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Beauties on the Green

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The quite-possibly-stylish Brendan Cooke poses with an assuredly stylish vintage vehicle at the Niello Concours d'Elegance The quite-possibly-stylish Brendan Cooke poses with an assuredly stylish vintage vehicle at the Niello Concours d'Elegance

By Brendan Cooke and Dan Clarke

It would have been nice to attend the 15th annual Niello Concours d’Elegance at Serrano. It’s the kind of assignment an editor enjoys conferring upon himself (R.H.I.P).

MG TA 1936 PicmonkeyAn MG TA from 1936

Circumstances precluded my attending this year, but a worthy correspondent represented Taste California Travel. My friend Brendan Cooke, a Sacramento resident for several decades, was quite active in motor sports before he left England. He campaigned a Mini Cooper S on the rally circuit in Britain and Ireland in the 1960s. As an independent, he didn’t stand much chance of vanquishing any of the factory teams, but he found satisfaction in competing against the drivers of their cars—fellows like Formula One champions Jim Clark and Graham Hill. A little more than a decade ago, Brendan’s brother Kieran came over from England to help him compete in the Great American Race, a 13-day coast-to-coast jaunt for vintage vehicles that began in Boston and finished in Sacramento. After a modest sponsorship from the city of Sacramento was secured, Brendan’s car, a 1957 Morgan, performed under the “Spirit of Sacramento” identity. The Cooke brothers acquitted themselves respectably in a contest that Brendan explained was more of a navigational exercise than a high-rev race.

Our man Brendan found himself watching a troupe of black-clad tap dancers shortly after his arrival at Sunday’s Concours at Serrano. He recognized that they were talented, but couldn’t quite figure their connection to the cars. He felt similarly about the attendant fashion show of ladies’ clothing.

Perhaps these were particularly American variations on the Concours d’Elegance theme. Our friend’s background in these matters comes from when he followed motor racing in Britain. He’d attend races at venues such as Goodwood, Silverstone and Oulton Park. There he’d watch many of the world’s most talented drivers like Mike Hawthorne, Roy Salvadori, Ron Flockhart, Jimmy Clark and Graham Hill. Brendan even got to see the Argentine legend, Juan Manuel Fangio, behind the wheel. Frequently, the Vintage Sports Car Club would host related gatherings at these races that would allow visitors to interact with the owners of these older and often rare vehicles. Brendan remembers them as being the sort who’d wear well-worn tweeds and perhaps even sport handlebar mustaches. “They were enthusiastic eccentrics,” he recalled. “And they were in love with this particular automotive art form.”

Concours Red Ferrari PicmonkeyDave's Ferrari California

The October 7th Niello Concours d’Elegance was different from these British assemblies, but Brendan pushed on and found much that he liked. “It was a beautiful fall day in the foothills and it was a fantastic setting,” he commented. “The Serrano Country Club lawn was divided into two sections. This year’s theme was Festa Italiana and all the Italian entries were on one side of the grassy area that slopes down to the lake.” Parked near the Italian cars, there were also some Jaguars and other British vehicles, Cooke said, including a few examples of modern-day Bentleys. These were surely sophisticated machines, but not to his liking. “The new Bentleys are horrible. They’re ghastly-looking,” he opined.

However, at an event with so many entries, there will be something to please every spectator. One that found favor with our correspondent and fit with the theme of the day was a Ferrari California, a convertible and a red one at that--What’s not to like? As it turned out, the owner, Dave, was another English ex-pat, a former Bay Area resident who’d relocated to the Sierra Foothills. This beautiful car was the third Ferrari he’d owned, the proud possessor explained. Other Italian machinery was here, too, including examples from Maserati and Lamborghini.

Brendan enlisted his son, Dominic, to shoot photos of some of the entries that caught his eye. There were many. One Brendan described as “a great beast of a car.” With its substantial brass components, It reminded him of an old firetruck somehow. He couldn’t immediately identify it. Few in the modern era could. It turned out to be a 1908 Rambler, an American-made car from the Thomas B. Jeffery Company, which evolved into Nash, then that company’s now defunct successor, American Motors. The aged Rambler was a beautiful piece of machinery from a very different era.

Rambler 08 PicmonkeyA Rambler from era when they weren't "compact cars"

Americans familiar with the T-series MGs of the early 1950s might be have seen their first MG TA at this Concours. Entered by its owner, Ray Dias of Hughson, California, the TA’s boxy shape and flaring fenders did resemble its post-war successors, but this one was much older—from 1936, in fact.

Brendan no longer owns the British racing green Morgan he raced across America, but he appreciated the Concours’ collection of well-kept examples of this British tradition. Among the many appealing American classics were a Cord, a Buick Victoria Traveler Coupe Series 8-96, a 1934 Ford Cabriolet and an impeccable blue-gray Cadillac sedan from the 1941 vintage. One of the most impressive entries was a 1935 Packard Senior Convertible Sedan, owned by the event-sponsoring Niello Company. The country might have been in an economic depression when that car was built, but people who bought such grand conveyances couldn’t have been feeling much of the pain.

Newer cars were on display, too. Some post-World War II classics that appealed to the Cookes included an intriguing two-tone Frazer, one of the two nameplates built and marketed by Kaiser-Frazer, a firm that combined the talent and energies of the industrialist Henry J. Kaiser and long-time automotive executive Joseph W. Frazer. The latter left the company in 1951. Kaiser continued struggling to compete against the Big Three American automotive companies, eventually folding in 1955. A Cadillac Coupe de Ville from that same year, entered by Dominic Bavero of Fresno, caught Dom Cooke’s eye. No doubt the younger Cooke is familiar with more recent Cadillacs, but Detroit produced this car years prior to his arrival in the world and it’s possible Sunday was the first time he’d ever seen a ’55 Caddie. As his father explained to Dom and his friend, Julie, the displays at the Concours are of “collector cars” and, given their beauty and current scarcity, they might qualify as potential museum pieces. However, in their day they were daily drivers on roads of the United States and elsewhere in the world. It might have been a concept hard to fathom for folks born into an era of ever more reliable, but ever more boring transportation.


Editor’s note: This week Brendan Cooke is traveling to Austin, Texas. It’s his annual pilgrimage to the U.S. Grand Prix.

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