Ken Gross wants to give back to passion thats fueled him

    Car shows, even those with French names, aren’t just for elite enthusiasts — but Forest Grove’s 41st Annual Concours d’Elegance will feature at least one prominent person in the automotive world: Ken Gross.

Allen Stephens, a member of the Concours committee, met Gross in 2011 and recommended the committee invite him to serve as senior judge.

“I was impressed by his vast knowledge of collector cars, and he also is really down-to-earth,” Stephens said.

Following the committee’s approval in January, Stephens and event emcee Keith Martin reached out — across the continent, and even the world — to Gross.

Martin and Gross met in February at a classic car auction in Paris to discuss the Concours show, and before long, Gross had agreed to judge the 2013 show, which rolls into town July 21.

For Concours, it’s quite a coup.

“I was not sure if he would be available, or even interested, in our event,” Stephens said. “(Martin) is very connected in the classic automobile community, and he was able to speak to Ken and get his commitment.”

The Concours marks Gross’ first trip to the Rotary-sponsored event, but he’s a veteran traveler to the Metro area and a lifelong car enthusiast.

“It’s a hobby you can have your entire life — it’s a kaleidoscope, it keeps changing,” Gross said.

Gross has explored nearly every vein of his pastime-turned-career over more than 40 years as an automotive journalist, discerning car judge and museum consultant and curator. His writing appears in 30-plus magazines, seven books and a mini-series for SPEED/TV.

In one Tuesday morning, he finished a book manuscript, worked on a catalog and wrote about a car he saw 50 years ago. Gross works from his jam-packed home office in Hamilton, Va., which houses his 25,000-piece automotive library.

“I had a conventional job (in marketing and advertising) years ago — it was uninspiring,” Gross said. “Now I’m surrounded by books and magazines I love.”

When he isn’t in his custom-built garage, Gross is on the road at car shows and exhibitions across the country. He’s been a judge at the world-famous Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance for 25 years, and six other well-known shows in New York and Los Angeles.

His bi-coastal career extends to 10 museums, including the Portland Art Museum, where a version of his “Allure of the Automobile” exhibit was featured in September 2011.

“The exhibit showcased 16 of the world’s luxurious and rare automobiles in the art museum for the public to see,” Stephens said.

Gross is booked to develop fine art exhibitions through 2016. He said car-focused art shows draw audiences who wouldn’t necessarily visit art museums otherwise.

The East Coast native said he’s fond of Portland and has positive memories of previous stays at the Heathman Hotel.

“I like car shows and I like Portland — (it) should be a great trip,” he said.

Organizers hope to make the July 21 event Gross’ best Northwest experience to date, and “show Ken that we can put on a world-class automobile event right here in Forest Grove,” Stephens said.

Martin will loan Forest Grove’s honored guest a classic automobile for Saturday’s Vineyard Tour, after which he will address car owners at the evening of Elegance dinner.

Decades of critiquing classic cars have yet to wear out Gross’ wonder, and he said Forest Grove is sure to offer new surprises and familiar standards.

“It’ll be terrific because cars are terrific,” he said. “Looking at great cars is like meeting an old friend you haven’t seen in a while — I don’t tire of seeing that.”

And it’s a good thing he doesn’t, because the more cars he sees, the more in-demand his expertise becomes.

“When you are judging rare classic cars, you need to have a recognized expert in the field to help make the final decisions,” Stephens said. “When a car owner sees a figure like Ken Gross judging his car, he can be assured that one of the most qualified judges in the United States is evaluating the quality of his automobile.”

Stephens said Rotarians have been working to improve the quality of entrees in recent years, and renowned senior judges such as Gross may boost their effort.

“We need to have recognized experts that also know car owners and have connections with people in the car hobby,” Stephens said. “Ken is one of those people — he’s been very helpful in bringing in some great cars for our event this year.”

Gross’ vast knowledge of automobile history and restoration will help inform decisions for the “Best in Show” award, as well as other categories.

“The thing about judging is it’s very subjective,” he said. “Another set of eyes and a little experience can help when multiple cars are vying for an award.”

He’s been on the receiving end of many prestigious honors himself, including the International Automotive Media Award Lifetime Achievement Award and Lee Iacocca Award in 2009, the 2008 Washington Auto Press “Golden Quill Award,” the Society of Automotive Historians’ “Cugnot Award” for best book, and “The James Valentine Memorial Award” for excellence in automotive historical research.

But he is adamant that automotive appeal reaches beyond the experts, to first-time attendees and casual car nuts.

“You don’t have to be a dyed-in-the-wool enthusiast to enjoy it,” he said. “Everybody has some experience with the automobile — you can look at a car and it’s a memory ... there’s a lot of nostalgia in that.”

Gross, a member of at least 11 car clubs, promotes ecumenical shows like Forest Grove’s that feature a wide range of makes, models and eras.

“It’s nirvana for me,” he said. “Every car has something about it to recommend it.”

Gross sees potential in each vehicle and individual at an auto show, and he’s always on the lookout for up-and-comers.

“There used to be car enthusiast kids,” Gross said, acknowledging that he’s been one of them since attending a General Motors Motorama. “Now cars have to fight for attention.”

His ’32 Ford Roadster — a personal favorite — still gets his 17-year-old daughter out of bed for an early morning drive. The roadster was ranked among the top 75 of its kind in 2007 and Gross said he’s dreamed of owning one since his own high school days.

He remembers crowds of young people gathering around a gleaming car, and hopes those days aren’t gone.

“If any young person ever wants to know more about a car or is enthusiastic about cars, I will always encourage that,” Gross said. “I won’t miss the opportunity to pass the torch.”

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