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For a first-time car show judge, the verdict arrives slowly

Brett Berk
November 5, 2013

Just as the proliferation of fiction writing MFA programs has led to a concomitant rise in the number of literary journals, the growing interest in collectible cars has led to a swelling number of car shows. As a former fiction writing professor, and a current automotive journalist, I do not view either of these trends as inherently negative. I can also say with certainty that the difference between them is collectible cars have some recognizable financial value.

If you have a chance to be a judge in either category, I recommend you do so. I taught fiction writing at The New School in New York City for nine years, but I was only granted the opportunity to drop wisdom at a classic car show — the Hilton Head Concours d’Elegance — for the first time this past weekend.

My class, if I dare risk invoking scholarly paradigms, or accusations of financial warfare in this hobby dominated by the one percent— was Open Classics 1931-1948. There were only six vehicles in our field, but my fellow judges and I were nothing if not thorough, more than two hours to the process of inspecting, crawling under, and scrutinizing the tailpipes of two Packards, two Cords, a Lincoln, and something called a Steyr.

I was fortunate enough to be paired with two gentlemen with genuine (or seemingly genuine) expertise. We were given a detailed, 25-line worksheet on which our deductions were to be tabulated, and it immediately became evident that there was no transgression too small to make the list. We gave demerits for wax left in the crease of the fuel door shut-line, for a ragged seam in the fabric of a trunk lid lining, for glossy black paint coating a plebeian underbelly, and for the presence of oil in the engine compartment. (Oil. In the engine compartment.)

My lifelong appreciation for new cars has not been diminished by years of writing about them. But within two hours, I was transformed into an officious, bitchy critic of the very classics that originally brought me into my love of automobiles. “Shouldn’t there be a contiguous line of weather stripping on this window gutter?” I asked the owner of a pristine, supercharged 1937 Cord 812, one of my favorite cars ever produced. “Does this shut-line look right to you?” I asked of the door edge of a handsome 1938 Darrin bodied Packard Victoria Convertible. I became jealous of the judges assigned to the “preservation” class, where original patinated vehicles were rewarded.

We eventually awarded our Best in Class to the 1938 Steyr Roadster, a gorgeous ivory convertible with a matched set of leather luggage and a questionable Axis provenance. As we placed the blue ribbon on the car’s windshield, I felt a queasy mix of confidence and resignation. Maybe being a judge only makes one more judgmental.