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September 02, 2005

Donald on the Pebble Beach Concours

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Car-styling buff Donald Pittenger files a report for 2Blowhards from the recent edition of Pebble Beach's legendary classic-car competition.

Pebble Beach Concours D'Élégance 2005 Report by Donald Pittenger

For a moment I thought I should ask Ralph Lauren if he needed help pushing his 1938 Alfa Romeo race car. But there seemed to be enough helping hands already, so I continued on my way towards the snack area where champagne flutes awaited dehydrated automobile fanatics.

Such is life at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Élégance classic automobile show.

What it is

I suppose a touch of background is needed for any Blowhards readers from, oh, New York City let's say, who feel nervous when out of sight of concrete, have no idea what a drivers license is used for and believe golf is a German geographical term.

The French phrase "concours d'élégance" can be translated as "elegance competition" and has been used for meets where seriously fancy automobiles are judged on design and perfection of presentation. There are several shows of this kind that are well-known to car fans world-wide. These include the shows at Villa d'Este on Lake Como in Italy, Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne by Paris (click here and look for "Classic"), and the concours at the famed Pebble Beach golf course near Carmel-by-the-Sea on the California coast just south of Monterey Bay.

The Pebble Beach Concours has been held annually starting in 1950, though it was cancelled in 1960 due to bad weather. (Travel tip: the central California coast has "lousy" weather during the summer -- plenty of fog banks and daytime highs in the low 60s Fahrenheit. Clear weather is more likely in the fall. I have fond November memories of doing push-ups on Fort Ord gravel while gazing on the sun-lit factories of Monterey's Cannery Row down the bay.)

Cars are displayed around the 18th green of the golf links, directly in front of the Del Monte Lodge which serves as the reviewing stand for the awards presentation part of the show. Some of the illustrations for this article offer background glimpses of the fabulous setting.

General scene.jpg

A controversial aspect of top-line classic car shows is the degree of restoration and polish on display. A number of critics say that the prize-winning cars are over-restored -- exhibiting a degree of perfection not even found the day they rolled out of the factory. Ditto the spit-and-polish of the display. For instance, owners proudly open hoods revealing gleaming, oil-smudge-free engines. One possible man to blame for this is the late J.B. Nethercutt, whose 1958 Pebble Beach winning duPont set new standards at the time. JB could afford it, being part of the Merle Norman cosmetics clan. Like horse racing, classic car showing is an expensive proposition, so most award winners are seriously rich.

JB Nethercutt1958 winner duPont.jpg

The folks who manage the Concours usually have a featured car brand ("marque" is the term of art here) along with a few subsidiary features. In 2003, my first visit, the featured marque was Bugatti. This year it was Alfa Romeo, and sub-features were Delage (the 100th anniversary of the now-defunct French company's founding), Pininfarina (the 75th anniversary of the coach-builder's establishment) and late-1940s hot rods (!!! something controversial now and unheard-of decades ago). Otherwise, the visitor finds the usual mélange of Duesenbergs, Rolls-Royces, Mercedes and their ilk.

The Pebble Beach event that took away the breath of car fans everywhere was the 1985 gathering of all six Bugatti Royales. The Royale was Ettore Bugatti's attempt to build the ultimate luxury car, supposedly intended for royalty. Only six were built and all of them, for the first and only time, were assembled at Pebble Beach.

All 6 Bugatti Royales in 1985.jpg

What is a Classic Car?

Definitions invite controversy. The Classic Car Club of America's Web site's definition is:

"A CCCA Classic is a 'fine' or 'distinctive' automobile, either American or foreign built, produced between 1925 and 1948. They are also sometimes called 'Full Classics,' or just plain 'Classics' (with a capital 'C'). Generally, a Classic was high-priced when new and was built in limited quantities. Other factors, including engine displacement, custom coachwork and luxury accessories, such as power brakes, power clutch, and 'one-shot' or automatic lubrication systems, help determine whether a car is considered to be a Classic".

This is pretty much the same definition I recall from 50 years ago reading Los Angeles attorney Bob Gottlieb's classic car column in Motor Trend magazine.

Others besides the CCCA use looser definitions. I and the CCCA will argue that pre-1925 cars are not classic because the emphasis in those days was

  • First, simply getting cars to work
  • Then figuring out how cars ought to be configured, and finally
  • Making cars fairly reliable and easy to operate.

These are engineering-related matters; the element of aesthetics was of much less importance or even entirely absent, especially in the early days. For what it's worth, I'm not much interested in cars built before 1928 or 1929.

As we move through time, the 1948 bookend seems increasingly questionable because some cars built since then can be seen as worthy of "classic" status. The main difference is that, by 1948, almost no cars with bespoke bodies were built in America; a post-’48 U.S. classic would almost have to be a production job. On the other hand the automotive press, advertisers and the public at large use the word "classic" too casually in my opinion, often in reference to cars of recent vintage, having little apparent merit.

The Pebble Beach Concours goes beyond the CCCA definition, including antique automobiles, 1950s and ‘60s Italian custom and low-production sports cars, and as noted above, even (gasp) hot rods. So far as I'm concerned, a custom-bodied SIATA is just fine, but a chopped and channeled '49 Ford is just not okay -- it's desecration. So there!

The ambiance

The Concours is actually a series of events over several days including a tour of the surrounding area by some of the display cars. Judging takes place the morning of the final day, usually the third Sunday in August. The general public is admitted at 10:30 a.m. and award presentations start in the early afternoon and wrap up towards 5 p.m. Up the hill from the lodge are tents for classic car sales and auctions, and these activities last further into the evening.

Riff-raff like your Wretched Correspondent show up only for the public part, paying $125 ($150 if a walk-in) for the fun (the profits go to the Monterey County United Way). Here's a close-up picture of cars and crowds.

Crowd scene.jpg

The event is well-organized. The Lady Friend and I exited Highway 1 and followed signs to a parking area (in 2003 along 17-Mile Drive, this year a Pacific Grove school's playfield) and soon were on a chartered bus en route to Del Monte Lodge. After getting our passes at the will-call desk we circumnavigated the experimental-car display area and homed in on the jewelry store in the toney shopping row across a patch of grass from the lodge. This was to collect the ring we picked out two weeks earlier, thereby transforming The Lady Friend into The Fiancée.

Once inside the display area, one simply wanders around the cars, elegant-people-watches, snacks, drinks (cocktails and champagne plus lesser beverages) or shops at the souvenir tent. These activities continue all afternoon, but many visitors drift over towards the lodge for the awards presentations.

By the way, here is the 2005 best-of-show winner, a gorgeous 1937 Delage D8 aerodynamic coupe with body by Pourtout. In the ‘30s, the French built a number of visually exciting (sensual, actually) sports cars that had a streamlined look to them. Richard D. Adatto has a couple books loaded with photos of these cars that make me drool (see his website).

1937 Delage D8 coupe with body by Pourtout

Automobile artists at Pebble Beach

The largest tent in the car display area was devoted to paintings and sculptures by members of the Automotive Fine Arts Society (AFAS). I mentioned meeting Pontiac advertising artist Art Fitzpatrick (at the 2003 Concours) in my Blowhards piece on the Chrysler 300. Usually the artists hang around their displays to schmooze potential buyers of existing art or sound out possible commissions for portraits of specific cars in a private collection. Generally speaking, these artists are former car stylists or are illustrators who spent most of their careers working with car buff magazines. Here are some artists whose work I found interesting.

Bill Motta for many years was art director for Road & Track magazine. He also contributed art to the publication. Now retired, he does original painting (usually in acrylic) for sale or to serve as the basis for giclée prints. Motta is especially fond of reflections and other aspects of the surfaces of automobiles. Here is a painting of the front of a Rolls Royce that The Fiancée was greatly tempted to buy (that is, the giclée, not the Rolls).

Bill Motta Rolls painting.jpg By Bill Motta

Tom Fritz is an illustrator who likes to paint motorcycles and hot rods along with the occasional classic car. The oil painting of the Packard and woman shown here was in his display area, so I could closely examine it. Unlike a lot of car art, it isn't hard-edge realism. Actually, it's more post-impressionist with brushwork quite visible once you get within three or four feet of it. The car itself seems fairly freely-done at close-range, yet appears crisp and real from several feet away.

Tom Fritz art.jpg By Tom Fritz

Barry Rowe normally paints in acrylic, often delivering very nice, authentic cityscape backgrounds for his car subjects. The painting shown here is of a Monaco Grand Prix race in the 1930s. Rowe is an Englishman in Dorset, which makes it comparatively easy to do first-hand research on the settings for his subjects. The paintings I saw tended to have a poster-like appearance -- flat colors, darker outlining.

Barry Rowe art.jpg By Barry Rowe

A note on celebrities

The Pebble Beach Concours crawls with automobile industry celebrities in the form of Honorary Judges who are introduced at the start of the awards segment. Many are heads of car styling for manufacturers. One example is Chris Bangle of BMW, (in)famous for the odd trunk and rear styling of BMW 5-series and 7-series sedans.

Other celebrities are famous folks who are car collectors. Jay Leno had a Duesenberg "A" model on display this year that was distinctive in that it was unrestored -- in pretty bad shape, actually. I doubt any collector but someone of Leno's renown would be allowed to do this.

Unlike Leno, who I have yet to spot at Pebble Beach, Ralph Lauren is in plain view. That opening sentence is true: he and several other guys actually were pushing that Alfa. For the record, Ralph was wearing a dark blue blazer and mustard-yellow slacks. The car won first place in its class, by the way.

Ralph Lauren Bugatti 57SC Atlantic2.jpg Bugatti 57SC Atlantic coupe, owned by Ralph Lauren

At the 2003 Concours I saw Lauren right next to the crowd in front of his fantastically great Bugatti 57SC Atlantic coupe -- one of three built. He has great taste in cars. And at Pebble, he's a real mensch.


Sigh: some of the most beautiful objects made in the 20th century, don't you find? Will they ever be recognized as the great works of art they are?

Here's Bill Motta's website. Here's Tom Fritz's. Here's Barry Rowe's. Here's a Boston MFA page with a couple of pix of gorgeous cars owned by Ralph Lauren.

Many thanks to Donald for his report.



posted by Michael at September 2, 2005


Very entertaining report.

Amusing to know Ralph Lauren is a good guy, in any context.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 4, 2005 9:15 PM

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