Vehicles at concours d’elegance are judged on style, condition, presentation, backstory and how closely they are prepared to the original specification. Many winning names at shows like Pebble Beach and Amelia Island are familiar, like Ferrari or Mercedes-Benz. Others are from long-gone brands like Duesenberg and Allard.
Legendary retired GM designer and 2023 Detroit Concours d’Elegance Chief Judge Ed Welburn and Assistant Chief Judge Nigel Matthews sat down with Newsweek at the annual event, held at the Detroit Institute of Arts. They talked about new styling in the electric era, what goes into a good concours car and what the show field might look like 30 years down the road.
Newsweek: We see Cord, Delahaye, Austin-Healey out here today, what brands do you think will be on the field in 2050?
Wellburn: “I think those brands will definitely be there and they will be stars of the show. But who knows what the next wave will be. It could be an SUV. Certainly, the supercars will become vintage cars and it will be part of that.”
Newsweek: Do you think new EV brands like Rivian and Lucid will be on the field? Will they become collector cars?
Welburn: “It depends. It’s not just the cars, it’s the shows and how will the shows evolve? And what will the venues be like? This is a great venue, I just absolutely love having this show right here. I hope they are live events like this. But that might change too. They might be digital.”
Newsweek: Can you get the same visceral feel in pictures as you can being here and seeing the cars and the textures and those body styles?
Welburn: “No, you can’t and I spend a lot of time looking at vehicles online, looking at videos but then when you see the car in person and you walk around, and you just get a feel for the shape and the textures, and materials and finishes throughout the vehicle. It just, there’s nothing like there’s nothing like it, and it can be a car that you’ve seen before but seeing it in a different light in a different setting and it becomes new again.”
Newsweek: So when we look at Detroit Concours 2050, Teslas are old by that point. Are we going to see them on the show field in 2050?
Matthews: “Well, I’ll start off with a joke which automotive people will understand. My crystal ball was made by Lucas, so we’re in trouble. But to get back to your question, I think we will see Teslas. Teslas have been a pioneer in electrification, and we’re probably going to see people be as interested in their SUV with a gullwing doors as they were with the Gullwing Mercedes back in the day.”
Newsweek: Let’s talk about Porsche. Taycan is their new electric car. Will that be the air cooled 911 of the future that everybody wants? Or will the 911 reign supreme even in 2050?
Matthews: “I’m a purist I’m afraid so it probably would prefer the original 911 bodystyle. I like the 993 era.”
Welburn: “I don’t know if I’ve changed, or Porsches have evolved. I think I’ve evolved a bit, but I absolutely love the brand. And I love how the brand has evolved over time. But if they vary too far away from that 911 shape they get yanked right back into where they really belong. And it’s a unique position, I think in the whole industry. No one else dares tread into that 911 territory.”
Newsweek: When you were back at the helm of GM design, there were things that held back design because you had more restrictions. Electric vehicle platforms have opened that box, but when we look back in 20 years will these new design choices be a mistake, or is it going to just permeate as we move forward?
Welburn: “It’s hard to predict the future, and although designers are thinking about a car that’s introduced today, they started work on it probably four or five years ago. And they have to sit there thinking five years in advance plus the car will be in production for another five years. They’ve got to think about a car ten years in advance. They really do.
“When I look at the architectures of electric vehicles, I think it gives designers great freedom to do a lot of very interesting things. And I know there are those that are still looking at fuel cell as an option down the road. It also gives great freedom for the design team and engineers to do some very cool stuff.”
Newsweek: I know you’re retired, but what on the show field inspires that creative interest inside you today?
Ed Welburn: “I’m still getting used to that word retired because my creative juices didn’t stop when I walked out of the door of GM Design. I think it just kind of blossomed into many different directions, fashion, other forms of transportation, in fact, in the movie industry as well. I get so inspired when I walk around here, you know, looking at cars from very different periods. You’re seeing them from a very different perspective, different lighting, being able to see a classic design with classic architecture all around it on a beautiful sunny day. It just It inspires me in a huge way.”
Newsweek: When you’re judging the cars of yesterday or today, you’re looking at textures and colors and also the mechanics of it, how well restored it is and how it is presented. As we head toward this electrification era, there are less parts, less intricate materials on the interior, but still very interesting stuff. What does the judging process look like in the future?
Matthews: “It’s going to change things drastically because the way we judge today it’s all about originality and authenticity. And we have 20 line items that we judge, and we actually penalize vehicles for being over restored. We’re trying to save these vehicles for future generations to see, exactly how they came out of the showroom floor. I think it’s going to be very interesting, but there will always be that component of the vehicle being judged against itself as it was delivered on day one.”
Wellburn: “Well, the thing that I think is going to be fascinating, totally fascinating, is a return to coach-built vehicles. If the vehicles are built on what everyone calls a skateboard chassis, then there’s the opportunity to do a variety of bodies. And I’m envisioning companies that are coachbuilders that will develop bodies for vehicles limited productions, or one off bodies that will go on the skateboard chassis. That will be fun for judges to deal with. And we’ll see some very unique and custom designs. Is that authentic, or is that a one off that was done for this bit?”
Matthews: “So we might be turning the clock backwards.”
Newsweek: It does feel a bit that way. Especially as we talk about Pininfarina and Mercedes and Porsche custom design, where customers are actually going to the headquarters, they’re designing their vehicles in almost a way that that Bugatti and other automakers used to, and still do.
Wellburn: “And there will be some new companies that are pure coachbuilders that will create bodies of all configurations to go on those platforms. And more common architectures or chassis will help.”
Matthews: “And that dates back to how we judge cars today. Some of these cars were all coachbuilt cars. So you can’t definitely say that that Cadillac didn’t come with red, painted disc covers because it could have been ordered their way.”
Newsweek: The electrified market has buoyed a new generation of interest in kids. What would you want to tell those kids today from your position about why they should love the cars of today and the cars of yesterday?
Matthews: “Well, hopefully the younger ones that are here will remember these cars today because we never know what the future is going to bring to us.”
Welburn: “Young people are drawn in by some of the exciting new designs and breakthroughs that are developed. And then the process, they discover something cool like that white, silver and blue Oldsmobile convertible. And young people are walking around looking at it. They had no idea, they just did not know. This event and events like it are real discovery journeys.”