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Destination Hilton Head

Margaret DeBolt and David Esch decided to make their trip to South Carolina a bit more interesting...

• The XK 120 rolling off the train after its long journey south

When we last went to the Concours d’Elegance at Hilton Head Island (HHI), South Carolina in 2017, we had not entered our car in the event, but we thought in the lonely, cold Covid spring of 2021 – why not? We had attended a concours on Amelia Island and seen lots of lovely cars in February of 2019, just before the reality of Covid hit, and since the HHI event was on, we decided to commit to the trip and get out on the road again. But the question always is, how best to make the 600-mile trip?

From our home in Washington DC to HHI is at best a nine-hour drive on a very boring Route 95 – lots of 70mph miles, big trucks, speeding ‘ordinary’ vehicles and not much to look at. So, the solution was to reserve a spot on the Amtrak Auto-Train and have the train take care of the boring part of the trip. To reserve a spot for the end of October into November, the date of the HHI Concours, the spot on the train needed to be made well in advance, since that direction in late fall is the high season for northerners heading to Florida for the winter, but we secured a spot for the car and a sleeper car for the two of us. The train only goes point-to-point: Lorton Virginia, just south of DC, to just outside Orlando, Florida. That put us four and a half hours south of HHI, but it meant we had the opportunity to drive backroads and explore our way north – not on Route 95! It also meant we could break up the trip into the under-two-hour driving segments that we enjoy in the attractive but tight quarters of our 1953 XK 120 SE FHC. And everything for the three-week trip had to be packed in the boot; there was some room left over after packing tools, fluids, polishing compounds and an assortment of belts and spare parts.

After entrusting the car to an Amtrak driver, explaining the difference between turning the key to start the ignition and pressing the button for the starter, the train left the north at 4pm and arrived at 9am the next morning in Florida. We were successfully unloaded (even after neglecting to leave notes for the driver on the other end – the train loaders figured it out) and we headed north-east on an interstate to Daytona Beach.

• Famous Blue Bird LSR car, complete with ‘used’ tyres...

First stop was the Motorsports Hall of Fame, which is an excellent museum in the base of the NASCAR racetrack venue and initiated us to the fact this trip would include substantial Jaguar content! An excellent collection of cars included great coverage of the early speed record attempts, and it turned out they have on display Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Blue Bird IV, which set the Land Speed Record at Daytona in 1935, just before those attempts moved to the Bonneville Salt Flats. The records at Daytona were set on the hard sand of the beach when the tide was out! Not just the vehicle but some of the car’s exploded tires are included in the display.

Likewise, the beach was the location for early crazy races that looped south on old route A1A, turned 180 degrees on a bank of sand, then headed north on the sand. Right around the corner from the early race exhibits, we were surprised to come across the Jaguar XJR-7 that won the IMSA Finale held at Daytona in 1986, on loan from Group 44, Inc.

• Arriving at the Casa Marina

From Daytona north, we went along the ocean to arrive at our first overnight, Historic Casa Marina in Jacksonville Beach. The next day got us to HHI, again by the back roads, including a ferry ride and our first ‘lighthouse photo’ opportunity at John’s River Light near the border between Florida and Georgia. In Georgia we drove mostly on Route 17, which parallels Route 95 but goes through small southern towns and is mostly a two-lane road. We arrived in Hilton Head – the car had clocked 300 pleasant miles and it needed some cleaning before it would be ready for the Concours.

• Lighthouse number two, this time on St Johns River – the longest river in Florida

We had lovely weather almost every day of our three weeks except the first day of the Concours, which was very wet and windy. The second day, Sunday, was better. We understood that we had been in the running for the ‘longest traveled’ entry – we explained that we did not drive the whole way but took the train. The car was awarded a prize, however – the Port Royal Elegance Award, and though there were many very good-looking cars present, we have to agree that the 120 in fixed-head form is one of the most elegant shapes in motoring! Our day, Saturday, was for car clubs and because XKs weren’t featured this year we’d gotten invited into the Concours’ open class, so we found ourselves alongside Triumphs and even a modern McLaren! What was featured were the E-types, with the 60th-anniversary celebration held over from last year’s (cancelled) event, so there were lots and lots of beautifully preserved and restored E-types.

On Sunday the sun and the real concours cars came out, including what is surely one of the finest SS1s in existence.

To return to the train station in Orlando, we took another leisurely several days and stayed for three nights in St Augustine, Florida. This gave us the opportunity to park the car in front of many lighthouses to add to a collection of photos we had taken in 2017, when we drove the whole distance home via the outer banks of North Carolina.

Home again, we totaled 891 trouble-free miles for this trip. In all, a very successful trip with lots of unexpected Jaguar content. We encourage everyone to get out and drive our Jaguars – they bring smiles to people’s faces! The next Hilton Head Island Concours d’Elegance is 4-6 November 2022. See you there?

• A relaxing evening on the water for Margaret and David during their memorable trip


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