x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

California classics: the cars of the Concours d'Elegance at Pebble Beach, California

In the second piece from his US travels, Kevin Hackett finds brightness and brightwork under grey skies on a visit to the most famous of all classic car shows, the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.

A 1955 Lincoln Indianapolis Boano Coupe at the Concours d' Elegance in Pebble Beach, California. David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
A 1955 Lincoln Indianapolis Boano Coupe at the Concours d' Elegance in Pebble Beach, California. David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

By any rights, just the thought of a Concours d'Elegance competition should strike fear and loathing into the hearts of car enthusiasts. Over-restored, over-polished, underused classics that emerge only on the odd occasion to be judged by mostly elderly men wearing Panama hats and wielding clipboards, pulling up the carpet in the boot space to make sure that the original jack and wheel brace are still present and correct. In so many ways, it's the very antithesis of what motoring is supposed to be about.

And yet, when it comes to a small number of exclusive events, such as the bewitching Concorso d'Eleganza at Villa d'Este on the banks of Lake Como in Italy, there's an undeniable appeal: collections of history's most beautiful, rare and significant cars, and no riff-raff in attendance. The most famous of all, however, is Pebble Beach in Monterey, California. And, while it's evidently a long old way to fly to see a collection of cars that are parked up on a golfing green, this event has been on my to-do list for as long as I can remember. A bit like going to Las Vegas, I know there's a high chance that I won't enjoy it, but I feel compelled to get the experience under my belt all the same.

This is the 63rd Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, and it's become something of an institution for collectors of the world's finest automobiles. As with most of these competitions, cars are grouped into classes according to types and ages, and a number of awards will be given to owners of the cars that are judged to be the best in attendance. But there is only one "Best of Show", and for a car to earn that trophy for its owner is one of the world's most prestigious accolades.

"One of the finest pieces of real estate on the planet," was how my driver, a local former police chief, described Pebble Beach to me a few days ago. "It's beyond beautiful, and the cars will be arranged on the 18th green - how they do that without ruining the course I will never know." The hype surrounding this most glorified car show is staggering, but it must be incredibly special, as the world's most luxurious and exciting carmakers also use it as a launch pad for their newest models and concepts.

I arrive early to beat the masses. Unlike Villa d'Este, or even The Quail two days earlier (of which you can read about online at www.thenational.ae/motoring), Pebble Beach attracts tens of thousands of visitors, all of whom descend on this piece of coastal headland along the same stretch of bottlenecked road. For once, my timing is impeccable, and I make my way down to the golfing greens to the sound of classical music oozing out of the PA systems. It's all very refined in a restrained, stiff-upper-lip kind of British Empire way.

Eventually, that real estate homes into view. The solitary cedar tree, perched atop a craggy outcrop of land, to the left-hand side of the bay, is one of the world's most enduring and iconic images, but I daren't photograph it because Pebble Beach Company has trademarked it. And that's the first of the day's bad tastes in the mouth - a ludicrous example of corporate insanity.

The setting, while undeniably lovely, isn't the visual sock to the jaw that I was expecting. The beach itself looks desolate, and the wide mouth of this cove is anything but inviting. The cold, early morning air circulates thick plumes of atmospheric mist, rising off the seawater and permeating the entire area, like it's the creepy set from a 1970s horror film. I lived in the wilds of Wales in the UK for most of my life, and I rather like the familiarity of the terrain here - if there was the distant, haunting sound of a foghorn, it would be the perfect accompaniment.

What doesn't help the ambience whatsoever is the architecture of the buildings. Looking like a collection of convalescence homes, they're drab and uninspiring, but as the crowds start to pour in, it begins to make sense. I'm no longer on the set of a Stephen King adaptation, but what has to be the latest sequel to Cocoon. Never in my life have I been surrounded by so many elderly people. It's a silver invasion.

They descend on the cars, neatly arranged on the perfectly manicured and coiffured grass, hands clasped behind backs, hatted heads pointing skywards. The men have a penchant for over-restored cars - that was always going to be obvious - though the over-restored women (actually, partially restored would be more accurate) do take me by surprise. But then there is money aplenty here to keep everything looking artificially younger than their years. The mist continues to swirl, soaking everything in its path, while the chamber music continues to drift across the bay, soothing the nerves of visitors who might otherwise get a bit stressed by the ever-increasing numbers of octogenarians surrounding the cars. From a distance they look like multicoloured ants.

Perhaps I'm being unkind. These people, after all, represent the financial backbone of capitalist America - they're mostly self-made squillionaires who have the money to indulge their interests, no matter what. They want the very best of the best, and that's exactly what's here.

Not every car is a prissy trailer queen, though, and as I walk among the now thousands of visitors, I come across a brace of exquisite Alfa Romeo 8Cs. Not the recent supercars, but actual competition cars from the 1930s, each one unique in its look, each one bearing the patina of a graceful and careful ageing process. My jaw is now on the floor. And then there's the Aston Martin DB5 that's been shipped over by a collector in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It isn't wrecked, but it's scruffy, showing off its worn-out paint, dented and pitted brightwork and brittle, torn-in-places, leather upholstery. This car positively reeks of provenance, and it's cool in its couldn't-care-less attitude - the polar opposite of so many of the precious restoration jobs that look newer and more perfect than when they actually were new and perfect.

I find this balance of extremes refreshing, but the crowds are now making me feel slightly claustrophobic, and I need to escape, to at least sit down with a double espresso. It's still only mid-morning, and I reckon that I've seen the 200 or so cars at their best, before viewing became impossible. Still, there's always the new and concept car display to enjoy, where Porsche is showing off its production-ready 918 Spyder, and Lamborghini its Veneno alongside the very first car to wear a raging bull on its bonnet: the 1963 350GTV, that's fresh out of a full restoration. Acura (or Honda, if you will) is displaying its next NSX, Aston has its frankly astonishing CC100 on the lawn and there's even a concept Hyundai on display, so there's plenty to keep even classic-car haters occupied.

But the main event is the driving onto the stage of every classic that's been on display in front of the club all morning. I bag a ringside seat as the sun starts to burn away the low-level mist, revealing an impossibly blue sky that lasts for all of five minutes before the grey murkiness settles again. The cooler temperature is most welcome for me, but the mahogany pensioners are not so happy.

Each car is driven onto the main viewing platform, sometimes in plumes of smoke and to the sound of backfiring exhausts that could well be a full military salute. These pieces of art are living, breathing machines sometimes over a century old. It's quite emotional seeing, hearing and smelling them trundle up and over the deck to the muffled applause of an appreciative audience. This is the part of a concours event that cannot help but appeal to actual enthusiasts like me - many of them don't pack an emotional punch until you see them actually being driven.

Car of the show for 2013? A 1934 Packard 1108 Twelve Dietrich Convertible Victoria takes the overall concours honours, and deservedly so, as it's unspeakably beautiful. Its owner, Joseph Cassini, bought the car three years ago with the intention of showing it here, and its two-and-a-half year, ground-upwards restoration was completed only eight days before the show. Packard apparently built more than 35,000 Twelves in the 1930s, but this is the only one to feature custom coachwork by Raymond Dietrich, and its status in the collector car hierarchy has now been assured.

Looking through the list of previous winners, the same names of collectors keeps appearing. But to save the show from ever being accused as being predictable, if a car is invited here by the organisers, it won't be eligible for another 10 years. It keeps things fresh and interesting for the thousands that visit Pebble Beach year in, year out, from all over the world. It's a nice touch.

Another nice touch is the amount of money that Pebble Beach's concours raises for good causes each year, specifically for those in need within the surrounding Monterey County. Since its inception, the people and companies participating in this most storied of events have dug deep to the tune of US$16million (Dh58.77million), and that's not to be sniffed at. Rather, it gives short thrift to those who might otherwise dismiss Pebble Beach as an obscene display of unimaginable wealth. These people not only share their passion for automobile history with us plebeians, but they're sharing their money, too, with those in dire need. If I'd brought my hat, I'd be tipping it in their general direction right now.

For me personally, the smaller, more intimate vibes experienced at The Quail and Villa d'Este win over Pebble Beach. But there's much to recommend here, and I'm extremely glad to have been given the opportunity to attend. Yes, it's a 16-hour flight from the UAE, and yes, the jet lag is horrific because of the 11-hour time difference. But when you're faced with so many automotive sculptures, when you see the cars that owners bring to the area so they can, in their own way, take part, you forget the negatives. This is, indeed, classic-car central, and for anyone fed up to the back teeth with seeing Ferrari 458s and Aventadors on every street corner in our part of the world, it provides a blessed relief. Cars used to be individual without being brash or ostentatious, and this is our heritage, our history lesson. If the opportunity ever presents itself to attend, tightly grasp it with both hands and immerse yourself in a culture that you perhaps never realised existed. Pebble Beach, despite my earlier misgivings, has turned out to be well worth the trip.

khackett@thenational.ae

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