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California dreaming

Since it was introduced in 1950, the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance has grown to become America’s premier festival of luxury motoring

Over the course of its 70 years, the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in Pebble Beach, Northern California has often made history even while celebrating the past. But when it began, in 1950, the concours was simply meant to add a dash of style to a road race.

In the years following the Second World War, British sports cars were all the rage in the US, and Americans wanted to race them on real roads, as in Europe, rather than looping the oval tracks that are still so common in the States. On the East Coast, the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) organized road races at Watkins Glen in upstate New York. On the West Coast, SCCA member Sterling Edwards was hoping for good publicity to sell his own new car – the Edwards America – so he pushed for a race on the winding and scenic 17-Mile Drive of what is now the Pebble Beach Resorts, where his good friend John Boit Morse was president.

After approval was granted and a racecourse was laid out, Pebble Beach resident Alton Walker suggested that a car show be added. Just as the main event was to be a European-style road race, the car show was to be modelled on the early “concours d’elegance” that had paraded down the Bois de Boulogne in pre-war Paris. The Pebble Beach Concours would focus on new cars, but Walker, who became the event’s founding chairman, brought a handful of antique and vintage cars and asked a few of his friends to do the same.

Edwards lost that first road race, but his eponymous sports car was named Best of Show at the Concours. In the ensuing years, four more new cars – three Jaguars and an Austin Healey – won the award. Then, in 1955, the Pebble Beach Concours shifted its focus. After a heated debate among the judges (with racing great Pete DePaolo arguing heartily for it), the top accolade was accorded to a 1931 Pierce-Arrow 41 LeBaron Town Cabriolet restored by Phil Hill, who would go on to become World Drivers Champion.

Hill had learned to drive in that very Pierce, and he restored it as a labour of love, then shared it at the Concours without any thought that it might win. In fact, he was at work on his race car when the win was announced and he had to accept the trophy while dressed in his dungarees – something that still embarrassed him decades later.

Despite the drama, the die was cast. Thereafter, the Pebble Beach Concours would award its top prize to collector cars rather than new cars on all but one occasion. Other concours followed suit, and over time the term “concours” was redefined.

When the racecourse proved too dangerous for increasing speeds and the races moved to a new purpose-built circuit in 1957, there were whispers that the Pebble Beach Concours might end. But enthusiasts refused to let that happen.

The Pebble Beach Concours is now mostly known for the quality of cars it draws together and the special displays it mounts, which often reflect the changing interests of enthusiasts but sometimes leads them on issues such as the importance of driving cars and preservation.

Pre-war classics, particularly Rolls-Royce and Bentley models, were the primary focus of regular classes from the mid-1950s through to the 1980s, but an ongoing class for competition cars was offered as early as 1961. Aston Martins of all ages were invited to the show field in 1963, and Ferraris were invited en masse as early as 1974. Now pre-war and post-war cars often take to the field in equal numbers, and racing greats are a consistent part of the mix.

For its very first special exhibit, back in 1953, the Concours showcased the winners of the latest Carrera Panamericana open-road race. Such special displays greatly expanded under Lorin Tryon and Jules “J” Heumann, who stepped in as Co-Chairmen of the Concours in 1972, instituting a new two-tiered system of judging and a renewed emphasis on showcasing great cars.

The unprecedented gathering of all six Bugatti Royales in 1985, for instance, gained international attention – as did the first-ever display of all three Alfa Romeo BATs, along with their creator Nuccio Bertone, in 1989. More recent jaw-dropping displays have showcased Ferrari 250 GTOs, the Jaguar XKSS and Ford GT40 race cars.

When a special display of early “Dream Cars” was introduced on the upper putting lawn in the late 1980s, a repeat was demanded. That has now evolved into the Pebble Beach Concept Lawn, where manufacturers often debut their latest creations.

Leading into the turn of the century, the introduction of the Pebble Beach Tour d’Elegance underscored the fact that cars are meant to be driven. Thereafter, under Chairman Glenn Mounger, the importance of preservation was stressed. In addition, current Chairman Sandra Button has placed a special emphasis on supporting growing communities of enthusiasts throughout Asia, the Middle East, northern Europe and elsewhere.

Seventy years of elegance

1950

Enthusiasts seek to organize the first “European-style road race” on the West Coast of the United States in the post-Second World War era, and ask Pebble Beach to host the event. A concours d’elegance adds a social component and a dash of style, drawing 32 entrants.

1954

Bon vivant Lucius Beebe takes on the role of Chief Judge and declares his passion for Rolls-Royce in an Esquire essay. The marque will come to dominate the Concours for well over two decades; it gets two, three and sometimes even four ongoing classes before others get even one. Consequently, more Rolls-Royce motor cars have been shown at Pebble Beach than any other marque. After Beebe’s death in 1966, the event’s first special award is established to honour him.

1955

In a radical departure from its initial focus on new cars, the Concours gives its top award to a 1931 Pierce-Arrow 41 LeBaron Convertible Town Cabriolet, lovingly restored by racing great Phil Hill. Over the ensuing years, Pebble Beach will continue to reward “classic cars”. Other concours follow suit, and over time a concours is redefined as a competition for collector cars.

1957

Rolls-Royce tops the podium on this occasion, earning the first of its impressive five Best of Show titles. On this case, the winner is a 1937 Rolls-Royce Phantom III Mulliner Sedanca de Ville shown by Frank B Cox of San Rafael, California.

1962

Top honours go to a 1913 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost London-to-Brighton Tourer owned by Alton Walker, who previously served as the Founding Chairman of the Concours. To the current day, this Ghost is the only car from the Antique Era (predating the First World War) ever to be named Best of Show at the Pebble Beach Concours.

1972

Lorin Tryon and Jules “J” Heumann are named Co-Chairman, and they establish a new two-tiered judging system. Cars are first judged within their classes by marque experts to determine their historical accuracy and the quality of their restoration, and then only class winners go on to compete for Best of Show.

1979

After the Concours decides to celebrate a “featured marque” each year, the spotlight shines almost immediately on Rolls-Royce and Bentley. Mrs W O (Margaret) Bentley is invited to the celebration to hand out awards, and she charms the crowd. Briggs Cunningham, Nuccio Bertone, Sergio Scaglietti, and a host of racing greats and notable car people will follow in her footsteps.

1985

The plan to unite all six Bugatti Royales for the first time ever begins as a suggestion tossed out over drinks at a post-Concours party. Against all odds, the Royale gathering happens. In the process, two cars are declared national monuments by the French, granted diplomatic immunity by the US State Department and flown nonstop across the Atlantic – and over $100,000 is raised to support the effort. This exhibit affirms the Pebble Beach Concours on the world stage and sets the bar for displays for decades to follow.

1989

While the first-ever gathering of the three Alfa Romeo BATs draws all eyes on the main show field, a special display of early American Dream Cars on the upper putting lawn offers an added attraction. A demand for more dream cars will follow – and it will grow into the Concept Lawn, affording manufacturers the opportunity to debut concepts and new cars in front of an admiring and appreciative crowd.

1998

Seventy Concours entrants participate in the first Pebble Beach Tour d’Elegance to prove that the world’s greatest cars are not just static sculptures. While the Tour traces a scenic route, it is more than a joy ride, encompassing some steep and gruelling grades, and its successful completion determines the winner when cars tie in Concours class competitions. Moreover, one Tour participant each year will be awarded the new Elegance in Motion trophy.

2005

To ensure the Concours’s long-term survival, Chairman Sandra Button forms an advisory team and a Selection Committee of esteemed experts to propose special car classes and review entry applications on an annual basis. The first Pebble Beach Motoring Classic takes place, wherein 30 cars (including a Silver Ghost and an Austin Seven “Nippy”) wind 1,500 miles from the Seattle area to Pebble Beach, further underscoring the fact that these cars are meant to be driven. RetroAuto – retail heaven for automobilia enthusiasts – also begins,
and the Forum speaker series will follow.

2012

A special exhibition of Maharaja Cars, many shared by the erstwhile royal families of India, underscores the expanding reach of the Concours, as Chairman Sandra Button engages with burgeoning communities of collectors from around the world. The coming years see new participants from China, Singapore, Thailand, New Zealand, Israel, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland.

2020

To date, the Concours has raised more than $30 million for charitable causes. It also plays an ongoing role in supporting the young designers and restorers that will be needed to care for great cars long into the future. In addition to the Strother MacMinn Scholarship Fund, which was established in the early 1990s for students at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, and the Phil Hill Scholarships, established in 2011 for students at McPherson College in Kansas and the Academy of Art University in San Fransisco, the Jules “J” and Sally Heumann Scholarships have been established to fund more McPherson students. The Concours also partners with the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University.

The 70th Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance is due to take place on 15 August 2021