Amelia Island 2017: The Big Star Cars Come Out to Play

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Mar 15, 2017

AMELIA ISLAND, FLORIDA—Movie star cars are nothing new at concours d’elegance events, but seldom are there quite so many. The Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance had not only the BMW 507 that Elvis Presley drove while he was in the Army in Germany, but the Corvette Stingray racer he drove in the movie Clambake.

Bonhams starred this 1959 Cadillac that did sightseeing duty in the Rockies. (Jim Motavalli photo)

There was the Porsche 917K that appeared in Steve McQueen’s semi-documentary Le Mans, and both the ’67 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow and the Ferrari 275 GTB/4 NART Spyder from his big hit, The Thomas Crown Affair.  

This Porsche 917 appeared in Steve McQueen's atmospheric film LeMans. (Jim Motavalli photo)

A ‘53 Ferrari 166MM starred in The Racers with Kirk Douglas and Cesar Romero, and because it was all about going forward, Raul Julia memorably ripped the rear-view mirror off a ’71 365 GTB/4 Daytona Spyder in The Gumball Rally. The mirror was back for Amelia Island.

Steve McQueen drove this Rolls in the Thomas Crown Affair. (Jim Motavalli photo)

A Morgan Plus 4 had a cameo in The War of the Roses (with Kirk’s son Michael). The unrestored Rolls Silver Ghost had long belonged to comedian Harold Lloyd’s estate, but it later had a conspicuous part in Sabrina, with Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. TV's Ray Evernham had a lifelong search for the '58 Chevy Impala from American Graffiti. He finally found it, restored it (leaving the dent from filming), and brought it to Amelia Island.

Elvis' BMW 507 was butchered with a Chevy motor and an auto trans, but  is now back as the King drove it in Germany. (Jim Motavalli photo)

We were looking at a Duesenberg, and the owner told us it was just one serial number away from a car belonging to Clark Gable. “It went in for servicing and somehow ended up with Clark Gable’s crankshaft,” he said. Now that’s a sprinkling of stardust.

Remember this '58 Chevy from American Graffiti? We'll take two, please. (Jim Motavalli Photo)

Of course, Amelia Island’s event—the east coast’s Pebble Beach—is about a lot more than star cars. BMW’s stand was something special. That spectacular Elvis 507 was restored from an incomplete wreck, with a Chevy V-8 and automatic transmission left over from its oval circuit days. Here it is on video:

BMW also had an absolutely gorgeous 1957 503 with body by Ghia and a front modified (after a crash) to resemble the owner’s Maserati 3500 GT, and a 502 sedan—nicely appointed but just a bit dumpy—that showed the beginnings of the company’s postwar comeback.

There was a whole field of Jaguar D-Types and XKSS cars--$100 million worth of cars? (Jim Motavalli photo)

Other marques highlighted at Amelia were Marmon, Duesenberg (one of which was best in show), the D-Type and XKSS Jaguar (a stunning, once-in-a-lifetime assemblage worth at least $100 million), and the Chevrolet Camaro—including the first one off the production line, and assorted Yenko and Baldwin-Motion cars.

Who can resist the Happy Wagon? Ready to dispense ice cream on Pee-Wee's Playhouse. (Jim Motavalli photo)

A favorite, for me, was the tiny 1947 Crosley “Happy Wagon” ice cream truck, driven by “Mr. Happy” around Philadelphia. It was found, derelict, at the Torrey Pines Golf Club, and looked ready to star in an episode of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. Another ice cream wagon was based on a 1953 Cushman scooter, and kept its five-cent cargo cold with dry ice.

This Marmon with Hibbard and Darrin coachwork was stored since 1959--in Lake Saranac, New York. It's a runner! (Jim Motavalli photo)

I talked to John Campion, whose Lancia Montecarlo won its class at LeMans in 1981, then was a did-not-finish at the 24 Hours of Daytona. Campion told me the car, pulled out of a museum in Italy, was rough as found. Meant to get up to speed and stay there, first gear handles zero to 70 mph, which makes the car hard to get off the line. Campion’s worry was that he’d win a prize and have to drive the car to the reviewing stand.

Concours founder Bill Warner with the market-hot Ferrari Daytona. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Other show highlights were a magnificent and stately 1949 Alfa-Romeo 6C 2500SS Cabriolet, a 1938 Delahaye 135MS Coupe (hidden away during World War II and not discovered until the 1960s—standing in a field), a 1953 Fiat coupe with body by Vignale, an as-found 1930 Minerva with body by Hibbard and Darrin (found stored since 1959 in Saranac Lake, New York, and now running again),  and the Porsche 916 prototype—which looked like a 914, but with 911S power was far more potent.

John Campion with his LeMans Lancia. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I stopped by the Meguiar’s booth, and took a look at their headlight restoration product. Have you noticed the headlights on your 10-year-old turning practically opaque? It’s actually possible to make them bright and shiny again. I use toothpaste, which with a mild abrasive actually works for a while—the kits add a protective coating that makes the fix last longer. We’ll try it and get back to you.

The Singer interior is what makes the car--and makes the $600,000 purchase price hurt less. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I also visited the Singer Vehicle Design booth. The company (headed by former British rocker Rob Dickinson) “restores” old Porsches. They take 1989 to 1994 964s and recreate older-looking 911 bodies for them, adding 400-horsepower engines and absolutely cool (and very detailed) interiors along the way. The result is a new/old Porsche for a very special client—willing to spend $600,000. So far, Singer’s Matt Henry said, 170 restorations have been commissioned globally. I drove one once, and my head is still spinning.

Modern metal: The Alfa-Romeo Quadrifoglio is leading the company's comeback in the U.S. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Speaking of head-spinning drives, it wasn’t all about looking at cars on Amelia Island. I also got to drive some. I was able to give a 505-horsepower 2017 Alfa-Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio its head, even taking if off the island for a spin at 80 mph. It was docile around the clogged, concours-weekend lanes, but came memorably alive on the open road. The MSRP on these starts at $72,000, but you can get into a much milder Giulia for $37,995.

Hagerty's '59 Corvette won the most-fun-to-drive sweepstakes. (Jim Motavalli photo)

And Hagerty had some vintage cars from the company’s Michigan-based classic fleet. I drove an 1965 Mustang, a 1960 Cadillac Eldorado convertible and a 1959 Corvette (four-speed option).

All smiles in the '60 Cadillac Eldorado.  But that over-assisted steering! (Jim Motavalli photo)

It was interesting: Both the Mustang and Caddy had oh-so-dated steering (the Caddy over-assisted, the ‘Stang vague), and the brakes on all three cars hardly met modern standards. But they were all greatly atmospheric fun to drive, and a reaffirmation of why we love these old chariots so much. I’d pick the Corvette, but the Cadillac would be perfect for Sunday cruises.

Alas, my version of this '59 Mercedes-Benz 220S is long gone. And I couldn't afford the $24,200 I'd have had to pay for this one. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Of course, auctions flit around concours weekends like moths around flames, and I visited Gooding, RM Sotheby’s, Bonhams and Motostalgia. At Gooding’s auction I was mesmerized by a 1959 Mercedes-Benz 220S—not because it was so well preserved but because I used to own one just like it.  Here's the Bonhams car on video:

The Benz made $24,200 in the sale, which adds poignant focus to the $3,000 I realized for mine.

This incredible deterioration didn't stop the Maserati Mistral from selling for $478,500. (Jim Motavalli photo)

A barn find 1967 Maserati Mistral convertible at Gooding was fascinating. In the style of the times, it still retained every bit of filth it had when rescued. A daunting restoration project, but it still made $478,500. After all, it was one of just 37 with the ultimate four-liter motor.

One of Orin Smith's many Bentleys--a recreation of Woolf Barnato's "Blue Train." (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Sotheby’s show had the huge collection of the late Orin Smith, mostly of Rolls-Royce and Bentleys—58 cars in all. Everyone was the best of its kind, both in rarity and condition. It even included two memorable recreations, Embiricos and Blue Train Bentleys. The latter was particularly gorgeous, painstakingly recreating the original “Blue Train” Speed Six fastback owned by Woolf Barnato, one of the original “Bentley Boys” and the heir to a South African diamond and gold mine fortune.

Replica status didn’t hurt the Blue Train—it still made $440,000.

Bonhams' supercharged '89 Miata sold for a reasonable $16,500. (Jim Motavalli photo)

At Bonhams, I was happy to see a low-mileage 1989 Mazda Miata. Just like mine! Well, mine is a 1999, isn’t supercharged, and doesn’t make 150 horsepower. This one, the first I’ve seen at a prestigious auction, sold for $16,500.

A Ford woody at the Bonhams sale boasted this original accessory. (Jim Motavalli photo)

A 1935 Godsal sports tourer—the only one ever made—seemed on the money at $214,500. The star Ferrari 250 GT Europe, with alloy coachwork by Pininfarina, was no surprise at $2,227,500.

This battered Auto-Union Wanderer at the Motostalgia sale will live again. (Jim Motavalli photo)

By contrast, the bargain of the whole weekend, at Motostalgia, was a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air that sold for just $8,000. Why? The car was beautiful, but it had three demerits—probably the wrong venue (I’d have sold it in the Midwest), a six-cylinder engine and a four-door body. But c’mon, it was a really nice Chevy.

The peace sign, from inside a restored VW Microbus at the Amelia Island Cars and Coffee. (Jim Motavalli photo)

At the last minute, the concours was moved to the Saturday, because of promised—and delivered—rain on Sunday. While that decision was still being delivered, I had a chance to visit with Amelia Island founder Bill Warner, who seemed unflappable about what he said was $2.5 million at stake on a dry event.

Peacocks wander Amelia Island. No, they're not native. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I asked Warner, who’s seen it all, for his overview of the collector car world in 2017. “Porsche 911s are hot right now,” he said. “People want cars that are contemporary and usable, and vehicles from the ‘70s and ‘80s are coming into their own.”

Another car everyone wants (and Warner owns) is the Ferrari Daytona, but he also put in a word for early examples of the Lamborghini Countach. “Is the new Ford GT an instant classic? Probably. And the Porsche Carrera RS.”

It was Warner who championed northern Florida as an ideal concours setting. Christie’s passed, but RM came on board in 1998 when the event was two years old, and the rest is history. “We have people moving here because of the concours,” Warner said. Hey, maybe I will too.

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