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Cradle of car culture sits in Florida

If Paul Le Vasseur had all the money in the world, he would buy back his 1963 Chevrolet Corvette split-window coupe.

He was reminded of his love for the car when he was thrown back in time at the Mecum Auctions Kissimmee 2023 event in January. The Citrus Springs resident and his friend Al Vogel, of Beverly Hills, took their time admiring the cars lined up for auction and paused when they came upon a red 1963 Corvette.

“It’s exactly like mine,” Le Vasseur said. “What I wouldn’t give to have that car back.”

Florida’s expansive classic car culture is driven largely by enthusiasts like Le Vasseur. They are people who see older cars as more than just something that gets them from Point A to Point B; they enjoy them for the community they provide and the memories they evoke.

Although classic car shows and auctions now draw millennial and Generation Z gearheads, older generations propelled the hobby for many years and aren’t quite ready to hand over the keys to the community.

Baby boomers make up 56% of car enthusiasts today, according to a 2022 Auto Enthusiast Study from Hearst Auto, an automotive media organization that represents brands such as Autoweek, Car & Driver, J.D. Power and more.

And the generation leads the way in classic car purchases, owning more than 60% of them, said John Wiley, manager of valuation analytics at Hagerty, an automotive lifestyle company and the world’s largest provider of specialty insurance for classic vehicles.

“Baby boomers have the time and money to spend on their hobbies compared to other generations,” said David Morton, manager of communications and event marketing for Mecum. “They don’t have school loans or children in the house as expenses.”

Le Vasseur is one of those enthusiasts who now has the time to devote to his classic cars hobby, and the 1963 Corvette haunts him as the one that got away.

He fondly remembers the car’s crisp white exterior with a sharp red on the inside. He’s less fond of remembering when he later sold the car for around $5,000.

“Now, one of those cars goes for something in the six-figure range,” Le Vasseur said.

The Mother of All Car Shows

Car shows and auctions long have been places for gearheads to gather. They offer a space for people searching for their dream car and those hoping to add to their collection, as well as those looking to bond with others with similar interests.

And they take place all over the world — from Chicago and Philadelphia to Japan and Belgium.

Mecum, which bills itself as the World’s Largest Collector Car Auction, has auction events all over the country each year, including an annual event in Kissimmee, about an hour from The Villages.

This year, the event held Jan. 4-15 broke attendance records for registered bidders and spectators.

“People know that Mecum means quality, so they come to us to buy and sell their cars knowing they are getting the best deals, the best opportunities and the best cars,” Morton said.

People came from all over the world to experience the auction, which featured cars consigned from 47 states, Morton said. Over the 12-day period, 3,180 cars were sold at auction for a total of $234 million, the most ever at Mecum Kissimmee. It also was the first auction to see 13 cars reach seven-figure sales, with the 1992 Ferrari F40 topping the high sellers at $3.135 million. Millions of dollars changed hands on the packed auction floor while bidders and spectators watched silently.

Most of the cars and motorcycles were pushed across the floor by white-gloved vehicle models. Bidders sat at long tables on the auction floor, or in an elevated VIP section, and used nods or other subtle gestures to motion to assistants who walked among the crowd, allowing the auctioneer to focus on just a handful of people instead of hundreds, Morton said.

Finding the Perfect Car

Terry and Laura Naumann, of Leesburg, were looking for a two-door BMW convertible.

“There were a few that we saw, but we were outbid,” Laura said. “We want something fun that we can drive and take on short trips.” Terry said the couple has attended a few Mecum events since a friend introduced them to the auction, and they are thinking about traveling to another Mecum auction later in the year.

“They just are a lot of fun,” Terry said. “Even if you don’t bid on anything or buy anything, you get to see beautiful cars and meet great people.”

Morton said outside of linking cars and buyers, that atmosphere is a main goal of the auction.

“One of the things Mecum is about is bringing together like-minded people, getting car lovers together to talk to each other and create friendships,” Morton said. “Mecum Kissimmee was just that.”

In fact, people came from all over the country to attend.

Tom Maruska traveled from Duluth, Minnesota, to sell his 1956 Mercury XM Turnpike Cruiser.

The persimmon-and-white sedan is a concept car, Maruska said, and the only one of its kind.

“I bought it with the goal of restoring it,” Maruska said. “It’s my third concept car.”

The cruiser was designed by Mercury and constructed in Italy by Ghia; it was created as a prototype for testing and perfecting. The four-seater car has a futuristic design, with the windows meeting transparent butterfly roof panels.

“They are kind of like sun roofs, except you don’t have to wait for good weather to open them and see the sky,” Maruska said. “The panels open automatically with the car doors, making it look kind of like a T-top car when both doors are open.”

He said he loves Mecum and events like it because of the people he meets.

“All of us car people, we’re the same kind of fanatic,” he said. “We all kind of speak the same language.”

Thriving Local Scene

Thousands of people in The Villages speak that language, too.

Residents can choose from about 20 car clubs in the community. They range from groups dedicated to specific makes and models to clubs for classic, antique and vintage car owners.

The Villages also regularly puts on its own cruise ins and car shows at the three town squares. The events consistently reach capacity, said Chalsi Cox, special events manager with The Villages Entertainment.

“Every cruise in gets filled up. There’s never an empty spot,” she said. “There are people who have come to nearly every cruise in since the events started.”

Will Vermilya, president of The Villages Classic Automobile Club, said his club always takes part in the events put on in the community.

“We have a lot of passionate members,” Vermilya said. “We have a lot of people who love to participate in the club events.” His group consists of all kinds of car enthusiasts.

“A lot of people are restorers and like to rebuild their cars basically from rust into a fully shining car,” he said. “Others are dedicated to a specific make, model and year of classic car.”

Brian Mullany, special events assistant manager with The Villages Entertainment, said another popular car event in The Villages is the car shows.

“These are separate from the Cruise Ins, but they are also on the town squares,” he said. “Usually they feature a car club in The Villages … and all the club members park their cars side by side for everyone to admire and talk about.”

The car shows took a hiatus when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its height, but people were eager to get them back.

“After two years, clubs were begging,” Mullany said. “They really love these events, and I don’t think I even realized how important these events are to them.”

Mullany said the shows allow car owners to bond with each other over their shared love as well as trade compliments on cars and restoration work.

Albert Forster knows just how valuable those interactions can be.

The Village of Fenney resident owns almost 20 classic cars. He stores all but two at a garage; the other two have a place at his home.

“I drive those two cars for a week or two before swapping them out,” Forster said.

His favorite part about his collection of cars is seeing other people’s reactions when they spot them on the road and being able to link up with other people who know how special the cars are.

He said his passion for classic cars began in childhood, and he’s never been able to shake the bug.

“There’s just something about classic cars that I like,” Forster said. “New cars are great, but I love the look and feel of classics more.”

Source: The Villages Daily Sun