Car shows are exhibitions of technological advancement and appreciations of the past. They are visions of the future and times for the mature to reminisce while the youth catch glimpses of the world that was, through automobiles that remain like four-wheeled time capsules.
Enthusiasts spend countless hours and dollars on their vehicles, striving for eye-catching customization or factory perfection. These events are celebrations of expression, memories and community that bring together people throughout the nation and right here in Jefferson City, where events like Shelbyfest and the Capital City Corvette Classic annually attract tens of thousands.
"Each car show is like a family reunion," Shelbyfest founder Kyle Caraway said. "One of the best parts is seeing friends that (participants) may not have seen since the year before."
Shows and contests
So, after all this time, energy and funding, what makes the perfect show car? It all depends on the vehicle, judges and spirit of the celebration. There are a variety of car shows, from smaller local events like the Martinsburg Cruise Night to large exhibitions like Shelbyfest. Depending on the event, vehicles can be judged on different criteria.
"There's really three types of events that most car people are associated with," life-long mechanic and Capital City Corvette Classic co-founder Norb Bax said. "The big ones are like what you see on TV a lot. Those are judged shows where they have folks called subject-matter experts doing the judging. They know a lot about these style of cars they are seeing.
"Then you have car shows like what we have at the Corvette Classic. Everybody that enters the show becomes a judge, and the participants decide who they think has the nicest cars. And then, you have what's called a car cruise. That's really just a social event, if you will. There's no prizes. Everybody cleans their cars up and shows it, but it's just people walking by and talking."
With Shelbyfest, the event's sponsors selected the winners based on which ones they preferred.
In concours classic car shows, entrants are judged on factory appearance, rarity of the model and quality restoration. Caraway said these enthusiasts are usually older with plenty of money. Prices can soar for well-restored classics, such as mint 1967 Shelby Mustangs that Caraway said can go for $120,000-$150,000.
With so much time and money invested, seemingly insignificant things like original paint runs can make a competitive difference. "There are some judges who will crawl under the vehicle and look for factory grease pencil marks," Caraway said. "I know guys that will worry about finding the original factory bolts that most people will never see."
On the other hand, modified categories judge participants on originality. Entrants can be anything from souped-up Toyotas to low-riding antique pickups. These owners want the vehicle to reflect their personalities, whether it's with a hunter-orange or rainbow-pattern paint job. "With modified cars, judges will try to understand the owner's vision and look at how clean the work was done," Caraway said.
Bax said modified shows — unlike classic shows that require vehicles 25 or more years old — attract younger participants with newer, more affordable cars. "The kids nowadays are into what we called the tuners — the Hondas and Toyotas and all of them," Bax said. "It's their thing, and probably 40-50 years from now, that's what you are going to see a lot of at probably some car shows. There are starting to be a few car shows in the bigger cities that are geared toward these guys. It just hasn't hit (Jefferson City) yet."
When it all comes down to it, Caraway said most people don't get into cars for show trophies. For some, it's the chance to show of their creativity and craftsmanship. Many restoration enthusiasts enjoy the thrill of the hunt, looking through old barns and garages for classics hiding in the rough. Some try to remind themselves of their youth, back when their classic cars were brand new. "Some guys want to get a car back to the way they remember it as kids," Caraway said. "It lets them feel young again behind the steering wheel."
Bax has this feeling in his '68 Corvette. "When I was in high school, you'd see (a Corvette like mine) and you'd think, 'Holy cow, a big-block Corvette convertable! Wow, what a deal!'" he said. "(Driving it now) brings your youth back to you a little bit. I get it in that (Corvette), and I still want to roll through the gears, even though I'm 68. I still want to get out and run. I ain't afraid to run it (fast). You've got to play with your toys."
What constitutes a classic car changes as the years go by. This year, any car made in 1992 and earlier can be considered a classic. Caraway said youthful enthusiasts are entering cars built in the 1980s and early '90s so they can participate without breaking the bank, which Caraway said is good for car culture.
"It can't be all about '50s and '60s models and the Beach Boys anymore," Caraway said. "The older guys are going to have to start making room for the new generation with less money to start coming in for this (community) to survive."
Bax said the problem for these young gearheads is cars from the '80s and '90s may be cheaper, but they are also harder to find, because they typically don't last as long as cars made during prior decades. "With most of those tuner cars, if they are 25 years old, they are junk," he said.
Bax and Caraway said they'd rather drive their cars than show them. Bax prefers show tours — like Hot Rod's Power Tour — to individual car shows, because they allow more time behind the wheel.
Caraway owns a 2011 Mustang, which he enjoys driving daily, as well as entering into car shows. He hopes to make it last for a million miles. By then, it will be a part of the long lineage that allows classic brands like Corvette and Mustang help tell the story of American industry and culture. Each of these brands have their own community of enthusiasts, but they all share the same passion.
"It's been 50 years since the first Shelby GT came out," Caraway said. "One day, maybe I'll be fixing up my 2011 to get it the way it looks now and enter it as a classic car. I just look forward to (still) being part of the family."