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The Allure of the Automobile

Bill Warner revs up the Concours d'Elegance

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"Racing is a combination of ballet, chess and a knife fight,” said Bill Warner, founder of the glamorous Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. “It’s ballet, because you’ve got to be
smooth. You’ve got to have transitions from the left to the right, and there’s the weight shift of the car, so it’s like a ballet dancer. You’re really nursing the car around.”

“And then it’s like chess, in that you’ve got all these competitors out there and you’re trying to put them in a place they don’t want to be. Your whole job, in many cases, is occupying the place they want to be. So it’s like a game of chess. It may take two or three laps of working on somebody to get them to do something they don’t want to do and you take advantage of it.”

“And lastly, it becomes a knife fight. Sometimes the ballet and chess don’t work, so it’s like you’re in a knife fight. You take whatever chances you can.”

Warner’s no stranger to racing. His passion for everything automotive runs deep. “It’s always been there. When I had a tricycle, I used to call it a Buick. I don’t know what happened,” he laughed. “My mother said my first word was ‘Chevrolet.’ When I was four or five years old, I could identify every car coming down the road. It used to drive my parents crazy.”

The Jacksonville native’s passion only intensified as he grew. As a teen, he worked in the parts department of the local Volkswagen dealership, driving the delivery truck and running errands for the dealership’s racing team on the weekends. He fell in love with motor racing and commenced a lifelong journey racing around the globe.

“What the automobile represented to me was freedom,” he said. “Get in the car and go anywhere. I could get in my old 911 and go cruising anywhere I wanted, so long as I could afford the gas money.”

Warner fondly recalls his first race: “I did things in a racecar that were pretty stupid. But I won. We went to the awards ceremony and they gave me a little $4 vanity plate plastic trophy. I’m sitting there thinking, ‘You know, I could have been killed for this.’ But it was the fun of going door handle to door handle with somebody. I was young and foolish at the time. Now I’m just old and foolish.”

In addition to tearing up the tracks, Warner earned a BS in electrical engineering from The Citadel, served in the Florida Air National Guard (retiring as a major), became the CEO of Jacksonville-based industrial filter company H.C. Warner, Inc. (a family business), and married the love of his life, Jane. “It’ll be 53 years this year,” he reminisced. The couple has three grown children and three granddaughters.

Locally, Bill Warner may be best known as the founder of Northeast Florida’s premier car event, Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. It began in 1996 as an all-volunteer Easter Sunday shindig at The Ritz-Carlton, with fewer than 100 cars. The show has grown astronomically since then. The 2019 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance is the 24th celebration. Approximately 25,000 guests are expected from around the world. Some 300 luxury, rare and high-end vehicles will be on display at the main event. The show has twice been awarded “World’s Best” by British car magazine Octane.

Every year, Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance celebrates a legend from within the racing world. “Every year we honor a particular driver, whether Stirling Moss or the late Dan Gurney or this year Jacky Ickx,” Warner explained. “The year before it was Emerson Fittipaldi, who won the Indianapolis and the World’s Championship twice. It’s about getting our heroes out, bringing their cars in.”

This year’s honoree, Belgian-born racer Jacky Ickx, rose to fame winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans six times. He also garnered eight wins and 25 podium finishes in Formula One and won the Can-Am Championship and the Dakar Rally. Warner is thrilled to have Ickx attend as the guest of honor.

“He doesn’t do these very much,” Warner said. “We are bringing in the Ford GT-40 that he won Le Mans with exactly 50 years ago. He’s a six-time winner of Le Mans. Having him here is exciting and we have the car he did it in. We [also] have the Porsche he won the 1981 Le Mans with. We found a number of his championship cars.”

The presence of these racing greats is one of the elements that distinguishes the Concours. “Part of the magic of Amelia is, you can go to Daytona and you can’t meet the drivers. They’re behind the fences or in the garage,” Warner said. “If you come to Amelia, you can meet them and have your picture made with them. It’s kind of cool.”

While he doesn’t have any cars from his own collection in this year’s show, Warner is quite the collector. He’s got a 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, a 1972 Ferrari 365GTB4 Daytona, a 1971 Porsche 911T (which he bought new), and a 1985 IROC Firehawk Camaro that he drove to a fifth overall in the 24 Hours of Watkins Glen. Those are but a few samplings from his amazing collection. He’s “just a car guy” who adores anything automotive.

Warner is actively involved the car selection process for the Amelia show. “People submit their cars to us and we either accept them or we don’t. We’ve had situations where people have built fake cars and tried to get them in the show to give them some sort of provenance,” he said. “We have to vet each car. We have to make sure it is what they’ve represented it to be. If it’s a rare car, we’ll do a pretty thorough vetting to make sure that what we have accepted is what’s being properly represented.”

Each year’s show is themed, and this year’s theme events include a Custom Coachwork Volkswagen class celebrating the 70th anniversary of the VW Bug’s introduction in America. There are also galleries dedicated to Cars and Guitars, Cars of Royalty and the Cars of Jacky Ickx.

“We try to tell a story and we try to educate,” Warner explained. “This year, we’re doing a class of cars of famous guitarists.”

Famed rocker and car enthusiast John Oates—yes, Oates of Hall & Oates—is not only curating this exhibit, he’s showcasing his own collection of cars and guitars. Oates has selected vehicles associated with famous musicians; each vehicle is paired with a guitar. Oates’ car-themed, customized ’58 Fender Stratocaster guitar will be auctioned off for charity at the event. Guests may even have the chance to meet the musician in person.

“We have two cars from John Oates, one from Brian Johnson, and we’ll have Janis Joplin’s Porsche back again,” Warner said. “We have the Corvette Stingray prototype that Elvis Presley drove in Clambake. We’re matching up the guitars to the cars. These are the actual cars the musicians owned, apart from the Corvette, which is on loan from General Motors. Elvis Presley drove it.”

There are about 37 Concours d’Elegance shows across the nation. The concept originated in early 20th-century Europe, giving the wealthy an opportunity to schmooze and celebrate the latest in art, automobiles and fashion. Today, Concours d’Elegance refers to a competition of refined culture and a gathering of accurately restored or original condition cars. People often dress to impress for these events, but that doesn’t mean the atmosphere is stuffy.

“It’s fun. It’s not like golfing where you have to walk around and whisper in hushed tones while the golfers tee off,” said Warner. “We brought in six dragsters to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Gainesville Raceway. At 12:30 on Sunday, we’re going to crank all six of those up. It will scare the alligator out of the retention pond out there on the field and probably shake every leaf off a tree. When you crank up these engines, they’ve got 3,000 and 4,000 horsepower. It’s going to be a lot of fun. And Big Daddy Don Garlits, the world’s greatest drag racer, will be there. We try to make it fun. We want people to come out and have a really good time, see some really unusual cars they wouldn’t see anywhere else.”

It’s a unique experience, and it comes with a price tag.

“You know,” Warner reflected, “I’ve heard people say, ‘$100 to go to a show, that’s crazy. I can see them Saturday night driving.’ Not these cars. They come from 10 different countries. They’re all rare. They’re one-of-a-kind. There will be production cars in there, but you’ll see stuff you’ll never see on the road. They come out of private collections. If we’ve done our job right, even the most jaded car personality who thinks they know everything about cars walks out on that field and they come back saying, ‘I never knew that car existed’ or ‘I’ve only seen pictures’ or something like that.”

Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance has raised more than $3.25 million for Community Hospice of Northeast Florida, Spina Bifida of Jacksonville, the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society and the Shop With Cops Program of Fernandina Beach and Nassau County. Each of these organizations is near and dear to Warner’s heart.

“This show’s not just important to me. It’s important to the community,” he said. “We have a financial impact on Nassau County that is more than the impact of the Tax Slayer Bowl here in Jacksonville. And we do good with the money. It stays in the community. It does good for people who are terminally ill. It does good for people who were dealt a bad hand in life. It does good for our military. And if they come out, [folks] are making a contribution to the welfare of the people of Northeast Florida and having a good time doing it.”

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