Every August, droves of car collectors gather for a week on the Monterey Peninsula to show off, ogle, and place big-money bids, all culminating in an elaborate Sunday afternoon car show: the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Ladies wear complicated hats and men don pastel seersucker suits for the golf course occasion. It’s an ostentatious display that seems distant, even out of step with the concerns and circumstances of the outside world.
But Monterey Car Week also might be the most important luxury car show in America.
I’ve been going to Pebble Beach on and off for the past decade, and it serves as a barometer for the current state of car passion. While automakers invest in CES to show off investments in new technology, and use auto shows to churn out business announcements, Pebble Beach is where cars take center stage. It’s a measure of how influential customers receive new products and celebrate the pedigree of old ones.
Trends, features, and styles are introduced in luxury cars that eventually make it into mass-market brands. And because the crowd at Pebble Beach adores cars, people are not discreet about showing their enthusiasm for what’s hot and what’s not. Outside of formal events, parking lots around town become impromptu car shows and Instagramable moments. Collector Michael Fux customized an over-the-top purple Rolls-Royce Dawn that drew a constant crowd at the Inn at Spanish Bay. He also showed an identical hue in a Fux Fuchsia McLaren 720s. Of course, Tesla Model S sightings were frequent around town.
It’s a reminder that, like the Goodwood Festival of Speed, people still get very excited about seeing cars that few can afford. And while the record wild highs of Ferrari sales from few years ago seem to have faded as the collector market has leveled off, the $22 million sale of a 1956 Aston Martin DBR1 is nothing to sneeze at.
This year, several automakers unveiled concept cars that aren’t yet available for purchase like the Mercedes Maybach 6, the Pagani Zonda HP Barchetta, and the Acura ARX-O5 racecar. The Infiniti Prototype 9, based on a 1940s model, was most on message, a fictional reference to a time before Infiniti even existed as a company. The connection between an electric future and past was a noticeable theme: Volkswagen chose Monterey Car Week to show off the prototype of the electric microbus, the I.D. Buzz, flanked by an army of its classic busses. These concept vehicles were displayed at the entrance to Pebble Beach on the Concept Lawn, where car companies are among the major sponsors.
While there are hundreds of beautiful vintage Porsches, Lamborghinis, and Ford GTs to fawn over, Monterey Car Week has also become an informal sprawling car dealership. It seems like a bit of a sales trick to make product pitches as the champagne flows against the inspiring Pacific Ocean backdrop. It’s certainly a more attractive atmosphere than an auto show convention center or a strip mall dealership to pluck down a hefty deposit on a six-figure investment.
The most revered collectors get sneak peeks at cars that are hidden from public view at private events, much like an art collector who gets first dibs on a coveted painting. In the lobbies of hotels, I noticed several whispering consultants sitting with potential customers, discussing discreet ways to handle high-dollar distractions. The first Bugatti customer took delivery of a Chiron at Pebble Beach. A Bugatti spokesperson told me that 50 Bugatti customers were in attendance. If they all buy the new $3 million Chiron, that’s a $150 million tally of cars sales.
And while the rich folks come to Pebble Beach to shop for special cars, the local residents cringe as their streets become clogged with patrons traveling from the track to the numerous auctions and meet-ups held around town.
The Concours was founded in 1950 as a small gathering of cars showing off three classes: prewar, postwar, and MGs, and also included a road race that is now staged at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. For many years, Pebble Beach collectors have been deeply resistant to changing their traditions, and some of this legacy remains on the fairway, as cars that are invited to show at Pebble Beach must follow strict guidelines to be considered authentic and eligible for prizes. Restoring cars for Pebble Beach is an expensive undertaking.
But every year there’s a distinct sense that, in order for car enthusiasm to survive, these stuffier institutions need to be more open and accessible. Change or be swallowed up by a generation more consumed with self-driving than flossing $30 million Ferraris. At ancillary shows like the Quail: A Motorsports Gathering, more rad rides like a proper hot rod and supercars were displayed alongside priceless Porsches, and the electric car company Karma showed the Revero, though an elegant and classic 1964 ATS 2500 GTS took home top honors.
Even after the winning entry — a 1929 Mercedes-Benz Barker Tourer — was declared on Sunday afternoon, the show at Pebble Beach wasn’t really over. Attendees began peeling off into classic cars and exotics to share the road to home, where there was a whole other car show to behold: on the freeways leading to Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
Tech is slowly finding its way down to Pebble Beach, a two-hour drive from Silicon Valley. After all, many of the makes and models on display represent a time when cars were the cutting-edge ideas in society. It’s a reminder that when it comes to rethinking our relationship with cars, there’s something to be said for tapping into a bit of passion.
Photography by Tamara Warren / The Verge