The St. Michaels Concours D’Elegance Rolls in
by roland flamini
photography by kevin allen
A 1932 Packard 903 Coupe Roadster, once owned by Admiral Richard Byrd, believed to be the first man to fly over the North and South Poles. It is now owned by Baltimore collectors Betty and Morton Bullock
Retired judge John C. North II and his wife, Ethel, are posing for photographers beside their 1933 Duesenberg SJ Murphy Disappearing Top convertible. The car’s long, black body sparkles in the sunlight; admiring onlookers form reflections on its highly polished surface. It is hard to think of this magnificent, American-made masterpiece of automotive engineering— top speed reputedly 140 mph in third, coachwork by the legendary Walter Murphy company of Pasadena, California—as anything but a showpiece. Yet the Norths say it was purchased as a used car in the 1950s and for a number of years served as the family’s only means of transportation. Today it is part of one of the largest privately held collections of classic cars in the Washington metropolitan area, and in September it was among the main attractions of this year’s Concours d’Elegance in St. Michaels, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Private is the operative word here. Classic-car collectors, with a few exceptions like Ralph Lauren or Jay Leno, or Italian jeweler Nicola Bulgari’s Buick-only collection, tend to be skittish about giving out information. David North, who helps look after his father’s mostly pre–World War II collection (and is chairman of the Concours), says they don’t publicize the collection. The reason might simply be security. For example, the same week as the St. Michaels Concours, John Travolta’s 1970 Mercedes 280SL was stolen off the street in Los Angeles. The website of the Western States Auto Theft Investigators Association lists 132 classic cars stolen or missing in Southern California alone.
Not that security is the main topic among the aficionados on the grounds of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, where some 50 cars stand against a background of weekend water traffic. The Concours began in 2007 to bring to the Washington area a classic car show like those in Pebble Beach, California, and Florida’s Amelia Island—so far on a more modest and intimate, but fast growing, scale.
At the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance this year, immaculately restored classic cars were white-hot. A 1931 Duesenberg Model J (the “Whittell Coupe”) fetched $10.34 million; a 1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K Spezial, $9.68 million; a 1957 Ferrari Testa Rossa Protoype, $16.39 million— the most expensive car ever sold at auction. Here in Maryland, the years of the cars on show span from a 1911 Mercer Raceabout Open owned by Easton, Maryland, resident Peter Stifel and a monumental 1931 Cadillac 452A four-door sedan, with a body by Fleetwood, one of the most respected automobile builders in the early 1900s; to a striking blue 1955 Ferrari Spyder with a Sergio Scaglietti body, owned by Robert Phillips; to a 1956 Aston Martin Cabrio, one of several famous British designed cars on display.
There are three Rolls-Royce entries, including a 1929 Phantom I Sport Phaeton belonging to Sandy Lerner, cofounder of Cisco Systems and the owner of Ayrshire Farm and the Hunter’s Head Tavern in Upperville, Virginia. The silver statuette of a cat in boots has supplanted the familiar Spirit of Ecstasy radiator mascot.
While the Concours (French for “competition”) affords proud owners the opportunity to show off cars from their collections, it does have the static look of an art gallery or museum, with the cars themselves as exhibits on display, and prizes awarded for style and elegance. But the cars are meant to be driven: One of the rules of acceptance by the St. Michaels Concours d’Elegance is that the car should be in working order. So many collectors prefer to take part in tours in which collectors can put their automobiles through their paces by going on long drives, sometimes over several days.
On a tour of Wales and Scotland, Gale Petronis met her husband, Henry, owner of one of the largest classic-car collections in the area. But it was not a case of “love me, love my automobile” for the Petronises. “When we married, he said he couldn’t find garage space for the 1913 Cadillac I was driving when we met,” Gale recalls while standing beside their sleek 1946 Riley Roadster. (The couple also showed a 1931 Chrysler Imperial Roadster LeBaron from their collection of some 60 mostly American high-end automobiles.) According to Gale, classic-car collecting is a sublimation of America’s love affair with the automobile. “Some people collect guns or watches; my husband has always been fond of cars.”
Rupert Banner, North America vice president for business development at the auction house Bonham’s, has a unique outsider’s perspective on the carcollecting community, having handled several high-profile sales of classic cars (most notably from Elton John’s private collection). “Collectors consider themselves custodians of their cars,” he says. “They hope to be passing them on in the best condition they can.” By definition it is an interest for people with deep pockets, “but we do not generally think of the investment first; we think of the passion,” observes Washington architect Andrew Diem, who owns three Rolls- Royces, including a 1958 Touring Limousine, as well as a 1937 Buick four-door convertible that has been in the family since it was brand new. “It’s a connection with history; it’s a project to work on.” For more information on the St. Michaels Concours d’Elegance, contact The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, 213 N. Talbot St., St. Michaels, MD, 410-745-4962
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.