Monterey Car Week 2013 Part 3: The Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance

Written by & Photography by George Webster on .

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While, from my perspective, the historic car races at Laguna Seca are the main event during Monterey Car Week, the Pebble Beach Concours is the centrepiece around which all the other events – save the races – are built. In its own right, this Concours is the most important collector car show in America – and then there’s all that other stuff surrounding it, the other car shows, the auctions, and the markets.

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This Concours is the place to be if you are a car collector or appreciate great cars. Only the best of the best cars are invited – cars that are as close to perfect as the restorers can make them. An invitiation to Pebble Beach makes a car’s reputation and adds lots to its value. So who wouldn’t want to attend this crown jewel of cars shows?

The last few times I’ve attended the Monterey historic car races, I’ve also tried to make a quick visit to the Concours on Sunday morning as the cars are driven in onto to the 18th hole at the Pebble Beach Golf Course and judged. This time, I arrived on the Thursday and I was able to walk down the lineup of cars getting ready to start the Tour d’Elegance, an 80-mile (130 km) long run along the roads in the area including a lap of the Laguna Seca race circuit.

Some 248 cars were entered for Sunday’s Concours and, unlike some other car shows, they are required to drive onto the field under their own power. But the Tour offers a greater challenge for these show cars. The over 200 cars that chose to participate faced a much more significance test of their ability to handle normal road tour conditions.

Walking along the roadway where the cars were lined up for the start of the Tour did give me a nice overview of the cars and a better feel for the owners who were mostly turned out in period costume, ready for the run. I had hoped to see them again when the Tour visited Ocean Avenue in Carmel but I abandoned that idea when I discovered that finding a parking spot in this smallish town was going to be nigh impossible.

Mark you, with the ticket price for Sunday’s Concours on the golf course running at $275 a head, I would suggest you consider doing the Carmel stop for free instead. It would require some early morning travel in order to stake out a parking spot somewhere close, but I think it would be well worth it. While I didn’t get to experience this myself, I think that once you get on the street with the cars, it wouldn’t be all that different from being on the show field.

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This show has a definite bias towards older pre-war cars. Since 1955, when the Concours became a serious competition, every “best in show” winner has been a pre-war car. This year’s best in show was a 1934 Packard 1108 Twelve Dietrich Convertible Victoria.

I do enjoy seeing these wonderful, big luxury cars from the pre-war era even if I don’t feel a personal connection with them. When I was growing up in the fifties there were still a lot of pre-war cars around but they were Fords and Chevs and Plymouths, not Rolls-Royces and Packards. I do recall once seeing what I though was a ‘30s era V-12 Auburn phaeton parked on a side street in Goderich, but that was about it. So when I’m faced with phalanxes of amazing big luxury and performance cars from the pre-war era I tend to be a bit overwhelmed. I must admit that coming away from the Concours, I have few lasting impressions of the pre-war cars.

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This year is the 50th anniversary of the Porsche 911 and they had a substantial number of 911s in two classes – street and race. There was one car in that group that I do feel a strong connection to. I was at Le Mans in 1979 when the GT-class Kremer K3 935 driven by the Whittington brothers and Klaus Ludwig won outright. I was in their pit when Don Whittington drove the car in after being stranded out on the course for about an hour until he was able to effect repairs and drove it slowly back into the pits. And I believe I was the first person who went back into their pit box to ask Don Whittington for his story. Now, some 34 years later I’m standing by this same history-making car telling its current owner, Bruce Meyer, my story.

There was a class for the BMW 507s, a fifties-era roadster that was a great car but it almost put BMW into bankruptcy. I didn’t notice that this class existed until after I had left, so I missed seeing these remarkable cars. Tip: Read the program closely before you get there!

I did try to slow down and concentrate on the cars but soon I found myself flitting about the field from car to car without taking enough time to absorb what I was seeing. There are a couple of the Lincolns that I do remember. First a Boano-bodied 1955 Lincoln “Indianapolis” looking almost like an orange space ship with its flowing lines and masses of glass – one of the most remarkable-looking cars there. Almost alongside there was another Lincoln, a 1952 Derham Town Car built on the Lincoln chassis of the day for the first Edsel Ford’s widow. That 1952 Lincoln was no looker at it s best, but lumbered with old-style highboy coachwork over the rear seats, it was a design disaster. An “interesting” car, but one of the worst-looking cars on the field.

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Away down at the far end of the field I found a group of cars that piqued my interest the most – ten Indianapolis Roadsters. I knew that this was a late development of the old front-engine design that used to monopolize the Indy 500. George Lyons from Erie, PA, who as showing his 1963 Watson roadster, filled me in. He told me that before this, the drive shaft ran down the middle of the car and driver had to sit on top of it. In 1952 Frank Kurtis came up with a design which moved the drive shaft to the side and allowed the driver to sit much lower beside it, making for a much lower – and faster – race car. A.J. Watson was another important builder of the so-called roadsters.

It was interesting to see these cars and how far they had advanced in their splendid isolation from the rest of the auto racing world – little knowing that Jack Brabham in 1961 and, later, Colin Chapman would bring their much more advanced designs over from Europe and completely blow away these old front-engined designs. By 1965, the old-style roadsters where pretty much history, completely outclassed by the rear-engined British cars and their American-built clones.

In their own context, these “roadsters’ were highly developed. However, they were working from a limited gene pool and once the dams burst and the European cars, which had developed in a more diverse flux of ideas, overwhelmed them. To me the lesson here was that the best ideas develop in an environment that is open to ideas and influences from the widest possible range of sources. Unfortunately, in racing, that wide-open development which soon led to the big-wing race cars and the unlimited Can-Am racer designs, had to be stifled in the name of safety and now we must put up with throttled-down “spec” cars in all forms of racing now.

My recommendation for you? Don’t spend the $275 or so to see the actual Concours on the Sunday, Turn up early and see most of the cars (and owners) on Thursday either at the start of the Tour or on Ocean Avenue in Carmel. Or if you decide to see them on the 18th green, devote your whole day to this show; go to the races the previous two days and give the Concours its proper due on the Sunday.

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