Monterey Car Week: An Automotive Paradise

MONTEREY, California – It’s chilly this time of the morning, and the dense fog blanketing the peninsula effectively blocks out the rest of the world from this charmed and dreamlike setting. The sun has yet to rise above the granite cliffs and small islets embracing the Pebble Beach coastline, and the twisted cypress trees stand in stark contrast against the grey mist. Our footsteps cushioned by close-cropped lawn, we make our way down the famed 18th fairway – and emerge through a time portal as shapes in the gloom slowly transform into magnificent throwbacks in automotive history.

Round headlamps appear through the mist and are soon followed by a regal parade of pre-war touring cars, their exquisite coachwork a tribute to lost craftsmanship. Onlookers slowly line the pathway, genteel folk in panama hats, lace, and seersucker jackets graciously welcoming the anticipated arrivals. The 4:00 AM “Dawn Patrol” is one of the honoured rituals of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance – a chance for invited guests to see the arriving cars promenade by the Lodge before the gates open at 10:30 to anyone with $350 for a ticket.

Passengers in period costume wave gloved hands from a seven-seater 1910 Thomas Flyer Model K, embellished with ornate brass detail, and polished to a mirror-like sheen. An exceedingly rare 1909 De Dion-Bouton BV Type de Course chugs into sight, then promptly sputters and stalls. Grimacing, the white-jacketed driver manhandles the lever into gear, adjusts his goggles, and bucketa-bucketa-bucketa rolls onto the fairway. It’s an endless stream of the world’s rarest and most valuable cars spanning seven decades; from a 1903 Mercedes Simplex 40 HP Tonneau right up to the 1977 Ferrari 312T2 F1 driven by world champion Niki Lauda. Staged in front of a breathtaking ocean backdrop is a stunning lineup of one-off Speciales from the featured Italian marque from Maranello.

Wealthy collectors mingle with European car designers, and owners put down toothbrushes and get up from their tire-detailing to share a handshake with a rumpled and denim-clad Jay Leno. Arnold “The Terminator” Schwarzenegger, former governor of California, strolls about a cordoned-off ring, finally resting his hand upon the stunning Mercedes-Maybach 6 Cabriolet Concept car.

For many, it’s not only a chance to see, but to be seen in their finest fashions. Drop-waisted flapper frocks, sleek cocktail dresses, vintage couture – and of course – the hats. If cars are the starring attraction of the Concours, headwear is the crowning glory of the fashion parade. From the sublime to the ridiculous – with plumes, berries, ribbons, or lace – the must-have fashion accessory of the day is an enormous, elaborate hat.

While not exactly inured to the spectacle, we’re no longer wide-eyed yokels after being initiated by “The Quail: A Motorsport Gathering”. Yes, that’s really what it’s called, and at nearly $100 a syllable it’s the most exclusive automotive gathering on the planet. Essentially a tony garden party with an automotive theme, “The Quail” is a chance to wander among the priceless collectibles on the clipped grass of a private country club; trying not to appear too obvious while gawking at tanned billionaires; tucked, pinched and carefully airbrushed trophy wives; and European designers squeezed into painted-on suits. The vehicles themselves run the gamut of superlatives – from vintage British racecars, bespoke coachwork, to multi-million-dollar carbon-fibre exotic supercars.

The Concours is only the crown jewel in a week of mind-boggling automotive extravagance, which begins on the streets of Monterey. Don’t have six hundred for a ticket to “The Quail” or three hundred bucks for the Concours? No matter, Cannery Row is teeming with rare and exotic automobilia. Cars that are usually selfie-worthy don’t rate a second glance – we’ve seen so many Porsche 356s they seem almost commonplace. Pagani Huyaras prowl Alvarado Street, and a multi-million dollar 1950s Ferrari Berlinetta occupies the valet parking spot in front of our hotel. Get there a few days early, and see all of the Concours entries in the Pebble Beach Tour d’Elegance glide through on their way to Carmel.

Down on the waterfront, Sotheby’s is holding what for most of us is window-shopping of the highest order – and where the astronomically rich indulge their automotive fantasies. Watch the hammer drop on a $22,550,000 Aston Martin, or at $14 million, the highest-priced Porsche ever sold at auction.

Speaking of Porsches, the Werks Reunion is an annual gathering of some 800 vehicles ranging from vintage classics to current models. Organized by the Porsche Club of America, the event is also held on the green fairway of a private country club. But unlike the exclusive Concours and the Quail, the Werks reunion is absolutely free for spectators, who can wander among restored classics, vintage race cars and uber-rare exotics like the 959 coupe or the 550 Spyder.

Meanwhile, at nearby Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway, the Monterey Historics fill the paddocks with a veritable time-warp of racing machines. The infamous “Corkscrew” turn didn’t even exist while most of these cars were in competition, and now they’re all waiting their turn on the 2.24-mile circuit. It’s hard to choose where to look first as we pass a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing; not one, but two BMW M1 coupes in Bavarian Livery; a tubular and elegant Gurney Eagle; and an enormous 1920s supercharged Bentley “Blower” made famous by the racing victories of the dashing “Bentley Boys”.

Some, understandably, aim for little more than a brisk run while avoiding all contact with delicate patina and spindly suspension components. But others come to relive their glory days. Bruce Canepa, in a 1986 Porsche 962 battled Rolex-winner Jonathan Bomarito in Mazda’s 767B Le Mans prototype. We chat with legendary American Endurance racer Hurley Haywood, who will be reunited with his Rolex-winning #59 Brumos Porsche for the first time in 20 years. Formula 1 champion Mika Häkkinen thrilled spectators with a screaming exhibition run in Emerson Fittipaldi’s championship-winning McLaren M23. Seventy-five years of racing was represented at Laguna Seca, which was in turn celebrating its own sixty year anniversary.

While Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance is its signature event; there’s much more to Monterey Car Week than the fancy headliner. For the droves of enthusiasts who descend upon this coastal town once a year it’s a multi-faceted celebration of the automobile.

Elysium on the Peninsula 8/22/2017 12:00:00 PM