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Classic Cars & Southern Charm at the Hilton Head Island Concours d’Elegance

Mercedes-AMG GT

Photo Credit: Jared Paul Stern

Not so long ago there was simply nothing to compare with Pebble Beach when it came to luxe classic car events in the United States. Then along came Amelia Island in the 1990s. And more recently Hilton Head Island, South Carolina has burst upon the scene, with the exceedingly elegant Hilton Head Island Motoring Festival & Concours d’Elegance (HHIMF), which takes place each November in the idyllic resort community. Redolent with southern charm, and imbued with the grace and hospitality that the locale has come to be known for, the HHIMF is an extremely gentlemanly series of events that emphasizes the enjoyment to be derived from both collecting and appreciating the world of classic cars. The stunning setting just adds to the experience.

Mercedes AMG GT
Photo Credit: Jared Paul Stern year we enhanced it even further with help from our friends at Mercedes-Benz, Bob’s Watches and the Montage Palmetto Bluff, our favorite resort in all of the South. Mercedes, of course, provided transportation that was not only suitable to the occasion, but attracted the admiration of everyone we encountered during the course of the event. We’re talking about the magnificent Mercedes-AMG GT, the pinnacle of the marque’s impressive line of sports cars, and an icon in the making. We chose it in part because it is the direct descendant of the legendary Mercedes-Benz 300 SL “Gullwing,” perhaps the most beautiful sports car ever made and a staple of events like the HHIMF.

Mercedes AMG GT
Photo Credit: Jared Paul Stern

We knew we’d encounter more than one 300 SL in the course of our travels and we wanted to make the scene with its modern counterpart, and thereby be more than just a mere spectator. This turned out even better than we planned. The Mercedes-AMG GT is one of the few modern cars that can unreservedly be described as an automotive work of art, with heart-stopping lines and a visceral connection to the DNA of the 300 SL that’s apparent in every angle. As Mercedes puts it, “every brilliant detail combines purpose with poise,” and the result is “at once timeless and trendsetting, a sports car that seduces your gaze to linger.” Not to mention the gaze of every person we met in Hilton Head, many of whom had yet to see an AMG GT in the metal.

Photo Credit: Mercedes-Benz

The $111,000-plus AMG GT has few rivals, existing on the rarified plane occupied by the likes of the Porsche 911, Bentley Continental and Audi R8. Its handcrafted engine is the beating heart of the well-bred beast that makes it more than just a pretty chassis. The 465 hp twin-turbo V8 rockets it from 0-60 mph in just 3.9 seconds; the car we had in Hilton Head was actually the GT S, which brings 503 horses to the stable and can get to 60 in only 3.7 seconds. Inside, the renowned luxury and heritage of Mercedes’ AMG cars is no less apparent. Ours was equipped with a two-tone black and red leather interior that effortlessly balanced comfort, ergonomics and supercar styling.

The Auctions America Driving Tour
Photo Credit: Jared Paul Stern

Our first chance to show off the slick ride was at the Auctions America Driving Tour, which started at the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa, the official hotel for the HHIMF. The captivating property commands the best beachfront acreage in Hilton Head, and it’s the hub of activity during the week’s events with the Concours itself taking place at the posh Port Royal Golf Club next door. Auctions America stages a sale of collector cars at the Westin every year, so the first thing you see upon arrival is ranks of cool cars, ranging from antique Fords to modern Ferraris. With a full-service spa and three outdoor pools, one of which directly overlooks the beach, the stately Westin is Hilton Head’s most popular resort, worthy of a visit any time.

Auctions America
Photo Credit: Jared Paul Stern

The Auctions America Driving Tour features a key selection of classic and modern sports cars making for an eye-popping procession to the marvelous Montage Palmetto Bluff, our base of operations for the duration of the goings-on. Some of them would be offered for sale at the auction while others would be participating in the Concours itself. Arriving in the AMG GT the morning of the rally, we were prepared to merely tag along, but the car’s presence and obvious attractions earned us a spot in the lineup—right next to a beautifully restored 300 SL Roadster. With the two cars side by side it was easily to see how skillfully and perfectly Mercedes’ designers and engineers had paid homage to the original while creating something unmistakably modern, and very, very fast.

Rolex 'Steve McQueen' Explorer II
Photo Credit: Jared Paul Stern

Our last piece of essential equipment for the adventure ahead came courtesy of Bob’s Watches, the acclaimed online luxury watch exchange that has come to be the premier destination for Rolex collectors and those looking to trade in their timepieces for different models. In keeping with the theme of modern-meets-vintage, we selected a rare Rolex Explorer II model known in collector circles as the “Steve McQueen.” Made from 1971–1984 its most distinctive feature is a bold orange hand designed for explorers to be able to distinguish between night and day when deep in a cave or other remote locale. However because of the McQueen connection, the rare Rolex has a certain rakish air that lends itself perfectly to a gathering of equally iconic sports cars like the 300 SL and AMG GT.

Hilton Head Island Motoring Festival & Concours d’Elega
Photo Credit: Jared Paul Stern

Later that night we would all reassemble at the Flights & Fancy Aeroport Gala at the Hilton Head Island Airport, one of the HHIMF’s signature events that combines vintage aircraft with collector cars. It serves as the perfect prelude to the Concours itself, the grand finale of the various events at which a prestigious group of judges chooses the best of the best from the vehicles placed in competition. At this year’s Concours there was a special section devoted to cars of the silver screen, and we’d arranged to get up close and personal with a few of the cars that we’d so far only gawked at from afar, including James Bond’s famous amphibious Lotus from The Spy Who Loved Me, the DeLorean DMC-12 from Back to the Future, and Austin Powers’ Union Jack-bedecked “Shaguar” Jaguar.

Montage Palmetto Bluff
Photo Credit: Montage Palmetto Bluff

Firmly ensconced in the AMG GT’s cockpit with the McQueen Explorer strapped to our wrist, we revved the engine and prepared for the scenic drive to Palmetto Bluff. Two car lengths ahead the original ex-Roger Moore Volvo P1800 from TV’s The Saint idled next to a drop-dead Ferrari Dino. More than 500 vehicles in all had made their way to Hilton Head for the Festival’s various events but the driving tour was a rather intimate affair peopled with true auto enthusiasts. Arriving at the Montage Palmetto Bluff, we lined up our eye-catching rides along the great lawn in front of the hotel’s gracious plantation-style main building and were treated to a delicious luncheon. Many of the participants knew each other and were Hilton Head regulars, but all were more than happy to welcome a newcomer and insisted the AMG GT take its place next to the 300 SL out front.

Hilton Head Island Motoring Festival & Concours d’Elega
Photo Credit: Jared Paul Stern

After a day’s gazing at the rest of the automotive eye candy we were on hand for the bestowing of the coveted “Best of Show” and “People’s Choice” awards at Port Royal. Best of Show went to a 1914 Stutz Bearcat, while a 1956 Dodge Custom Royal captured the People’s Choice. But there was so much else to look at we barely noticed these worthies among the gorgeous vehicular array. Much more in our line was the 1953 Maserati A6GCS which won the Paul Doerring Founders Award, established to honor one of the key contributing founders of the event. And there weren’t only cars to ogle; rare boats and motorcycles were also on display at the Concours. Equally impressive was the “barn find” 1957 Porsche 356A 1600 Speedster, which Auctions America sold for $665,500, sure to be a winner at a future Concours.

The 16th annual Hilton Head Island Motoring Festival & Concours d’Elegance is scheduled for Oct. 27 – Nov. 5, 2017. For more information visit

Jared Paul Stern

Jared Paul Stern has written for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, the New York Times' T magazine, GQ, WWD, Vogue, New York magazine, Details, Hamptons magazine, Playboy, BlackBook, the New York Post, Bergdorf Goodman magazine and Luxist among others. The founding editor of the Page Six magazine, he has also served as a judge for everything from the International Best Dressed List to the Fo...(Read More)

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