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A 1948 Cadillac Series 62 Saoutchik Cabriolet. (Lorraine Sommerfeld for The Globe and Mail)
A 1948 Cadillac Series 62 Saoutchik Cabriolet. (Lorraine Sommerfeld for The Globe and Mail)

Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance

Where the cars are the stars Add to ...

‘Tailgating for billionaires,” read one feature. True enough. Yet for car lovers, the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance is more than that. It’s a history lesson and an art exhibit with a protection-of-endangered-species undercurrent. Sure, there was a white poodle wearing a hat and looking more than a little disgruntled, but for the most part, cars are the stars, even if Jay Leno had a turn at the mic.

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If they make it to the 18th hole, the goal becomes Best in Class, which bestows more than bragging rights: the car’s value leaps. And, of course, for every car here, it is Best in Show they crave. Cars aren’t brought from all over the world to be happy with runner-up status. Rumours fly about how much that Best in Show ribbon will bring the owner, though looking at the costs of these restorations, it’s hard to imagine an investment adviser giving the nod. The food chain is far more caviar than Kraft Dinner, and the competitive spirit is palpable.

The cars here, and the ones that have been teeming through the streets of nearby Monterey and Carmel all week, span more than a century. Though all representative of the same kind of machine, for more than 100 years the makers have been unveiling, revealing, and reinventing that machine. Or have they?

Car manufacturers and a clean sheet of paper. “A clean sheet of paper,” those words qualifying the origins of a car, the details of its birth.

With 2012 seeing the passing of Carroll Shelby, the creator of the famed Shelby Cobra, it is fitting surroundings here at Pebble Beach. The week leading up to – and including – the most prestigious car show of them all, the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, is a four-wheeled tribute to the man.

At Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, more than 200 incarnations of Shelby Cobras lined the pit row walls, awaiting their turn in the vintage racing classes or the thundering parade laps in a tribute to Shelby. Rarely a clean sheet of paper for Shelby, who set out to marry horsepower with existing cars and made automotive history in the process. Over at the 18th hole at the Pebble Beach golf course, the Shelbys had their own category; a huge salute in a place where just qualifying to display your car is a highly coveted and elusive prize.

The main focus of this Concours d’Elegance in 2012, however, was a visionary from an earlier time, Jacques Saoutchik. A Ukrainian cabinetmaker arriving in Paris as 1900 dawned, he quickly followed the money and became a coach builder to the wealthy. He soon established himself as the go-to builder to personalize already glorious vehicles, where his unlimited extravagance gave outlet to a class equally unbounded.

A clean sheet of paper for Saoutchik? No doubt for the meticulous craftsmanship of his one-of-a-kind cars, but working with existing badges – including Rolls-Royce, Bugatti, Delage, Hispano-Suiza and Delahaye – allowed him to focus on his client as he created his art.

How varied are his works? Without a program, it’s difficult to any but the most educated eye to discern which vehicle is a Saoutchik. Outrageous detailing, highly finished interiors, bold colours and impractical, yet gorgeous lines mark the genius. Many note his patented “transformables” as setting him apart early on; cars with body parts that could transform a “closed” car to a convertible by removing or folding body parts.

A 1952 Mercedes-Benz W194 Coupe winks in the California sunshine, it’s lifted gullwing doors embracing the future. Those gullwing doors, so prominent on the Mercedes AMG SLS created in 2010, at the time signalled a return to racing for the German auto maker, and this new incarnation signals another return to those roots. Clean sheet of paper?

At dinner one night, Michael Mauer, Porsche’s chief designer, sat quietly. At the helm of the overhauled 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera, many in the industry had long awaited the redesign. How do you tweak an iconic car? Can you alter a flagship? How can you win?

Ironically, perhaps, on top of the linen table cloths were clean sheets of paper. One inquiry set Mauer’s pen in motion, and in less than 60 seconds, two versions of that icon came to life. I asked the obvious question: where does a designer start? In another rapid motion, he sketched out three windshields.

“Here, the car in 1964, then the ’70s, and now 2012. You can see as it gets elongated, changes....”

Maybe nobody works from a clean sheet of paper.


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