Report From Carmel and Monterey

This is a detailed account from 2008 of the annual car culture immersion on the Monterey peninsula including the Concours d’Elegance at Pebble Beach, the Concours Italiano, the historic races at Laguna Seca, many auctions and concourses, and the general milieu. Doubling and tripling ticket prices was supposed to manage crowding, but it did not.

Seventeen years have passed since we stopped our annual car culture immersion on the Monterey Peninsula, more than enough to now provide some critical perspective. There used to be one auction (Rick Cole’s), one concours (Pebble Beach), the historic races, a new aquarium on our first visit, and car club meets. Partaking of each was doable and in retrospect easy. Now you will have to edit the possibilities before you arrive, and trim some more as the week unfolds and overwhelms. There are four or five auctions and concourses. Doubling and tripling ticket prices was supposed to manage crowding, but it did not.

GM's 100th Anniversary at the Concours d'Elegance at Pebble Beach
GM’s 100th Anniversary at the
Concours d’Elegance at Pebble Beach

Thankfully, attending the races is as good as ever, with more amenities. The best new tradition, which warms my heart, are the tours associated with events. It used to bother me that the only enthusiasts who were true to their enthusiasm were the Rolls and Bentley owners because they drove their cars and then showed them. Carmel-by-the-Sea is also the same — sweet as ever (a prophylactic insulin shot is still recommended). Only now it has its own two-evening concours right on Ocean Avenue to start revving up the week for cars. Thereafter, on every evening, by simply sitting for a while on a park bench in front of the library, you are sure to exclaim more than once, “I cannot believe someone still drives one of those in public without an escort.” Of course you will also see plenty of the latest super cars that, were it not for computers and fuel injection, would be completely fouled up before leaving this one-gear art town. More than twice we heard one of them scare the daylights out of a parked car’s alarm, simply by revving the engine to a screech.

Should you attend? Positively. There is no better automotive experience in this hemisphere. Is it worth it? That depends on your means, planning, and choices. THE most difficult yet important choice is your lodging because everything fills up and 98% is automatically reserved for the following year. The best strategy is diligence, a listing for Monterey, Pacific Grove, and Carmel (see links below or search in Salinas and Marina for budget-minded commuters or race fans) and making many calls on New Year’s Day and in June/July. Start with the bird-in-hand strategy and upgrade from there.

What to wear? Plan on cool mornings near the coast (light sweater or jacket) to hot inland. California is casual mostly, as in jeans or cargo pants, but “Pebble” and the “Quail” top out at the blazer level, with a pass still given to the suitably accessorized jeans. Weather does not change from day to day, in fact it is so consistent that the weather report is more like an infomercial — same day in, day out.

Impressions Circa 2008. On the Monterey peninsula you can literally overdose on cars in the middle of any August. So a great respite, usually overlooked, is to make time for a few hours at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This facility is one of the premier examples of its type in the world, both technically and educationally. It is terrific for kids and watching their amazement but it is not dumbed down. Lunch at Domenico’s on the Wharf nearby, or one of its culinary neighbors, is also an opportunity not to be missed since you will have learned about seafood and the recommended catch at the aquarium. You will be entertained by harbor views complete with pelicans, seals, and sea lions. Nearby RM Auctions at the Portola Plaza and Russo and Steele at the Marriott will be open for previewing or bidding after dinner.

Lamborghini at the Concours Italiano
Lamborghini at the Concours Italiano

Concorso Italiano. This year’s venue was the windy tarmac of the Monterey County airport which formerly served Fort Ord. It started as a Maserati Club International event, the first and for well over a dozen years only adjunct to Pebble Beach. It grew, got sold recently, and has evolved into the low-cost alternative to the “Quail” which now occupies the alternative concourse setting pioneered by MIE on that “other” golf course. The latter now limits admission to 3,000 and charges twice as much as Pebble Beach (but haute-cuisine grazing if free). Both upstarts have specialized in becoming a venue for selling that certain “lifestyle” that the typical “special interest” newish car owners know more about than nuts and bolts. Your visit to the aquarium will have been a good primer for honing your observational skills and apply them here for interpreting the highly evolved pecking order of the collector car society. Some women of a certain age can be seen to dress specifically to compete with the automotive sculptures that get most of the attention, wearing stilettos and expressions of pain, frustration and/or boredom. Could it be their aching feet and back, or defeat?

Lamborghini was the featured marque this year. California is by far their largest market. The newest models outnumbered their not so old ancestors by 20 to 1. Also on display were a handful of vintage T-6 trainers, a Piaggio Avanti P.180 (NA registered but possibly Piero Ferrari’s due to horse on tail and Ferrari logo on tip of nose), and about four dozen vendor booths.

Arriving at the Concorso Italiano is like entering a department store via the cosmetic counters ― acceptable when its free ― but to pay a not-insignificant entry fee (80 bucks per person for advance purchase) to see a lifestyle pitched at every turn is not classy. We hope the classic Italian cars will find a more comfortable setting that is closer to the rest of the action in coming years. I need some very convincing reasons to return to this venue. It is a shame, because the Concorso used to be a major reason for our pilgrimages.

Corkscrew at the Laguna Seca race track
Corkscrew at the Laguna Seca race track

Rolex Historic Races. The Monterey Historic Automobile Races is now a stalwart tradition, this year celebrating its 35th year. Race activity starts on Thursday. We bought two-day passes online for all day Saturday and Sunday afternoon. About 400 vintage race cars are invited each year to participate. They are divided into 14 groups, each with a half hour of practice, grid qualifying and ten laps of racing.

The paddock is THE MOST entertaining place to be on the peninsula. The atmosphere here is about as pure as I hope Bonneville still is. Situated on the old Fort Ord Army Base, it has added a nice modern garage complex adjacent to pit lanes. Speed TV has repeat coverage of four of the group races about every month.

We picked up our passes at the will-call table at a hotel. For the “hysterics” every ticket is also a pass to the paddock. Signs routed us to the most round about, back of the base entrance I didn’t know about. The pay-off was no idle waiting in a queue to park. Soon we surveyed the paddock with our cameras, made a quick tour of vendor alley, scoped out prospects for lunch, then headed to the infield side of the Corkscrew, that famous series of double esses dozed into the side of an ancient coastal dune.

The featured marque was Formula Junior. After practice and just before lunch it was Mario Andretti’s turn to demonstrate the John Player Lotus 79 in which he won his world title in 1979. In about three laps Mario obviously started to enjoy the grip of the tires and the g-forces on his empty stomach hurling down the Corkscrew. He wasn’t about to pit with gas in the tank and let the track announcers off the hook until he started shaving just tenths of a second.

1970 Lancia stratos HF Prototipo at the<br /> Concours d'Elegance at Pebble Beach
1970 Lancia stratos HF Prototipo at the
Concours d’Elegance at Pebble Beach

Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. This year’s features included GM’s 100th anniversary, fabulously illustrated with a display of concept cars anchored by a Futureliner from their Parade of Progress, accompanied by almost two dozen of Harley Earl’s one-offs, plus Cadillac’s production V16s from the decade of the 1930s. Lancia, Lamborghini and Ferrari’s California Spyders provided the featured “continental flair.” The sporty concepts from GM’s fanciful two decades, and a superb introduction to the Italian prima donnas of styling and engineering provided a truly entertaining ensemble of rolling sculpture.

It can’t get much better than that. And last, but certainly not least, was the 20+ Club — cars with engines exceeding 20 liters for the guys with more gonads than brains! A grand total of 24 classes were judged. And the Best of Show award was won by a closed car (very rare for Pebble), a most elegant and supremely capable Alfa Romeo, that was also the winner of the first U.S. Grand Prix in 1948, Jon Shirley’s 8c2900 Berlinetta.
Getting to the Concours is half the battle, unfortunately. Next time, I think we will opt for a taxi from downtown Carmel. Coming from Carmel at 8 a.m., we were directed ever further away from our destination, ending up almost in Pacific Grove, parking along the shoulder of 17 Mile Drive by the Monterey Peninsula Country Club where provisional bus stops would serve as our next link back to our goal.

Parking on the cold shoulder of 17 Mile Drive
Parking on the cold shoulder of 17 Mile Drive

The small parking lots for scenic outlooks were already full. Seeing an Alfa Romeo Sprint, a Ferrari 275 GTS, new Ferraris, and several Jaguar E types parked on the shoulder along with a good percentage of Northern California’s rental fleet is something I will not forget. We hiked back to a bus stop and eventually got dropped off at the Polo Fields. From there it was business as usual. Lunch at the Gallery Restaurant was well worth the short wait in line, however fetching our car was again most inconvenient and ate into our time at the track. This is no Monterey Pop Festival. The love of cars does not engender that kind of warmth and graciousness. But thank god for the core people who still practice their enthusiasm as a hobby. The insidious aspect of this extravaganza’s growth are the worshipers of wealth (the glitterati) and the businesses they feed.

This year, there were also six auctions including RM, Gooding & Company, Russo and Steele, and Bonhams.

All photos by Peter Pleitner.