THIS YEAR’S PINNACLE COLLECTOR, KEN GROSS, IS A WEALTH OF AUTOMOTIVE CONTRADICTIONS.
Established in 2013, the honor of being named Pinnacle Award Collector of the Hilton Head Island Motoring Festival & Concours d’Elegance has, as its name implies, traditionally gone to a collector.
This year’s honoree, Ken Gross, is anything but traditional.
For starters, he’s not bringing his collection to this year’s event, to be held Oct. 27 to Nov. 5. Instead, He’s bringing other people’s collections. As a towering figure in the automotive world and celebrated curator of automotive art exhibitions at museums around the country, he’s brought to life 10 magnificent shows built around the singular beauty of the automobile. These works of mobile art have toured everywhere from Portland to Atlanta, and now Gross is bringing a few of his favorites to Hilton Head Island.
“Since I’ve curated these 10 exhibitions in art museums, when they talked to me (about receiving the Pinnacle Award) I said let’s get one car that represents an exhibition, so we have four exhibitions represented,” he said. “I’ve been a writer my whole life and I enjoy interpreting cars for people and explaining why they’re important.”
The four he’ll be bringing along to this year’s Concours have each played a part in Gross’ museum shows, and each tells a story.
The 1959 Cadillac Cyclone, which Gross curated from the GM Heritage Collection in Sterling Heights, Michigan, and included in his “Dream Cars” exhibit at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, exemplifies the forward-thinking aesthetic of the exhibit with its rocket ship design and high-tech upgrades like built-in radar.
“It was one of the first cars to have a form of obstacle detection,” he said.
The 1937 Bugatti 57S Atalante was part of an exhibit called “Allure of the Automobile,” shown at both the High Museum and the Portland Museum of Art. Now owned by William “Chip” Connor of Atlanta, the Bugatti is one of just 42 produced before production was halted during World War II.
The Revs Institute will share a special-edition 1937 Delahaye Roadster for Gross’ Concours exhibit. Rounding out the collection will be a 1955 Ghia Gilda owned by Buzz Calkins, a former Indy Racing League driver.
Beyond being honored as a collector without a collection, Gross is also a study in contradictions: He straddles the line between two very different automotive worlds. A gearhead at heart, he is a prized judge at Concours events around the world, from Pebble Beach to Italy; a celebrated automotive author with several books to his credit and bylines in everything from Playboy and the Robb Report to Old Cars Weekly; and the 2014 recipient of the Automotive Hall of Fame’s Distinguished Service Citation Award.
“Generally, classic car people don’t talk to hot rod people and vice versa, but I speak both languages,” he said.
Indeed, Gross’ own personal collection includes four hot rods, stemming from an innate love of American horsepower that started when he was just a kid.
“I had a 1944 Ford coupe when I was in high school and I took an Oldsmobile engine from a junkyard and was able to install it, to my father’s surprise,” he said. Even decades after that, when I get in it — particularly at night — there’s a sense of déjà vu, the sound, the feeling of the steering, the lights. It’s a little bit like going back in time.”
While the classic car crowd and the DIY grease monkeys rarely see eye to eye, Gross has not only been able to keep one foot in each world, he’s been able to bring them together on several occasions.
Along with people like Bruce Meyer, Gross helped convince the powers that be at Pebble Beach that a little bit of American ingenuity would be a perfect complement to the pristine Duesenbergs and Delahayes of the Concours. They relented, and in 1997 Pebble Beach saw its first class of hot rods.
“More and more collectors are realizing that the basic roots of American racing came out of people who built their own cars and raced them,” he said.
To complement the collection of cars Gross has curated for this year’s Concours on Hilton Head, he has hand-selected several pieces of automotive artwork to display.
“I’m excited to go to Hilton Head and thrilled they’ve seen fit to honor these exhibitions. The real credit goes to these collectors who are willing to part with their treasures for four to five months,” he said. “And you certainly have to respect the wonderful names behind these cars: Exner and Bugatti, Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell. They were like artists in metal back in their eras. They deserve to be recognized today.”