Had you walked into the staid Palo Alto Golf and Country Club during the annual “Riverboat Jamboree” in the early 1960s, you might have thought it was Harold’s Club Casino in Reno. Players crouched at blackjack tables shooters tossed dice at the crap tables, and the whir of roulette wheels and clatter of slot machines rose above the babble of the crowd. Croupiers costumed in the regalia of Mississippi riverboats raked in greenbacks and banjo bands and dancing girls entertained. You came “aboard” this colorful scene of green felt and greenbacks via a “gangplank.”
Charity-benefit Concours have been started for a variety of reasons, but probably none had their beginning as did the Palo Alto Concours d’Elegance at Stanford.
The sponsors of the “Riverboat Jamboree,” the Palo Alto Lions Club, were warned by police that the event, although a high-minded charity benefit, was technically illegal under California State Law and must be discontinued.
One night a small group of Lions Club members was sitting around some drinks, rummaging for suitable alternative ideas. Lion Gene Stewart said, “Lets have a Concours d’Elegance like ” Hillsborough and Pebble Beach.”
Fellow Lions, including Craig Calkins, looked puzzled and asked, “What’s a Concours d’Elegance?”
From that beginning was born the present Palo Alto Concours, but the road was not smooth. Knowing little about classic cars and staging .such an event, the club formed a Concours Advisory Committee. It met with Sid Colberg, San Francisco classic car authority and Concours Chairman of the prestigious Northern California Region Sports Car Club of America (SCAA), who brought counsel, expertise, and a host of contacts. Others who provided specialized information about “Parades of Elegance,” including registration, marques, judging, trophies, car clubs, media, and protocol were Dr. McLain Johnston, Rolls Royce aficionado par excellence, Dr. Harry Love, President of the Mercedes Benz Club and the late Doug Salmi, SCCA Chief of Liaison, Rules and Classification. Marilyn Salmi, his widow, has continued the twenty-year relationship, serving as Registration Chairman of the Concours.
The maiden show in 1967, then called “El Palo Alto Concours,” was held in El Camino Park in view of the tall tree which gave Palo Alto its name. It had a handful of cars and a $2.00 admission. “We gave a party and nobody came. It was a plain flop,” admits Calkins, who with Erv Austin has been Co-Director of the Concours since 1983. “We lost $1,400 of the club’s money.” They laid the blame to start-up expenses, including signs, printing, equipment rental, “but mostly inexperience,” said Calkins. There was serious talk of disbanding the fledgling charity event.
However, cooler heads prevailed, namely that of George Paddleford, veteran member of the Lions Club and long-time Palo Alto Oldsmobile/ Cadillac dealer. Paddleford had faith in the Concours idea and its ultimate success. He backed it with substantial commitments of time, personal funds, and a gritty determination to make it succeed. His colleagues all agree that he is credited with saving the faltering event.
Expenses were cut by bringing in more volunteer help from Lions Club membership and promotion and publicity were stepped up. Club membership was mobilized to handle the enormous planning, business and logistic tasks required. Early Concours workers who contributed mightily to the effort were Lions Club members George Rickabaugh, Bob Winter, and Jim McLaughlin. The second Concours, raised a modest $1,800 in profit. Proceeds for charities in following years grew to $3,000 – $4, 000.
In 1974 the City of Palo Alto reseeded the park and disallowed parking of cars, effectively evicting the event. The Concours, Committee, faced with finding a new home, exhausted many potential locations, including local golf courses, which declined. One prominent Silicon Valley company agreed to host it on its garden-like setting if security for the valuable cars as well as indemnification were provided.
The grounds of Palo Alto High School became the setting for the Concours from 1975 to 1980. During this period of development it reached a milestone. A committee, including Sid Colberg and Gordon Martin, Sports Car Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, recommended consideration of blending high-performance or race cars with traditional antique, vintage, and classic automobiles. They proposed an annual focus on a Theme Car. The pair was instrumental in featuring Ferrari, the sleek, legendary, Italian marque as the Concourg first Theme Car. This added a new element of glamor and public acceptance, plus a boost in revenues for charities to $12,000. Other Concours Theme Cars have been: Porsche, Jaguar, Rolls Royce, Mercedes Benz, Shelby Cobra, Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg, Chrysler, Oldsmobile, Packard, and this years Cadillac.
In 1981, the well-established Concours, seeking a better permanent site, looked across El Camino Real to Stanford. The Lions Club, together with the newly formed Stanford Cardinal Club for women’s athletic scholarships, joined to cosponsor the Concours at its new location, Stanford, on the Intramural Field. “We graduated from high school and went to college,” quips Calkins, a Palo Alto New York Life insurance executive, tireless worker and main guiding light of the Concours.
The elegant setting of the campus and the international prestige of Stanford enhanced the image of an already established (15 years) community event. During its twenty years the Concours has attracted over 4,500 automotive thoroughbreds, spanning the entire history of the automobile and contributing more than $350,000 to a variety of local charities.
Co-Director Erv Austin states that the Concours is designed to appeal to the entire family, not only car buffs. “We strive to make it a fun day in the sun, like going to a picnic or the beach.”
Calkins stresses that all the members of the Lions Club and their families have contributed in many different ways to making the Palo Alto Concours d’Elegance at Stanford one of the largest and most prestigious in Northern California.