Photography Winston Goodfellow and Evan Klein
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Concours people: the judge

9th June 2020

Knowledge and experience are crucial for any concours judge – as well as the ability to detect an over-restored automobile at 100 paces, as Winston Goodfellow explains…

How times have changed since I started judging in the 1980s. Back then it was the collector car hobby; now it’s much more of a concours and event industry. There are grand shows in numerous countries, major sponsorship deals, far greater media coverage and general attendance, fiercely competitive classes, and the constantly increasing cost of class and show-winning restorations.

My plunge into the deep end of the collector car event world began in 1989 when, at age 31, I became a chief class judge at Pebble Beach. That was still the early years of Pebble gaining its global reach and recognition, and I was by far the youngest ‘CCJ’ in the room, a beneficiary of being in the right place at the right time (helping co-chairs Lorin Tryon and J Heumann organise Pebble’s first Italian Custom Coachwork class). I knew where cars were, and had a good grasp on originality and history. 

From that ongoing assistance came Lorin’s surprising question: would I like to be the chief class judge? That was a big ‘ask’; I replied that I wasn’t sure whether I was up to the task, and would like to sleep on it. I called him the next day and said yes, figuring if I went down in a blaze of glory, well, at least I could say I had done it.

Twenty-one years passed before I handed in my Pebble Beach clipboard, and from time to time the show asks me to come back. During those continuous two-plus decades I helped some of my judges such as Craig Davis and Norb McNamara brainstorm and create concepts like the Tour and Class Hosts – ideas implemented at Pebble that spread to other shows. There was also making a thick book for planning features and special classes years in advance by tying them to major anniversaries, modifying the judging form by adding rather than subtracting elegance points, acting as Pebble’s liaison with featured marques and names such as Lamborghini, Sergio Scaglietti and Giotto Bizzarrini, being on the selection and organising committees, and more.

My first year as a Pebble CCJ was a real burner, for the three Alfa Romeo BATs were together for the first time ever and in one of my classes, and Nuccio Bertone was an honoured guest. This led to an incident which demonstrates that most of the political intrigue you hear about concours exists only in the imagination of a person who hasn’t been behind the closed doors, and is telling the story.

In this case, it was a journalist who, several years later, was regaling an enraptured group of how, because Nuccio was at Pebble, pressure was exerted on the judges to have a delectable Vignale-bodied Abarth 205A get second in class, so one of the Alfa Romeo BATs would score first.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” I said when he’d finished. “I was the chief class judge, and the top three cars were separated by half a point, total!” Did he ever stammer upon hearing the truth.

A great benefit of being a Pebble chief class judge is voting for Best of Show. It’s one of the collector car world’s highest and most exclusive duties, and isn’t taken lightly. Witness 1993, the year Ralph Lauren’s spectacular 1930 SSK Count Trossi Roadster won. There were a number of strong contenders, and late in the afternoon the melodic voice of announcer Paul Woudenberg on the PA informed the judges to get their votes in. Several minutes later, that voice said: “Winston Goodfellow, you are needed at the podium immediately.”

I thought there must be a tie, and sure enough, Lorin and J informed me there was. Mine was the only ballot left, and I told them I was deliberating between the Trossi Mercedes, a Duesenberg and a third car I no longer recall. When I got to my last choice, J’s shoulders slumped as he said: “That’s the other car! We want nothing to do with your vote. Go over there and decide.” And with that he shooed me away with his hands.

In difficult decisions such as this, I resort to what I call “the garage door test”: the day after the show, if you could open your garage and see just one car there, which would it be? I thought for a moment, wrote on my ballot: “The Mercedes, you know which one,” and broke the tie.

Pebble Beach may have been the first top-tier show where I participated, but it hasn’t been the only one. Over the decades I’ve been extremely blessed to also be in the judging room at Amelia Island, The Quail, Villa d’Este, Best of the Best, and more.

Villa d’Este holds a special place in my heart, for it is often my favourite event of the year, and on an entirely different scale than Pebble. While the famed California venue is basically an all-out battle that people desperately want to win, Villa d’Este is like an intense gentleman’s competition where exhibitors want to win – but most of all, they appreciate just being there, and the camaraderie that goes with a more intimate setting and less hectic schedule. And ‘VdE’ has entirely different judging criteria than Pebble, as elegance, design and provenance are brought to the fore, in addition to condition and authenticity.

With only 50 or so cars on the field, the judging crew is smaller (now 12 total), and how Best of Show is determined is a personal annual highlight. VdE’s chief judge is Lorenzo Ramaciotti, former head of design at Pininfarina and Fiat Group Automobiles, and he’s totally into cars, design and automotive history. As with Pebble, only class winners are eligible for Best of Show, and Lorenzo even-handedly leads us judges through a passionate discussion in which we go around the table, everyone thoughtfully presents their point of view, and then each states their vote.

One of my all-time favourite automotive memories happened during such a session. At that time there were only six judges, and after a fair amount of deliberation, we remained deadlocked at 3-3. Patrick Le Quément, former Renault design chief, is eloquent, thoughtful and passionate, and he was on one side of the vote. Lorenzo was on the other. As the debate wore on, the 3-3 gridlock remaining firmly in place, all of a sudden Patrick grabbed a notepad and said: “Let me show you what I find inelegant on ‘your’ car,” and started furiously sketching several details. Lorenzo listened intently, then picked up his notepad, and replied: “Let me show the same on your pick,” and began drawing.

Soon they were going back and forth with duelling sketches, and I recall thinking “How cool is this!” as two design greats duked it out. If only I’d had the foresight to ask for the renderings, and have them signed…

Design personnel on a judging panel can be of great benefit, and in the late 1990s when Pebble placed more emphasis on elegance than it does today, I had a professional designer on my teams to lead the elegance deliberation. That portion of the judging sheet often influenced the order in which the cars placed.

To show how keen a pro’s eyes can be, one year when former Aston and Jaguar design head Ian Callum was on the team, a post-war Delahaye or Talbot-Lago was in one of my classes, and I had been alerted that it might contend for Best of Show.

As Ian and I walked up to it, something looked slightly off about the car. I was trying to determine what it was, when Callum said: “You know what’s wrong with the design? The wheelbase is two centimetres too short.” The instant he said that, I knew that’s what I was seeing but couldn’t define.

Another designer who had great impact on how I ‘see’ concours cars is Sergio Scaglietti. A storied figure in Ferrari history, Sergio was a true character, humble with a wicked sense of humour, and self-taught in the art of coachbuilding and design. In 1998, Pebble Beach honoured him and his creations – which include the 250GTO and 250 Testa Rossa, to name just two.

Sergio and I walked the field early Sunday morning, and after we’d passed several of his cars, with admiration he said: “We never made them like that.” That stopped me, for up to that point I felt if the paint, door gaps, panel fit and interior were done better than original, that was okay. After all, if constructors could economically produce a car at that level, they would. But if an engine compartment or undercarriage had improper finishes and equipment, that would be penalised, for that wasn’t how the car was originally made – and no manufacturer would do it that way.

Not long after, Piero Rivolta and I were reminiscing about the cars he’d seen during Monterey week. “I felt like I was at a party where I recognised everyone but knew no one,” he noted, referring to his Isos and their competition. In his eyes, those impeccably restored machines had undergone plastic surgery to make them look better than new, creating something they never were.

Over the ensuing months, I found my viewpoint changing. If we as concours judges are supposed to be custodians of auto history, how good of a job are we doing by constantly rewarding things that were never built that way originally? After all, if we’re saying that now, when the constructors are still with us, what will that tell people a century from now when everyone is gone?

In many ways, this ‘overdoing it’ seems to have become more extreme over the years. Indeed, one time my judges and I made a ‘Fabergé Egg scale’ to help us wade through a class of cars where most were so dramatically over restored they resembled four-wheeled versions of those jewelled eggs, rather than the machines they originally were.

Being able to adapt is crucial, for when you see and learn more, you come to find you never know what a concours field will put in front of you. One year at Villa d’Este I was the lead judge for a Formula 1 class, and while it was a joy spending time up close with these marvellous machines, there was no way the normal Villa d’Este scoring system would work. Thankfully, my other judges (Harm Lagaaj and Mario Theissen) had proper racing experience, including Mario’s running of an F1 team, and together we were able to modify the scoring sheet to meet the rigours of the class.

Adapting has also helped in interacting with exhibitors. In one of my first years at Pebble, there was an entrant who was as nervous as could be, for he’d flown the DB4 Jet over from Europe. The one-off Aston was impeccably restored, but somewhere in transport the passenger door had been damaged. This was clearly outside the owner’s control, so I informed him my judging team would examine the car as if the dent didn’t exist. That calmed him down, and the Aston went on to win its class.

One must also adapt to the times. Recently at The Quail, we were deliberating Best of Show between several worthy candidates, when I suggested an ATS 2500 GTS. The car looked utterly luscious with its smoky-silver paint and saddle-coloured trim, and had history as the first mid-engine supercar, and a Franco Scaglione design. That initial push got a muted response, but it must have planted a seed because later in the discussion judge Christian Philippsen brought it up again. We went and looked at it and the other contenders, and once everyone saw the cars back-to-back, the decision was apparent. The ATS won – to the shock of its owner and delight of the crowd.

Then there was an episode that could have completely changed the concours game, but didn’t. In the late 1990s Pebble instigated a class for unrestored cars, and a spectacular Alfa 8C 2900 motored onto the field and took its place in the class.

It was the first car I went looking for in the Winners’ Circle, and when later speaking with probably half a dozen other judges, it turned out that they’d all done the same.

Typically, if a car has ten-12 votes at Pebble, it will win Best of Show, and that Alfa was over halfway there. Because it wasn’t in the Winners’ Circle, I assumed it hadn’t won the class. Only later when talking with a class judge did I learn that as they approached the car, the exhibitor decided at that moment he didn’t want it judged. Their pleas couldn’t get him to change his mind.

The odds are that if the Alfa had won the class, it would have won Best of Show. While there have been a handful of ‘unrestored’ Best of Show winners elsewhere, think about the message and shockwaves that such a Pebble win would’ve sent, and how that would have changed the concours and restoration game…

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