I have made it a life-affirming principle to attend the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Anyone who has ever found a car thrilling should go.
The price of admission is $275, increasing to $300 on the day of the show, Aug. 17. It’s money well spent. My first visit, in 1991, a ticket cost $30. Money well spent.
The gathering on the 18th fairway of the Pebble Beach Golf Links stands as the most significant gathering of collectible automobiles anywhere. The Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este on Italy’s Lake Como may have a longer history, the Cartier Concours at Mumbai, India, a certain exotic appeal, but Pebble, on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, has a niche all its own. Crowds of 15,000 attend, with 220 cars being judged this year in various categories.
For golfers, the view over Carmel Bay is forever associated with U.S. Open winners, memorably Jack Nicklaus in 1972, Tiger Woods by 15 strokes in 2000, more recently Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell in 2010. For those of us absorbed by the car hobby, Ralph Lauren’s best-in-show win in 1990 is all the more memorable.
Monterey, Calif., eight kilometres to the east of Pebble, was famed for jazz festivals, then by breakout performances of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who and Otis Redding at its 1967 Pop Music Festival (tickets: $3-$6.50).
All that goes on during the Monterey Car week, which starts on Wednesday, is not to be missed. While the Concours is the climax to the week on Sunday, there’s also an art exhibition, classic car auctions, a display of new cars (such as the McLaren P1 GTR that is to sell for $3.36-million in 2015), and experiences such as witnessing comedian and car collector Jay Leno momentarily speechless – a rare thing, even here – as he comes upon the one car he’s never seen before.
On Sundays, the Pacific mist invariably cloaks the 18th fairway as the judging begins in the morning. An hour or so afterward, the public is admitted , and the sun comes out from behind the shield. Magnificent old coachwork is on display, and you’re never disappointed, as with last year’s best-in-show 1934 Packard 1108 Twelve Dietrich Convertible Victoria. However, the cars beyond imagination bring me back, such as the Alfa Romeo B.A.T. concepts from 1953-55, with sculpted metal fins wrapping around their bodies for aerodynamic effect. They were featured in 2000.
This year, the featured marques are the Ruxton, Maserati on its 100th anniversary, and Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa. The Ruxton is the failed rival to Cord as the first American-built front-wheel drives. According to reports, 15 of the 19 surviving Ruxtons will be presented. Also featured: steam cars, eastern European motorcycles, cars bodied by Fernandez et Darrin Coachwork.
Champage sold for $25 a flute at concession stands when I last attended in 2010 – or $365 for a bottle of Dom Perignon Brut – and it flowed like Niagara. Some attendees were snoozing in the rough by the time the awards ceremony began at 1:30 p.m.
Car owners, on the other hand, remain adrenaline-charged and surprisingly ready to chat. In 1991, I recall Gary Wales, a retired stockbroker from Woodland Hills, Calif., chewing gum at a RPM redline rate as his 1947 Bentley Drophead, Body by Frenay, was being judged. Because I happened to be standing beside him, he said to me, “I’m not nervous. Hoo-boy. Patter-patter-patter. I put my shoes on, didn’t I?”
He’d had the car upholstered with leather made from frogs imported from the Philippines, as a playful reference to the Bentley’s French coachwork, and held a frog-bound portfolio documenting European concours won by the Bentley when it was new. Wales really went the extra mile. Four detailers in his employ kept polishing the car right up to the moment the judges arrived, with wax custom-blended for the paint, $1,000 per can.
His Bentley was judged Best In Class. “And ladies and gentlemen, this fabulous car missed Best In Show by a single point,” announcer Paul Woudenberg intoned.
When I asked Wales later what would account for a single point, he looked me in the eye. “The point,” he said, “was politics.” Something about Ralph Lauren taking best-in-show the year before with his Bugatti T57 SC Atlantic, so the runner-up to Lauren was owed, and an American-made car hadn’t won in years.
I look for Canadian connections. In the art exhibition, paintings by Jay Koka of Waterloo, Ont., always jump off the wall: this year he’s premiering two characteristic works of fine cars in fascinating circumstances. Torontonian Brent Merrill’s 1931 Cadillac 452A Fleetwood Coupe, – a V-16 Cadillac! – won the American Classic Closed class last year.
On the 18th fairway, you never know what you’ll come upon. In 2010, Toronto’s John Long, who was importing rebuilt Citroen 2CVs when first we met, appeared in a seersucker suit and Panama hat overseeing his 1938 Tatra T77, the rear-engined, air-cooled V-8 creation of engineering great Hans Ledwinka.
No prize for Long that day, but Pebble Beach this year is introducing a Tatra class, real recognition for the Czech make. Built in 1934, the coach-built automobile features a 75-horsepower rear-mounted V8 that reaches maximum speed of 95 mph. This one is a 20-year restoration by a man named Pavel Kasik in the Czech Republic.
The strongest Canadian presence, year after year, is that of RM Restorations of Blenheim, Ont., with five Best In Show cars emerging from its shop since 2000, including last year’s Packard 1108 Twelve Dietrich Convertible Victoria owned by Joseph Cassini III, a Newark, N.J. Superior Court judge.
RM Auctions also is prominent among five auction firms that totalled $302-million from sales of 726 cars last year.
A 1964 Ferrari 275 GTB/C Speciale is on offer this weekend at RM, Bonhams has a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO Berlinetta owned by one family since 1965, less impressively a 1973 Ferrari 365 GTB/4 at Rick Cole Auctions. The Porsche 917 that took the checkered flag in Steve McQueen’s 1971 classic film, Le Mans, is Gooding & Company’s headliner.
I’ve come to realize that pilgrimages to Pebble Beach have to be made more frequently. For if not directly comparable to Ponce de Leon’s fountain of youth, Pebble Beach is, unfailingly, a font of pleasure, appreciation and learning.
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