Elton B. Stephens Jr. remembers begging his father to build him a go-cart. “He took a six-panel wood door and put a steering wheel on it and a lawn mower engine on the back and four tires,” Stephens recalls of the elder. “I was just obsessed with bicycles and motorcycles and cars.” In short, he was all about anything with wheels.
Take a look into Stephens’ spacious garage at his Mountain Brook home and it is evident that he has not outgrown his obsession. The collection is arrestingly beautiful: a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL and a Mercedes Adenauer 300 D, a Maserati 3500 GT, a Jaguar XKE, a Ferrari 365, a Bentley Continental S1 and a couple of flawless Triumph motorcycles, all gleaming and all in pristine condition—a motorhead’s dream.
Stephens is chairman of the board for the Mountain Brook Driving Club (MBDC), a society established five years ago that is devoted to uniting people who hold a common interest in cars with the aim of learning from each other and cultivating a passion in vintage automobiles while promoting the city of Birmingham.
Anything with Wheels
The group unofficially began 10 years ago as a holiday fete, affectionately known as The Car Guys’ Christmas Party, organized by Stephens, David Bruno and Malcolm Morrow. What was once an intimate gathering of friends quickly grew into an annual event with upwards of 25 people enjoying music, a speaker and a gourmet meal among Stephens’ impressive fleet. As their numbers climbed, the MBDC was officially established.
The club is made up of auto enthusiasts who run the gamut of interests associated with cars. There’s Stephens, a self-proclaimed aesthete with his collection of stunning classic vehicles. Then there’s club chaplain Tommy Kitsmiller, who was detailing his parents’ cars by age 9 and has worked for big-name car aficionados like David Geffen, Adam Carolla and Jay Leno. There’s also racecar driver Michael Wright, who can be seen zipping around the track in his 1970 Porsche 914-6 during the Barber Historics race in May, and Alan Thacker, vice president of events, who found his way to the club after meeting Morrow, MBDC vice president and director of communications, during an event at Barber Motorsports Park.
“We have certain people in our club that will take their car apart and put it back together,” says club president Taylor Bartlett, who prefers modern luxury vehicles with a classic touch and enjoys the thrill of the hunt for a one-of-a-kind car. “Car collecting and driving and liking cars is an incredible obsession for a hobby,” Stephens admits. “Once it gets in your blood, you can’t get away from it.”
Many of the members began cultivating a love for cars long before the Mountain Brook Driving Club ever existed. Bartlett points out that boys often idolize cars they may not be able to afford, hang posters of Corvettes on their walls as teens and then fulfill a life goal by finally purchasing one as an adult. Founding member Bruno, who loves Italian cars, agrees. For club secretary Scott Hults, who can trace his family lineage to 1300s England, it’s all about Jaguars and other English vehicles. “When we get together for lunch or for a drink, we don’t talk about Alabama football,” Stephens jokes. “We talk about cars.”
Hitting the Pavement
Fellowship among the Mountain Brook Driving Club comes in the form of seasonal rallies, dinners, and Barber Motorsports events like the Indy and Vintage races. For the annual English Village Holiday Open House held in November, MBDC members parades their vehicles and meet prospective members among the shops and restaurants of the village. In addition, the club raises funds for various charities and nonprofits including Toys For Tots and the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum.
“We’ve got some good active members,” Morrow says. “These are hands-on, active members who enjoy cars, but they also enjoy the charity work and the rallies, and the fellowship, and camaraderie of a car club.”
In March the club’s spring rally took members and their cars on a driving tour through northwestern Alabama along rolling scenic highways to historic downtown Florence. Upon arrival, the group had lunch at Odette, whose bar boasts the largest selection of bourbon in the state according to Southern Living, and toured the “heartbeat of the Muscle Shoals sound,” FAME Recording Studios. The rally planned for this fall, Thacker says, will take the club up into the color-changing mountains of northeast Alabama for a stop at another local restaurant still yet to be announced. These tours are reminiscent of the glamor of long-distance road rallies from the Jazz Age through the 1950s as favored by celebrities Frank Lloyd Wright, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Elvis Presley.
Ultimately, Stephens reveals, it is one major goal of the club to organize a concours d’elegance in the heart of Birmingham benefitting a local charity. Possibly the most spectacular and prestigious of all auto events, concours d’elegance began in 1600s France as a horse and carriage competition of elegance, but evolved into an automobile beauty pageant. Entries are judged for authenticity, function, history, style and quality of restoration. Inspired by Atlanta’s 2016 premiere concours at Chateau Elan Winery and Resort, the Mountain Brook Driving Club has already begun scouting locations and considering beneficiaries (the Birmingham Zoo and Comprehensive Cancer Center have made the club’s shortlist). However, Bartlett says, they are still in the very early stages of development.
The prospect of establishing a concours in Birmingham could be huge for the city. According to “Profits of Passion,” a 2013 Financial Times article Stephens has framed in his garage, classic cars were trending that year at nearly 400 percent price growth over a decade—meaning that, according to Cole, coming out of the 2008 recession luxury collectible items like cars are appreciating in value like never before, outstripping all luxury investment categories except gold. Stephens credits this to the international market of classic cars, a market that could become much closer to home if the club secures a concours in Birmingham any time soon.
In the meantime, the car guys of Mountain Brook continue to reach out into the community to find likeminded folks, swap stories, scout fabulous cars and tune their vehicles all in an effort to ultimately make—and keep—their city a destination for all things auto.
Club members frequently travel together with their families to auto events all over the United States and abroad.
- The Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance – California
- Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance – Florida
- Arizona Concours d’Elegance – Phoenix
- Atlanta Concours d’Elegance
- Concorso d’Eleganza at Villa d’Este Lake Como, Italy
- Goodwood Festival of Speed – Goodwood Estate outside of London, England