The History of MCA’s Tough Judging Standards
Here Come Da’ Judge: Does “real” judging make a car show fun, or is it a party pooper?
Judging the cars is what makes a big car show exciting, and we don’t mean People’s Choice—we mean real judging that rewards owners with a job well done and even points out specifics to owners on ways to improve their cars for the next show. But judging has gotten a bad rap, as some people think that it takes the fun out of a car show. The biggest problem, as we’ll detail here, is poor judging standards and judges who don’t know how to judge. The Mustang Club of America (MCA) has cultivated high judging standards over more than 30 years, but this structure wasn’t created overnight.
In 1985, Bob Perkins became the MCA’s National Head Judge and people were thinking, “Oh, boy, now we’re all going to have to re-do our cars. We’re going to have to re-do our undercarriage like he did that Boss 302.”
The author was there and actually played a part in this history. I started flying (on my own dime) to Bob’s restoration shop in Juneau, Wisconsin to photograph and write detailing articles on first generation Mustangs, and one of the most popular and restoration-altering detailing articles in Mustang Monthly was the undercarriage of Bob’s 1970 Boss 302, showing the color-codes and correct finishes on parts. We also did articles on everything from undercarriages to batteries, engines, wheels, tires, voltage regulators, rev limiters, fan belts, and on and on. Perkins recalls, “Those articles set the Mustang hobby on fire for detailing. We’d go into restoration shops and hobbyist garages all over the country and see those articles hanging on the walls.” Meanwhile, back at the ranch, many MCA members could no longer compete and win in judging classes where they had been very successful—judging standards had moved up.
There are so many MCA members that deserve credit, such as the late and great Jim Osborne, who genuinely loved Mustangs and did so much to help raise the judging standards. I remember one time I needed valuable factory information for an article and Jim stayed up late one night photocopying specifications for me and put them in the mail. In 1980, the year Bob Perkins restored his first Boss 302, Osborne was MCA head national judge, followed by Bob Vickery, followed by Perkins. Osborne was from Georgia, the home of the MCA, Perkins was from Wisconsin, and the two men became good friends who shared a passion for first generation Mustangs.
They shared their expanding expertise with the hobby to MCA members, such as using those highly illustrative and authoritative original Ford Mustang assembly manuals. Perkins laughs when he recalls how Osborne would reproduce a decal and say, “That’s gonna cost you.” But he didn’t charge his friend; Osborne, who passed away in 1998, was a true enthusiast and a pioneer in the hobby and recognized Perkins as a rising star in the Mustang hobby. Today, Perkins laughs at the resistance from some of the MCA members in those early days. The collective word on the street went something like, “We ain’t having no Yankee from Wisconsin telling us how to restore cars.”
It started when Perkins trailered his Boss 302 to Birmingham, Alabama in 1981, pulling it with his father’s 307-powered GMC truck with a three-speed on the column. He shared a room with his friend Gary Schwartz (a Wisconsin police officer who trailered his own car with a Mopar police cruiser) to save money, but Perkins spent the night in the cruiser to guard his Boss 302 in that rough part of town. About midnight, Perkins heard Osborne and Bob Vickery approaching. Perkins overheard Osborne say, “Where’s this Boss 302 we’ve all been hearing about?” Osborne and Vickery got out a flashlight and started looking at the green Boss and after the two inspected it for a while, Osborne was impressed enough to tell Vickery, “Yeah, this damn Yankee is going to teach us rednecks a thing or two about restoring Mustangs.”
Osborne and Perkins then began working together to upgrade judging standards, and as MCA’s President, Osborne used his power to make Perkins the MCA Head National Judge in 1985. The word from Osborne was, “Bob, you need to take [the judging] to the next level,” and Perkins did just that, with help from Osborne. Perkins also gives me credit for photographing and writing up scores of detailing articles for Mustang Monthly starting in the 1980s. After the undercarriage-detailing story, restorers could no longer just undercoat or spray paint the underside of their cars black; they had to detail the entire car. “A lot of people didn’t like that,” Perkins recalls.
But, as time passed, restorations improved along with judging requirements, and these improved standards created better cars. Owners became more proud of their cars and the elevated standard of excellence, and today the MCA has 35 years worth of work poured into a set of judging standards that are the best in the world for Mustangs. But many people complain about car judging, saying that it takes the fun out of a car show, like throwing a wet blanket over a party. “Unqualified judging is what gives judging a bad name,” Perkins said, adding, “Most regional and local car shows have no specific guidelines, no rules, and no judging sheets that are year- and model-specific to follow.”
In contrast, the MCA has qualified judges, a set of judging standards, and highly detailed sheets for each judge to follow by model year and series. “We have classes. You have to be certified to be an MCA judge,” Perkins explained. The first step in the process to become an MCA-certified judge is passing an online open book test, then attending a national MCA event and judge to receive a certificate. In other words, the member can’t just take the test and never attend a real show to judge cars. Once a member receives his judging certificate, the next step is to move up to a gold card judge. Getting this far requires a letter of recommendation from two other gold card judges.
Recommendations are not so easy to get and for good reason: MCA wants to make sure their gold card judges can answer tough questions, like what is the correct finish on front suspension parts for the various classes? What is MCA concours correct? And so on. After a judge gets two letters of recommendation, the head judge issues a gold card and they get listed on the MCA website as a gold card judge for that particular model year Mustang. When an MCA judge goes out to judge his class at a show, he or she is not only very qualified, the MCA also provides their judges with sheets that have almost every pertinent aspect of judging spelled out. The sheet tells the judge exactly what to look for and how many points each detail is worth—for battery cables, voltage regulator, engine bay paint, and on and on.
Perkins and Osborne helped the MCA take judging to this level of detailing and expertise, but both men also had to change the system itself. In the 1980s, judging was heads-up competition. There was a first, second, and third place. The top scorer at the shows would “win.” But, what happens when that top scorer happened to be the same person, year after year? “People hated me. It’s like Jeff Gordon when he was winning. Nobody likes it when one guy wins all the time,” Perkins said.
During the 1980s, Perkins won the Boss class every year and Best of Show every year at the Grand Nationals. For example, in 1989 in Tulsa at the Grand Nationals, judges actually tried to disqualify Bob’s orange Boss 302 from best of show using the exception the car was “professionally restored.” They thought he had an unfair advantage. MCA President Charles Hampton stepped in and said no, the top car should win. Of course, Bob Perkins had a restoration shop with two employees and he worked at his craft restoring Mustangs six days a week, traveling the country to shows and making side trips foraging for NOS parts from Ford dealers. For example, Perkins had found a source in Milwaukee where NOS tires from Goodyear ended up in a warehouse, and he bought all of the tires at a time when they were not available in the aftermarket as reproductions—he had NOS original Goodyear tires like nobody else.
Hobbyists could scarcely compete against professionals like Perkins so something had to be done, but what? In 1990 Perkins said, “Why don’t we create a Thoroughbred class?” So he and Osborne created the Thoroughbred class, which was ready for the 1991 show season. This way the high-end perennial winners would not be in competition with new cars coming to the shows, or with other perennial high-end cars—nobody likes to see the same cars win year after year. Along with this change, Perkins said, “Let’s have a Gold standard, a Silver standard, and a Bronze standard.” This way each person competes against a standard, instead of against his fellow MCA member and Mustang owner.
With this system, five great Boss 302s in the same class could all get a Gold award, and the same for five great 1965 Mustangs in the same class. Now, everybody can go home happy. They also got rid of the Best of Show award, which had turned into a boondoggle. Dividing up classes was another big step forward that helped quell frustrations, and class warfare subsided. In this new system, the MCA has a class for Daily Driven, Occasionally Driven, Driven Concours, Trailered Concours, and Thoroughbred, along with a Modified and Unrestored class. Thus fairness arrived and members liked the concept of judging much better. A driven car did not have to compete with a trailered car.
Judging is what restorers and builders come to the show for. Why? Because judging gives them credit for their work, and they get recognition. What value is a People’s Choice popular vote trophy? It usually means that you were the best at lobbying people for votes, or simply had the most friends in attendance. What value is a trophy at a car show where there are no specific judging standards? I can’t get the story out of my head of the Thoroughbred Boss that lost out last year in a Concours de ’Elegance to a 1966 Mustang with a color change. The MCA Thoroughbred owner must have been extremely upset. His car was definitely superior to the 1966, but he was taking his chances by attending a show where the judges have no detailed judging guidelines.
The truth is, most shows have judging guidelines that are very generic, such as sheets for exterior, interior, engine compartment, and trunk with no specific details laid out to follow. They are judging mostly on cleanliness, not authenticity, which is the problem from a restoration standpoint. These guidelines allow for flexibility and judging bias that drives owners crazy. Enthusiasts should realize that the best judging takes place in single marque national clubs. More entries help by allowing more specific classes. The MCA has 12,000-plus members, but local shows, even though MCA events, do not have the numbers to allow such diversity at their shows—members should realize this. The MCA, after all, is mostly a car show organization, and it’s a great thing for Mustangs. The club’s annual Grand National is spectacular and the result of 30-plus years of dedication to a single marque, the Ford Mustang.