Mary Barra’s ascension to the Chairmanship of General Motors in January of 2014 triggered an avalanche of copy in international news, business and even social journals. For the first time a woman occupied an elevated General Motors seat formerly held by men. It was huge news. Especially since that seat was at the head of a historically male-dominated corporation.
For over a century women usually played the role of accessory in matters automotive: especially on the covers of magazines and in print or electronic advertisements. Women were seldom more than exquisite props. There were and are notable exceptions: engineers, design chiefs, PR mavens, sales and service management pros, industry journalists, photographers and, of course, racers.
Motorsport is the only professional (or amateur) sport where women compete equally with men. There is no quarter, no special class for female racers. The Concours field has the same set of realities: judging makes competition an unblinking meritocracy. The sex of the entrant never enters the equation, only the excellence of the vehicle and its presentation.
Perhaps a refined sense of esthetics, more easily manifested in the feminine intellect has led a group of extraordinary women to become valued and tenured participants in the Amelia Concours d’Elegance for two decades.
Their enthusiasms were not borrowed or inherited. Rather, this seems to be something that invaded their physiological DNA early in life, only to be unearthed by accident or circumstance and leading to a deep and complex appreciation of the automobile.
Hilary Becker has been involved with the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance since the beginning. Her role as Hospitality Liaison keeps her far more involved with the day-to-day operations of the Amelia Concours than nearly all the other 700 Amelia volunteers. When Hilary’s husband Mark signed on as Amelia’s Vice-Chairman, he simply moved into the office next to hers. While Mark’s office is well organized, almost spartan, Hilary’s is a personal museum of her complex and wide ranging car passions. The center of gravity is a large photo of Chrysler’s elegant post-war Town and Country.
“We wanted a Woodie we could tour in,” said Hilary. Now they have two. Both spend more time on the road than on the concours field, and both are National level concours winners.
But Hilary hardly specializes. Her automotive tastes could be described as neo-eclectic: the Becker garage has sheltered a collection of baroque four-wheelers ranging from the two vast concours-winning Chrysler Town and Countrys to an Isetta she nicknamed Greta – Hilary’s first collector car and a significant milestone birthday present from her husband Mark. There’s also the 1939 Bantam Woodie station wagon – one of as many as five Becker Bantams that have come and gone – each a different flavor.
Then there was the 1957 Velorex that Mark bought very quietly. “In my defense, Hilary was out of town that day,” said Mark. The odd little Czech three-wheeler has long been gone via Hilary’s immaculate automotive tastes and a fiscally compelling offer just like their Sassy Grass Green 1970 AAR ‘Cuda that sat on the Amelia’s field in 2002, the year AAR founder Dan Gurney was Amelia’s honoree.
In 2013, Hilary was appointed a National Director of the prestigious AACA, the Antique Automobile Club of America. Until very recently, she served as the venerable organization’s Vice President of Website Development and Support.
Hilary is one of those Amelia Concours individuals who finds the people of the concours universe at least as interesting as the cars. Her attentiveness to, and, on occasion, polite and dignified hero worship of Amelia’s annual honorees has become one of the Amelia Concours’ most durable insider jokes.
Her office is filled with autographed posters and photos of Hilary with the likes of Amelia honorees David Hobbs, Sam Posey, Top Gear’s Stig, actor and Amelia Concours judge Ed Herrmann and Amelia judge and three time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti, all holding hand-made signs that say “HILARY, STOP STALKING ME!” The photo collection has grown with the joke. Even Jay Leno was not spared a place on Hilary’s “stalker’s wall”, when he made a clandestine visit to Amelia Concours headquarters last spring. The great Stirling Moss, the Amelia Concours’ first and 20th anniversary honoree, wisely and correctly sees the attention of women as one of the great benefits of motorsport celebrity. He happily defied Amelia tradition by posing for Hilary’s “stalker’s wall” holding a sign reading “Hilary, please stalk me!”
From their first days, Jaguars have had a road presence that often eclipses even the sexiest contours from Italy’s lustiest carrozzeria. It was the introduction of the landmark Jaguar XK-120 in 1948 that changed the sports car world overnight and forever. For such a shape, such a svelte, feline presence to issue from post-WWII England, a country all but crippled by rationing and war debt, seemed almost a miracle. The fast and stunning XK-120 made history and it made Jaguar, especially in America. The exquisite shapes from Coventry seduced one Amelia regular long ago. Her passions earned Gaye Hanley the nickname “The Jaguar Lady.”
Gaye’s 1964 Jaguar E-Type Coupe won the Buddy Palumbo Award at the 2007 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. It’s the sort of iconoclastic trophy found only at Amelia. It’s named for the fictional hero of Burt Levy’s novels of 1950s and 1960s sports car racing and is chosen by the author himself. The award goes to the car restored and driven by the owner, much in the spirit of the hero of Levy’s novels.
“Burt went to Bill (Warner) and said, ‘I’ve got the winner!’ Bill, trying to one-up the writer, joked, ‘No, I’ve got the winner,’” says Gaye. “They both had chosen my ’64 E-Type coupe!”
Gaye was seduced by the line and the profile of the Jaguar coupe. She blames her father’s influence and his 1954 XK-120 for kick-starting her lifelong passion for Jaguar’s sports cars. “I learned to drive in that XK-120. If you can drive that, you can drive anything,” says Gaye. She’s been through a pride of Jaguars, two-doors and four, but currently is without a big cat from Coventry, though her inventory has also included the XJS and more than one XJ6.
“We (with husband Tom) visited the factory and the collection in 2001,” she says, speaking reverently of Jaguar’s fabled Brown’s Lane factory and the moving Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust next door. She’s seen all that Jaguar has to offer from its Le Mans winners, the D-Type and the XJR-8, to the classic SS-100. But it’s still the curves of the XKE that warms her voice when she talks about her all-time favorite car.
“Everybody asked me why I spent all that time and all that money on a coupe when the E-Type roadster is a more valuable car,” says Gaye. Her answer is simple. “There’s nothing more beautiful than the E-Type coupe. Besides, it really looked good in my garage. I have a really nice garage.”
Hanko Rosenblad’s cars are what some call “men’s cars”. Seven decades ago Sydney Allard’s British hot rods, stuffed with large amounts of Detroit V-8 oomph, looked and performed like sledgehammers in a world of delicate MG TCs, svelte Jaguar XK-120s and stylish Austin-Healey 100s. It’s a world where Hanko Rosenblad is comfortably at home. She blames her father, a former GM executive, for discovering her complex and decidedly non-traditional automotive tastes.
“My mother had me in the kitchen baking cookies, and my father had me in the garage changing spark plugs,” says Hanko. “I think this is all inbred.”
So, it seems, are her automotive prejudices. “I took my driver’s license test in a huge Buick Wildcat,” she says. The New Jersey state cop administering the driving test was dismissive when it came time for the requisite parallel parking portion of the exam. “He said, ‘Girlie, you’re never gonna park this thing,’” Hanko explains with a trace of acid in her voice. He was wrong.
“From that moment I told myself ‘I’m never going to drive a big car again’.” And she hasn’t. Big? No. Big power? Absolutely.
The Rosenblad’s Allard collection mates a 61-year-old, Amelia Concours class-winning Palm Beach roadster with their 1951 K2 powered by (as one would expect from the daughter of a GM exec) a Cadillac V-8 engine. Or as Hanko says, “…a Cad-Allard.” It is just what the boys who raced them so long ago called their British-built American V8-powered racers. This from a lass whose dream car is the Allard J2-X, the uncomplicated and uncompromising brute that dominated early American sports car racing and fought the battles for Le Mans in the early 1950s against thinly disguised Formula 1 cars; the no-compromise Anglo-American hot rod that pre-dated the Shelby Cobra, the Sunbeam Tiger and the Griffith by more than a decade.
Hanko’s pal Rich Taylor summed up the J2 and the J2-X perfectly in his seminal 1978 book, MODERN CLASSICS; “It was a man’s car for a man’s kind of man.” Just the sort of ride that summons Hanko’s undiluted and undisguised car lust.
“And I only drive manuals.” (Transmissions, that is. There are no automatics in Hanko’s personal stable.) “I learned to drive on my brother’s Volkswagen…when he wasn’t looking,” she says.
True to form the third member of Hanko’s personal scuderia is the rare Kellison J6 fiberglass coupe; more American V-8 power in a minimal fiberglass shell. For everyday driving she tools around town in a BMW M Coupe.
Talk to Hanko for any length of time and two things emerge: perception and precision. “Coupe” is pronounced correctly with two syllables, and the appropriate rising accent acute on the “e”. Her natural precision of speech betrays a BA degree in fine arts with a psychology minor.
By design or not, she has employed (quietly) both disciplines in volunteer work for Community Hospice. Until very recently Hanko created an annual (and anonymous) piece of memorial art for the Concours’ silent auction, all honoring her patients.
Her first concours d’elegance was the Rockefeller Center Concours during the 1990s. But the seed for dignified car lust had been planted much earlier.
“I attribute my love of cars to my father’s influence and desire to see me develop an ability to be able to handle myself in any situation,” she says. “Speed was and still is addicting, whether it be behind the wheel of a car or racing our boat in off-shore regattas. As we say in the sailing world, ‘half-fast is no fun’.”
Nancy Ulrich has been a part of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance since before “day one”.
“I had just retired. I just showed up on Bill Warner’s doorstep with my laptop and said, ‘I hear you’re doing a car show,’” she says. That was two decades ago.
“I love cars,” says Nancy, and she has no one to blame but herself. And maybe her father, who, for motives still somewhat murky, bought a well-used fleet of six well-seasoned six-cylinder 1956 Chevy’s – three-speed manual on the column, of course – from a local fleet and turned them over to his kids. Nancy learned to drive, really drive, at the age of 15 by racing one of them in what were once called “powder puff derby” races in the 1950s and ‘60s. It meant learning how cars work and getting her hands dirty.
There’s still that happy and comfortable family element in Nancy’s broad automotive enthusiasms. Each summer, she and husband Ellis take their 1929 Model A Ford back to his hometown of Mexico, Missouri, to pay a visit to its original owner, Oscar Ulrich who is 104 years old. Oscar, Ellis’s father, bought the Ford new while Herbert Hoover was in the White House.
“He (Oscar) drives all over town in the Model A, visiting his friends, taking them for rides,” Nancy says proudly. There is also the 1947 Buick Special 4-door that belonged to Ellis’ elder sisters. It joined the family before Nancy was born and has taken up residence in the Ulrich garage.
“My husband and I have always been car people,” she says. While Ellis roams the field, judging the classics on Concours Sunday, Nancy is cloistered away in the clubhouse with her volunteer staff. There’s work to do. Lots of it, and there’s not much time to do it. It’s the sort of detail work that requires an organized and agile intellect. The results from all the class judges must be assembled, sorted, tabulated, scored, checked, re-checked and cross-checked. A class of eight cars can produce as many as 40 individual Judges’ forms. A 300-car field means over 1000 Judges’ score sheets.
“Plus there are the corporate awards,” says Nancy. The judging is more straightforward for these awards. “They get done first,” she says. And they too must be cross checked with the class judges’ results to make certain there’s no overlap, duplication or inconsistency. There are winners, runners up – three ribbons per class – special awards and, of course, the coveted People’s Choice Award. As well as two, not the traditional single, Concours d’Elegance and Amelia’s unique Concours De Sport trophies.
Nancy’s Concours day begins around 4:30 AM, when she makes sure the judges have all the materials they need to do their job. They hit the field around dawn. By then Nancy and her staff have practically put in a full day. “I take this very seriously,” she says, adding, after a light pause, “and we have to be out of the clubhouse by 1:00 o’clock.”
Before that the results must be transmitted to the reviewing stand and distributed to the appropriate field personnel: enough for every member of the staff and all volunteers to sequence the winners properly to accept their awards, cups and ribbons. It’s a daunting task that must be done with absolute precision the first time. Then the results are sent to those who disseminate the information to the media. It can be intellectually and emotionally draining; Concours Sunday morning’s time compression amplifies the already relentless pressure.
It’s a job of exquisite complexity requiring the ability to juggle many powerful egos, choreograph more than 100 judges and dozens of volunteers and the ticking clock. For a self-confessed “car girl” there’s one huge penalty for this crucial and intimate level of participation in her lifelong passion. “I have never seen the (Concours) field,” Nancy admits.
But in 20 years she has become one of the Amelia Concours d’Elegance’s anchors to windward: a reliable, hardworking, gentlewoman who friends delight in calling a Southern Belle. In certain situations, she still addresses some men as “Sugar” and makes them like it. Her signature sobriquet has become a badge of honor with the gentlemen of the Amelia Concours d’Elegance who feel they have attained an invisible badge of rank and honor, a sort of social seniority, when Nancy Ulrich addresses them as “Sugar,” even at 4:30 on a Concours Sunday morning.
Experts claim that Ele Chesney is America’s foremost female car collector, and no one seems to be arguing with them. A self-made businesswoman success story and an alpha entrepreneur with an extraordinary faculty for numbers and their secrets, Ele allows her heart and a healthy dose of sentimentality to rule her formidable intellect in all matters automotive.
Her garage is a study in, among other things, the polar opposites of the Ford species. At one end, a stylish and still beautiful first generation 1940 Lincoln Continental, the conceptual breakthrough of the urbane and sophisticated Edsel Ford as designed by Ford’s fabled stylist Bob Gregorie. At the other end, a 1912 Model T station hack dressed in yellow New York taxi livery; a “brass T”, Henry Ford’s plebian mass produced masterpiece that put America on wheels as a car, truck, tractor, snowmobile, ambulance, town car and sometimes industrial or agricultural power unit. The Model T was all things to all men. More than 14.5 million were built from 1908 until 1927.
No matter to Ele (say “L”, just the letter L, upper case, in her case) who just loves cars for themselves and the personal memories they arouse. Don’t look for a collection rationale. Ele is moved by the beauty of cars the way some tenured esthetes are influenced by fine art.
Then there are, or, were, her Laliques: a complete set. From 1925 Andre Lalique created art deco jewelry and exquisite glass radiator mascots for automobiles. By 1932 his catalog listed 30 pieces including the famous “Longchamps” – the horse’s head – and “Victoire”, the Spirit of the Wind, mascot for the Belgian-built Minerva. Ele owned one of just three 30-piece Lalique sets known to exist. In 2012, the set and the custom cabinets she created to house it went across the RM auction block at the Amelia Concours d’Elegance for the sort of numbers usually associated with classic Cadillacs, Packards and Lincolns.
Asked for the source of her blatant love of cars, one can almost hear her shrug. She’s unsure. It certainly didn’t come from her father who never owned or even drove a car. At least he bought her a car…from a funeral director; a massive Buick that would accommodate all her friends.
Her dad also gave her some advice that, happily, didn’t quite pan out. At the 1954 New York Autorama, Ele was smitten with Virgil Exner’s Plymouth Belmont show car, Chrysler’s only Fiberglas-bodied car. She told her dad that one day she’d own it. “He told me that show cars were usually destroyed,” she says. The Belmont wasn’t and Ele made good on the promise. Like the Laliques, the Belmont has since gone across the auction block, and now resides in the Blackhawk Museum in California.
Her favorite car is one that confounds her friends and fellow car collectors. She calls her beloved 1941 Plymouth 4-door “Harry”. She spent far more to restore “Harry” than the sedan was worth, but never flinched. “They all asked me, ‘Who restores a ’41 Plymouth?’ ” She says. The delicious revenge for Harry’s restoration expense rests in Ele’s densely populated trophy case: Harry’s AACA Grand National winner’s trophy. To her mind’s eye Harry is a beautiful car, and the restoration stirred happy memories of long summer rides with friends in the 1941 Plymouth sedan.
Talk to Ele about her cars for any length of time and it seems that her favorite word is “beautiful.” There’s proof in her garage. A massive 1928 Minerva touring car shares space and her heart with “Rhapsody in Blue”, her pet name for the 1940 Continental once owned by iconic jazz orchestra leader, Paul Whiteman. There are Packards, a stunning V-16 Cadillac and her beloved gem, the 1917 REO touring car. “I like the old stuff. I just love the touring cars,” she says, the words coming out as a light sigh. Beautiful.
Some longtime fans of the Amelia Concours have dubbed it “the racer’s concours”, with good reason. When Amelia defied tradition by awarding both the traditional Concours d’Elegance Best of Show and a Concours De Sport for racing and competition cars, it gave the show’s nickname serious traction. The racers of Amelia coined the nickname, and Karen Perrin is one of them. As the wife of racer and arch car-guy Ross Bremer, Karen has been immersed in Jacksonville’s car scene, in particular racing, since signing on as Mrs. Bremer in 1986. But she blames her brother for uncovering her lifelong interest in exotic, high performance and more often than not, racing cars.
“He taught me to drive,” says Karen. “He taught me on a car with a standard transmission. And that’s all I drove. It was a challenge but he was a good teacher.”
Then came husband Ross and his vintage racing cars. It was a fine match, and she started racing in 1991. Her current competition mount is a 1969 Ford Escort Mk I, what the Brits who built it call a “saloon” car. Her racing log book lists the classics of America’s road racing courses: Sebring, Mid-Ohio, Road America, Watkins Glen, VIR, Indianapolis, the famous “roval” (road-oval) of Daytona International Speedway plus the new Formula 1 course at the Circuit of The Americas near Austin, Texas.
The obscure Isuzu Impulse was her first favorite car. Then, an all-black Audi 5000 to take the Isuzu’s place in her garage. She still calls it “Darth Vader”. “I loved that car,” she says. She also came to love the torquey red Porsche 928 that replaced “Darth Vader”.
“It (the 928) became my new favorite,” she says. That was finally replaced by one of the very first Lexus LS400s to arrive in Jacksonville. For a girl who prefers manual transmissions, the Lexus was almost an alien being. Then reality set in. “We needed something to tow race cars.” Thus, the LS400 remains in the fleet over 20 years later. “They must have been made really well,” Karen says.
“We’ve been involved with the Concours since the first day,” says Karen. “Bill (Warner) came to our office with a list of people and cars he wanted to invite.” That was two decades ago, and she and racer/husband Ross Bremer are still involved with the March show.
Karen seems to have done it all for the Amelia. “This year I’ll be at the information desk. I guess that’s because I’ve done about every other job imaginable.”
In 1996, Karen came for the cars but stayed with the Amelia Island Concours for two decades for a more important reason. “The people involved are so wonderful,” she says. “When this started I thought it would just be a nice one-day car show. We had no idea what it would become.”