Grease and Villainy at the Concours d’LeMons

Grease and Villainy at the Concours d’LeMons

The fog hasn’t yet lifted on the Monterey Peninsula and I’m standing around what has affectionately been temporarily renamed “Goose Shit Park.” A collection of rusted out, Bondo bodied, barely running cars are still rolling in past our picnic table to find their allocated spot amongst the eight classes of amazingly terrible cars. Welcome to the palate cleanser of Pebble Beach, the Concours d’LeMons.

I’m handed a clipboard and a yellow pass that says Judgin’ on it, and hang it around my neck. I’ve enthusiastically volunteered to judge the Swedish Meatball class since I personally am the proud owner of a $1600 1987 Volvo 240 DL station wagon. I know what it is to drive a car that everyone else thinks is a hunk of junk. I know what it is to fall in love with something that very few people want, let alone find appealing, and I absolutely cannot wait to head out into the field and talk to others just like me.

There are just six cars in the Swedish Meatball category, and they are all Volvos. According to the organizers, that’s more than they’ve ever had in the group. In fact, the Concours d’LeMons is growing each year by leaps and bounds. This year more than 110 cars showed up in the misty morning and crowds of onlookers were thick by 10am. This antithesis to the lavishly rich Concours d’Elegance has been taking place in public parks around the Monterey Peninsula since 2009 and judging from the turnout of both entrants and onlookers, the organizers are on to something.

I wander over to my group where my first stop is John Ramsden’s 1966 Volvo 122 Amazon station wagon. On the rusty hood sits a collection of handmade hood ornaments. The ones that catch my eye are the little solid silver sperm, with single diamonds in their heads and bat wings on the sides of their little squiggly bodies. A business card nearby reads “Spankin’ Machine.” I ask him about his handiwork and his car. It turns out that John is a former Rolls Royce airplane engine mechanic and he started making hood ornaments because “everybody needs something to do when they retire.”

He came to Concours d’Le’Mons as something to do, and a place to show off his wares. A friend found his car for him and he’s owned it for the last ten years. He’s replaced the transmission and done most of the work himself. He says he pulled out the back seats because he didn’t need them. “How often do you have anyone sit in the back of a car?” he asks, smiling.

The Drive

I step away and watch him for a minute. He’s happy to talk to people about the funny hood ornaments. He’s happy to talk about the work he’s done on his car, even if it is nearly rusting through. There’s an enthusiasm that surrounds him as he talks and it draws people to him.

In front of John’s car sits what looks a lot like something that you might see crossing the stage at the actual Concours just a few miles away. It is bright blue with a red interior and shines like a show car. I recognize it immediately as a Volvo P1900, the predecessor to the increasingly collectible P1800. A young guy in a bright blue v-neck sweater is talking to someone nearby about the car after he climbs out and turns it off. I approach him only to discover that he is not the owner but simply doing a favor for a friend.

I drove a P1900 that was owned by the Volvo Museum a few years ago and the experience was another one for the record books. The 1950s era Volvo CEO, Assar Gabrielsson, had come to the U.S. to see the Corvette and he immediately fell in love with it. He went back to Sweden and hired a California boat design firm to start creating the fiberglass bodies for what he hoped would become a sport model for Volvo. When the car was completed, a new CEO had taken over, and  he took the Volvo Sport  on vacation for the weekend. He absolutely hated it. The driving dynamics were so bad that he cancelled production immediately and only 68 of them were ever made.  

The bright blue and red example in front of me is one of those remaining cars and it’s in nearly concours shape. I find owner, Charles Goodman nearby and ask him about it. Goodman is a car collector. He bid on the little car on Friday night and decided to bring it to the Concours d’LeMons on a lark. “I didn’t drive it here. My friend did,” he tells me. “I just bought it at the auctions last night. ” I ask him about why he decided on that particular car. “I have an Alfa Romeo and I do the California Mille. You see a ton of Alfas out on the route and I wanted something different to drive for it. So I bought it,” he says. I ask him if he knows the car’s history as one of the worst automobiles that Volvo ever built. He looks at me a little surprised and shakes his head. He paid $54,000 for it.

The Drive

I continue my rounds as a giant, rusting, limo rolls out onto the grass lot, followed by an equally enormous eggplant and mustard 1978 Mercury Grand Marquis. The man behind the wheel is wearing a Hawaiian shirt with old American cars on it and a giant pimp’s hat with the same color combination as his car. LeMons also runs a series of races all over the country for cars just like these, rusted out hoopties with barely working mechanicals and questionable safety. Many of the teams that compete in the events put together a theme for their cars and race teams and Kevin Wood is no different. He says he doesn’t remember which came first, the hat or the paint job on the car, but he wears it when he comes to the Concours d’LeMons every time.

Sadly, he has no bribes for me today. As a judge for LeMons, we can accept bribes from the entrants—valuable things ranging from clown noses to donuts to cans of Lite beer. The bribes are often accompanied by a signed note. Kevin has been coming for years to the Concours for years. His restoration took him a few years to get just right, he tells me. The interior is purple and mustard velour and it looks like something yanked from a living room in the the late 70s. It’s awesome in its terribleness and his enthusiasm about his work on it is infectious.

After spending some time deliberating with my fellow judge, it’s time to choose the winner—who by the calculus of LeMons is actually the loser—of the Swedish Meatball class as well as a Worst in Show. We agree that the Volvo in the worst shape is the 122 wagon. We also like that John is so excited to share his handiwork (even if it’s strange) and his passion for his car. For irony’s sake we choose Charles’ Volvo Sport as the second place finisher. It’s just too good to ignore and despite the fact that the spirit of LeMons is to celebrate the “oddball, mundane and truly awful of the automotive world,” we can’t help but give Charles a nod as well. We hand in our ballots and wait for the awards.

As we sit and listen to the awards ceremony which includes prizes like salad dressing and smoked herring, I watch the people around me. This is where car culture still lives and breathes for those of us who have a passion for wacky and strange cars. This is where we all come to get our odd fix of microcars, rust buckets, and incredibly horrible color combinations.  Wealthy collectors and local retirees alike come to share their passion for machines that have touched their hearts in some way regardless of how thick their wallets are.

After a week of hobnobbing with and observing some of the richest people in the world as they move their money from one ultra-rare vehicle to the next,  it’s refreshing to be around folks who have passion for the misfit toys.  This is where car culture has its roots and where it will continue to grow, well after the last $30 million dollar Ferrari rolls off the stage here in Pebble, and I am more than happy to see it blossom and grow.

Abigail Bassett is Editor-in-Chief CNTRL MEDIA, former Senior Producer at CNN and obvious car dork based in Austin, Tx. Follow her at @abigailbassett.

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