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At Amelia Island, a classic-car ‘beauty contest’

Larry and Wendy Titchner in their Austin-Healey 100M, selected by Hagerty junior judges' as third best in show.

DAN PROUDFOOT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Ponce de Leon's supposed fountain of youth may be commemorated at St. Augustine – a 90-minute drive south of here by best-in-class-winning Duesenberg SJ-582, rather longer in a 1899 Marot-Gardon – but all 320 cars gathered here last Saturday appeared fresher than new.

Something close to giddiness was in the air as the sun shone upon the Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance, and owners filled the ears of anyone who paused to chat with the anecdotal history of their prized classics.

"We love coming to Amelia because it is so restful compared to other shows," foremost American collector Jack Nethercutt explained.

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Meaning: Less straight-laced, more good fun than the ever-proper Pebble Beach concours. Nethercutt's classics have won Amelia's best-in-show five times, but not this year. Terence Adderley, a class winner with a Cord 810 when Nethercutt won in 2016, triumphed with the magnificent Duesenberg.

"Amelia is a beauty contest compared to other concours," Toronto's Larry Titchner explained after his 1956 Austin-Healey 100M won the Sports and GT Cars (1956-58) class, over a Mercedes-Benz 300SL and other more valuable cars. "At Cobble Beach [in Kemble, Ont.], like at Pebble Beach, the judges want you to demonstrate that everything functions, and I was totally stressed at Cobble when the key wouldn't turn in the ignition. I had that corrected for Amelia with the tumblers in the ignition serviced – but the judges didn't ask to see if anything worked. We just had a really pleasant conversation about the originality of the car."

Titchner rushed from the show field to the adjacent Ritz-Carlton Amelia, with his Ferrari GTB/4 Daytona Competizione on offer at the RM Sotheby's auction: no sale, but little disappointment. He'd already arranged to store the car for the Ferrari Club of America's gathering at Daytona International Speedway in April.

"Fatty Arbuckle was a big man, he wanted a big car," Robert Jepson said of the supernaturally purple, 1919 Pierce-Arrow Model 66 that the silent-film star commissioned Harley Earl to design – seven feet tall and seven tons in heft. "Oh yes, we've heard a lot of stories about Arbuckle – but the thing is, he was found not guilty of murder."

Arbuckle's career faded to black after 25-year-old actress Virginia Rappe died a few days after a wild party in the summer of 1921. Buster Keaton claimed the three trials sold more papers for the Hearst chain than the sinking of the Lusitania.

The cars survived various social strata. Garry and Victoria Peters, of West Vancouver, won the Production Ferrari 1960-72 class with the 250 GT Cabriolet S-II originally owned by Princess Maria Gabrielle de Savoy, the middle daughter of Italy's last king, Umberto II.

After King Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 and thereafter took up residence in New York with his wife, American socialite Wallis Simpson, General Motors CEO Alfred P. Sloan delivered a custom-built 1941 Cadillac. The car became known as The Duchess, and at Amelia Island, earned the chairman's award for owner Steve Plunkett of London, Ont.

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The Duchess was one of eight cars selected for Amelia's take on a period fashion show attended by Club Amelia members ($525 ticket-holders, against $120 general admission).

"A man approached the car and in a thick English accent proceeded to tell me he owned and lived in the mansion in the south of France where Edward and Wallis lived [following the 1937 abdication]," Plunkett said. "That's what makes these concours memorable – the people you never expect to meet."

Concours founder Bill Warner, once a Road & Track photographer, believes classics are only part of the show. Thus the fashion show. Thus the observation of the 60th anniversary of Jaguar's rule in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, with 11 D-Type race cars and 96-year-old Norman Dewis, the test driver who developed them, on hand.

An unloved 1929 Minerva AK, the mammoth Belgian that once rivalled Rolls-Royce, appeared a brute among the blue bloods, being non-restored, barren of gloss, with surface rust tracing the edges. Its owners, Harry Pote and Mark Snyder, of Johnstown, N.Y., bought it in October from the estate of a recluse who'd put it away in 1959.

The 1958 Chevrolet Impala that floated through every teenaged boy's imagination in American Graffiti – the car gleaming white, bearing actress Suzanne Somer so totally blonde – is owned by Ray Evernham, three times a NASCAR champion crew chief. Possibly more erotic, for racing fans at least, there was also the Porsche 917 from Steve McQueen's Le Mans, now owned by Bruce McCaw, of the family that once owned the Vancouver Canucks.

When the rains came Sunday morning, 400 die-hard racing fans turned up for a panel of Jaguar racing legends, even as the transport trucks were removing Saturday's glamour pusses from the premises.

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