PH Does Pebble

The Pebble Beach annual Concours D'Elegance on the Monterey coastline in California has long been associated with the rarest, most expensive classic cars in existence. And then there's the owners...

It's the Goodwood FoS American style, but with a whiff of kelp and a sea view. Here the showboating is all done statically against a backdrop of soft orchestral tones and the rattle of chain driven transmissions.

Pebble Beach is all about wealth, rarity and components restored to within an inch of their former self. It is the cream of concours competitions, where the wealthiest wheel out their arsenal of cherished relics and park them on one of golf's most prestigious 18th holes.

At the entrance to the Pebble Beach lodge is a lawn of concept cars. Here the new bewinged Lotus Evora GTE rubs bumpers with the 1350 horsepower SSC Tuatara, a naked Aventador rolling naked tub (how cool a hot rod for the 'noughteens' would this make?), Lexus GS concept and production Fisker Karma EV.

Walk down to the water's edge and the first car that greets you is Stirling Moss's 722 Merc SLR Mille Miglia conquerer. It stands to celebrate Merc's 125 year birthday, but as a reminder that a British legend could average 97.95mph to clinch a revered Italian race in a German car with tartan seats.

Nothing really prepares you for the idyllic setting of Pebble. The machines are all assembled on some of the most expensive grass in the world - and pretty special if you like golf. Pebble Beach is the queen of concours static events. It is the most expensive gathering of vintage cars on earth. It is also allegedly the largest gathering of America's wealthy individuals.

Here, the cars compete for prizes based upon cleanliness, rarity and fastidious restoration or sheer preservation. Some owners may never drive them. Some vehicles are treated in the same way as priceless works of art.

The level of detailing is a little overwhelming actually. Very few of these cars would have left the factory or coachbuilder with such polished nuts, bolts or exhaust manifolds. Or so my brother says, and he helps build pre-war Bentleys for a living.

I am watching a man sucking blades of grass off the tyres (with a rechargeable vacuum cleaner) and polishing the leaf spring hangers of a pre-1915 Rambler.

The calibre of chino and dainty loafer is high. The average age of wife is 30% lower than husband. And if not, considerable facial restoration has taken place.

The judging has commenced. There are 20 different classes, (indicated by green flagposts) and every year there are guest categories. For 2011 that includes Mercedes' 125 years, the 50th birthday of the Ferrari 250 GTO, and Rolls Silver Ghosts.

Several groups begin to scrutinise their different classes. The judging process here is two-fold: there are class judges, who focus primarily on originality and authenticity, while Honorary Judges are upstanding members of the industry and Pebble social circle who direct their eyes and thoughts towards design and styling. Jaguar's Director of Design, Ian Callum, is one such judge.

Class judges have 15 mins to look at each car. They chat to the owner and talk about its life story, operate wipers etc, and look through any associated papers.

Cars must be started, to prove they can. I am following one posse of judges, who are checking all the gauges function. Further down the line a mechanic frantically fettles a brass lantern on a Rolls, presumably in order to make it work like it did when he left it last night.

This feels like an MoT test conducted by men with blazers and panama hats. And very large clipboards. They are checking for 'original specification'. In other words, correct wiring, brass plating where it should be, no murals of mermaids and certainly no aftermarket alloy rims or superchargers.

'I think the Americans are finally realising what original means' one anonymous foreign competitor whispers to me. In other words, mirror polished wheel nuts aren't always necessary. The detailing is addictive though, especially if you pour years and millions into a historic project/investment.

A lot of owners are snuffling for rosettes, like a pig searching out truffles. Cars that win prizes not only draw attention to their owner, but also increase in value.

PRESERVATION class is an interesting one. Probably my favourite. This is where the cars have been left to age naturally, gracefully, sans two-pack Botox or 2000-hour panel surgery.

This is where cracked leather and the oil drip is acceptable. The kind of cars which get driven more than two miles on Sundays. There is a bored lady reading her Kindle in a 1938 Lincoln. And very comfortable it is, too. There are no info plaques next to the cars - you have to look up the info in a $35 brochure.

Some categories for the concours are for single make, like the long-deceased Stutz. It's car marques like this that make you realise how many small uber luxury automobile brands existed in the USA around the time the Titanic turned into a submarine.

Judging has begun on a fairly unassuming Ferrari 375 MM with 33km indicated. It is gloriously original. I hear someone muttering it featured alongside Sophia Loren in the film La Fortuna di Essere Donna.

Judges are checking that the average speed gauge is the factory item, then comes the toolwrap check. A lot of pencil waving and conferring. (Note to readers who own brand new exotica: look after your toolwrap and all slips of factory advisories - in 3 generations time someone from your family will thank you for that...)

Provenance, now there's a thing. Just like the Mille Miglia attracts cars with a documented racing past, Pebble Beach likes cars with pedigree. Film stars, viscounts, gangsters, stars of the silver screen - it's all here. It's an overused phrase, but if only cars could talk - this place would be the most colourful car care-home on planet earth.

It surprises me that no judges appear to be crawling underneath the cars. Presumably so as not to soil trousers. But as you all know a car's undercarriage can hide a multitude of sins - some unoriginal sins at that.

The 250 GTO Ferraris - 22 of the 36 ever made - are all lined up right next to the cliff edge. You can just hear the lap of ocean amongst pauses in classical music. All I am thinking about is the remote possibility of subsidence. Should it happen (we've all watched footage of Cornish hotels disappearing into the drink on a slab of soil) then 22 £10+ million cars would be closer to Pebble Beach than intended. Imagine craning quarter of a billion works of Enzo out of the bay. Actually, don't.

There are bikes here, a cluster of Italian two wheelers from yesteryear with a backdrop of anchored yachts. It's not sunny but it's not windy, cold or rainy. This is the peculiar San Fran climate.

It's only when you reach the line of Edwardian Rolls Silver Ghosts that you're reminded we're stood on a links golf course. The 18th hole. I'm guessing today they won't be teeing off near this carpark...

Ex-pat couple John and Marny Peirson of West Vancouver. BC, Canada have brought their 1911 Rolls Ghost - the oldest in Canada. In 1920 the 62mph 7.5-litre Roller was retro fitted with electric lights and starter motor. Imagine booking your car in for this at the dealer nowadays.

Lots of people are checking their hair in the reflections of pre-war brass and nickel. Amongst the citrus coloured trousers and copious linen passes none other than ex Cali Gov (and T-800) Arnold Schwarzenegger. He's being shown around the Porsche 918 RSR, casually parked outside the entrance. Chat show pundit cum denim clad car magpie Jay Leno is also about the place.

Judging over, the cars now assemble in groups to drive up onto the plinth for a centre stage introduction and applause. There's a lot of cous cous, confetti and champagne.

Such is the exclusivity and rarity of the Pebble event there are many car manufacturer names you might never have heard of. Take the winning car, for example. A 1934 Voisin C-25 Aerodyne. No, I hadn't either.

As I leave Pebble Beach, I notice the multi-millionaire memory foam mattress tycoon Michael Fux chatting to people. Well, I notice his long white mullet mane first.

He isn't too well known in the UK but in the US he is probably Rolls Royce's best customer, having just taken delivery of his third bespoke (read controversially coloured) purple Rolls DHC. Michael is apparently registering his interest in the Jaguar CX-75. Let's hope he orders one in E-type Primrose Yellow...

My Fave 5 Cars of the Show

1969 Mercedes 600 Presidential Landaulet
A Pullman with only a quarter of its roof, basically. 1 of 10 built for heads of state and royalty. This one used to be Romanian communist politician Nicolae Ceausescu's in the '70s. Presumably not the car him and his wife were executed in.

1965 Ford Shelby Cobra Daytona
The experimental body designed by Peter Brock (paired with Shelby's Cobra chassis) increased the car's top speed by 25mph and helped it become the first American car to beat a Ferrari in world championship racing in Europe. One of six made.

1911 'Blitzen Benz'
The 21.5-litre 200hp car that, in April 1911, set the world speed record of 141.7mph - twice as fast as aircraft of the time. Respect.

1960 Plymouth XNR Ghia Roadster
Virgil Exner shamelessly borrowed styling cues from Jaguar's finned D-type to create this Jetson's Plymouth. Once owned by the Shah of Iran, it survived the Lebanon war being hidden away in a basement!

1934 Ford Model 40 Special Speedster
2 of only 3 sleek Speedsters built for Edsel Ford and used by him regularly around Detroit/Dearborn. With its straight through exhausts, neighbours loved him.

Comments (36) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Gruffy 23 Aug 2011

    Oh my, that Model 40 is beautiful.

  • Dominic H 23 Aug 2011


  • will_ 23 Aug 2011

    Pebble Beach week is one for the list for next year.

    Are you guys going to do a report of the auctions too? Some interesting prices...

  • HowMuchLonger 23 Aug 2011

    Gruffy said:
    Oh my, that Model 40 is beautiful.
    Indeed, it looks like a hot rod from 40 years later.

  • Vocal Minority 23 Aug 2011

    A concours isn't usually my cup of tea...I am the scruffiest man alive and I believe cars were built to be driven, not polished to within an inch of their lives.

    Anyway this sort of event tends to be populated by people that drink champagne and call eachother 'daarhling'. Not my scene.


    Some of the metal there, that GTO looks rather good in Blue, the Blitzen Benz is a legendary car, and I think I'd go all funny if I just stumbled across Moss's SLR.

    Absolutely unreal...

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