The vision for Highlands Motoring Festival® was conceived in 2007, at a lunch table after a meeting of The Rotary Club of Highlands. The mission was to contribute to local charities and the Highlands business community by attracting automotive enthusiasts to our beautiful area. The Highlands Motoring Foundation, a 501(c)(3), was incorporated.
The inaugural event took place in September 2008 with 114 cars in attendance. The show venue was created by blocking off Pine Street and utilizing the Kelsey Hutchinson Park and the parking lots of Bank of America and Entegra Bank. The cooperation of the Town of Highlands and both banks made the event possible.
Good weather brought a large turnout of spectators. Support of the Highlands business community was solidified. Local car enthusiasts stepped up and volunteered to help. The vision of an annual event became reality.
Since then, the festival has continued to grow in scope, quality, and stature. From the beginning all net proceeds have been donated to many local charities including the Hudson Library, the Rotary Club of Highlands, Cashiers-Highlands Humane Society, and the Emergency Council. In recent years, the beneficiaries have been three human needs based groups: REACH of Macon County, the Community Care Clinic, and the Literacy and the Learning Center of Highlands. Over the years, the festival has raised over $300,000 for local charities. The festival operates as an all-volunteer organization, with no paid staff.
For the first four years, the Highlands Motoring Festival® was held during the month of September. To eliminate conflicts with some of the major car shows, the event was moved to July for two years. Finally, the second Saturday in June was determined to be optimal, a tradition that started in 2012 and continues.
And the event has expanded in scope, now includes driving tours and social gatherings spread over four days.
When major infrastructure work was required on Pine Street and Kelsey Hutchinson Park in 2013, the Highlands Motoring Festival® venue moved to Highlands Rec Park for two years. For 2015 the event moved back to its permanent location at Pine Street and the Kelsey-Hutchinson Founders Park.
In 2012, the HMF Organizing Committee was approached by the Alfa Romeo Owners Club of Atlanta Club about special recognition. That group promised and delivered a strong field of Alfas, competing in the event’s first Featured Marque class, a tradition that continues. In succeeding years, featured marques have been Porsche, British Cars, Mercedes, BMW, the Cars of Italy, the Cars of Carroll Shelby, and Vintage Race Cars.
Many very interesting cars have graced the show field of the Highlands Motoring Festival®. There have been past Le Mans entrants, one-of-a-kind customs, pre-war classics, muscle cars, antiques, sports cars, utilities, mid-century classics, and cars of every ilk from America, Europe, and beyond.
One of the most memorable was a collection of three Mercedes 300SL Gullwings, some of the most coveted cars existing. The most unusual was probably the Tupolev Cosmonaut Retrieval Vehicle. One year, a full-blown NHRA funny car was given permission to startup and demonstrate with some revving but was derailed by a dead battery. The Highlands Fire Department came to the rescue with a jump from one of their fire trucks to the cheers of bystanders. Other HMF all-stars include the Bugatti T-35C, a factory racer, that finished third at the 1930 Monaco Grand Prix, a 1953 Ferrari 166/53 with celebraty racing history, a 1989 Porsche built to compete at Indy, a three time Daytona winning NASCAR beach racer, the last Lister “Knobble” Jaguar, and the 24 Hours of LeMans class winning BMW CSL “Batwing”race car. Historic race cars from McLaren, Lotus, and Lola have been featured.
In 2017, when the festival was launching the inaugural “Monte Carlo Night” event, the festival committee reached out to the Rotary Club of Highlands. The Rotarians had hosted similar events more than a decade earlier. This was when a group of “vintage” Rotarians jumped into action.
The original gambling tables and gear were found in storage. The original dealers were put back in service on the night of the event. The evening was a huge success, raising over $6,000 for charity and continued for the next two years. Changes in NC law then prohibited non-profit gaming, so a change was needed for 2020 and beyond. The evening gala theme shifted to an automotive oriented program.
After 14 years, this once little local car show had grown to become one of the South’s most popular automotive events and was voted “Best Concours” in the land by Classic Motorsports Magazine in their January 2019 issue.
For 2019, the featured marque was the cars of Carroll Shelby. More than a dozen pre-1968 Cobras, Shelbys, and Tigers were accepted into the class. Chuck Cantwell, Shelby American’s Mustang project manager, was on hand autographing his book “The Shelby Mustang History”. Another celebrity, Dennis Gage, spent four days in Highlands covering all the events for an episode of his long running TV show “My Classic Car.” The program aired on April 25, 2020, on the Motor Trend channel to an international audience of millions
One of the highlights of HMF 2019 was a marriage proposal. Just days before the start of the festival, organizers were contacted by a young man who was anxious to register for the sold out “One Lap of the Mountains” driving tour. He was put on the waiting list and eventually a space was found for the young couple. On the day of the event, the final leg of the tour went right past Bridal Vail Falls, where our young couple stopped with others for a photo. Much to everyone’s surprise, the young man dropped to one knee and popped the question. Her answer was affirmative.
Following the 2019 event, the HMF team was hard at work planning HMF2020. Thanks to the pandemic, the world suffered the disappointment of cancelling almost every major event in 2020 including the Highlands Motoring Festival®. This gave our planning team inspiration and enthusiasm to take the 2021 festival to an even higher level of excellence. We further challenged ourselves to stage a unique exhibit of automotive artwork and the classic cars that inspire art, in a collaboration with the Bascom Center for Visual Arts. The collaboration presented FreeWheeling which was the centerpiece component of “CELEBRATE ART + AUTOMOBILE”, a summer series of events in Highlands, NC.
FreeWheeling featured original automotive works of internationally renowned artists. The exhibition was on display in the Bascom's main gallery in Highlands, NC, and included art works on canvas, paper, and sculpture, alongside the display of 3 classic automobiles.
The exhibit’s cars were rotated twice during the duration of the fifteen-week display so that 9 classic cars shared gallery space with the artwork. The cars included a 1954 Jaguar XK-120 once owned by Clark Gable, a 1963 split-window fuel injected Corvette, an original 427 Cobra from 1965, a 1965 Jaguar E-type 4.2L, a 1965 Alfa Giulia Sprint Speciale’, a 1967 Ferrari 275 GTB/4 Alloy, an early Porsche 356 America Roadster, a 1974 Dino 246GTS, and a Porsche 906 fuel injected long nose. The exhibition presented a multi-tiered experience in the appreciation of art and the automobile. It examined design as art, the inherent duality of functional art, the allure of the automobile as art itself inspiring expression in another art-form, and the dialogue between inspiration and expression. Throughout the exhibition period, the Bascom offered several related displays and activities, some of which were interactive. A few examples of these include artist/curator discussions, model car display, and educational S.T.E.A.M. Initiatives.
The 2021 Highlands Motoring Festival exceeded all expectations including quality of the cars, spectator attendance, added events, sponsor participation, and revenue generated. “Purebloods d’Italia” was the featured theme with a strong field of Ferraris. Several historic Porsches were also displayed along with a 1934 Packard Dual Cowl Phaeton.
The festival organizers have continually faced new challenges. In previous years, the festival was allowed use of the Bank of America parking lot which comprised a quarter of the “cars in the Park” show field. Bank of America closed its Highlands branch in late 2019 and use of the space was no longer allowed. Along with reduced show field size, there has been increasing numbers of entries forcing organizers to implement an invitational process and strict requirements for originality of the cars displayed. An application for entry can be obtained from the festival website. As the quality level of show cars has increased, so has the need for transporter parking, creating another limitation to the number of show cars.
After cancellation of the 2020 Highlands Motoring Festival® which was scheduled for June of 2020, the organizing team decided to stage a smaller event designed with social distancing protocols during September when pandemic restrictions had been eased. Two days of driving tours were successfully executed. The September experiment was continued in 2021, again with success. These fall driving events carried different branding as “Mountain Motoring.”
Every year HMF has commissioned an artist to create a unique poster artwork. In recent years local artist, architect, musician, and car collector, Knight Martorell has created posters reflecting the theme and mood of that year’s festival. Those classic car enthusiasts, initially targeted in 2008, turned out to be very social and generous people who love Highlands. Highlands Motoring Festival® is delighted to host them, every year, on the second Saturday of June.