Aaron Weiss’ 1937 Horch 853 Sportcabriolet seems to be pretty capable on the concours circuit.
With only 12 examples surviving from the 1930s, the 853 and 853A are among the rarest cars in the world, and among the most striking. Horch was one of the four maufacturers that formed Audi in 1932. Started by August Horch, the carmaker enjoyed great publicity in the day from numerous racing successes. This particular 853 Sportcabriolet was exported from Germany after the war by an American Army captain. There's a blank in its provenance for a few decades, but Weiss bought the car from a broker located literally next door to the Horch Museum in Zwickau, Germany. After a restoration, at its first show it got a second-place at Pebble, but from then on it did well seemingly everywhere it went: 100 points at its first Classic Car Club of America (CCCA) event, The Chopard Watch Award for the “Car of Timeless Elegance” at Amelia Island 2020, the Robb Report Best Concours Car of 2021, and then last weekend it won Best of Show at the Hillsborough Concours. There may have been other wins in there, too, and more to come in future concours.
“I just did the best I could,” Weiss said. “And we were thrilled to win.”
Maybe this is as good a time as any to ask, what makes a great car stand out in a field crowded with great cars? Why does one car win and another not even get on the podium? What is the secret sauce of conquering a concours?
“The first time I’d seen it was in Hillsborough, and it was a very striking automobile,” said Chief Judge Emeritus at Pebble Beach, Ed Gilbertson, among numerous other judging posts held from the Palm Beach Cavallino Classic to President of the Jury for the Salon Prive Concour d’Elegance at Blenheim Palace in the UK.
At Hillsborough, Gilbertson lead a team of 10 honorary judges, who weren’t as constrained by the technicalities through which class judges have to maneuver. If a car had aluminum screws with Phillips heads on them instead of steel slot heads, it wasn’t a problem for the honorary judges. The difference might set them free to explain the intangible attraction of a concours winner.
“We’re looking basically at the cars from a styling, design, and presence standpoint,” Gilbertson said. “I saw that car, as did some of the other honorary judges, and this was before the class results had been turned in, but we knew that it was probably going to be a tough contender,” he said.
“The car, first of all, it really talks to you when you drive by, it just grabs you,” said Hal Schuette, another honorary judge at Hillsborough, who is also a former executive director of the Palo Alto Concours and a board member at The Candy Store. “It’s kind of related to a Duesenberg, you know, a Duesenberg, when the hood is up, and you see that fabulous engine, that’s how this Horch is, it just grabs you.”
Of course, any car that’s going to win a concours has to be historically accurate, perfect, in fact, without being over-restored by adding too much chrome or other gee-gaws that distract from that elegance and presence.
“I did talk briefly with Aaron, he knew we weren’t there to get down into judging the originality and authenticity of the car, that’s up to the class judging team,” said Gilbertson. “But he did mention that (over-restoration), because he knew I like to make quite a big deal out of it. Well, the Horsch had certainly been restored to the nth degree, but he had gone to some effort not to over restore it. When I was chief judge at Pebble Beach for many years, I made quite a mention of that, because we were seeing too many cars that had been restored nicely, but they’d gone too far with it. We started deducting for over-restoration at Pebble Beach and we do still. Even though it’s been nine years since I retired as chief, they’ve continued that practice.”
Picking the right car to begin with helps, too. You have to have something original that you don’t see very often anywhere, even at car shows.
“A Horch is a very rare car, you don’t see that to begin with,” said Gilbertson. “And then that was just such a good example of that sort of a car and being a pre-war classic it stood out like the great classics tend to. It did have some competition, there were a couple that were right up there also. But when the dust settled, Aaron’s car got it.”
Schuette says you can tell a car owner who really loves restoring and showing beautiful cars.
“Aaron, you know, he’s a very detailed guy,” Schuette said. “Automobiles are his passion, he and his wife, Valerie—a real sweetheart—they really are focused. He understands the automobiles, and he knows exactly what wins and what doesn’t. So he’s not going to bring anything to our show that isn’t going to be a winner. But it’s not, we didn’t vote because it was Aaron’s car. It’s just the attention that Aaron has to detail, and passion, comes through in that automobile. That automobile speaks to you as you come up to it. It’s phenomenal. You know, all of the judges, the honorary judges, we vote hands up and we all voted for that sucker. Every one of us.”
So what do you need to win a concours?
“I would say, certainly from a presentation standpoint, you see that car coming, it stood out,” said Gilbertson. “One-of-a-kind car, beautifully restored, but not over-restored. The interior, gorgeous interior. Extremely well done. And I think the reason it got all that attention is not only because it was a rare car to begin with, and the kind of a car that you see very few of regardless of what show you go to, but Aaron has so much experience in restoring and showing his cars, that he knows how to do it. And he knew what that car needed to really make it stand out. And he knew what that car needed to make it function like it should and rev like it should and all of the rest.”
So what drew Weiss to this particular car?
“I was up at Pebble Beach,” he said. “And there was that Erdmann & Rossi coachbuilt Horch, which I could never afford. And then Arturo Keller brought one like mine and lost (in judging) and I couldn’t understand it. But the shape that car, the design of the car, kind of captivated me and the fact that there weren’t any of them, and you couldn’t find them, and the rareness, it took me a little while to find one and restore it. So it was a unique car. I have a (Mercedes) 540K, but this thing has a certain panache that it’s better than the Cab that I have. It’s a real interesting car. It’s just really pretty. If you look inside at the woodwork, it’s just a really elegant car.”
So winning is less about the correct bolt material in the cylinder head and more about finding a car that grabs you. And grabs everyone else. And for that, you have to spend a lot of time looking.
Pebble Beach is just 25 days away. Probably too late for this year. Maybe too late for next year. But if you let your passion guide you, and you have, maybe, a million bucks or so, maybe two million, you could be on the lawn at Pebble, and hope your car grabs some judges. See you at Dawn Patrol August 15!
What makes a concours-winning car in your mind? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.