Concours d’Lemons brings out the jalopies, rarities, and automotive atrocities
If you listen closely, you can hear the rust creeping through the body panels, forming a Jackson Pollock interpretation of hoods and fenders. You can smell the desperation of the vehicle owners as their cars struggle and wheeze to a start. And you can even sense the malaise of the 1970s American factory workers as they churned out awful sedan after awful sedan.
This is the Pebble Beach Concours d’Lemons—the celebration of automotive creations so terrible that they are truly great. It’s a collection of kitsch, an assembly of rarities and resto-mods, and a trolling of the 1-percenters’ Concours d’Elegance occurring two days later that it may actually be the better show in town. It is definitely more fun.
In contrast to the august tones of the commentators on the resplendent 18th fairway at Pebble Beach, the Lemons announcers on the lawn of Seaside City Hall crack wise, insult participants, and hand out Silly String so spectators can shower the “winner” of Worst of Show in phosphorescent gunk.
Lemons is not just a bad-car show. Therein reside vehicles many people have never seen—and which cannot be unseen. But the laughter, bribes, and coffee flow freely. And there is a great story behind every car.
Here are my favorites from this year’s field.
1990 Volvo 245 Mondrian
Although stunningly left out of the awards, this paean to the BMW Art Cars of yore was created by San Francisco sculptor and blacksmith Jess Muse. Using self-adhesive vinyl and reflective black tape, Muse’s several-month labor of love emphasizes the rectilinear shape of the brick-era Volvo wagons.
Also known as “Mad Max: The College Years,” this creation of Benjamin Brant of nearby Sand City features chain link over the hood, animal skulls galore, faux bazookas, and an operating winch. The Chihuahua in the passenger seat is the ultimate accessory.
1987 Jaguar XJS
By keeping the original, unreliable V-12 engine, mechanic and apparent masochist Jason Sims of Argonaut Garage in Berkeley earns automatic respect for his jacked-up Jag. Elevating its ride height was “super easy! No, actually it took hours and hours,” Sims notes. But he paid only $700 USD for it, and has spent only $2,000 USD to get it in shape—mostly on the 31-inch Bighorn Maxxis tires.
1973 Mercury “Vomit Comet”
Dressing the part is an essential part of presenting your Lemons entry, and William Hughes of Prunedale (“A really bad place, where you are allowed to park destruction derby cars and the neighbors don’t care”) is resplendent posed in his polyester blazer and “Vote for Nixon” button. From the Landau roof to the houndstooth seat inserts, this car screams Barney Miller stunt car. Even if he wanted to improve its looks, Hughes can’t: “The guy sold it to me for 50 bucks, but said, ‘If you do anything to it, if you don’t keep it the same, I’ll shoot you.’” He’s had to replace the transmission, but everything underneath is shared with the Ford Mustang, so parts are easy to find.
1967 Mercedes-Benz 230 Miesen Ambulance
Originally used from 1967-1975 by the hospital in Künzelsau, Germany, this bloody-people hauler was acquired by Bob Grunthorpe of San Diego after it had sat in a warehouse for 25 years. It was created from a bare Mercedes chassis by the coachbuilders at Miesen, who stretched the wheelbase by 16 inches to make room for the gurney. It still has period-correct bandage boxes as well as the original linoleum flooring—which makes it much easier to sop up the gore from accident victims.
1952 Panhard Dyna-Break
Business is conducted at Lemons, too. And Dave Grainger of Toronto continued his twisted affection for weird post-war French luxury cars. “I just saw it, looked at my wife Janice, and said, ‘I just have to have it.’” Janice’s reaction was to shake her head in a bemused circle. Purchase price was not disclosed.
1977 AMC Gremlin
Yes, it really is a Gremlin, a seriously modified one at that. It could be a one-off Excalibur, except that even that notorious aftermarket coachbuilder has definitively denied any connection to this abomination. With a hodge-podge grille from a Lincoln Continental, chicken-wire engine vent covers, running boards from the Home Depot discard pile, hurricane-lamp taillights, and faux gems applied over every knob and button, this is the definition of Lemons. Underspray of the mucous-hued paint reveals avocado mica underneath. Pinstriping appears performed by Crayola. The horn sounds like a strangled goose. The “MAGA” license plate could mean “Make AMC Great Again” or “Make American Gremlins Again.” James Callahan of El Paso is a long-time Lemons attendee, but this was his first entry. The result: Worst In Show. Said the judges: “Usually it’s a tough choice. This time was no choice at all.”