Looking back at the annual invasion by the classic car industry in Monterey CA in August 2019 after the events were cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic — Monterey Car Week will never be the same again.
I was lucky to be invited back to the Monterey Car Week in 2019. But complaining again about how money has warped our hobby wasn’t necessary a year ago, not enough had changed (see my blog from 2008).
I first visited when Monterey’s biggest attraction was their new and fantastic aquarium, then about a half dozen more years to see fabulous old cars. But starting this century, it felt like a hostile takeover was taking place. A nice longish weekend for enthusiasts had gradually evolved into a week-long business convention for investors and rare cars. Businesses were hijacking our eccentric car interests and fun events, recasting our festivities as a “lux lifestyle” for sale and profit before the main events. VIP social events proliferated. Raising prices to control crowding had the opposite effect. It only validated that we had something they wanted and needed to distinguish their wealth.
Then suddenly, like the 1957 Mille Miglia which was cancelled by casualties (see this great story by Henry Manney), the 70th annual Concours d’Elegance at Pebble Beach, and all the accessory events in neighboring towns, were cancelled in 2020 by the epic casualties from the COVID-19 pandemic. Only the racers got private track time. But even they had to escape horrific wild fires to the north and brush fires inland. Without a doubt, 2020 was a virulent disaster and vaccines alone can’t restore Monterey’s ecosystem for old cars.
So I am now compelled to share my last visit in some detail and speculate about the possibilities for enjoying fabulous old cars on that peninsula again.
Monterey Car Week in 2019 —The Last of Its Kind?
Yet in spite of my criticism in 2008, I rushed off once more to the hysterics and preening at the Monterey Car Week in August 2019 without a care in the world. I flew out on short notice for a do-over with a friend when one of his colleagues had to cancel — I would be a fool to refuse since everything was arranged and I could still get an aisle seat on a flight to San Francisco. The last-minute invitation came from Samuel Chuffart, Global Design Director and founding member of Icona. He is a VIP in the car industry and an auto designer who developed and manages studios in Turin, Shanghai, and Los Angeles. He also designed the Best of Show trophy for the Concorso Italiano. Of course, the chance to attend the 69th Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance was a very nice surprise — a global pandemic, four months later, was literally inconceivable then. Now it is historic because everything was cancelled this year due to COVID-19.
The year 2020 was also unique because of a car auction industry cock-up. When bidding finally started for RM Sotheby’s marquee Porsche Type 64 — estimated to bring $20M — the auction opened bidding at $30M as per the teleprompter (even though the auctioneer called for bidding to start at $13M). His next call was for $14M, but the screen showed $40M, and so on. When bidding stopped at $70M, an all-time record, the audience got hysterical. Then RM Sotheby’s fessed up — you can find the video online — and pulled the lot. The last real bid was for $17M — well below the reserve price! The audience booed and many walked out. Their auctioneer’s strong accent (his native language is Dutch) was misheard by the transcriber for the teleprompter! So much for the progenitor of the Porsche breed — an ugly duckling derived from the pre-war VW Beetle for racing, then prevented by WWII. In 2019 THE premier auction house denied it its destiny again. How about that for another DNF?
The usual eight-figure cars from the top of the Ferrari collector car market didn’t show up either — they ran out of guts or gas. That’s mostly why total sales in dollars were down by a third, proving emphatically a downward trend from a peak in 2014 just as the U.S. dollar started to plunge.
But the lower half of the market still brought joy to many. About 70 percent of the five- and six-figure cars found new owners. Good, that is the sweet spot of our hobby after all.
Cost of Attendance
When we started going to Monterey in the 1980s, lodging in a nice place in Monterey, Pacific Grove, or Carmel-by-the-Sea ranged from $120 to $350 per night. Now the same places charge $500 to almost $2,000 per night! In 1985 a ticket to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance was $25, now it is $450. The Motorsports Gathering at The Quail charges $950 for its day-long concours if you submit to a lottery; you pay almost three times that if you want a guaranteed reservation. Then you can attend the McCall’s Motorsports Reunion at the Monterey Jet Center “for free” where vendors will try to sell you a new private jet or helicopter. An executive of the Greenwich AeroGroup, one of the vendors, was quoted in the local newspaper as saying “It’s a great concentration of a certain kind of client.”
And then there’s the Concourso Italiano and so on. One of the smaller events, the Carmel Mission Classic, which used to be free, costs $55 though it includes a wine tasting and a souvenir plastic glass. Tickets for the Rolex Monterey Reunion at the WeatherTech Raceway Lacuna Seca start at $170 for a basic, four-day access although the Flagroom pass jumps to $450. You can’t buy a pass at the track. Their business office is in a hotel near the county fairgrounds. Multi-day passes were the best deal, and still cost less than fine dining. Of course traffic jams are bad, but there’s lots to look at when you’re idling.
The End of Something That Got Too Big
Samuel had already rented a Chevy Malibu and was waiting for me in the arrival area of SFO International Airport. His flight from Shanghai landed a couple of hours earlier so he was very tired. I drove south and we stopped for lunch at a Mexican buffet in Lexington Hills off of Highway 17. I knew the way to Monterey so he dozed off. When we arrived in Pacific Grove, he navigated to our hotel using his phone. Bill Barranco had organized everything. He met us at our suite with his schedule carefully organized on a 11” x 14” spreadsheet detailing commitments, events, meals and options with web and street addresses and phone numbers. Bill is an industrial designer, well known talent agent, and recruiter out of Palo Alto.
Our first social commitment was to meet up with some Italians for drinks and dinner —Raffaello Porro, founder and CEO of Studio RPR (in Carpi just north of Maranello) plus three of his staff. Raffaello, Lamborghini’s PR man until recently, is also Chairman of the Concorso Italiano. We spotted them searching for a parking space at Monterey’s Fish House. It was full and loud, staff was frantic, and they had given away our table because we were 20 minutes late — a preview of mealtime battles ahead! Restaurants in Europe plan on one seating for dinner; you have your table for the entire evening. American restaurants try to turn their tables as many times as they can in a night. Luckily Bill also knew the Monterey Tides nearby, right on the bay, with easy parking, spacious and quiet. It commands a panoramic view of the ocean and peninsula. A half hour before sunset the atmosphere was perfect, much better for conversation, and the service was upscale resort quality. The food was excellent, too. Afterwards, late, not far from our suite, we stopped for provisions like orange juice, ice, wine, chocolate, bananas, etc. at a Safeway.
Secret Lodging in Pacific Grove
Our suite at the Pacific Gardens Inn was strategically located between the various venues that week; at a cost of $300 a night, it was a steal. Its rustic cluster of up/down cedar shingled duplexes under a grove of Douglas firs had a ski lodge atmosphere. It was also across the street from the century-old Asilomar Hotel and Conference Grounds which I discovered because their coffee shop opened early and was a five-minute walk from our inn. It is a secret gem, hidden in plain site, and because it was donated by the Hearst estate to the State of California, does not promote itself. On that quick hike, I took my nostalgic banner photo (at the top of this blog) of two Giuliettas from Oregon surrounding a local 1956 Special hard-top Buick. They are the vibe that I used to enjoy about this car scene.
WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca
Thursday morning I took Samuel to experience practice at the Rolex Monterey Reunion at the WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. It was his first time there. Of course he knew about it, but he never had the opportunity during previous visits. We enjoyed a leisurely walkabout and chatted with the staff at manufacturer’s chalets and with race car owners in the garages and under awnings. The large paddock area accommodates about four hundred racers.
The public facilities at the race track and in the paddock nearby have improved a lot in four decades, as they should. The experience is still very friendly and affordable. Seeing historic cars driven and raced there doesn’t get any better because wandering the paddock is included with every ticket. The track was called Laguna Seca when Steve Earle organized the first Monterey Historic Automobile Races there in 1974 on old Fort Ord. Naming rights were sold this century, first to Mazda and now to a floormat manufacturer.
Tour d’Elegance and Downtown Carmel
I had to drag Samuel away and forfeit test drives from Rover and Audi. We could have had a blast there all afternoon but the Tour d’Elegance cars were stopping in Carmel for an hour and this was another chance to see very special cars being driven instead of just parked or auctioned — too good to miss. Almost two hundred of Pebble Beach’s most spirited were lined up two-by-two on both sides of Ocean Avenue in downtown Carmel-by-the-Sea. Yup that’s the official name of this former artist colony. Wealth has now replaced most of the talent. We stayed at the Cypress Inn for several years — an historic Spanish-style inn co-owned by Doris Day until her recent death at 97. She was a dog lover extraordinaire. Dog beds were always stacked behind the reception desk. And I wonder if you might still encounter “make my day” Clint Eastwood, the town’s mayor for several terms. In 2008, he sat down in a booth at an Asian restaurant behind my wife and I — he looked very old even back then.
For dinner that evening, Bill took us to the Baja Cantina on Carmel Valley Road for an outdoor barbecue with a TexMex band. Those who drove interesting cars were herded to premium parking spaces to provide additional entertainment.
Bonhams Quail Lodge Auction
On Friday we headed uphill again to Highway 1 and then down and left onto Carmel Valley Road — this time for Bonhams Quail Lodge Auction, without passes. Lucky that Jakob Greison, Head of Bonhams U.S. Motoring Department, recognized me and waved us in. I first met Jakob when I displayed my 1966 E-Type Jaguar roadster at the Concours d’Elegance of America three years ago. I consigned it with him for Bonhams auction at Amelia Island the next spring; it sold to a collector from Ecuador who also has a D-type.
I’ll forever remember the stop and go traffic in the valley. We saw two Lambos, a bright apple green Murcielago following an orange one. Both of the LP 670-4 Superveloce versions in the left lane in front of us were occasionally passed by two stately, dark green and open W. O. Bentleys, probably 4.5 liter and Speed Six models, in the right lane. One was handled expertly by a well-attired lady truck driver. Only here, in the middle of August, is this scene with supercars separated by four generations not improbable!
During the Bonhams Quail Lodge Auction, over drinks with Mark Hyman, I finally learned about his sale of my 1963 Maserati 3500 Vignale Spider VIN 1405. It’s now in Pennsylvania. Does anybody know more about it? He’d only tell me that the new owner is very happy because it looks and runs like new and Mark acquired its original, though trashed, engine block for the new owner. About ten cars before the end of the auction, Jakob confided to me that it’s getting tough explaining to sellers that they have to apply the brakes to their expectations. That was my first whiff of a real downturn in the market. I’m glad that he sold my Jaguar in 2018 and Mark bought my Maserati in 2017. Afterwards, Samuel, Bill, and I enjoyed a late lunch with Bill’s relatives on the patio back at the nearby Baja Cantina and discovered their precious vintage motorcycles and Miller engine parts on display inside.
Back to Carmel
We parked around the corner from a Ferrari Daytona, askew at the curb, and then had drinks outdoors at Seventh & Dolores. I could see the Cyprus Inn which brought back fond memories of our previous stays. Next, Bill shepherded us off to a gallery opening featuring large scale car models and photorealistic paintings of cars. At the end of the day, we coasted into pit lane for dinner at the upscale Il Fornaio at Ocean Boulevard at Monto Verde where we enjoyed their superb Italian cuisine.
Saturday was devoted to the Concorso Italiano. Samuel woke me up early with the racket that he made trying to lock the legs of an ironing board to press his sport coat and shirt. That too is an indelible scene in my memory — as if somebody is getting married. I pressed my shirt’s collar because the iron was hot. We left hungry. We finally found the entrance to VIP parking (after overshooting several times) then hiked to a tent for a hot breakfast at the Bayonet & Black Horse Golf Course; this is where Fort Ord’s army brass used to yell “fore, the hell of it.” They had helmets didn’t they?
This became a very civilized start to an even longer day. Samuel placed his trophy, that he would present to the Best of Show winner, on a stand at the pass and review stage. Then we strolled among all the Italian classics and exotics being preened for judging and display. This venue is much more comfortable and genteel than Fort Ord’s airfield, the venue in 2008 when I last attended the Concorso Italiano. The bay view and ocean breezes are much better than the heat trapped in the valley at The Quail.
Anyway, after all the class winners passed for review and their trophies, Samuel finally took the microphone and described his inspiration for the bespoke red trophy — a woman’s curves in repose draped in the style of a hyper car. Then he introduced Ron Corradini, the Best of Show recipient, with his 1960 silver gray over deep red 250 Ferrari PF cabriolet.
Later that afternoon, Bill took us to the front of the line for the entrance to the Inn at Spanish Bay. His minivan’s Lyft moniker on the dashboard did the trick. I’ve never seen so many new hypercars! Two Koenigseggs were among them (the plural is jarring). After a good half hour perusing hypercars and shopping vendor booths in two ballrooms — I found a car badge from my hometown in Germany! — we scored two couches around a fire pit on Roy’s patio overlooking a sand trap to the horizon on the Pacific Ocean. We could even hear the waves. Soon their bagpiper in fine Scottish regalia squeezed songs from of his bag (of loud chipmunks) to end the day. The weather and fire were perfect for hot toddies.
We went back to Deloris in Carmel because Bill’s relatives invited us to their house for cheese and more drinks. From there we decamped to dinner at Flaherty’s Seafood Grill and Oyster Bar. Bill’s lux Chrysler Minivan was again our magic carpet. Anywhere crowded, like around the watering holes and lodges, we were directed to the shuttle stand or valet lane. Even 17 Mile Drive was free!
The 69th Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance 2019
It was another early start with breakfast plus check out on Sunday. We headed off to the main event of the week — the Concourse d’Elegance at Pebble Beach. I received a wonderful surprise before we had to show our passes. Raffaello Porro had an extra ticket for me. Thank you!
A couple of dozen Ferraris and two very special Alfa Romeo racecars were on display at the entrance — an 8c2300, dripping with patina, and THE P3 that pissed off Hitler. Near the end of the Grand Prix of Germany at Nurburgring in 1935, Nuvolari was delayed in the pits in dramatic Italian style, then came from behind like a maniac on the last ten-mile lap to snatch victory from Rosemeier’s Auto Union that was on bald tires. That P3 was already a year old and it went on to race another year! By the way, that solid-looking front axle — it is not. Those wheels are articulated on a hinged hydraulic mechanism invented in France by Dubonnet. Jon Shirley, former president, chief operating officer, and director of Microsoft, is it’s supremely conscientious custodian. It is the star from his astoundingly well-curated collection.
The main event of the Monterey Car Week is still the Pebble Beach Concourse d’Elegance — like an annual debutante ball. In 2019, the organizers arrived at the end of the alphabet to honor the design house Zagato. They also started over for the featured manufacturer, W. O. Bentley, and added a dash of Bugatti Type 59 race cars and three Ballots from France for zest. Best of Show was awarded to an 8-liter Bentley, bodied by Nutting, brought over from Hong Kong — great example of Brutalism, not elegance, in my opinion.
I noticed a lot more ladies, not just the presenters, were wearing BIG hats and bonnets. Thankfully, miniskirts and knee-high boots with stiletto heels are now passé.
Below are ten photos from the 69th Annual Concourse d’Elegance at Pebble Beach in 2019. These were taken by another friend of mine at the event, Jeremy Leng, and illustrate the variety of cars, my interests, and his keen eye. (The image files on my SD card got corrupted.) Jeremy is a British auto designer who was educated at the Royal College of Art and worked for Renault in Paris before joining Ford in Los Angeles. He is now in Dearborn MI and I met him at a Cars and Coffee in Ann Arbor (he owns an early Ferrari 308 in black).
Back in 1950, road racing started between Carmel and Pacific Grove in the Del Monte Forest. But it ended in 1956 when a Cypress tree killed a Ferrari and its driver and the safety of spectators became a concern. The parking lot for spectator cars became the marquee Concours d’Elegance in this hemisphere. In 1974, Steve Earle revived road racing nearby on Fort Ord for vintage race cars. Rick Cole started the auction scene modestly in 1986, next to Monterey’s new and world class aquarium.
Now almost an entire week is devoted to one or two simultaneous auctions selling cars in Monterey, Pacific Grove, and the Carmel Valley. Saturday is for extra concours at The Quail and Black Horse Golf Club, racing, and the Tour d’Elegance. Last year was the 69th and last consecutive Concours d’Elegance at Pebble Beach, plus more racing in the afternoon. That week became too much about exclusive events with cars, not enough about fun with cars!
All the classic car events on the Monterey peninsula were cancelled for August 2020 except for private days on the track. Wild fires closed the roads north. A new normal is still inconceivable but by next August 2021 it will be inevitable. Hopefully by then, this country will be less political, more responsible, and more democratic too. Can the Monterey Car Week survive a pandemic and climate change?
How about reimagining that week as a pop-up outdoor theme park about its former self? Marina, Sand City, Monterey, Pacific Grove, and Carmel, might alternately close certain streets for classic cars on exhibition runs and for racers transiting to and from the track. A short hill climb like Goodwood’s Festival of Speed could be staged.
Whatever a recovery brings, I hope they’ll find new ways to disperse people and increase entertainment — minimize the rental car traffic and maximize the spectacle of fabulous cars doing their thing. Online auctions could be staged as a long pass and review. But making people pay is the challenge. Could selling passwords be the key? Anyway, I hope a do-over grows the online audience, invites the classic cars to circulate much more, and spreads out the costs.
Our hobby needed a do-over from the last forty years of investor creep. There will be plenty of nice old cars for COVID-19 survivors. Supply/demand pressures on prices will invite more enthusiasts and mitigate the demographic decline.
Clearly the coronavirus killed an old and costly business model in 2020 (RIP). The spectacle of profiting from clashing egos and venue status is over. Auctioning classic cars originated here at Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf by Rick Cole. It became the coda of the “market.” Barrett Jackson kicked off the next “market” in January in Scottsdale AZ. RM, a Canadian and local outfit to me, bought Rick Cole’s auction business around thirty years ago. Goodings added theirs, then Russo and Steele, Bonhams, and Worldwide piled on. But now, just like Darwin’s finches, a newly-successful mutant from the Bay Area, calling themselves Bring a Trailer (BaT), got scooped up by publisher Hearst Magazines in early 2020. That was amazing timing!
Monterey Became an Industrialized Circus for Cars
I hope the venues for classic cars that survive will be dialed back towards the fun level we enjoyed in the 1980s. Back then visiting the peninsula was a vacation. I think it felt like a music festival, not a bunch of weddings. Let’s not forget, it was Monterey’s fairgrounds that showcased jazz for a large audience, then it lit the fuse for outdoor pop concerts. If only Woodstock had enjoyed Monterey’s weather more would have followed. Music needs artists and a venue, not Ticketmaster who forced music online. The culture and that scene died because money managers took over. Around that same time Bernie Ecclestone industrialized F1 racing. They still call professional racing a sport. But it is not. Its about selling.
Perspective on Classic Car Events
When I “collected” my first Classic, a 1948 MG TC, there were only the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the Grand Classic by the Classic Car Club of America, and the Grand National by the Antique Automobile Club of America. Then the Meadow Brook Concours d’Elegance brought the pre-war French fashion show formula forward in 1984. Two decades later, every State in the Union has one, well almost.
But our hobby is not growing anymore. We made it expensive and too stressful. Sure, there is some growth in Japanese and performance cars from 30 years ago, and there is still plenty of inertia, habit, tradition and camaraderie to paper over some aging. But most regulars will admit it ain’t what it used to be. Almost everywhere, Classic Car shows are driven by the selling of stuff and promotion of brands except for events like Speed Week at the Bonneville Salt Flats, the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb, and club events. Thankfully at racetracks, owners and drivers are still mostly real enthusiasts instead of show offs or dilettantes.
This pandemic is forcing the classic auction houses to adapt digitally or capitulate. I can’t think of a superlative for this irony. Some auctions will die and some will develop specialty niches in the collector car market — cars virtually consigned and reviewed by a specialist or a celebrity. Online selling will be normal. Social crowding will be a political statement. It is anyone’s guess as to when denial of the coronavirus will die off in the U.S. I also feel sorry for the conscientious and professional car transporters that grew to serve our rare cars with special needs. The shows and traveling auction circuses, the core of their business are history now.
But, on the other hand, a lot of potpourri car collections will be let out of their bags and auctioned by a panicked industry as the world around us changes profoundly. Who knows what a vaccine can do for events next year? Will enough people take and tolerate them? Can all the cancelled concourses again sell tickets to crowds? Or will judging be private, the cars paraded along a route for drive-by viewing by socially distanced spectators, winners announced on Twitter? Social distancing is more manageable at races. I’d love to see online bidding while they’re being raced! I’d call that “With a Trailer”.
Special Treat From Sports Car Digest
Here is a special treat from the great photographer Tim Scott who was invited by Sports Car Digest to document the festivities. Like photos of wildlife, the best photos capture great cars as they are driven in great locations. A Concours d’Elegance feels like a circus or a pop-up zoo if there were such a thing. He shot the photos on Highway 1 between the Rocky Creek Bridge and Castle Rock and at the stables at the Pebble Beach polo field.