that would begin production just as the Cunningham was leaving it, as well as the European sports cars of the era that Cunningham would race both in and against in his many years behind the wheel.
Briggs Cunningham was the late-in-life son of Briggs Swift Cunningham, President of Citizens United Bank and a Director of the Pennsylvania railroad. He ran in wealthy circles, like those including William Proctor and James Gamble, and it wasn’t long before he hit the track in search of victory for the American car. In fact, the traditional blue and white color combination of American racecars, think Shelby Cobra and Dodge Viper, are largely attributed to the Cunningham C-2, the first American race car painted with twin blue racing stripes.
Cunningham and his team had been mucking about with race cars and American engines for a few years, until Le Mans rules changed, demanding that race cars hit production standards in order to qualify. And thus, the C-3, star of this year’s Greenwich Concours d’Elegance was born. 25 cars, each costing three times a Cadillac of the time, ringing in the early 1950s at about $11,400, but meeting the rules, nonetheless.
Unfortunately, the great leap of faith never quite bore the fruit of Cunningham’s visions. Cunningham placed in larger races, coming in third in Le Mans in 1953 and winning smaller tours and rally races, but the cost of operating his company soon began to outweigh the success. Times were changing. Cunningham as a company was losing money. Pierre Levegh’s accident at Le Mans in 1955 resulted in 81 fatalities and sent racing companies and producers scurrying to improve–or invent– safety regulations and the nature of racing itself was no longer geared toward the individual, no matter how wealthy. Capable as he was, Briggs Cunningham couldn’t remain on the international scene without making some changes.
And he did. He would race, design and travel for car and yacht companies for years to come, including Jaguar, Corvette, Maserati, and Porsche. He would become one of those great names in racing, associated with the fly-by-night romanticism of the early years. He died in 2003 at 96 years old.
And those 25 production cars celebrate his life, his victories, and the old way, the scrappy way that racing used to be, the try-it-and-see-what-works that won’t make it on the track today. It was the first and almost definitely the last time those Cunninghams will ever be in the same place and it was a remarkable sigh. The Greenwich Concours d’Elegance set a truly incredible moment in history by bringing those cars together and their spectators to a sliver of history so many know so little about
And they are remarkably adept at that. Take for instance the incredibly limited 1967 Aston Martin DB6 Shooting Brake, an Aston Martin station wagon that sits in the uncanny valley of the viewer’s eye, as if you know what you’re looking at isn’t quite right, but you cannot say for sure why. The same can be said of the Ferrari 330 GT Shooting Brake designed by Vignale, another European sport station wagon that certainly makes a statement.
Whether through the history of the Swallow Sidecar, later to evolve into the Jaguar Cars Unlimited when the war turned SS into an unwanted moniker, or the display of classic Vincent motorcycles, recreation Tuckers, and historic John Fitch race cars, the Greenwich Concours d’Elegance brings car enthusiasts and experts alike into the corners of automotive history, into places where one-off creations are hidden away, where the light does not touch race cars and custom bikes alike.
For so many other reasons, but so strongly this one, the Greenwich Concours d’Elegance is a vital element in preserving and energizing the automotive hobby. There is a place, of course, for classic Chevrolets and Corvettes–you will even find a few here–but that place is far less likely to provide such an experience, an education in large swaths of automotive history, a weekend course in racing dynasties, innovation, and short-lived automotive companies.
Every car event has its place in the hobby. They are all important and fundamental to the passion and preservation of this wild world and history. But where parking lot car shows and cruise nights are our bread and butter, our favorite comfort dish, the Greenwich Concours is something else entirely, a unique recipe all its own, chock full of hidden histories, striking beauty and cars you will never see anywhere else. It is both preserving history and creating it at the same time and it appears to do a better job with every passing year.
There is no doubt that the 2018 Greenwich Concours d’Elegance was a resounding success. The only question is–what can they possibly think up next?
Photos by Tomm Scalera