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The Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance is a Car Lover’s Dream

Written by Norris McDonald

Norris McDonald visited the climax of Monterey Car Week, in which hundreds of classic and concept cars are on display.

Monterey, Calif.-So, a few weeks ago, I’m strolling along the 18th fairway at the Pebble Beach Golf Links, site of the 67th annual Concours d’Elegance, when I ask my tour guide, a tall, slender drink of water named Roland Krueger, who’s also president of Infiniti Motor Co. Ltd., and senior vice president of the Nissan Motor Co., how many cars he owns.

“None at the moment,” he replies, grinning, as we both look at a 1933 Auburn 12-165 Speedster that was on display with about 200 other classic cars along the last hole of one of the most famous golf courses in the world.

“But now that I’m in the middle of all this beauty, I’m feeling the stirrings,” he quipped, after explaining that, as president of a car company, he has access to any one he wants so doesn’t really have to have one of his own.

The Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance is the climax each year of what is known as Monterey Car Week, in which hundreds of classic and concept cars are displayed, racing teams make announcements, reunions are held and auctions in which cars worth millions of dollars change hands.

And because of all this, the Concours raises millions of dollars for about 80 charities that are part of the Pebble Beach Company Foundation.

In addition to all the headline-making extravaganzas outlined above, side shows include pop-up bookstores, art galleries, antiques and just about everything else you can think of that’s connected with automobiles and the love of motoring.

And let’s not forget the celebrities — Jay Leno, the former Tonight Show host and celebrated car guy who seems to be everywhere; Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former governor of California and a film star of note; actress and celebrity Gwyneth Paltrow, without her children but very much with two very large bodyguards; Dario Franchitti, former IndyCar driver and former husband of Ashley Judd; ex-New York Giants defensive end and current TV star Michael Strahan, and on and on.

This year, there were 27 categories at the Concours, ranging from Antique to Rolls-Royce Prewar, European Classic Sport, Ferrari One-Off Specials, Postwar open and closed-wheel cars, and my personal favourite, American Dream Cars of the 1960s.

Entries came from 15 countries, including Canada, and 31 U.S. states. Three Canadians had cars on display — Brent Merrill of Toronto had his 1928 Stearns-Knight H 8-90 Philips Cabriolet there, and it finished third in judging in the American Classic Open class. The Canadian Automotive Museum of Oshawa had the late Bud McDougal’s 1927 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A Cesare Sala Torpedo looking spiffy, and Wayne Grafton of Richmond, B.C., had his 1947 Delahaye 135 Figoni & Falaschi Cabriolet, which he bought in 2014 and just had restored, all spit ‘n polish out on the lawn. It received a special award — The French Cup. It also finished first in the Postwar Grand Touring class.

The joy of a Concours like Pebble Beach (and let’s not forget that our very own Concours d’Elegance will be held in two weeks at the Cobble Beach Golf Resort on the shores of Georgian Bay, north of Owen Sound) is that you can be sauntering along admiring all of this incredible machinery, not to forget the many incredible people who are equally attractive and that you are likewise admiring, and something stops you in your tracks.

It is a sports car in profile but it sure looks — from the side and a distance — like the car the late Bob Sweikert drove into Victory Lane at the 1955 Indianapolis 500. As you get closer, you realize it’s painted in Sweikert’s colours, all right — pale pink on mauve (they liked to make their cars stand out in those days, as distinct from the travelling billboards they’ve since become) — but as you get even closer, you realize it’s a car with two seats, not one.

The penny drops when you walk to the front of the car and discover that the nameplate says “Kurtis,” and you recall that the founder of Kurtis Kraft, Frank Kurtis, was the guy who designed the car in which Sweikert won the Indy. That chassis — powered by an Offenhauser engine — was so popular that year that 16 other race drivers were in cars identical to Sweikert’s (but with different paint schemes).

Kurtis also built four 500SX sports racing cars in 1955 and each one was unique.

According to the Pebble Beach program, the two-seat Kurtis Sports car I had fallen in love with has been described as the first “true American sports car.” Originally designed in 1949 and built in 1951, the car was a high school graduation gift from Frank Kurtis to his son, Arlen.

As mentioned earlier, one of my favourite corners of the Concours was the area entitled American Dream Cars of the 1960s. One of the problems with contemporary auto shows, be it in Detroit, New York or, yes, Toronto, is that what are called “concept” cars are really “preview” models of cars that will likely be in showrooms six months later. In the ’60s, auto designers let their imaginations run wild when it came to concepts.

My personal favourite was a 1960 DiDia 150 “Bobby Darin” Coupe that can usually be found at the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis, Mo. Bobby and his wife, Sandra Dee, were in it when they arrived for the Academy Awards in Los Angeles in 1961. He drove it elsewhere but usually only to public functions and rented it out for a couple of movies. It cost him $150,000 to buy it after it was built — about $1.25 million in today’s U.S. dollars.

John Hartman is with the museum, and he told me that the car was donated in 1970 and that “in 1953, a clothing designer named Andy DiDia didn’t like the looks of cars being made that year and so designed one himself. He took the plans to a custom body shop, they fabricated the car, and it’s a totally custom car on a tubular frame.”

Harman continued. “It has a Ford engine, the metalwork is aluminum, it took six-and-a-half years to complete and has a lot of hidden features. The doors are electric, the hood is electric, the turn signals cause the tail lights to move side-to-side as the car makes a turn, the steering wheel is out of an older Chrysler car — it has that square-ish style — and the roof pops up because the car’s so low, you’d probably kill yourself getting in.

“The information of the early days before we got the car is real sketchy, but this is what I’ve gleaned from a number of different sources: Clark Custom Auto Body is the company that fabricated the body. They were selected because they had expertise working in aluminum, and this is way back in the ’50s when aluminum wasn’t as common. It was quite an art.

“Bobby Darin saw the car when it was in construction, and at that time, he hadn’t really made it big, and his comment was to the effect that, ‘If I ever become successful, I want to buy that car.’ Which is what happened.

“He donated it to our museum three years before his death, and legend has it that he solicited a number of museums around the country before he gave it away and he selected ours. Our museum has been in business since 1944 and well-established, and he just felt that would be a good home for the car. He had no connection to St. Louis, otherwise.”

As mentioned earlier, the Concours is the climax but there is non-stop action just about the rest of Car Week. For instance, on the Friday of the Councours weekend, an exhibition of racing and sports production cars was held at another Monterey country club, the Quail Lodge & Golf Club at Carmel where, this year, Infiniti unveiled its Prototype 9 1930s-era race car that was featured in last weekend’s Wheels section, and Team Penske took the wraps off its Acura ARX-05 DPi sports racing car, one of two it will campaign in next year’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

Roger Penske himself was there for the announcement, as was Penske Racing president Tim Cindric, ace PR man T.E. McHale, Bobby Rahal, Jerry Seinfeld, the aforementioned Franchitti, and Leno, and too many others to mention.

Saturday, at the historic Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Salinas, home of the world-famous “Corkscrew” turn in which the elevation of the circuit drops 15 stories between Turns 8 and 9 (and is best known for what many consider the greatest pass ever made in big-league formula-car racing when Alex Zanardi got by Bryan Herta halfway down the turn during a CART race in 1996), the track welcomed thousands of participants and spectators to the annual Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion.

There were plenty of professional racing drivers on hand — it was a thrill to watch two-time world champion Mika Hakkinen put Niki Lauda’s 1984-world championship-winning McLaren MP4/2 through its paces — but the neat thing about this event is the old racing cars that have been lovingly restored by their contemporary owners and then taken out on the Laguna Seca track to either be shown off or, on occasion, really raced.

An example of the former was a 1986 Porsche 962 being driven by a fellow named Gordon Zimmerman from Hartford, Conn. He said the car was worth about $1.5 million and that when he is out on the track with others driving cars as valuable as his, “Nobody wants their car touched. So, we won’t race; we’ll be out there for a walk in the park.”

He told a fellow inquiring that the car wasn’t for sale, “but if you offered me $2 million for it, I’d give it to you.”

Ed Archer, an automobile appraiser from Hayward, Calif., was at Laguna Seca proudly showing off “Old No. 4,” a 1915 Ford open-wheel racing car that he’s owned for 49 years. Archer looked like he was thoroughly enjoying being decked out like a 1915 racing driver and, with his vintage eyeglasses and his handlebar moustache, plus that cloth “crash” helmet and the goggles, he certainly looked the part.

About the glasses, he said he bought a box of antiques in 1961, and when he was going through what was in it, he came across the specs.

“I put them on back then and everything was blurry, and I said to my wife, ‘Boy, this guy sure had bad eyesight.’ ” But, then, he added: “When I put them on today, I can see perfectly … ”

Back at the Concours, a 1929 Mercedes-Benz S Barker Tourer owned by millionaire Bruce R. McCaw of Bellevue, Wash., was judged Best of Show. McCaw at one time owned the Pacwest Racing team in the CART Indy car racing series. He made his money in cellular communications.

“This Mercedes-Benz S Barker Tourer is a combination of speed, style, and power,” said Concours Chairman Sandra Button. “Somehow, these three elements — along with those fantastic torpedo running boards — become the very definition of elegance.”

Finally, Gooding & Co., the official auction house of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, had sales of more than $90 million at auctions it held over the weekend. On Friday, a 1970 Porsche 917K became the most valuable Porsche ever sold at auction when it went for $14,080,000. The previous record price paid, also for a Porsche, was $10,120,000 in 2015.

On Saturday, a 1966 Ferrari 275 GTN/C also set a record when it was sold for $14,520,000.

Those are just the Gooding & Co. figures. There are many other Monterey Car Week auctions, so, try these figures on for size.

  • Bonhams sold a 1995 McLaren F1 Coupe for $15,620,000.
  • Mecum Auctions had a 2014 Ferrari LaFerrari Coupe that went for $3,795,000.
  • RM Sothebys sold a 1956 Aston Martin DBR1 Roadster for $22,550,000.
  • Russo and Steele saw a 1961 Ferrari 250 Europa Coupe go for a paltry $1,155,000.
  • Worldwide Auctioneers had a top sale of $605,000 for a 1940 BMW 328 Roadster (and it kind of makes you wonder why they bothered, doesn’t it?)

In short, those six auction companies moved 1,277 vehicles over four days for a total of $327 million. The auction houses, the sellers, and the Councours’s 80 charities will all benefit.

And just think — it’s only six months until the Barrett-Jackson classic-car auctions start up in Scottsdale, Ariz., and a year until Pebble Beach will gear up to do this all over again.

The Monterey Peninsula is about two hours south of San Francisco and gorgeous at this time of year, with temperatures around 20 C during the day. If you want me to attend again next year, boss, I think I might be able to find the time.

Consider this a formal request.