Car Week Coolness
The Concours d’LeMons rusty buckets offer Car Week a chill pill counterpoint.
Thursday, August 18, 2011
Casting his eyes over the 18th Fairway at Pebble Beach, Alan Galbraith witnessed the pursuit of perfection. He saw why car fanatics routinely call the Concours d’Elegance the pinnacle of the automotive world, why they equate it with the World Series or the Superbowl, why cars shown on the field have fetched millions of dollars on the auction block and found homes in the garages of pop culture icons.
For more than 20 years, Galbraith volunteered at the event, helping friends show cars there and covering it as a writer for car magazines. Even so, he still felt there was something missing. To his mind, the atmosphere was too serious, lacking the fun factor that drew people to cars in the first place.
He also remembers thinking, “If Pebble Beach is the zenith, there has to be a nadir.” He took some inspiration from a friend, Jay Lamm, who ran a group of events called “24 Hours of LeMons,” where gearheads could have a good time racing cars worth no more than $500. This kind of irreverent homage to cars with defects appealed to Galbraith. He felt it would translate magnificently to a show.
Hence The Concours d’LeMons kicked into gear two years ago at Toro Park. Out went the gleaming beauties. In came the funky uglies, the Pintos, Pacers and Trabants.
“We wanted some of the most unloved cars in the world,” he says.
The motto: “Celebrating the oddball, mundane and truly awful of the automotive world.”
The classes at the LeMons are divided up by region and their names – like “Soul-sucking Japanese Appliance,” “Rust Belt American Junk,” and “Needlessly Complex Italian.” In 2010, a shortened Volkswagen Bus did wheelies in the parking lot. Other vans and cars appeared, decked out with gaudy, home-installed interiors. For the LeMons’s first year, a Ford Pinto covered completely in disco ball mirrors (“Disco Pinto”) won an award, but had to be pushed in front of the gathered crowd for its prize since it wouldn’t start. It had blown out a transmission en route to the event.
In 2009, Alan Galbraith received a call from Pebble Beach. He expected them to say, “We’ve got a cease and desist order.”
Instead, it was only someone from their press relations asking about the event. Apparently the staff had noticed a peculiar car – clearly not for the Concours d’Elegance – behind another car being unloaded. Inquiries led to their discovery of LeMons.
Councours spokesperson Kandace Hawkinson doesn’t confuse the elegance with ugliness, but definitely doesn’t resent Pebble’s red-headed stepcousin.
“We take the [Concours d’Elegance] with all seriousness,” she says. “It certainly has reputation and money tied up with it. But you also have to realize that cars are things, and they bring us joy in life. And part of joy is laughter.”
Other members of the local car community reiterate Pebble Beach’s appreciation for the LeMons perspective, and in more than words. A handful of enthusiasts have dug into the back of their barns and gone shopping so they could take part in the 2011 LeMons.
Out in San Juan Bautista, Kathryn Funari owns a car dealership named Kathryn’s Classics. From the depths of a collection she shares with Bill Gustin she pulled a 1971 Ford Econoline van that is completely covered in tin foil, lovingly nicknamed the “Baked Potato.” They bought it decades ago from the estate of a deceased artist, who had replaced the driver’s seat with an old desk chair, among other modifications.
Only a few weeks ago, Monterey resident Linda Ball and her fellow gear-head David Torres purchased a 1975 Anniversary MG Midget, a tiny, British, convertible from an owner up in Hayward. While there are more repugnant rides coming to rust on Seaside City Hall’s lawns for the free 2011 event, there are few that are more dangerous to be in, in the event of an accident.
Pacific Grove’s Michael Veitengruber, 30, bought his bright orange 1976 Chevrolet Vega Kammback Wagon (Nomad Package) only months ago for the LeMons. The car, which he bought from an owner in NorCal is as hard-to-look at (thanks to an overweight rear-end and vomit orange color) as it is rare (only one was sold per dealership).
Glenn Wolfson of Carmel picked up a 1965 Renault Dauphine Gordini, a rear-powered, French import known for its poor handling, low top speed, and off-putting looks.
These local aficionados are new to LeMons’ juiciness. Wolfson and Veitengruber had attended the event before, but Funari and Gustin, and Ball and Torres had only learned about the Concours d’LeMons last year, when Wayne Carini aired an episode of his well-known show Chasing Classic Cars on Discovery’s HD Theater at the event. After each got a taste, the sweet center of LeMons enticed them enough to reach high for a choice fruit of their own and spend not unsubstantial money in the process.
All of them have attended the Concours d’Elegance and drooled over the best of the world. Ball volunteers at the Quail: A Motorsports Gathering. Veitengruber has shown at Concorso Italiano. Wolfson plans to make a few stops at Car Week events this year with his BMW Isetta. But in their minds, the quirkiness of LeMons is a vital change of gears, even if, as organizers like to say, it means risking tetanus from a rusty piece of body metal or a blown-out eardrum courtesy of a backfiring engine.
“It’s a chance to relax and have fun,” Veitengruber says, “to see some goofy stuff.”
The Concours d’LeMons happens 9:14am Aug. 20 at Laguna Grande Park, across from Seaside City Hall, Seaside. Free. 916-207-4645, concoursdlemons.com.