You get used to it after 15 minutes—the honk, wave, smile you’re obliged to give the people standing on their front lawns, waiting for the tour. They’re not spaced far apart. It seems every three minutes I’ll be talking to Rob, then pause, honk, wave, smile. It’s a sizable audience.
For Rob McLeese, chair of the Cobble Beach Concours d’Elegance near Owen Sound, Ontario, it’s second nature. This is his fifth year hosting the event, a Sunday car show that doubles as a “competition of elegance” featuring only the most immaculately restored vintage vehicles.
But on the day before the concours, Saturday, half the 120-car show field, as well as a few dozen local antiques, takes to the road for the Participants’ Tour that’s drawn half of everyone living on the shores of Georgian Bay to come stand roadside and wave.
For me the tour was literally life-changing: it convinced me I have to buy a car with a rumble seat. And soon.
It wasn’t riding shotgun in McLeese’s car that convinced me of that, though I couldn’t complain either—how often do you get to ride in a 1971 Porsche 911 Targa? That was more for background on the tour.
“Every year we change up the route a little to show the participants something different,” McLeese tells me from behind the wheel, between honks-and-waves and taking hands-free calls re: tomorrow’s concours.
“This year we’re driving past the historic Leith church, which is showing some works from famous Canadian artist Tom Thompson, so our American [car] owners can see a little piece of Canadiana,” he explains.
There’s about 120 cars on the tour this year, about 70 of which will be featured in the concours d’elegance. That’s a pretty good turnout; for comparison, the world-famous Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance’s tour in Florida sees only about 30 cars, McLeese says, though the show field is much bigger.
And Amelia Island be hard-pressed to match this variety. Parading on the road behind us is everything from a 1915 Stutz Bearcat to a 1970 Plymouth Superbird to a 1952 Siata 300 BC Barchetta racer.
We get a break from the honk-and-wave when the route turns a little rural, and pull up in front of the Leith church McLeese’d mentioned. The other hundred cars on the tour line either side of the road for miles. I managed to find an open seat in one—a rumble seat.
Let’s get ready to rumble
Like McLeese and his Porsche, Bob Thompson’s history with his 1925 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost goes back about 29 years, when he first imported the car to Canada.
Thompson grew up in rural Ontario and learned to work on cars at a young age. After getting turned onto classics, he fell for Rolls-Royces, unearthing more than a few for sale in Ontario, Quebec, and B.C.
Many of the cars Thompson restores and owns work as movie cars, but not this one—this two-tone-brown ragtop is his driver. The six-cylinder drivetrain is original, but he’s upgraded the brakes with four-wheel power units from a Phantom. Thompson figures he puts 8,000 kms under the wheels every year.
His grandson Roger, who’s also a vintage Rolls aficionado, is occupying the passenger seat of the two-spot “Springfield” car, but thankfully for me, coachbuilders Robertson Coach Works fitted this Silver Ghost with a Piccadilly Roadster body, and that means it came with a rumble seat. I’ll be sitting there.
A rumble seat, if you’ve never seen one, fits in the small opening in the rear of a car where the trunk should be. An upholstered bench inside lets you cram two more passengers – in only mild discomfort – into an otherwise full-up car.
Nicknamed “mother-in-law seats” for the passenger you’d least regret stuffing there, rumble seats were first meant to be spare seating for coachmen, back when cars were chauffeured and came with an entourage like that.
They’re called “rumble seats” because, sitting over the rear axle, you feel more of the bumps in the road, or at least hear the exhaust rumble better. The seats generally went away by the late ’30s, and were absent from any car’s options list after the war.
The rear window in the fabric top zipped down, Thompson yells to me “Okay back there?” I nod, and we set off, then get up to proper speed.
The rumble is not nearly as bad as I’d assume, but the wind in your face is unrelenting and chaps your lips in minutes. It doesn’t stop me from smiling the whole 20-minute ride, though.
I need one of these
When we stop next, near the Inglis Falls Conservation Area, I know I have to find out if the ride is just as fun in another rumble seat car. I flag down Tony and Elaine Lang, who’ve brought their 1932 Packard “shovel-nose” coupe, first shown at Cobble Beach in 2013. (The concours only lets you field the same car once every four years, but, Tony explains, his Packard was specifically invited back this year.)
The rumble seat of the Packard is slightly more awkward to get into – the Rolls offered a metal step or two, but here I have to use the bumper and wrench my leg over my head to clear the immaculate paint – the seat is lower in the car, er, trunk, and more comfortable.
The ride sticks another grin to my face, and the reactions from people back in Owen Sound pins it there. At a stoplight on the corner of 10th and 2nd Avenues, a gentleman parks, steps out of his new Aston Martin DB9, and makes bowing motions toward the Packard. “That car is gorgeous,” he says.
I’d had designs to snap up a pre-war car for a while, and although a rumble seat had always been something I’d preferred, after the Participants’ Tour, it became more than a want.
Back at Cobble Beach, stepping out of the back of the Langs’ Packard, I had just one thought in my head: I need one of these.