SEASIDE, Calif. — David Swan nicknamed his car Wilma, after Fred Flintstone’s wife.
That’s because his 1964 Corvair 500 had floor holes so big that his feet stuck through when he bought it for $500 last year. After repairs, “it’s now my daily driver,” says Swan, a recent college graduate who lives near San Francisco. “Well, that and the bus.”
Such was Saturday’s Concours d’Lemons in this working class town on California’s Monterey Peninsula. The other events during Monterey Car week celebrate, with great reverence, multi-million-dollar Ferraris and Delahayes. Each year the Lemons, in contrast, celebrates Corvairs, Yugos, Gremlins and other vintage automotive junk.
The spoof event, in its eighth year, is the brainchild of Alan Galbraith, a promoter of car exhibitions. “It involved a lot of drinking one night,” he explained. “And the realization that Monterey Car Week had gotten so serious.”
The Concours d’Lemons is anything but serious. The judging categories include Unmitigated Gaul for the worst French car, Rueful Britannia for the worst British automobile and Rust Belt American Junk. Cars in those and other classes compete for the coveted (or not) Worst in Show award.
The event drew a record 150 cars this year. Some participated in a Lemons road rally early in the week to Las Vegas, traversing Death Valley en route.. All the drivers, with their cars, made it back to Monterey. Alive.
Mike King and Mike Percy brought a 1974 Chevrolet Vega station wagon — called the Estate model because of its fake wood side paneling — from their home in Fresno, Calif. The kitschy wood grain aside, the Vega’s prodigious oil leaks and other woes made it one of America’s worst cars ever. Despite that, or maybe because of it, King and Percy say their car evokes lots of smiles.
“Once two sisters were looking at the car and getting emotional talking about their mother, who owned one,” Percy said. “Cars can be big in people’s’ lives.” The Lemons, he added, offers a respite from the tensions of Car Week’s big-money auctions and high-stakes judging contests.
At this year’s Lemons, the winner in the “Kommunist Kar” category was a 1989 Yugo, the luster of victory dimmed somewhat by being the only car entered in its class. The Yugo’s award bag — each winning car gets an array of cheap goodies from local discount stores — included a can of boiled potatoes, a jar of pickled beets and a bottle of Russian salad dressing.
The Unmitigated Gaul winner, a 1989 Peugeot 505, drove off with awards of French Fries and French dressing. Tops in the Rueful Britannia class was a 1965 Wolseley Hornet, which raked in a box of tea, warm beer and a can of spotted dick. It’s a British pudding made with dried fruit, though many Lemons attendees, to judge from their gasps, weren’t convinced of that.
All took a back seat, as it were, to the Worst in Show winner: a 1974 Bricklin SV-1, a gaffe-prone sports car. The brash orange paint, accented with gobs of spray-can string, caught the attention of judges, along with their appreciative disdain.
The Concours d’Lemons has proved so popular that three years ago, Galbraith enlisted partners to start a version of the exhibition in England. But the British, unlike Americans, don’t refer to clunker cars as “lemons.” (Like “spotted dick, the term doesn’t travel well.)
So with British understatement, the UK event, held each July, is called the Concours de l’Ordinaire. The Exhibition of the Unexceptional, of course.
Paul Ingrassia is a former managing editor at Reuters and is currently working with for the Revs Institute, an automotive research center in Naples, Fl. For more articles, pictures and video on Monterey Car Week, click on revsinstitute.org.