Bill Warner: Classic Car Icon

Bill Warner has owned his Triumph TR6 for more than 20 years. Past owners include Group 44 Inc. and Paul Newman—yes, that Paul Newman.

Classic car icon Bill Warner has had an incredible ride as professional automotive photographer and writer, racer, Cannonball Run competitor, car collector and restorer, founder of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance and winner of numerous prestigious industry awards.

After a long history with cars and the publications that cover them, Bill Warner, on the right, founded the Amelia Island Concours. Regular entrants include some of our favorites from MG, Triumph, Jaguar and Austin-Healey. Warner also owns a real Group 44 Inc. Triumph TR8, and former team crew chief Lanky Foushee (on left) maintains it.

What is he most proud of professionally? “The ability to distill all my experiences into an event for North Florida,” he says. Celebrating its 15th anniversary in 2010, the Amelia Island Concours has become one of the top three Concours d’Elegance events in America and has donated $1.6 million to charity. Such an accomplishment is only possible for someone as experienced, well connected and passionate about cars as Warner.

It started when Warner was a teenager and worked for an import car dealership with a racing team in Jacksonville, Florida. He entered the family filter business, and channeled his automotive enthusiasm into photography, primarily for Road & Track magazine where he was a Contributing Editor. His images won awards like Photographer of the Year from the Sports Car Club of America in 1970.

In 1975, Warner ran the Cannonball Run in a Porsche 911, and later participated in the first Cannonball One Lap of America. He started racing a Brabham BT-8 in 1978 and over the years competed in the SCCA’s American Road Racing Amateur Championships, the International Motor Sports Association Firehawk Series, factory-sponsored road races and endurance races.

Currently Warner competes in vintage racing in his Group 44 Triumph TR6 raced previously by Bob Tullius and Paul Newman, as well as his Group 44 Triumph TR8 that previously competed in Trans-Am and IMSA. “The TR8 is a hoot to drive,” says Warner. Yet his sentimental favorite is the TR6, which he’s had for 21 years. Newman won his first title in the car, and Warner bought it from Newman’s partner, Tommy Ciccone.

“When I get into that car, it’s like putting on an old shoe it’s so comfortable,” explains Warner. “It’s the easiest driving race car I’ve run across. It has no bad habits. It’s quick but not fast—it has a top speed of 130 mph—but it’s really quick on a short course like Lime Rock.” However, he once flipped the TR6 at a solo event in the Bahamas. “It got loose, hit a concrete wall, did one bounce on the roll bar and ended up on its wheels. The car wasn’t too bad, but I felt like I did a round with Mohammed Ali,” says Warner. “All in all, a lame brain thing to do.”

One of the aspects Warner loves about his two Group 44 Triumphs is the pedigree. “People come up and share their stories about seeing Newman and Tullius running the cars,” he explains. To Warner, it is the stories told of racing action, of interesting cars and of the legendary drivers who drove them, that create great enthusiasm among spectators. So when he was approached about creating a major car event at Amelia Island, he decided to make this aspect the central theme of the event.

“I called all my chits in from many years of being around race cars,” explains Warner. “Brian Redman helped me get Ralph Lauren to bring a car down. Knox Kershaw brought all his grand cars over. Bob Snodgrass helped roll the cars out from Brumos. I decided to build the show around a racing celebrity and bring in the cars that were part of the person’s history. Sir Stirling Moss was our first honoree. The next was Phil Hill, then Carroll Shelby, Brian Redman, Hurley Haywood, John Surtees, Dan Gurney and Jim Hall—all the men I admire. With the theme of racing greats, about 30 percent of the 250 cars at the event are race cars. We like all kinds of race cars.”

Warner explains that whereas Pebble Beach and Meadow Brook are focused on style and design, Amelia Island’s focus on racing and cars of interest make the show unique. “We try to tell a story so it’s more than just cars parked on the field,” he says. He adds that attendees get to meet their racing heroes right on the field and at seminars. The more reasonable entry fee for attendees is another difference—it’s less than half the price of the other two shows.

The 2010 event, held March 12-14 at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island, will feature Richard Petty as honoree with some of his famous winning race cars. The 50th anniversary of Stirling Moss’ victory in the Cuban Grand Prix will be celebrated with many of the original event race cars. The weekend will also celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Porsche 917 wins at Le Mans and Daytona. Among the 33 classes will be a special class for Mercedes gull wing cars. The “Three Greats Seminar” will feature Richard Petty, Don Garlits and Stirling Moss. There are art exhibits, test drives, road tours, an auction and social functions, as well as the Concours d’Elegance. “It’s a lot of work to organize,” admits Warner.

This year, Warner will show his newly restored 1970 Maserati Ghibli Spyder at Amelia Island. “It’s one of only 100 in existence and it’s pretty elegant,” he says. He is also completing restoration of a 1957 Cadillac El Dorado Biarritz convertible. “It’s as big as south Florida with huge tail fins,” he says. He recently added a 1971 Ferrari Daytona to his 12-car collection. “It’s a terrible car…it’s noisy and smells bad and the windows leak, but I always wanted a V12 front-engine Ferrari. The magic is in the bulletproof engine and the sound it makes,” he explains.

Warner’s advice for car collectors: “Buy what you like, not what you think is going to make you money. Then if the value goes in the tank, at least you’ve had the pleasure of owning it.”

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