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Reflections on Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance

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After four days on the Monterey Peninsula of rushing from automotive event to event, Sunday, the day of the Concours d'Elegance, is almost relaxing. Mind you, that's if you think that getting up at four in the morning is relaxing.

The gates actually open to the general public at 10 in the morning, but insiders know that the most fun can be had as the first stirrings of dawn lighten the omnipresent mists of early morning. This is when the cars are unloaded from the temporary refuge of their transporters, then fired up and moved to the lawn behind the Delmonte Lodge.

A small crowd eagerly awaits this passage off cars through the gates where their handlers sign in and then proceed on to be marshalled into their specific division and class. The great thing about this is that, from about 5:30 to a little after 8 a.m., every car passes by and they can all be seen in motion with drivers and owners in attendance. Many are dressed to match the period of their cars, and it's a very intimate moment between onlookers and the cars themselves.

Later in the day, when crowds of 50,000 or more surround the 300 or so automobiles, the appreciation of each car is much harder. Mind you, it's still enjoyable, but it's as much about the crowd's reaction as it is about the cars themselves.

This year, the selection of cars was, as usual, magnificent. Cars of the Raj were one of the features. A number of purpose-built Rolls-Royces from India were lined up at the water's edge. These cars were built for the aristocracy of India in the Teens, Twenties and Thirties, and range from quiet elegance to ostentatious displays of wealth and power.

The most ostentatious car on the lawn was a 1910 Brooke, a marque from England that was three times the cost of a comparable Rolls-Royce of the period. This particular car is built to resemble a swan and was the brainchild of an eccentric Scotsman who lived in Calcutta.

Rather than having a horn, the swan spewed boiling water from its beak to clear the riff-raff off the road. It also featured a silk interior, a keyboard to play its horn pipes and a telegraph like a ship's to instruct the driver to turn left or right, slow down or speed up and go home. Oh, and a handy item we should all have fitted on our cars -- brushes on the back of each tire would sweep elephant droppings from the tire tread.

The car was eventually forbidden to be used on the road by the Indian constabulary, perhaps on complaints from the scalded. It was then sold by the Scot to the Maharaja of Nabha.

Each year, I play a little game with myself to see if I can select the best in class and best in show. This year, I did get most, but I completely missed best in show, which went to a 1928 Mercedes-Benz 680 Sport with a French Saoutchik Torpedo body. As grand as that car was, I still leaned toward a beautiful French Delahaye as my pick.

If the absolute truth is told, my favourite car at Pebble Beach this year was not French, German or English but American. In fact, it was not just American but an American custom from the dawn of U.S. hot-rodding. It was a car built by Norman Timbs and Emil Diedt in 1948, and I'm sure it took its inspiration from the 1937 Auto Union Type C Streamliner speed record car.

It was a beautifully done sculpture of curves and perfect reflections and had the most amazingly perfect bodywork and paint I have ever seen. What impressed me the most was the length and perfect contours in which not a single flaw existed. I would like to meet the body workers and painters who performed such magic. Very impressive.

I believe it won its class and actually, if I had my druthers, I would love to have seen it take best in show. Boy, would that have ruffled some feathers.

My only criticism of Pebble Beach this year was the fact that the event is being taken over by the corporate world and this year that process appeared to be pretty much complete.

In places where classic-car dealers used to promote their wares -- which was a car show in itself -- now you walk past displays by Acura, Cadillac, Jaguar, Range Rover and even Hyundai. It had an automall feel to it, which, at Pebble Beach, is really unfortunate. The Lodge itself and homes bordering the event are all rented by corporations and open only to their invited guests.

It's a little sad to see that the hobby is being replaced by the slick touch of corporate event-planners. But, then again, Pebble is as much about money and its excesses as it is about the old-car hobby, so perhaps it's a perfect fit. It sure won't stop me from attending; I may just grumble a bit more.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 19, 2012 F10

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