Home Automotive Electric Vehicles Motor Cars on Mainstreet: American motoring through a Leica lens

Motor Cars on Mainstreet: American motoring through a Leica lens


Few local events attract as many visitors as Coronado’s annual car show: Motor Cars on Mainstreet. It’s a perfect opportunity to admire pristine examples of iconic vintage cars, meet their proud owners, and grab some photos. So, armed with my Leica SL2, equipped with a Vario-Elmarit 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, I set off to join the crowds. 

What is it about vintage cars?

Is it me, or were the cars of yesteryear so much more ravishing than those produced today? Perhaps it’s all that chromework, or those curves, or the bags of character they exude. Take this 1950 Mercedes 170S, for example. Talk about chromework, curves, and character, not to mention the beautiful wood trim and the gleaming two-tone bodywork.

Vintage cars hold enormous popular appeal, sitting as they do at the intersection of nostalgia, aesthetics, and craftsmanship. Often, we are admiring the craftsmanship of both the original manufacturers and the enthusiasts who have lovingly restored them. The Coronado event makes that very easy: closed city-centre roads allow visitors to wander freely, viewing spectacular vehicles parked right on the street. A chance to view dozens and dozens of them, practically on one’s front doorstep, is therefore a treat not to be missed.

Here’s a 1932 Ford three-window coupe that snagged a parking spot on Park Place — how appropriate.

Picking the right lens

Our editor, Mike Evans, wrote recently of his visit to such a car show event at Brooklands, in England, focused on Italian motors. His gear of choice was a Lumix S5 equipped with the big brother of my lens, a Vario-Elmarit 24-90mm f/2.8-4.0. Ironically, in Britain, he enjoyed glorious blue skies, yielding deep shadows and brilliant highlights. In California, I was under overcast skies, courtesy of a coastal cloud layer referred to locally as ‘May Gray’. I am nevertheless going to argue that my lens produced images that were just as sharp whilst being both lighter and less expensive than his. You can judge whether that is the case.

It would be impossible to fit in photographs of all the cars that I saw. So, I have restricted myself to those that particularly caught my eye.

Sports car crazy

Here is one of them, a gorgeous 1965 Ford ‘Shelby’ AC Cobra, in Burgundy. I am no expert, but this car could be described as a hybrid in a very different sense than when referring to a Toyota Prius. Early models were produced by a British company, AC, based upon a specification by Caroll Shelby and employing an engine from Ford. This particular model, a Cobra 427, was designed in conjunction with Ford in Detroit and manufactured in the US.

I found other examples of British sports car imports at the show. Although they complain incessantly about the unreliability of their electrics, car enthusiasts still love these vintage models. Here is a 1965 Austin-Healey 3000 Mk III in mint condition and two MGs of 1940s and 1960s vintages. Note that they are all red, the only acceptable colour for a sports car in my view.

Now to sports cars of a quintessential American design and manufacture. Here are two Chevrolet Corvettes, one in white from 1959 and one in blue from 1960.

Corvettes are my favourite vintage convertible American sports cars. The chrome grills, twin headlamps, curvaceous bodies, and white-wall tyres add up to a visual masterpiece. Although the blue two-tone body is striking, I think the white model takes the prize.

The lowdown on vintage cars

If one were to draw a Venn diagram encompassing people who enjoy vintage cars, vintage watches, and vintage cameras, I reckon there would be considerable overlap of these domains. It’s that blend of nostalgia, aesthetics, and craftsmanship again. Strictly, I should have been photographing these beautiful cars with a vintage Leica rangefinder while wearing a vintage Rolex. Perhaps next year.

‘Lowriders’ represent a peculiar and fascinating niche within the vintage car world. Emerging in the 1940s in the Hispanic suburbs of Los Angeles, they remain strongly associated with Chicano culture. They are usually fitted with hydraulic systems that enable height-adjustable suspensions. These examples are riding so low while stationary that they are literally touching the ground. Both appear to be Mercury models from the 1950s, but each has been highly customised, as is typical of the genre.

I have included a photo of this 1954 robin’s egg-blue Sunbeam-Talbot since I had never previously seen an example of this marque here in the US. From a quick investigation online, it appears to be a Mk IIA drophead without the usual canvas convertible roof. The owner said it was a nightmare tracking down spare parts.

Let’s get futuristic

This year the show featured a few more futuristic vehicles to complement the traditional vintage fest. Here is a McLaren supercar proudly displaying its wing doors as if engaged in a mating ritual with would-be purchasers. I believe it is a 540C model. If so, it is the entry-level McLaren, with a list price of $184,900 (£146,000). Yikes!

Even more futuristic is a model we are just beginning to see on the road here in California — an all-electric Lucid Air. One of Tesla’s many emerging competitors, the Lucid Air claims to have the longest available range of any electric car.

The top-of-the-range Dream edition reportedly has a range of 520 miles (840 kilometres). It was recently named the 2023 World Luxury Car of the Year by World Car Awards. Remember, you heard it here first.

Canine capers in vintage cars

Finally, I could not resist including some shots of this canine encounter between a ‘pedestrian’ and a ‘motorist’.

The Basset Hound appears puzzled but intrigued by a denim-suited Jack Russell/Chihuahua mix, perambulating in a miniature, weather-beaten VW Bug. He is soon to be confronted by a small Spaniel riding in a miniature VW Camper Van.

Motorcars on Mainstreet 2023

As you can see, this event has it all, and I did not even mention the live musical accompaniment from a local rockabilly band. I think there is a good chance that it will reappear in 2024, given the level of interest it generates. Hopefully, that will be under bright blue, cloudless skies. I wonder what futuristic vehicles we might see in next year’s edition. One thing is certain, though: we will be seeing many of those spectacular vintage cars again, one year older and so even more vintage.

Do you like attending vintage car shows? If so, do you take along your vintage camera gear and watch? Do you own a vintage car? Would you describe yourself as a ‘petrolhead’? If so, tell us all about it in the comments below.

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  1. Much prefer dull and cloudy weather for classic car photography & raindrops on paintwork / chrome can be used for interesting pictorial effect. My SL 601 / SL 24-90 is heavy-ish but rainproof; the combination fits into a slim (compared to a Billingham) Barbour fly fishing bag which when worn over my shoulder and across my chest, enables easy carrying all day. The Barbour bag’s LIDDESDALE canvas is much better quality than Billingham’s. I enjoy classic car shows but wish that advertisers would cease mentioning ‘councourse’ with an ‘e’; the correct name is ‘concours d’elegance’ – classic car magazines frequently use the incorrect ‘handle’. I also use a Leica R 19mm Mk II for car events – very useful for displays inside marquees. Raindrops on m/c petrol tanks also useful for pictorial effect. I usually attend The Rolls Royce Enthusiasts Club Annual Rally at Burghley Park Stamford (June 23 -25) where there are always good photo opportunities but this year, trade stands and hospitality areas access is by paid ticket only – £36 to £60 plus fees – so will likely give it a miss.

    • Hi Dunk, thanks for commenting. Rain in May would be unusual in these parts, but not unheard of. I suspect both car owners and enthusiasts would think twice about attending this show in the rain. I can see the artistic potential afforded by raindrops on waxed chrome and paintwork. My camera gear is weather resistant, so I would definitely brave the elements to photograph cars in the rain, if there were any on display! Cheers, Keith

  2. Keith

    It looks like you had a good day in Coronado. These are some great images, and make me want to attend some of the car gatherings here in Seattle.

    Though the owner of the hybrid Shelby Cobra tricked you. That is replica of a 1965 Cobra and was probably made in the late 1990s or early 2000s. The first give away is the Coyote 5.0 engine and “Powered by” marking on the hood (bonnet). The second give away is the description sheet on the windshield. 😉🤓

    Concerning emissions from these older cars, a 1960s generation engine that is properly tuned will meet the US emissions standards from the 1980s. The reason modern cars have so much emissions equipment is most people didn’t maintain their engines on schedule.

    PS. If you have the chance, do attend the Concours D’Elegance at Pebble Beach, and the Historic Races at Laguna Seca. I have been twice and it is quite the experience.


    • Hi Paul, thanks for the additional perspective on the Cobra! Yes, when I zoomed in on the fact sheet I see it says ‘kit’. I would not have recognized the hood details about the engine as a giveaway. Thanks also for the encouragement to visit the Pebble Beach event. The next event is in August of this year – I should start looking into a trip up the coast! Cheers, Keith

      • Keith

        I can’t say I have never done that, in one form or another. After all, the best place to hide anything is to put it in plain sight. 😉

        Yes, you should start planning a trip up the coast. Though you are probably too late for this year. Entry tickets are probably available, but hotels are probably booked solid; for the full experience it is best to stay close by. Also, research where outlying parking areas are and the shuttle bus schedule. Be on the first bus.

    • I have some in-laws who have a home in Carmel. Perhaps I should invite myself and crash on their couch!

  3. “..I have included a photo of this 1954 robin’s egg-blue Sunbeam-Talbot since I had never previously seen an example of this marque here in the US..”

    Alfred Hitchcock brought to the US the sapphire blue Sunbeam Alpine which Grace Kelly drives in “To Catch A Thief” ..for ‘insert’ close-up shots of Kelly and Cary Grant. Apparently about 3,000 Sunbeams were exported to the States (..from the UK, where they were made..) and about 200 remain there.

    Lovely cars. A friend of mine used to drive the low-slung open-top two-tone classic, with raffia work down the side (basket-work overlay along the doors, etc). Really nice. But they all seemed a bit under-powered. Mind you, another friend had a bright red E-Type which he never drove above 40 mph, in case he “..wore out the engine”..!

    • Thanks David! I have always viewed that open top sports car in the movie as the ultimate in style, and had no idea it was a sunbeam. I will have to rewatch the movie now to take another look. Cheers, Keith

  4. Hi Keith, I forgot to mention in my previous post that I had sold my spectacular Leica 24-90 as I cannot handle the weight anymore due to a number of reasons I replaced it with the lovely Leica 24-70/2.8 and the weight and size difference is perfect for me. I love the rendering of both lenses and normally prefer having the extended focal range of the 24-90, but the amazing Topaz software allows me to upsize cropped images. I have to say that state of the art Topaz denoise, sharpening, and upsizing software has revolutionized my equipment needs. I recently purchased a Panasonic 70-300 lens to replace my sensational Leica 90-280 lens and am delighted. The Leica 90-280 was the best zoom lens I have used and was truly prime lens quality- but I cannot carry it anymore. But my Topaz software solves sharpness differences.

    • I am also tempted to sell the 24-90 for the same reasons, although it is much more manageable on the S5 II than it is on the SL2. However, I’m not tempted by the 24-70 Leica (or the Sigma version). The little Lumix 20-60, although slow, is a pretty slick performer for the price, and I will make more use of that. I’ll trade the extra 10mm at the long end for that wonderful 20mm wide angle.

      I also have the Panasonic Lumix 24-105 and have been very impressed with the results (as is Don Morley and several other photographers I know). Since I don’t often use a long zoom, the Lumix 24-105 is a good standby and, even with the greater reach, is much lighter than the Leica 24-90.

    • Hi Brian, I agree, the Leica 24-70/f/2.8 is a fantastic lens, especially for events like car shows and parades. Mine will be seeing more action come July 4th! I was not aware of the Topaz software. Thanks for passing along that information. I will definitely look into it. I am working on an article about digital zooming, and am wondering whether such software would make digital zooms even more viable. Cheers, Keith

      • The Topaz software is amazing but you do need to know how to use it. Matt K has a training video worth the price. The denoise software does a beautiful job of sharpening. I have also recovered beautiful soft images that previously would have been deleted.

        I prefer them to Adobe and they can be opened from Lightroom or Photoshop. They are truly a game changer for me. My equipment needs have dropped dramatically.

  5. The red lowrider car appears to be an early 1950’s Chevrolet sedan, judging by the bulbous rear fender and the curve of the rear passenger window.

    Thank you for sharing your photos.

    • Thanks Gordon – that car was one of the few that lacked a card in the windscreen (windshield) summarizing its vital statistics. I couldn’t resist photographing it though. Cheers, Keith

  6. I love vintage car shows except for the challenge of capturing a decent photo with all the persistent car huggers and high pedestrian traffic in front of vehicles. I appreciate your fine images because I have experienced the challenges.

    Modern manufacturers need to go one of these shows to observe people appreciating these automobiles for their style, craftsmanship, and personality. Modern vehicles all look the same. I cannot tell brand or decade. They all look like dog poo – tapered on both ends. There never will be car shows with modern cars – especially electric ones.

    • I have seen many EVs at car shows, particularly when the brand coincides with the theme. For instance, on Mini Day at Brooklands, you now see many modern Minis, including EVs. I have even seen EVs with the frunk (bonnet, hood) raised, mimicking the popular car show technique of showing the polished and perfect engine. There’s just an empty box, but it keeps ’em happy.

      • I thought I might get a response from you. 😂 My work here is done. I would add to this comment but I need to recharge myself. 😀

  7. Very nice, Keith,

    this seems to have been a great show indeed. As you are referring to the weather: For photographing objects (and, yes, cars are objects) I definitely prefer the subdued light from an overcast sky. Both colours and forms are reprented far better way in my view. So, your images are nothing short of superb while you the weather is not your merit for sure. Thanks for sharing!


    And one question: Are such shows still generally accepted in California in the age of climate change? These cars (and some of their owners) are not particulary friendly to the evioronment – and that’s why classic car ralleys and meetigs are seen sceptical now in part of Europe. Even the world’s biggest VW Golf GTI gathering at the Wörthersee in Austria is not welcome anymore there.

    • I can’t answer for Keith and California, of course, but I have noticed no negative coverage of such automotive events here in the UK. The climate change activists have much to say on general car use, but thankfully, they seem to accept vintage and classic vehicles as something different for the time being. I’ve certainly not experienced any direct action at Brooklands Museum where huge car gatherings occur frequently. It will be a sad day if classic cars and horseless carriages are hounded off the roads.

      • I see no negativity at events in Canada. These are such a small percentage of cars that it would be ridiculous to protest. I will say no more before I get into trouble.

    • Many thanks Joerg-Peter! It does seem that colors appear more saturated under overcast skies, and there are definitely fewer highlights and reflections to contend with.

      Regarding your question about vintage car shows and the environment. As you will know, California probably has the strictest auto emission regulations in the country. But, smog checks are not required of cars made before model year 1975. I presume there are so few of them on the road that the state has struck a balance between emission controls and supporting the vintage car movement (in general, Californians love cars!). The emissions generated by people driving to such events is also probably not that different from those generated by attending music concerts or sports events.

      In addition to the federal government California has provided additional tax incentives to encourage adoption of electric vehicles, although I do not know if that is still the case. California is also the epicenter of EV use in the US, based upon location of EV companies, such as Tesla, number of EVs on the road, and the extent of the EV charging system. There is a reasonable chance that if you call an Uber, a Tesla model 3 will show up.

      So, all things considered, I think permitting vintage car shows every now and again in California is OK. The granddaddy of them all is the Concourse D’Elegance in Pebble Beach, which I have never attended.

      Cheers, Keith

      • Fully agree, Keith,

        and it is good to keep this part of history alive. In Germany, you can get a “H” number plate if your car is more than 30 years old and still in original state (an expert has to testify this, we’re in Germany after all). This saves you some of the exhaust limits and gives you lower tax.

        I once owned a wonderful BMW 2002 with round back lights but sold it at one point. It was fun to drive and always an occasion to meet new people. Old cars are an emotional thing. I hope to see them for a long time yet on our streets – as I am aways happy when I spot a steam locomotive unexpectedly.

        So let’s hope for the best



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