Sammy’s Tips For Creating Perfect Car Show Judging Classes

One of the more frustrating things for collector car owners is when an all-comers type of car show has judging classes created by someone who thinks there are only two types of people in the world: those who drive a Chevy and those who drive a Ford. Most organizers think classes only make a statement about what cars they expect to show up, but in reality these classes also broadcast to attendees and participants which vehicles are most welcomed and appreciated.

Just a couple weeks ago I decided to take my 1976 Ferrari 308 GT4 to an area all-comers show. Upon giving my entry fee (unlike other journalists, I pay to enter my car, because most entry fees go to charities), I was given a list of 24 classes from which to pick two deemed most appropriate for my car. These were the classes: Best Hot Rod, Custom Car, Custom Truck, Stock Car, Stock Truck, Radical Car, Radical Truck, Stock Antique (pre ’42), Pre-’81 Ford, Post-’81 Ford, Pre-’81 GM, Post-’81 GM, Mopar, Orphan, Pre-20s, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, Post-60s, Engine Compartment, Paint, and Pin Stripe.

Now it doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or even a 1980s GM brand manager) to figure out that the club promoting the show was made up of a bunch of American V8 rod and muscle car-owning folks. Sadly, their lack of understanding about how to put together balanced and fair classes had a bunch of show-goers shoving their cars into unfit boxes. For instance, while there are plenty of non-stock things about the GT4 (like red wrinkle-painted cam and timing covers with polished lettering and ridges), I had to choose Best Stock Car category along with Best Post-60s. A Lancia Beta Coupe owner entered his car in the Best Orphan category hoping that the judges didn’t know the 104-year-old Italian auto maker is still alive, well (albeit owned by FIAT) and mass producing cars for the European market.

So for the benefit of car show organizers, participants and judges…not to mention all of humanity, I present Sammy’s Tips For Creating Perfect Car Show Judging Classes. Remember, this is for all-comers type, rather than marque-specific or specialty events, but the base principles apply everywhere.

1) Create Classes For Attendees, Not For The Sponsoring Car Club’s Membership: Just because the majority of your car club members drive custom Fords and Chevy muscle cars doesn’t mean everyone else does. If you invite everyone, then make sure they feel welcomed…which means if the entry form requires every participant competes in two classes, then ensure any conceivable car has two classes in which to compete. Open a collector car book or simply peruse cars for sale on Craigslist to test the completeness of the classes.

2) Make Even And Fair Period/Era/Decade Classes: The funny thing about car show organizers is that you can tell their average age by the inclusive years of the youngest catch-all era car class. Pretty much anyone over the age of 65 thinks the collector car world ends at 1969, so despite huge representation by vehicles from the 70s, 80s and 90s, these cars often are glommed together competing for a lone trophy. The fairer way is to have a class for each decade (combining all cars pre-1920, as well as on the other end, the cars from the 1990s and 2000s). If you have limited money for class awards, then think about arranging by technological/design era: Brass and Antique (through 1925), Classic Era (1925-1948), Chrome and Fins (1949-1963), Muscle (1964-1971), OPEC Era (1972-1983), LED/TBI/FWD (1984-1994), Performance Resurgence (1995 and newer.)

3) Avoid Double-Dipping: In the case of the show I recently attended, there was really no reason to have Best Custom and Best Radical with individual classes for cars and trucks. Radicals ARE customs, and the chances of having enough radical vehicles to fill one class for cars and another for trucks are tiny. And again, why a class for Best Paint followed by an award for Best Pin Stripe? They are both types of paint.

4) Body Style And Car Type Matter: Most internationally-recognized shows give awards for Best Open and Best Closed cars, so don’t be afraid of having body style awards like Best Convertible, Coupe/Sedan, Wagon. Additionally, it’s fine to have classes for sports cars, muscle cars or pony cars, but it requires looking at #9 on our list to ensure participants and judges are as consistent as GOP election-year talking points.

5) Spotlight Originality/Survivors: A car is capable of going through multiple restorations, but only original once…and like Joan Rivers, restoration isn’t necessarily better — just different. In all seriousness, having classes to recognize original cars is important, since a 30-plus year old car with chips and nicks can’t win a beauty contest against something with a fresh $10,000 paint job with the newest technology. Make sure that it is clearly defined and communicated to judges and participants about what it takes to be entered as original: must it have factory-applied paint, engine, interior, tires…?

6) America vs. The World: When there’s a show on Main Street in the heartland of the US, chances are that foreign cars will be in the minority, so often just having an Import Class is fine. This is also an easy way to cover many types of collector vehicles into one class at smaller shows. If the show draws from affluent metropolitan areas, then it’s might be smart to separate European cars from Asian to accommodate the greater amount of entrants. Just don’t forget to define where Australian, Mexican, South American and other imports go. Finally, communicate where to draw the line on what makes an import, since many American market Ford and GM products have been made in Canada, while Chryslers have largely been made in Mexico. Conversely, many BMWs, Hondas, Toyotas and others have been designed and built in America with more American-made parts than so-called American cars.

7) Recognize Special Owners: Having class awards to recognize original owner cars and teens/students are nice touches. Especially in the case of younger collectors, they don’t (or at least, without mommy and daddy spoiling them rotten) have the money to sink into paint, body that the adults do. A class that encourages younger owners to show their cars, be it a newer vehicle or an in-progress restoration, is in the best interest of the hobby.

8 ) Use One-Year Feature Classes: Most large shows have featured classes that change each year. Pebble Beach might feature Alfa Romeo one year, Packard the next and Ferrari after that. Depending on the cars known to be attending, a local show might have a special extra set of awards, such as a Tri-Five Chevy Trophy this year, Best Mustang next year, Super Six Cylinder Ribbon the following year…

9) Explain And Limit Classes: If entrants aren’t given any explanation of classes, then they’ll make a mockery of them. If you already have awards for Best GM, Ford and Mopar, why not explain that DeSotos, Pontiacs, Hummers, Edsels, and LaSalles belong in those classes, while the Best Orphan trophy should be reserved for the likes of Packard, Rockne, Cunningham, Facel Vega, and other non-Big Three brands. This seems to be especially important for classes like Best Import, Best Sports Car and Best Muscle Car, where everyone has their own definitions. (As the organizer, do you want a Camaro competing as a Pony Car against Mustangs, Muscle Car against Chevelles and GTOs or Sports Car with Corvettes and Porsches?)


10) BE FAIR WITH JUDGING: There’s nothing worse than when people realize the class winners are all friends of the organizers. Pick judges for classes who respect the cars within and have some passing knowledge of the vehicles they are rating. A two-time Concorso Italiano-winning (including Best In Show and two-class wins) Lamborghini Miura was twice sent home from a local show here without as much as a third-place trophy for Best Sports Car. When I mentioned to the ladies at the event tent that they had again snubbed what had been crowned just a year earlier the “best Italian car in the world”, they simply quipped something about liking Corvettes and Camaros, of which there were more than 25 at the show. Of course, the organizer was also a local Corvette and Chevy muscle car restorer.

Remember, a car show is not just about seeing cars we know and love, it’s also about exposing the area to previously unfamiliar greatness. This goes for attendees, participants, sponsors, judges, and organizers alike.


14 Responses to Sammy’s Tips For Creating Perfect Car Show Judging Classes

  1. anita says:

    Thank you very much for writing this article. Can you answer a couple of questions, though? What exactly is an Opec era? I don’t mean the years because you listed those, but what defines a car as being Opec? or more frankly, What does Opec mean in relation to a car show? I have the same questions for the next era as well; the LED/TBI/FWD classification.

    Thank you again. I appreciate your insight.

  2. DJ summer says:

    Your article was useful, since am planing a car show in the island of beaytiful GRENADA W.I.

  3. Mark says:

    Thank you so much for you survivor comments. I get the most frustration being in an “original” class and being compared to these guys who spend $30k plus to restore theirs to original. I have to find more shows with survivor classes.

    • Michael says:

      The reason there aren’t a lot of survivor classes is because its hard to tell if you really have a survivor. I do I know you didn’t paint and I’m not going to check your car for match parts. My judges can do those things but to me thats to late sometimes. I do agree though more survivor classes would be good.

  4. Patty Sweet says:

    We just purchased a 66′ Cobra West Coast Replica built in 1992. We have entered a couple local car shows. My question is that we really don’t know what class to enter in. If anyone can give us a few pointers, it would be greatly appreciated.

    • Patty,
      Replicas make for tough choices sometimes. Luckily, Cobras are by far the most accepted replicas made. (To paraphrase something Drew Alcazar, owner of Russo and Steele Auctions, said to me: “people buy the perception of value…I’ve owned real Cobras and replicas, and the replicas were far better driving cars than the duct tape and bailing wire originals, but the value is in the originals despite replicas being the better cars to actually use and enjoy.”)

      When it comes to choosing classes, you have to take from the classes you’re offered. Generally, the best bet will be a sports car class. If you select from age classes, select it based on the year built — 1992. You can also select best American car or Ford, because I’m guessing it has a Ford engine. If there is a replica or kit class, that’s your best fit, but usually those don’t exist in small local shows.

  5. Sherrie Cremen says:

    I appreciate your tips, but I have a question about your “era” years catagories. Under the 80’s to ’95, you have the abbreviations LED/TBI/FWD. What does that stand for? Please advise.

    Thanks, Sherrie

    • Sherrie:
      The world of acronyms can certainly be confusing!!! LED refers to digital dashboards. Starting around 1983 automakers thought it was great to replace traditional analog gauges with needles with LED readouts — which were impossible to read in the sunlight. (Aston Martin was the first to use LEDs on its Lagonda in the late 1970s.) TBI is throttle-body injection, which was the type of fuel injection that was popular in the 1980s and spelled the death of carburetors. FWD is front wheel drive, which became the standard in the 1980s and 1990s.

      All those technologies combine to help generally define the automotive landscape of the 1980s and 1990s in the way that “tailfins” can describe ’48-’60.


  6. Lydia Johnston says:

    Thanks for the info… this combined with what a few car clubs have taught me, our Hot August Nights in Kentucky should be pretty decent…

  7. Robert says:

    If you have an orginal car and chip on the hood blended in does this take away from orginally at a car show. Should I leave the chip there.

    Thanks Robert

    • Generally, a small touch up (done well) does not detract from originality. It is usually seen as a bit of necessity — you don’t want a chip through the paint and primer to rust. If the car is fairly modern and fairly common (Mustang, Camaro, Chevelle, Porsche 911, etc…) then go ahead and touch it up. If the car is truly a rare and extremely original antique piece that deserves museum space (pre-WWI), then leave the chip.

      In concours judging, you’ll get marked off either way (chip or touch up), but a well-blended touch up is much more likley to escape a judge’s eye in the bright sun. With touch up on exterior and interior parts when it cannot be perfect without extreme cost, I often call it “fooling the eye” with a little money and a lot of time!

  8. Bob Harris says:

    I recently purchased a 1956 chevy bel air 4 dr hardtop. over the past 2 years I have cleaned, reupholstered and replaced many parts that needed it while trying to keep within original “stock” specs. I entered the car in 3 shows in Ca. this past summer and each show had no real judging criteria……….they all just wanted to see “bling” on all cars and nothing else………why have a “stock” catagory when judges have no intention of awarding anything but “modified” bling ? I have read many judging guidelines online but it seems none are practiced at local car shows………..WHY ?

    • Bob,
      You’re right to be frustrated! The issue is not just judging classes, but also the criteria set to select and educate the judges themselves. As a judge in events like the NW Concours d’Elegance, the Head Judge makes it very clear what the guidelines are for judging. It is particularly difficult in local shows where the judges are untrained and in categories like Tri-Five Chevys for which most people have a skewed view of reality. Most cars did not come from the factory with power pack V8s, nor did they have all the dealer-installed accessories found on many show cars today. With reproduction parts readily available, it makes originality a concept open to great interpretation. When resto-modding trumps originality in a stock category, well, that’s just insane.

  9. Gary Walter says:

    Loved all 10 of your points and I already try to adhere to many of your suggestions. I’m nearly 67 years old and unlike the one comment you made regarding age, I love all year models and encourage all makes and models to participate in any show I’m involved with (except shows dedicated to one brand). When your show purpose is to raise money for a given charity, you don’t cull anyone that wants to enter. Rat Rods are welcome too. The task of selecting classes is still difficult when you are working with a small show. In my area, it’s not uncommon to have 4 to 5 shows going on the same day with none of them drawing more than 100 entries. We try to get creative on trophies in an effort to save money. It’s hard to justify a $1,000 trophy budget and then only give your charity a few hundred dollars.

    Thanks for the great tips.

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