'Besotted' at Pebble Auto Show, Perfectly the Norm

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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- On the eve of the 60th annual Concours d'Elegance, a tribal gathering of the world's richest and most serious vintage car collectors, Keith Bowley, an automobile restorer from the Cotswolds, was pondering the glittering rock star in his midst: a limited-edition $2.5 million Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Super Sport.

"It's not a matter of 'I've got this' and 'I've got that,' " Mr. Bowley said of the billionaires and millionaires who fly here from all parts of the globe in the hope of being crowned -- like a Scottish terrier at the Crufts Kennel Club Championship -- "Best in Show." He paused. "One is besotted."

The Concours, or Pebble as it is known, is an alternate universe in which California car culture and the sort of people who can afford to buy, restore and impeccably maintain a 1936 Alfa Romeo or a 1938 Jaguar SS100 Roadster converge, on a verdant 18th fairway.

The travails of Detroit and the economic meltdown seem to disappear in a poof of bonnets and piped-in concertos and an over-the-top sartorial tendency to color-coordinate with one's auto.

The event Sunday, which drew 50,000 participants and spectators (entry: $175 a ticket), was the grand finale of a frenetic classic car week that included vintage sports car races, an 80-mile tour and the high-roller RM Auction in Monterey, in which collectors -- mostly men -- shelled out a total of $68 million for couture cars that twirled like models on a runway.

Some 255 entries and 29 classes of cars were assembled along with their famous gearhead fans, like Jay Leno, whose latest obsessions are chronicled on jaylenosgarage.com, and collectors like Sam Mann of Englewood, N.J., inventor of widely used ear piercing devices, who has won "Best of Show" four times. Mr. Mann's friendly rival is Jack Nethercutt, a six-time winner and the chairman and president of Merle Norman Cosmetics Inc., whose family has an eponymous automotive museum in Sylmar, Calif. Like many other men here, he wore a Panama hat.

"You're up against the finest cars in the world," Mr. Nethercutt said of the competition, a no-nonsense affair where judges with clipboards inspect each well-preserved car nose to tail for its authenticity, like a cosmetic surgeon inspecting a dermatologist's Botox work.

"Everything has to be pure," Mr. Nethercutt said. "It can't just be a pretty car."

Spectators pose in front of million-dollar Duesenbergs and Rolls-Royces like tourists at Mount Rushmore.

Here, where many cars get eight miles to the gallon, a loudspeaker announcement, "Will Willie Snyder please return to his Duesenberg!" does not seem surreal.

The event has its roots in the Paris of the 1920s, when high modern furniture was exhibited as art and automobile design was becoming fashionable, said Christian Overland, the vice president of collections at the Henry Ford auto museum in Dearborn, Mich. The exhibitions evolved into a show called Concours d'Elegance, or "Parade of Elegance." Today the Pebble Beach extravaganza is the crème de la crème of about 20 such shows in the United States alone.

"It is a combination of art, fashion, culture and technology that inspires hobbyists the way Major League Baseball inspires amateurs," Mr. Overland said.

DeNean Stafford of Tifton, Ga., a heavy-machinery dealer, was there with his 1910 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost Double Pullman Limousine, which still had the original turquoise needlepoint on its doors and was painted a rich burgundy. He does not consider his six Rolls-Royces to be "a large collection," he said, but he spends about $100,000 a year to maintain each one, employing, like many here, a full-time collection manager, whose duties include driving.

"Cars are like people," said Stan Carpenter, the collection manager. "They get stiff if they don't exercise."

Robert M. Lee of Lake Tahoe, Nev., the founder of Hunting World and a safari pioneer, displayed a 1931 V16 Cadillac with a body by Pininfarina, made, he said, for the maharajah of Orchha with six gun compartments for hunting.

It was not the stuff of Click & Clack.

When not discussing hose clamps or dual-coil ignition systems, much of the car talk here involved comparisons to the art market and what cars were fetching at the five auctions this week.

"People go look at a Picasso," said Robert Pass, president of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Ind., summing up the prevailing attitude. "But you can't drive it."

Matt de Lorenzo, the editor of Road & Track, said serious collectors "were still paying serious money for serious cars," like the two rare Ferraris that sold for $4.6 million each at the RM Auction.

Only prices for muscle cars, which skyrocketed four years ago, remained weak. Drew Berlin, a vintage guitar broker from Los Angeles with coiled hair and dark glasses, had just sold a 1970 Pontiac GTO 455 HO convertible for $60,000. It was valued at $180,000 four years ago, Mr. Berlin said, attributing the fall to "dot-com versus old money."

Gerry Martel, an appraiser from Boston, said the market for Duesenbergs had also dropped. "No one under age 60 wants them," Mr. Martel observed. "I don't think I've ever seen a Duesenberg with an iPod."

Still, cars like an experimental 1955 Ghia Gilda Streamlined X Coupe, which had a jet engine that shook the ground, wowed the crowd. (Named for a Rita Hayworth role, it gave off a lot of heat.)

"You see the rarest of the rare," Mr. Leno observed after studying the engine of a tubular-looking silver 1938 Tatra Type 77a Limousine. "It's cheaper than crack or hookers," he said of his hobby. "When you come home reeking of transmission fluid, your wife knows where you've been."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times .


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