The Chattanooga Motorcar Festival is now considered one of America’s top car events. It’s back on the street Oct. 13-15.

Photography by Olivia Ross / Chattanooga Motorcar Festival founder Byron DeFoor at the wheel of his 1929 Chrysler series 75 Roadster in the West Village.
Photography by Olivia Ross / Chattanooga Motorcar Festival founder Byron DeFoor at the wheel of his 1929 Chrysler series 75 Roadster in the West Village.

Developer and philanthropist Byron DeFoor will tell you he knows two things: health care and cars.

DeFoor is the driving force behind the Chattanooga Motorcar Festival, a three-day car enthusiast gathering and motor-sports extravaganza that has become one of the nation's premier automotive events. It's also a funding engine for neuroscience causes such as the search for an Alzheimer's disease cure.

While many collector-car shows are in posh, coastal environments with grass underfoot (think country clubs), the three-day Chattanooga Motorcar Festival based in downtown's West Village (this year, Oct. 13-15) was designed in part to showcase the Scenic City.

DeFoor, who almost never does interviews because he says he doesn't want to be the center of attention, agreed to do a photo shoot for Edge magazine in front of the Westin Hotel, one of his company's properties. He arrived last month with a 1948 Jaguar Mark IV and a 1929 Chrysler series 75 Roadster, two of his favorite collector cars.

"Our previous mayor asked me if we could organize some type of event to promote the city," DeFoor says, recalling how the motorcar festival first began during a conversation with then-Mayor Andy Berke.

An avid car collector and racer, DeFoor began work on a car-centric festival that would combine fine automobile displays, a judged concours d'elegance for classic cars, car club gatherings, an exhibition race series, and, for the last two years, an installment of the world-famous Mecum collector car auction, which churns 600 vehicles a year across the blocks at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

DeFoor used his connections in the car and entertainment worlds to structure a festival that would attract families and casual auto lovers as well as the crowd that typically shows cars at various juried events across America. He says this year's event will include 60-70% of his ultimate vision for the Motorcar Festival, hinting that there are more wrinkles to come.

DeFoor, who has spent decades attending car shows and races, says he realized that a car event nestled in a fashionable urban setting had a shot at attracting family audiences that other events couldn't replicate. This year, for example, the festival is adding a Friday night appearance by the B-52s, the popular new wave band formed in Athens, Ga. in 1976, along with a laser light show.

 

"We're trying to give people (visiting) from a 500-mile radius more bang for their buck," says DeFoor, also a co-founder of Contemporary Healthcare Capital who has decades of experience in business leadership. He has worked on developments that include shopping centers, office buildings and retirement communities.

Locally, he and his brother Ken have been integral in the development of the West Village area of downtown Chattanooga, including the Westin Hotel, which serves as the headquarters for the Motorcar Festival.

"When we first bought the Gold Building, the old BlueCross BlueShield headquarters, we were going to tear it down for parking," DeFoor said in a statement. "We realized it was a John Portman-designed building and the design was ideal for a hotel. Chattanooga was ready for an upscale, full-scale hotel and the plans for the Westin were put into motion."

Subsequently, DeFoor and his colleagues have spent eight years shepherding the growth of the West Village which includes hotels, restaurants and walkable, photogenic streets that provide a perfect backdrop for the Motorcar Festival.

The festival culminates in a concours d'elegance, which has been called among America's best by Hagerty, a company specializing in classic car insurance. A Hagerty publication estimates the festival attracts about 20,000 visitors over three days.

Ken Gross, one of the world's leading automotive journalists and concours judges, says that few car events can match the Chattanooga Motorcar Festival for entertainment options and family entertainment. To him, the West Village is "an ideal setting" for the event.

"I judge at a number of car events across the country," he says. "(Chattanooga) is vibrant, and Byron DeFoor is the Energizer bunny."

Gross says beyond the Chattanooga Motorcar Festival Concours d'Elegance, which will be featured on Sunday across many classes, the 2023 festival will also showcase a world-class collection of Ferraris and Porsches. There will about about a dozen juried events with 40 judges and more than 100 cars.

Meanwhile, at the Chattanooga Convention Center, the frenetic Mecum Auction will again offer about 600 classic and specialty cars for sale over the first two days of the festival. Two years ago, the auction eclipsed $19 million in sales and last year the total was over $20 million. Mecum says the last couple of years have been unprecedented in terms of price growth in the collector car hobby.

 

"As we came out of the pandemic, there was a lot of pent-up demand," says Mecum CEO Dave Magers. "Both '21 and '22 were record years for Mecum, with prices up 20 to 30% each year. That's great to see, but not sustainable over the long term."

Still, Magers says Chattanooga has proven to be a successful venue for Mecum, which hosts more than a dozen auctions coast to coast each year, most of them televised on the Motor Trend TV. (The Chattanooga auction is not scheduled to be televised this year.)

Magers says the sell-through rate — the percentage of cars offered for auction that actually change hands — is in the upper 80% range here. (Some cars do not sell at auction because bids don't meet the owner's "reserve" price.)

He also says the high sell-through rate is due to the concentration of car enthusiasts here for the Motorcar Festival. A ticket to the festival gets you into the Mecum auction as a spectator, but to bid on vehicles requires a registration fee.

Track races for the festival will be held at The Bend, a 110-acre riverfront development, involving vintage and modern high-performance cars assembled by Targa Sixty Six exhibitions. Grandstands, food trucks and merchandise vendors will be set up around the race area.

Three-day tickets to the festival are $120 each, and children under 12 are free when accompanied by a paying adults. Single-day passes are also available at a lesser cost. See chattanoogamotorcar.com for event details.

The festival benefits the Fifty Plus Foundation which helps fund the Neuroscience Center at CHI Memorial Hospital and the Neuroscience Innovation Foundation.

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