How to prepare a car for its first concours

Photography by David S. Wallens unless otherwise credited

It’s an image that defines the classic car scene for so many enthusiasts: rows of sparkling machines, each one dolled up more than the next. Gleaming chrome, jet-black tires and mile-deep paint create a visual treat, whether the subjects are prewar carriages or ’60s specials.

Interested in going from spectator to concours participant? As with any other activity—one related to motorsports or otherwise—a little preparation and some groundwork at home can pay big dividends. 

Fortunately, we have a personal guide for this little journey. Tim McNair, owner of Grand Prix Concours Preparation, has spent the last 25 years primping cars for world-class concours events. His cars have won nearly everywhere, from Amelia Island to Pebble Beach. He has even detailed cars from the Classic Motorsports fleet.

Another bonus: Many of these pre-show tips don’t cost much to pull off. 

Step 1: Go as a Spectator

Our automotive world is served by an ever-growing number of car shows and concours events, each one with its own setup and vibe. Some aren’t for the meek, while others put more value on fun than originality. 

Doing some recon work beforehand will reveal much. Go and get a feel for that particular scene. Are we talking Pebble Beach or the Concours d’LeMons?

Talk to owners with cars similar to yours who have competed in your target event. This is a great way to find out what the judges at that particular show like—and don’t like.

Step 2: Know Your Car

Even though you have owned your car for years, how well do you really know it? Is that grille the original piece, or do you have a nagging suspicion that it was updated at some point? 

Get to know your car. Know what was original, what was optional, and what shouldn’t be there at all. 

Many events reward originality, and factory literature will serve as your supporting documents should a question arise. Short of building a time machine, the best answers are going to come from the written materials that were included with the car: repair manuals, owners manuals, dealer brochures, period ads and the like.

Your car didn’t come so equipped? Start shopping. Swap meets, eBay and club gatherings can be great hunting spots. Walter Miller’s Automobile Literature specializes in all sorts of automotive printed matter. 

By the way, these items don’t always have to cost a mint. Jim Osborn Reproductions sells their 1962 Corvette owners manual for just $13.95. Moss Motors offers reprinted MG, Triumph, Austin-Healey and Jaguar owners manuals, and some retail for less than $20. “Better to bring a repro than nothing at all,” Tim McNair adds.

Step 3: Documentation

You should also assemble the documentation that goes with your particular car. Tim recommends neatly storing these items in a scrapbook.

“It helps sell your car to your judges,” he explains. “What makes your hundred-point Dino better than the other 10 hundred-point Dinos?” he rhetorically asks. Things to include if available: complete ownership and registration history; photos from the restoration; plus window stickers and related dealer paperwork that can explain any options, especially unusual ones. 

If it’s a restored racer, Tim also recommends photos and results from the car’s competition history. These photos should also show that the car was restored to a particular moment in its history.

Step 4: Know the Show

Photography Credit: Jeffrey S. Field

Not all concours competitions follow the same set of rules. For example, some shows require more than a pretty face. Officials sometimes want to see the car move, meaning entrants may have to take part in a particular driving event. At the Pebble Beach concours, a tie goes to the car that participates in their Tour d’Elegance presented by Rolex. Know the club rules before setting off. 

Step 5: Does Everything Work?

Before breaking out the pads and polish, start with the basics: Does the car even operate properly? Does it run and drive as it should, or will it have to stumble onto the show field, popping and sputtering its way into place?

What about all of the accessories? Judges generally prefer that the lights, horn and turn signals work as intended. 

Likewise, a door shouldn’t need a hip check to properly close. Don’t let a quirky door, hood or trunk latch detract from an otherwise beautiful car. Remember the saying that beauty is only skin deep? Well, that doesn’t apply to show cars. 

Step 6: Clean, Clean, Clean

Okay, now it’s time to detail the car and get it cleaner than it’s ever been. Our May 2009 issue contains a thorough detailing piece. We’ll also share some detailing tips later in this story.

Step 7: Pack Your Stuff

Photography Credit: Tim McNair

Your car is clean, your route is mapped, and your entry has been accepted. Now it’s time to pack up.

First off, don’t forget the important factory documents. Many clubs will also want to see the accessories that came with the car, including the factory tool kit and jack.

Then there’s your detail supplies. While the car should be bathed, scrubbed and pampered before leaving for the show, it’s impossible to ward off all manner of dirt and debris while traveling to the venue and navigating into place.

Tim travels with a complete yet compact field kit that can handle just about any detail emergency. He carries everything in an aluminum case that cost less than $20 at Harbor Freight. “You look like a million bucks when you show up with it,” he notes.

He doesn’t travel with big bottles of cleaners, either. He stores his quick detail and polish in Wilton Melting/Decorating Squeeze Bottles. These clear plastic bottles can be found at Michaels—yes, the crafts store—for just a buck or so each. 

One more tip: Since a vacuum cleaner can be bulky and also requires a power source, Tim teams up two simple hand tools for those last-minute cleanups. First, he’ll use a small paintbrush to gather up any accumulated debris. Then he’ll pick up everything with a simple lint roller.

Step 8: Arrive Refreshed

Photography Credit: Jordan Rimpela

After you check in, clean the car, and get it on the show field, it’s time to relax—you’re now on the home stretch. Soon the judges will stop by for a visit. 

Tim again offers some practical advice: Answer their questions, have your materials ready, and be prepared to tell a little story about the car. Since it’s your car and you have already been through all of its documentation, this step should be easy.

Step 9: Plan for the Next Event

Before heading for home, ask for a copy of the scoring sheets—or at least make arrangements to have them mailed to you, provided that’s an option. Short of interrogating each judge, this will let you know what needs to be improved for your next outing.

And if you don’t win, don’t get too discouraged. “Some people take this too seriously,” Tim cautions. “It should be fun.”

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