29 October 2013

The Concours d'LeMons: Taking the mellow out of the yellow

You have to seriously wonder what pushes a middle-aged man to dress up his 1975 Lincoln Town Coupe as a horse — stuffed rider included — title this equine-powered beast “The Phony Express,” then drive brazenly for hours on end in the middle of the night to flaunt it at a gathering of like-minded freaks. And what to say about Pintos, K Cars and Gremlins from an era thought forever bygone (if not one that many wished would remain so) reappearing out of nowhere in droves? Or why in the world would some white dude sporting a Don King hairdo show off Roseanne Barr's camouflaged stretch limo equipped with a Johnny Weissmuller's call-of-the-jungle horn?

Despite appearances, this singular happening doesn't take place on Halloween night, nor can it be found in Ripley's legendary “Believe It or Not” collection. It does seem to resemble, however, a passage into the Twilight Zone as you travel through another dimension: Welcome to the infamous and anything-but-classy Concours d'LeMons, the black sheep in the prestige field of Concours d'Elegance, where ugliness meets the bizarre, authenticity is never an issue and rust appears in no shortage.

In fact, you will be forewarned by organizers that tetanus shots are not provided, so caveat emptor... in the extreme! You may even be shocked to discover that this is one concours where judges are overtly exposed to bribery, thanks to participants placing diverse oblations on the hoods of their vehicles in a desperate attempt to snatch the highly coveted “Worst of Show” award. Yes, Worst of Show.

The Concours d'LeMons prides itself in “celebrating the oddball, mundane and truly awful of the automobile world.” Clearly, the very notion of seriousness is taboo here while, much like the scent of lemon, there is a feeling of freshness in the air. So it's no surprise that this offspring of the car counterculture takes place in the chic Bay of Monterey, Calif., right before and near the traditional sexagenarian Grand Lady of Pebble Beach.

Perhaps it's the surprise factor mixed with an irresistible child-like fascination for the grotesque or the unpredictable that draws the crowds. Plus, no one else is doing it, plain and simple. Even the press has gotten in on the action big time. Since its inception five years ago, the Concours d'LeMons' whimsical homage to the wild and weird has received the attention of literally every mainstream automotive media and, interestingly enough, that of unexpected giants from the establishment, including The New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

“If there is a top, there has to be a bottom; for every zenith, there is a nadir. I guess people want to see it all,” says Alan Galbraith, the brains behind the quirky wheels of misfortune genre. With many racing events and car shows under his belt, this enfant terrible from California felt the time had come to provide a special place for crappy cars, truly orphan marques and other olvidados of all stripes.

The story started a few years ago when he met a kindred soul by the name of Jay Lamm, whose idea of having fun was to organize 24-hour races a la LeMans for vehicles worth $500 or less. Lemons, for short. Some notable car guys soon got excited. The concept grew in leaps and bounds as the number of rallies proliferated across the nation. They decided to push the envelope further and create a public platform such as a concours to showcase these poor man's rides. Tickets were initially sold in an attempt to make the citrus operation financially viable — a challenge by any stretch of the imagination. Then, three years ago, some outside-the-box thinking at Hagerty led to a major, and exclusive, sponsorship of the Concours d'LeMons by the company, the direct benefit of which was visitors now being able to attend for free.

More than 1,000 fans flocked to Seaside this year for a taste of d'LeMons' latest edition. They were treated first-hand to a trick or treat bag of some 90 specimens in the various über-bizarre classes (“Swedish Meatballs,” “Unmitigated Gaul,“ Needlessly Complex Italian,” etc., etc.). The Worst of Show grand prize went to Scott Bosé's 1949 Voisin Biscooter, a genuinely rare collector's item as only one of two actually owned by French designer of plane and car fame Gabriel Voisin.

Which in the end begs the question: Why are chronically flawed or otherwise unfriendly cars nicknamed “lemons” after all? It appears that the vocable can be loosely traced to the beginning of the 20th century as both a British and American slang. But with its self-deprecating one-word lemon ad of 1960, the Mad Men at Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) developed for Volkswagen a concept so revered that it would revolutionize marketing strategies for decades to come. Their tagline, “We pluck the lemons, you get the plums,” crystallized their pitch with consumers, helping to jet-propel sales of the Beetle into the millions during the early 1960s. Not a simple task, given the post-WW II mood prevailing between Germany and the U.S. back then.

In 1970, economist George Akerlof coined the term in a milestone article titled “The Market for Lemons” published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics about the problems of asymmetric information that plague markets. The paper became one of the most cited in modern economic theory and earned its man the Nobel Prize in 2001 — quite the trip for a tiny fruit forever defining the lowest of lows among cars.

You’ve probably heard the saying, « When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. » But perhaps there is a dual lesson to be learned here about the manner in which the lemonade gets served and how to savor every drop of refreshment it offers. And if there is such a thing as the proverbial perfect lemonade, humor may well be the best sweetener there is, especially when combined with a heart-felt passion for the antique automobile. Cheers!

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