A Concours d’Elegance is one of few things that still carry with it a strict set of rules enforced by the laws of heritage and tradition. It is an area of the automotive landscape where prestige and originality are heralded and imitators are ignored. Friendly as it is, there is a level of seriousness and true attention to detail that deserves the utmost respect. So it is understandable that given the exclusive company a Concours event attracts that the venue and spectacle must be equally luxurious.
Between Pebble Beach and Amelia Island, there are few places around the world that carry such beauty and splendor. So when Robert McLeese decided he wanted to host a Concours d’Elegance of world-class proportions just outside of Owen Sound, Ontario it was understandable that few people believed it could be a success.
It didn’t hurt that he had the support of some of the strongest brand and automotive moguls in the area to help kick start the project – he knows Joe Sulpizi of the Brand Factory well. He put McLeese in touch with Billy Smilovsky of Engineered Automotive, a high-end, high-performance tuning, restoration and mechanical shop located near Concord, Ontario.
The three agreed a Concours was a great idea to showcase the best of what Canada has to offer. Nothing like this had ever been done in Canada, and its contribution to a good cause was two-fold: bring awareness to the beauty of the expanding Grey County region (brucegreysimcoe.com) and raise money for the Sunnybrook Helipad project.
But there were two problems – they had just six Concours-quality cars and zero sponsors.
“We started working on it last year. As we got into it, it became evident that it was a big job – a very big job,” McLeese says. “It was bigger than anyone had anticipated and it was being done – not as a hobby – but it was being done not in a manner that we hoped it would get done. So we all decided collectively to cancel it last year before it got too far along.”
That’s when McLeese set forth and hit the pavement.
He is no stranger to hard work and garnering support for worthy projects. The President of Access Capital Corporation, his company is dedicated to independent power project financing for sustainable and alternative energy resources. Along with his late father Willis, the two seized major investment opportunities in the 1980s and ‘90s that include wind turbine farms and countless other projects throughout North America.
Their business ventures eventually led to the creation of the Cobble Beach Golf Links and Resort. It was the vision of Willis and his son to create a picturesque landscape that resembled Pebble Beach and could one day hold a Concours d’Elegance – but with a Canadian flavour.
“It started about 12 years ago when my father and I first looked at it and thought it would make a wonderful site for an event such as the Concours,” McLeese says. “This is something that my father and I always wanted to do.”
Along the way his network started growing. He was put in touch with Steve Plunkett, who later became an integral part of the project as Special Advisor. Plunkett is the owner of one of the largest Cadillac collections in the world and is heavily involved in fundraising projects, including his annual Fleetwood Country Cruze-In and the Plunkett Foundation, which distributes grants for health care projects nationwide.
After meeting with Plunkett, McLeese was introduced to Ed Lucas, the Master of Ceremonies at some of the biggest car shows including Pebble Beach, Amelia Island and the Detroit Auto Show. They discussed worthy judges for the Cobble Beach show, Lucas gave McLeese the number of one of the most esteemed judges in the Concours world.
“He [Lucas] pointed me to John Carlson in B.C.,” McLeese says. “John and I spoke for two hours the first day, and he said ‘Rob, I do a lot of Concours judging and I’m Chief Judge at a lot of these.
I probably get 30 requests a year, so no disrespect to you, but I’m probably going to turn you down.’ I said ‘OK.’”
Initially, things weren’t looking so well for McLeese and his Cobble Beach dream. It had already been pushed back a year, and he was getting hit with some tough questions from Carlson. There were four criteria that had to be strong:
Is the site spectacular?
“I would be boasting if I said so, but I think it is and a number of other people think it is too. There are views of the water from every golf hole,” McLeese said.
How is this going to be funded?
How many sponsors do you have? “None,” he said. “I’m going to fund it. I’m going to try and find some sponsors, but being the first year I’m not expecting a lot.”
Who is making up your judging team?
“John, I’m leaving that in your hands,” McLeese said. “If you agree to do this, I want you to bring your judging team, but I would like some Canadians as part of the team.”
How are you sourcing cars?
“Steve Plunkett and Ed Lucas have agreed to help me. Right now we have six.”
Initially one, or perhaps two, of those categories are strong enough to meet Carlson’s criteria.
With things looking dim, the two picked up their conversation the next day. After visiting the Cobble Beach website, Carlson was impressed with the golf course and geographical landscape of the area. It was enough to convince him to travel for a visit and sign on as Chief Judge of the event. It was a major milestone for the project moving forward.
From there, the group began recruiting cars at a rapid pace, which was necessary given the 16 classes they expected to fill. McLeese and Carlson picked up cars with the help of their new team, including a 1938 Steyr 220 Roadster that won Best in Show at the Pinehurst Concours, eight pre-1916 horseless carriages, American and European vintage classics from the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, and even American muscle cars and historical racers. By the end of recruiting, the show had 111 cars spanning across each category, and the logistics were in place.
What was most surprising was the number of Canadian owners who registered for the show. Along with Plunkett’s 1930 Cadillac V16 and 1949 prototype Coupe de Ville – a technological marvel complete with one-piece curved windshield and a glove box telephone – the show also included special pieces like a heavily-modified 1919 Ford T “King’s Special” that raced on the dirt tracks of Winnipeg, Thunder Bay and Minnesota, and a green and orange 1934 Pierce Arrow Silver Arrow – one of 11 Arrows known to exist today and a 100-point Best in Class winner at the 1994 Pebble Beach Concours.
This last example is a testament to the quality of cars at the show.
To score 100 points at Pebble Beach is a marvel. Not only does it mean the car is better than off-the-line, showroom condition, but every detail down to the uniform alignment of each bolt is covered.
Best of all – you may see the Silver Arrow driving around on a beautiful day.
“I told the previous owner I would show it at two events and then I’m driving it,” Canadian owner Gordon Linkletter said. “These cars are too beautiful to be kept in a garage or museum away from the public eye. Part of what makes ownership of these machines so great is the reaction they get when they’re out on the town.”
That sentiment was echoed by Minas Vissiliadis, the owner of a less-than-showroom condition 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith. When asked why his car showed so many blemishes compared to the rest of the field, he responded by saying, “You don’t get married to your wife then stop making love to her.”
It’s exactly that kind of love and dedication that was shown throughout the Concours. In the end it was Peter Boyle’s 1928 Isotta Fraschini 8 A SS – an Italian chassis delivered to Lebaron Coach Builders in the U.S. with only 22,000 original miles – that took the inaugural Cobble Beach Concours Best in Show award. From the staff to the owners and the fans, Rob McLeese managed to bring some of the most prestigious vehicles and dedicated owners together for two great causes.
“There are seven waterfalls within an hour of Cobble Beach, 12 lighthouses within an hour; there is salmon running. In the winter there is dog sledding, ice fishing, the Tom Thompson Art Gallery, the Roxy Theatre, the symphony – there are all of these things in the Grey County Area,” McLeese says. “Then there’s the regional hospital, which is a top hospital for cancer in Ontario.
So because I happen to like cars and events like this, I thought, ‘What better way to showcase the area?’”
After seeing the success and splendor the inaugural show produced, there’s little doubt the Cobble Beach Concours d’Elegance will continue to provide the one-of-a-kind stories and showpieces towards great causes for years to come.