Hilton Head Island Motoring Festival & Concours d'Elegance returns


A cordial invitation to mingle with motoring’s glitterati


If there is one thing Hilton Head Island knows how to do, it’s host a party. No, not throw a party in which the party giver just opens the door and lets you fend for yourself. No, Hilton Head hosts a party that makes you feel welcome and cared for at every turn.

Hilton Head perfected its party-hosting over four decades of the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing.

That’s the island’s spring soiree.

It’s autumn party is the Hilton Head Island Motoring Festival & Concours d’Elegance, which is spread over two weekends and highlights works of art on wheels, wings or waves.

You don’t have to be a gear head; heck, you don’t even have to like cars all that much to enjoy the array of events in two cities, from jazz concerts to dinners and galas amid vintage airplanes, boats, food trucks, motorcycles and cars.

Now in its 14th year, the event keeps getting bigger and better. This year, organizers have added an internationally renowned car auction and a vintage aircraft display at Hilton Head Island Airport.


The festival starts Thursday, Oct. 23, (don’t all great weekends start on Thursday?) in Savannah with the pace lap party at Ellis Square in City Market. Friday features dinner with racing legend Skip Barber, while the Savannah Speed Classic at The Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa is on Saturday and Sunday. The weekend isn’t just a spectator sport, but an invitation into the pits to meet the drivers, owners and engineers. You can even take the family sedan or SUV for a “touring" lap on the track.

The Savannah weekend celebrates the little-known fact that the city hosted the country’s first Grand Prix in 1908.

Organized by Historic Sportscar Racing, the weekend highlights “retired” racing cars from stock to open-wheeled that come out to play on the track.


The festival moves to Hilton Head Island the following weekend, starting again on Thursday (we said we know how to host a party!) with The Fabulous Equinox Jazz Orchestra at the Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort, and it doesn’t let up from there.

The highlight of Friday is the evening Flights & Fancy Aeroport Gala at Hilton Head Island Airport amid vintage airplanes and cars to benefit the festival’s charitable fund, Driving Young America.

On Saturday, drink in the best of the best from car clubs from all over the country that jockey each year for an invitation. It’s followed Saturday afternoon by an auction of a select group of investment-grade cars led by Auctions America, known for its auctions on ESPN.  

Sunday is the juried Concours d’Elegance event in which some of the country’s most beautiful cars are paraded through the Motoring Midway at Port Royal Plantation. Don’t worry about seeing the same cars from last year: Collectors can only bring the same car once every three years.

The two-weekend event drew 18,000 people last year and boosted the local economy by $7 million, according to the University of South Carolina Beaufort’s Tourism Department.

Expect to see that figure get left in the dust with this year’s additional airplane display and the national exposure from the auction. 

“I see cars as an art form,” said Carolyn Vanagel, president of the motoring festival. “I love the aesthetics of the event. I see it as a living museum. My mother was an artist and she loved cars. I love seeing what went into the coachwork and the design. We want to teach people about these cars.”


MOTORINGFESTIVAL02As festival chairman Merry Harlacher says, you can’t just look at cars to study their evolution because it’s a little more complicated than that. Early engineers worked on different transportation modes interchangeably, be it airplanes, motorcycles or boats. For example, BMW started off building aircraft engines before adding motorcycles and automobiles. 

“One of our elements is to educate,” Harlacher said. “The public doesn’t get the exchange between cars and boats and planes. BMW started with aircraft engines in WWI, then got into motorcycles and cars.

“World War II pilots who built cars using wood and aluminum that they learned how to work with while building Spitfires and other aircraft.," he said.

The education piece ties into the annual scholarships the festival gives out to young people who want to pursue careers in the automotive industry.


While other Concours events come and go, Hilton Head’s keeps growing and raising its standards. There is no governing body for Concours events, so each one tries to outdo the others.

“We study other events and call their judges to pick their brains and adopt their best judging practices,” Harlacher said.

Other shows might reward beauty, in which the shiniest, cleanest car wins, but Hilton Head goes for authenticity and knowledge.

Judges have developed lengthy checklists for each category. Is the wiring right? Is the car painted a color available when it was built? Are the components original, meaning the body, engine and chassis?

They also quiz owners about their cars: “Show us where the headlight switch is.” How do you open the hood?” “What is the gearshift pattern?”

“Our judges come from around the country, recommended by the country’s premier car clubs, such as the Classic Car Club, the Horseless Carriage Club for cars built before 1916. They do it for the love of the hobby," Harlacher said.

Another aspect that makes Hilton Head’s Concours different is at least for the time being, Hilton Head’s Concours rejects American cars built after 1973.

“The safety standards imposed then degraded the design cars," Harlacher said. Carmarkers had to attach massive bumpers to meet the 5 mph crash standards. While modern cars now incorporate those standards into their designs, their efforts were clumsy for years.


While Hilton Head Island once copied other Concours events, now everyone is copying Hilton Head.

“We have become the model of other automotive events," Vanagel said. “They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

MOTORINGFESTIVAL03The event goes beyond a love of cars, Vanagel said. It tries to capture a moment in time, such as the “Suburbia" theme that will infuse this year’s event and awards Concours Sunday for people whose attire best matches the era of their cars.

“It’s nostalgia and dreams. This event is the great equalizer. Here, you can get to know the collectors because they are really approachable," Vanagel said.

But Hilton Head’s relaxed ambiance takes a lot of work.

The festival enlists the help of 400 volunteers to ensure everyone, from collector to judge to visitor, can enjoy themselves.

“Our reputation is that our volunteers are knowledgeable and helpful,” Harlacher said.

Volunteers greet each car as it arrives, directing the team to its spot, perhaps fetching a forgotten battery or extension cord and even helping keep the vehicle dusted.

Volunteers go through training to reinforce the idea that they are hosts for the collectors, renovators, visitors and judges.

“If you look at the Hilton Head brand compared to Amelia Island and Pebble Beach, it’s the atmosphere when you come over the bridge; relax and feel welcome,” Vanagel said. “You’re not hassled. You think, 'people really care about me.'"

It’s a car party, Hilton Head style.