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Jason Priestley headlines Concours D’Elegance

Published May 3, 2013

There are hundreds of car shows in Canada each year — everything from local cruises, to the North Bay Car Show (see you there, May 11), to Steve Plunkett’s massive Fleetwood Country Cruize-In in London (June 7-9).

But there really isn’t anything that compares to the big events in the United States (Pebble Beach, Amelia Island, Hilton Head), which display vintage cars that rank among the rarest, most beautiful, most valuable, and most technologically advanced cars of their times.

Until now: if everything goes as planned at the inaugural Cobble Beach Concours d’Elegance on Sept. 14. Cobble Beach is a golf resort on the shores of Georgian Bay.

As usual, there is a story.

Toronto businessman Rob McLeese was looking for a vacation property for his growing family back in the late 1990s.

Muskoka prices had gone crazy. But his father, Willis, discovered a 574-acre property just north of Owen Sound that was going for what a postage stamp would sell for in Muskoka. The family acquired it.

It was way more property than the McLeese clan needed for a summer residence. So, over time, an award-winning golf course, restaurant and condo development were built.

McLeese always thought it would be a good spot for a car show. Cars have long been part of the family: His dad once worked on the line at GM in Oshawa, and his wife Rosemary is a McLaughlin — yes, of the McLaughlin family that founded GM of Canada.

“But we didn’t really have a clue how to begin,” says McLeese.

He turned to Joe Sulpizi of the Brand Factory ad agency in Toronto, who introduced him to Billy Smilovsky, a long-time race car technician and team manager who is a founding partner of Engineered Automotive, a car restoration, repair and engineering outfit in Concord.

Smilovsky’s clientele includes the sort of people who own the sorts of cars McLeese would need to make the show work.

Those connections led him to Plunkett, as well as Ed Lucas, who helped establish the Meadowbrook Concours d’Elegance in Michigan in the early 1980s, and John Carlson, a Vancouver resident who is a top Concours judge.

Initially, Carlson was reluctant to get involved.

“He told me he gets asked to do things like this all the time, but that most of these plans never get off the ground,” recalls McCleese.

“He asked me four questions:

“What was the site like? I showed him photos on our website; he seemed pleased.

“Funding? My business — developing environmentally friendly power stations — has been quite successful, and I told him I’d take that on myself.

“Judges? Well, that’s where he would come in.

“Cars? That’s where Billy and Steve came in. It took some coaxing, but once John came onboard, well, he was the tipping point.”

Carlson will act as chief judge. Lucas, who has many family and personal connections in Canada, will be master of ceremonies. Plunkett is a special adviser.

Events like this typically raise money for charity. Rosemary McLeese is on the governing council for the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, so that seemed like a good place to start.

Although Sunnybrook does have a helicopter pad, it’s about a half-kilometre from the hospital. Since seconds count in trauma cases, the decision was made to help fund a new pad on the hospital roof.

The team also felt that having a celebrity face would make the project an easier sell. The name Jason Priestley was forwarded, and he seemed a natural: Canadian-born, well-known, and with a lifelong passion for cars.

He agreed to become honourary co-chairman of the event.

“The real hook for me — other than that there hasn’t been a moment in my life without cars — was the helipad idea,” Priestley told me this week.

“After my big crash (in practice for an Indy Racing League Pro Series race at Kentucky Speedway, where he broke his back), I was medevaced to the University of Kentucky hospital, landing right on the roof. If I couldn’t have gotten there so fast, I wouldn’t be here now.”

Among the cars already confirmed for the show are the Ferrari 312T3 Formula One car that Gilles Villeneuve drove to his first Grand Prix win in Montreal in 1978, a stunning 1956 Maserati 200SI, a Jaguar XK120 Coupe, and a 1930 Cadillac Series 452 Model 4301 Rumbleseat Runabout with a V16 engine.

Corporate sponsors include Harry Rosen/Ermenegildo Zegna, RBC and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

“We’re very excited, and humbled, by the support and enthusiasm we have received,” says McLeese.

“We originally hoped to run this event last year, but realized it needed more work. It has to be right the first time, and we’re confident our team can pull it off.”

For more information, go to cobblebeachconcours.com.

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