DAY 4: On The Trampled Lawns of Pebble Beach
As the main event for the week, pretty much everything stands still for the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. The first event took place in 1950, and since then has grown from a small gathering of thirty cars to an event that takes over the whole of the Pebble Beach Golf Club and one of the most prestigious events on the automotive calendar – and has the manufacturer advertising and display presence to boot. But all of that is kept outside the Concours itself; inside on the green of the 18th hole between the expansive lodge and the Pacific Ocean, the event itself seems a perfect match for the vastly expensive Pre-War cars the Concours is known for: men and women all dressed to perfection, every last detail carefully selected and positioned for maximum visual effect, on one of the most famous and exclusive golf clubs in the world. The clothes and the cars aren’t the only thing for the super-rich: the cost to walk in the front door of the Concours d’Elegance is two-hundred and twenty-five dollars a head. With all the careful planning and orchestration of the event, it’s almost more of a cotillion than a car show. And even though I am objectively not of that class (in all possible permutations of the word), I still saved my best thrift-store finery for my time on the lawn at Pebble Beach.
As I was kindy being driven to the event by Gawker Media manager (and therefore designated adult for the trip) Julia Alvidrez, we had plenty of time to talk about how perfect the weather was for the day – just a bit of fog, enough to keep it cool and diffuse the light for better photography – and that the route we were being sent on by the event signage seemed to be intentionally designed to make the route as complex and convoluted as possible, steadfastly refusing to take the “just go straight there” route the F-Type’s GPS tried in vain to keep. The spectator parking where she dropped me off was on a completely different part of the peninsula, or rather, a completely different golf course, since it seemed that the only available space for parking on the entire peninsula was on one of the many courses. The shuttle bus ran along 17 Mile Drive, and the distraction of simply taking in the beautiful surroundings kept me from worrying about what I had to accomplish for a little while.
This brief respite lasted until I got off the bus and remembered that this was the last chance for me to salvage my article. The return of the worry about how on Earth I was going to pull this off might have precipitated me once again getting completely lost. After I ran a mile in a sport coat and second-hand Oxfords in the complete opposite direction from the Concours, I started making my way down the path to the show itself. This was not as short of a trip as one might think, as every manufacturer and auction tent was placed between the bus stop and the Pebble Beach lodge, all to give you the better chance to stop in for a rest on the arduous trek from parking to event. Finally, I made it to the media tent, grabbed my pass, and headed through the lodge complex to the Concours itself.
There was no gradual build to stepping out onto the grass at the Concours – one moment I was walking past the staff entrance to the lodge, and the next I was standing on the green, overlooking the ocean with the whole of the Concours stretched out in front of me. It was a lot larger than I thought it was going to be, having only ever seen it car-by-car in three-quarters perspective. It took up the whole of the 18th hole from tee to green, bordered by the Pacific Ocean on one side and the lodge on the other, with the lodge completely given over to corporate hospitality suites that stretched further down the hole, allowing those favored by our great and benevolent corporate sponsors to sit, eat and drink their comped food and beverages. The cars looked stunning laid out on the fairway and green, and it was no wonder why the the classical automotive concours takes place on a lawn – even though the combination of automotive and pedestrian traffic utterly obliterated the impeccably manicured grass on the 18th hole, sacrificing what purpose the ground serves three-hundred and sixty-four days out of the year for this one very prestigious Sunday.
I only took a few minutes to admire the scenery, however – I had to strike while the iron was shaded from overcast skies and the crowds had not yet fully arrived. Even before I walked in, I knew there was no chance of me even being able to cover all the highlights in a show where every car would be the showcase anywhere else. The process of eliminating what to spend the time and effort to photograph in situations of automotive excess always makes me feel self-conscious, as if I had been given the task of documenting the contents of The Getty with just a disposable wind-up camera. Which piece of stunning automotive design and restoration do you choose to commit to digital memory? Which few dozen cars tell the story of a one-of-a-kind gathering of rolling history and engineering? So, I resolved to simply walk the rows and take pictures of whatever seemed most interesting.
What weighed on my mind more at that moment, though, was not the abstract angst of selective photography but the very real and present worry of not having a story to write. I needed interviews and badly, and looked over the crowd with a scavenger’s desperate eye for possible subjects. A couple waiting patiently for the judges by a Pierce-Arrow sedan caught my eye, and I pounced.
Despite a rocky and fumbling start of me forgetting the difference between carburetion and fuel injection and answering my own questions, I felt that I had finally ground off the roughest edges of the interviewing process. The questions came more naturally – mostly thanks to repetition – and this comfort allowed me to actually think about what answers I was getting. The answers, to that point, had agreed on a few points: cars today were better in almost every measurable way except for beauty and originality (although sometimes, not by much), that we’d lost the flair of design in the process of making cars safer and more attainable to the average person, but that on balance, things are better now than then. This ran counter to the traditional stereotype of the vintage and classic enthusiast of only reminiscing about the Good Old Days of Motoring and wishing that we could wind the clock back to whatever their era of choice is, and seeing it on the lawn of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the height of vintage automobile fetishism, was more surprising than I care to admit.
One of the cars that drew the most interest at the show was a particular Voison, a Pre-War French marque that’s of the type that the Pebble judges love to lavish with awards. Rather than being a spit-polished restoration masterpiece, this particular Voison was more of an untouched barn find. Paint had long-since started to give way to patina and the interior was more worn-in than a pair of old boots, but it still looked elegant and classy, like an elderly society matron in a vintage dress she’s owned since new. I was drawn to it simply of how it both defined and embodied the stereotypical idea of a Pebble show car, but when I saw a man standing there with a binder full of images and documents pertaining to the car, I took a deep breath and asked him for an interview.
This interview hit all the notes I had envisioned for my original article. The loss of coachbuilding and craftsmanship to mass production, the tradeoff between that and the benefits that mass production can bring – if I had been guaranteed an interview that hit these notes, I would have been ecstatic. But by that point, I had started to see that this wasn’t exactly news to anyone, and I barely noticed those details as the beginnings of the real story that Monterey Car Week was trying to tell me started to break through.
I was so engrossed with conducting the interview that I almost didn’t notice Davey walk past and look my way for a few seconds. Self-consciousness rushed back to the forefront of my mind for a moment, but its advance was halted when I realized that I hadn’t mucked up the interview so far, and in fact, was doing quite well. I was standing on the lawn at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, conducting a real interview, and save my smartphone voice recorder, I looked the part of the professional with my suit, camera bag and notepad. I might have been new, but that was the first moment that I felt like I was supposed to be there, that I was earning the media badge around my neck instead of just being an interloper with a free ticket I didn’t deserve.
This confidence promptly went straight to my head. I decided that my next interview would be with one of the whales of the Concours, one of the owners of the ridiculously expensive Pre-War Rolls-Royces or Bentleys. I justified it to myself that the story would be complete without the perspective of someone showing the top shelf of the show, but if I’m honest, hubris probably played no small part. The most stunning of the Pre-War Rolls-Royces was a laundaulette-style limousine, restored to perfect condition. The owner and his family were hanging around the car and enjoying themselves, and while I felt pretty confident at that moment, I was able to check my hubris long enough to wait for an actual opening after USA Today had their way with him.
Much to my relief, I didn’t fumble the interview, which was very fortunate for both me and the story. By the end of the interview was somewhat surprised by how much he knew beyond his own car – the idea of liability preventing the return of coachbuilding hadn’t even occurred to me – a stereotype which seemed stupid almost the instant the thought crossed my mind. Someone who not just collects Rolls-Royces, but a specific model of Rolls-Royce probably is something a serious car enthusiast, particularly for the period the object of their obsession is from. And if he was an enthusiast, my next interview subject was a full-on unabashed nerd.
There, in kindly British form, was the perfect refutation of both my original article concept and personal perspective I brought to the Concours. This man not only knew every nut and bolt of this car, but could barely contain himself when asked about his precious Aston Martin. And, I realized, that was probably true of pretty much every owner there. The Concours d’Elegance projects a very patrician image, old rich white men displaying one of the many symbols of their wealth on one enormous symbol of wealth, but that wasn’t the real texture of the event on the ground. The cars might have been older than many we’d be used to seeing, but most of them were not insanely decadent coachbuilt behemoths but rather well-preserved and tastefully restored classics of all stripes – not that those decadent coachbuilt behemoths weren’t impressive in their own way. Production Lamborghinis, Ferrari GTs, Lincolns, BMWs, Alfa Romeos and Porsches shared the lawn with one-off concepts and luxury barges along with everything in-between – a real Porsche 911 Targa police car from Holland and one-off Alfa Romeo streamliner were particular favorites. The Concours, much like Monterey Car Week, very much had something for everyone.
More importantly, though, despite the cost of the cars on display and the obvious wealth of the event, there was rarely an upturned nose to be seen. The aristocratic airs that the events of Monterey Car Week and the Concours in particular put off are almost more on our end than on theirs; the ground truth was that this was just another bunch of car nerds getting together to nerd out about their favorite cars. The setting and presence was certainly different than a dirty parking lot – I didn’t say it was entirely a self-induced delusion – but beyond the trappings that such wealth carries with it lied a real love for the automobile and automotive culture similar to what you’d see almost anywhere else.
There was also no romantic swooning for the days gone by to come back and return us to a simpler and better time. Almost everyone I spoke to was not only fully aware of the advantages of today and the dangers of our automotive past, but prefered the cars of today without pause. What I came to understand was that they saw the Concours and Monterey Car Week more as a chance for people to look at what had been done in the past, and not just be reminded that such cars were ever made, but learn about how things were done and maybe inspire a bit of the classic flair for design and panache that modern cars can sorely lack. The fear was not that such art and craftsmanship was lost, but that it was irrelevant in today’s mass production automotive market, that there would be no cars from today on the lawns of Monterey in seventy years’ time – a fear that is not entirely unfounded. Perhaps, as mentioned, it’s a gap that can be filled by the customization and modification scene, perhaps we’ll see a grand return to concept cars that are actual cars or coachbuilding, but as for right now it’s an open question.
My time at Monterey Car Week was quite a journey, one longer in mental distance than physical and marked more in walls broken down than miles traveled. Diving into the deep end of covering a major event with little practical experience certainly forced me to up my game as a writer, but the most marked growth was in my view of the events on the Monterey Peninsula during the week. Wealth may shape the contours of the events and provide for a markedly different selection of cars on display, but the underlying reasons for the events is the same that motivates all automotive enthusiasm: a love for the engineering and craft of the automobile, a need to see it remembered and celebrated, and a desire to share that enthusiasm with other like-minded individuals, something that transcends their lofty place on the socio-economic ladder. It’s easy to divide Monterey Car Week into events that only cater to one type of car enthusiast or another, Historics for those that prefer classics driven hard, Pebble for those who prefer pristine garage relics. The cost to attend these things certainly isn’t cheap, but what I found was that the only true barrier between myself and not just enjoying but understanding what Monterey Car Week was was to relax, drop your preconceptions about the events, the attendees and participants, and join in celebrating the automobiles on display – a good lesson to remember whether the event is on broken asphalt or manicured green.