Rob McLeese used to own a Chevy Vega and a Citation, and his daily driver these days is an aging Porsche 911, although he prefers public transit to get around Toronto. But this September, he'll host what promises to become the premier Concours d'Elegance event in Canada.
Golfers playing a round at the Cobble Beach Golf Links just north of Owen Sound, and overlooking Georgian Bay, might have been put off their stroke a couple of years ago by the sight and sound of a race-prepped Ferrari on the 18th fairway.
Aboard weren't a pair of hooligans, but McLeese, who created the club with his father in 2007, and car-guy Billy Smilovsky, of Engineered Automotive. They were gingerly engaged in putting the first tire prints on an event McLeese hopes might one day become the Canadian version of that renowned California concours, which has pebbles rather than cobbles on its cliff-side beach.
"I was paranoid. Was the car going to sink right into the grass?" says McLeese, of the drive that would determine if the fairway was suitable for a field-of-dreams display of classic cars, an event he envisioned with his father Willis, who has since passed away.
The Ferrari's front spoiler didn't make any divots, and the key was twisted to fire up the process that should have launched the Cobble Beach Concours d'Elegance last fall. It didn't happen. The timetable, among other things, proved too ambitious and McLeese "pulled the plug."
"It was a false start," he admits, but says this year he's personally taking responsibility for and underwriting the entire event and, in the run up, is receiving assistance and advice from a wide range of knowledgeable people, including two of Canada's top classic car experts.
McLeese, who created Toronto-based Access Capital in 1990, which has since handled $1.6-billion in power project financing, didn't need any help to figure out the dollars. Despite owning three Citroens, and those classic Chevys in his younger years, his only old car experience is his much-loved 1971 Porsche 911. Coming up to speed on the concours scene has been a foot-to-the-floor drive.
Steve Plunkett, a well-known Cadillac collector who stages the annual Fleetwood Country Cruize-In (billed as Canada's largest outdoor car show and held June 7-9 in London, Ont.), has provided expertise, enthusiasm and mentoring as the event's "special adviser."
Plunkett almost deleted an e-mail from McLeese about about Cobble Beach but, after opening it, became intrigued and met with McLeese to look over the site. They chatted and, after McLeese noted that "nobody was doing a true concours event in Canada," Plunkett agreed to help.
It soon became evident that the event needed to be both distinctly Canadian and a concours that high-end collectors would take seriously. The judging team would have to be highly credible and ideally headed by a Canadian.
Enter John Carlson – a British Columbia-based 45-year-veteran collector, restorer and concours judge (at Pebble Beach and Hilton Head) – who will serve as chief judge.
"I contacted John, and he said, 'Let me be blunt with you'," says McLeese, and he was. Carlson said he liked the idea of a Canadian concours, but wasn't about to become involved in an event held "in a Home Depot parking lot."
After being reassured about the golf course and its spectacular setting, question number two was about sponsorship.
"I'm the sponsor, I'll fund what I have to, to make it happen," McLeese told Carlson (other sponsors have since signed on).
McLeese says Carlson's final caveat was "and you'd need spectacular cars."
Carlson, satisfied by the answers, signed on to assemble the judging team. McLeese, Plunkett and others began the search for suitable cars. "Once we began to get some cars (entered), the owners have their own networks, and began to talk," he says, and the field is filling fast, although entrants are still being sought.
A sampler includes the 1978 Ferrari 312T3 F1 car driven by Gilles Villeneuve to his first Grand Prix win at Montreal, a 1956 Maserati 200SI racer, a 1930 Cadillac V-16 Fleetwood Roadster, a 1953 Jaguar XK 120 Fixed Head Coupe and Rolls-Royces and Bentleys.
Definitely one of the highlight cars will be the 1930 Packard 740 owned by Margaret Dunning, of Michigan. She turns 103 in June and the car, which she's owned since 1949, and still drives and shows – it won its class at Amelia Island last year and has been shown Pebble Beach – will be 83.
Ed Luce, a well-known concours announcer who has advised McLeese along the way, will act as master of ceremonies. Actor Jason Priestley will serve as event co-chair.
A portion of the proceeds will be donated toward the funding of a rooftop helipad for Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.
"If you'd talked to me six months ago, you'd have said, does this guy really know what he's doing?" says McLeese. "But the pieces are all coming together nicely. I've got a lot of people helping me with this, for which I'm very pleased, and very lucky. This year we're going to be able to do it properly."
The inaugural Cobble Beach Concours d'Elegance will take place on Sept. 14, with an anticipated full-field of 128 historic, interesting and elegant automobiles, stretching from the brass era of early in the last century to modern supercars, that will judged in 16 classes. It will be staged on the 18th fairway of the Cobble Beach Golf Links near Kemble, Ont. For more details, go to cobblebeachconcours.com.