Belgium isn't necessarily a destination I'd been wishing to experience. Yes, the chocolate is out of this world and the beer appeals to hop-heads, but I never imagined a Ferrari 275 GTB caked in mud screaming along a country road. A great friend of mine, Dirk de Jager, has been insisting for years that I pay his home country a visit. "I promise you," Dirk said, "the Zoute Grand Prix is well worth the trip alone."
Dirk isn't just a normal friend. He's a well-respected and deeply passionate photographer of vintage cars. To sweeten the deal, he told me about us participating in the classic car rally that takes place a few days before the concourse event. So, on a rainy day in October, I arrived at the main train station in Brussels. Dirk was ready to show off his country. After a few pit stops at some of the nation's best beer establishments, we arrived in Knokke Zoute (Ca-no-ké Zoot), a small coastal town roughly 30 minutes north of Bruges. It's a charming European beachfront getaway with luxury shops and cafes here and there.
The Zoute Grand Prix is a three-day event that hosts a two-day timed rally, a concourse, an exotic car rally, and a GT rally. Then there's the Bonham's auction that takes place as soon as the rally drivers cross Day One's finish line. What I didn't imagine was how the scrutineering area would look, let alone the check-in tent. First, a cherry Jaguar XJ120 pulls in for inspection, followed by a real Porsche 550 Spyder. Behind that, an Aston Martin DB4 Zagato Coupe. This simple countryside rally just got serious.
I noticed a few familiar faces pop up, including racing legend and all-round good guy Derek Bell. He rolled into the show in a '29 Bentley Speed Six "Old Number One," which also won the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1930, as if it was a completely normal thing to motor around Belgium in.
As my guide introduced me to local collectors, I began to realize that Belgium might just be the best country in the world when it comes to classic cars. And I've been fortunate to attend some memorable shows around the globe, like Pebble Beach Concours, Goodwood Revival, Amelia Island, and Rolex Historics. But the Zoute Grand Prix? This would never have crossed my mind if it weren't for my Belgian connection.
What Belgium does right is its homework. Talking with each of the owners about the car(s) they brought along, I felt as though I had just spoken with a crowd of automotive savants. Not one owner, media guest, or even spectator was clueless about the cars that gleamed in the rare sunlight in Knokke. For example: "This Cisitalia was the last of its kind, but was the first race car to bare the logo and name of Carlo Abarth. That car over there is an Ermani, a recently revived Mille Miglia race car that hasn't been seen since the '50s."
Dirk began schooling me in a proper automotive history when his phone rang. "We have to go pick up a car. Are you ready for some fun?"
We hurried back to our hotel as a white trailer squeaked up. A frazzled albeit amiable man popped out. I later discovered he was the mechanic behind many of the vehicles on display at the show. Before I knew it, the ramp dropped, straps removed, and I found myself being educated on the start-up procedure of a '24 Vauxhall 90-4 in all its polished-alloy glory. The owner of this particular vehicle had a few entries in the concours and the rally and needed us to take this one off his hands for the weekend. A problem Dirk and I had no issues with. It turned out we also had the option of a Ferrari 250 SWB, but the mechanic decided to keep that one within arm's reach.
Early next morning, Dirk and I climbed into his Volvo wagon, ready to photograph the rally stage. We had the same route guide as the participants: rendezvous at the starting gate and set off ahead of them. Dirk was motoring a little faster than the field and we pulled into the first timed location just as it was about to be attacked by a field of rumbling Jaguar E-Types, Porsche 356s, and Austin Healeys. We hopped out just in the nick of time and snapped the first three cars to blaze past us.
"Come on, let's go," Dirk said. We jumped back in the car and I nervously read off the pace notes and determined we were roughly 2 kilometers away from another prime location. Once there, we caught another group of classic motors and pressed on. I soon realized this would be the pace for the next eight to ten hours.
The rural route for the day took us down remote one-way farm roads, through small villages, along streams, canals, and flower fields. Our day was graced with sunshine and zero rain, even though it had poured torrentially just days before and was slated to do so again shortly after the rally. I'd like to think I brought some Southern California good weather to enjoy the event more.
As the rally began to draw to a close, we made our way back to Knokke Zoute for the Bonham's auction. Into the night, engines roared and champagne glasses tinkled as the waves crashed onto the beach.
Another day greeted us, and this time the Vauxhall would be the star of the day. Blasting down empty Belgium coastal roads at six in the morning in a vehicle that sounds more like an historic warplane than a car is an experience worth adding to anyone's bucket list. As for the Zoute GP Concours itself... tres bien. A '58 Ferrari 250 GT Pininfarina Cabriolet Series 1 took top honors for the day, but the competition was stiff. Yes, the Zoute Grand Prix does have sub-categories, but for a young event (it's only been around for five years), don't expect to sit around waiting for an announcer to bring the winners up on stage.
The Zoute GP does it a little differently. The main stage is in the town center, where tens of thousands of people line the streets waiting to see the concours competitors. The winners for each category are announced during a private lunch. Once lunch is complete, owners return to their cars and await their police escort toward the main stage. The moment they leave the concours grounds, crowds of people line the route, snapping photos, begging drivers to rev their motors and give a celebratory wave. We were happy to oblige in our pre-war Vauxhall loaner.
The Zoute GP brings an element of motoring I nearly forgot about: a celebration of art and performance. Americans tend to forget that Europeans invented the automobile. They also started organizing races long before we did. Many of the pioneers and heroes we celebrate in the States are European, and the Zoute GP is an experience that rounds up the best elements of racing, driving, showcasing, appreciating, and celebrating the automobile with style. The Zoute Grand Prix is a show not to be missed.
Visit zoutegrandprix.be for 2016 dates, registration, and events calendar.