Rotary Club of Laguna Beach gears up to present its 17th Classic Car Show, which doubles as a charity event, this fall.
By Julia Clerk
Get ready to start your engines. After a year’s absence due to the pandemic, the Classic Car Show presented by the Rotary Club of Laguna Beach roars into town Sept. 26. This year’s 17th edition will feature up to 200 cars in 28 categories ranging from pre-1931 antiques and classic woodies to Italian sports cars, hot rods, vintage 1950s Chevrolet Tri-Fives and Porsches produced through 1969.
“There’s always a surprise or two in the show, whether a one-of-a-kind, $1 million racing car; a 1950s Mercedes-Benz Gullwing; or a pristine, antique Rolls-Royce,” says Peter Freeman, the club’s event public relations chairman and a local attorney.
The vehicles will be on display from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the City of Laguna Beach public parking lots at Laguna Canyon Road and Forest Avenue, across from the Festival of Arts grounds. The popular event has grown over nearly two decades from its humble beginnings.
“I had a classic car and the Rotary Club was looking for a fundraising event,” says Harry Bithell, founder and chairman of the car show, when asked how the event came to be established. “It’s neat that it’s been successful over all these years.”
Bithell says it’s pretty unusual for a single show to have so many categories of classic cars.
“Another thing that sets our show apart is the fact that we park everybody by class—all the same type of cars are together,” he says. “So there’s camaraderie between the people there, and car owners get to meet other owners with similar cars.”
Owners hang out near their cars so they can interact with the public, telling them about their automobiles, showing off interesting aspects of the cars and answering questions.
More than 500 guests attend the show each year. In addition to admiring all the classic cars, visitors can sip fresh bloody marys, cold beer, wine, coffee and soft drinks. The car show’s popular breakfast burritos are another crowd-pleaser.
More Than a Hobby
While the show is great fun for both the attendees and car owners, there are also prizes in the form of plaques or trophies to be won. Vehicles are judged by a panel of 22 to 25 car enthusiasts from the Rotary Club of Laguna Beach as well as experienced outsiders. “The judges examine each car from top to bottom and look for cars that look like they just came off the showroom floor,” Bithell explains. “The ones that are more original usually have a better chance of winning.”
“Best in Show is a coveted award and many entrants are thrilled to receive Best in Category or Fan Favorite,” Freeman adds.
And the car owners are quite passionate about their vehicles. Longtime Rotarian Rod Hatter, who is also a local attorney—with offices in both Laguna and Newport Beach—is bringing his prized Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn to the 2021 show. It’s one of only about 760 of the super-luxury model produced by the celebrated British carmaker between 1949 and 1955. “Ours has a VIN number of LSBA24—‘L’ for left-hand drive—and it was the 12th Silver Dawn ever made and sold. Its 1949 California license plates were made in Folsom [State] Prison. We still have the envelope,” Hatter says.
Hatter purchased the car—which he has nicknamed “Lady Gray” for its elegance—in 2004. A previous owner, an experienced vintage car dealer, had some restoration work done on it: repainting with subtle blue pinstripes and installing leather on the front seats. Since he acquired it, Hatter has only added seat belts and front fender mirrors. This will be the 15th year that Hatter will be showing this car at the Laguna Beach show.
Udo Stoeckmann, founder of European Optical in Laguna Beach and another veteran Rotarian, will be showing his 1963 Jaguar Mark 2 luxury sports saloon, a model that was produced from late 1959 to 1967 in Coventry, England, and became famous when featured in the British TV series “Inspector Morse.” Even though his roots are proudly German, Stoeckmann says he owns an English vehicle because, “those cars will look classic forever and, in 1963, they were the fastest coupes on the road.”
Owner of popular Laguna gift store Fawn Memories, George Nelson, says he’s probably entering both his 1946 Ford Woody and Porsche 356 this year. He’s owned the Woody for almost 25 years and thinks it’s been part of the Laguna Beach show every year since its inception. The vehicle was previously owned by another Laguna resident, leading Nelson to believe that the Woody has been in the area for half a century.
“My appeal for classic cars started when I was very young,” Nelson says. “Others may buy as an investment or buy on price. But I always say you should buy what you personally like so cars can reflect their owners.”
Nelson participates in a classic car event nearly every week, but the Laguna event is close to his heart because it’s so local. “There are a lot of individuals in town who have classic cars, but are somewhat private. But they always go to this show,” he says.
In addition to showcasing vintage vehicles for attendees to admire, the event helps to make a difference in the community, too, as a variety of charities receive grants from the car show’s proceeds. Each year, the Rotary Club’s Community Service Committee decides which groups will receive funding after looking through applications (available at lagunabeachrotary.org).
Past recipients have included the Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach, Laguna Food Pantry, Laguna Outreach for Community Arts, Laguna Beach Community Clinic, Laguna Beach Seniors, Laguna College of Art & Design and Laguna Playhouse.
Another novel feature of the event is that an artist is invited to create a painting inspired by the car show and Laguna each year; this artwork is then auctioned off with half of the proceeds going to the artist and the other half going to the Rotary Club’s selected charities, Bithell explains.
There’s a $45 entry fee for classic cars while admission for the general public is $10 (collected at the event gate), with all proceeds donated to the nonprofit Rotary Club of Laguna Beach Foundation. Each year, the event raises between $15,000 and $25,000 for charities.
The show may have originally been Bithell’s idea, but he is quick to point out that “there are an awful lot of Rotarians that are involved in this and have been over the years. Some have passed because of its 17-year timing, but they have all put in their time and they have really worked hard to make it successful.”
Photos by Ward Blackburn