Culture

Pebble Beach Refutes the Decline of the West

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In the late 1980s, P.J. O’Rourke was given the plum assignment of reviewing Ferrari’s new “halo” car, the Enzo, named after the company’s founder, Enzo Ferrari. O’Rourke was supposed to have the car for just one afternoon, but ended up driving from New York to Los Angeles. (The sacrifices some journalists make to get a story….) He wrote: “I’ve just driven the world’s greatest car through the middle of the world’s greatest country!  The title of his article: “Ferrari Refutes the Decline of the West.”

I had a similar feeling attending car week in Monterey with the finale of the Pebble Beach Concours d’ Elegance on Sunday (emceed by car fanatic Jay Leno). Dan Neil of the Wall Street Journal (the only automotive journalist to win a Pulitzer Prize) estimated that over $9 billion of auto value was on display in Monterey last week. (At Saturday’s Concorso Italiano, there were over 1,000 Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Maseratis, and Alfa Romeos on display, virtually all of them six-figure cars due to their rarity.  Of course, about 100 members of the Porsche Club also crashed that event and parked on the show lawn….ahh, those German car enthusiasts….)

It’s been said that Monterey should be on every car buff’s “bucket list,” and that is absolutely spot-on.  About the only complaint I have is that there are so many great things going on at once — from auctions to automakers’ exhibits to antique racing to press tours — that it’s virtually impossible to take it all in.  For example, I spent most of Friday at the spectacular Quail Lodge show and missed all but a few minutes of the Porsche reunion, which was the largest gathering of Stuttgart’s finest in many years. So, I may have to return to Monterey next year! (The sacrifices some journalists make to get a story….)

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The Quail Lodge event on Friday was a combination of a luxury car show, a sales event, a celebrity talk show, and a gourmet charity fundraising dinner. The world’s fastest street legal production car, the Bugatti Ettore (named after founder Ettore Bugatti), debuted there with a top speed of 268 MPH. It goes from 0 to 186 MPH in just under 14 seconds. (By comparison, the fastest street cars in the world during the 1970s, Ferrari and Lamborghini, had a top speed of “only” 186.) Maserati in its centennial year debuted its Alfieri Coupe, named after its founder Alfieri Maserati and expected to arrive in North America by model year 2016-17, which was so impressive that the Porsche and BMV engineers & P.R. people were crowding around it enthusiastically congratulating the Mazzer people.

Scottish racing legend Jackie Stewart gave a long and lively interview. Rock stars Neal Schon of Journey and Nick Mason of Pink Floyd belted out a few songs. Gerard Mattimoe, the flamboyant British promoter in charge of Quail Lodge, said that Quail “brings together an extraordinary group of like-minded people who are passionate about cars. It’s not so much a show as an experience of enjoyment with like-minded individuals.”

And Quail also had grassroots car enthusiasts too: David Steel of Carmel, CA, brought his unique Abarth Scorpione SS race car (one of only five ever made), while the local Ford Mustang Club was out in full force. Roger Hoffman of the Bay Area brought a 1932 Ford Roadster “hot rod” that once set records at the Bonneville Salt Flats. At my lunch table, a seven-year-old attendee told me that her parents were so fanatical about cars that her middle name was “Porsche.”  Gerard’s assistant, Craig Barkdull, commented that Quail also “likes to bring in non-car people and make it a luxury lifestyle event in a beautiful location.”

The auctions were definitely in the news, as a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT set a house record at Gooding’s with an almost $15.2 million sales price, while at the classy RM Auction, Ferrari had 13 of the top 21 sale prices and 9 of the top 10 auction prices overall in Monterey. (A 1965 Ford GT40 roadster cracked Ferrari’s grip on all of the top 10.) A rare Ferrari 275 GTB/C Speciale (one of only three made) sold for a stunning $26.4 million, while a 275 GTB owned by screen legend (and race car driver) Steve McQueen went for “only” $10,175,000.   

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But the biggest news came on Friday at Bonhams when the London-based house set a new record for a public sale of any car, as a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO was hammered down for slightly more than $38 million!  To put this last figure in perspective, in 1976, the Federal Election Commission gave both the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates roughly $30 million to run their fall campaigns.  Nearly four decades age, $30 million could help either Jimmy Carter or Jerry Ford win the most powerful office in the world. Last week, on the Monterey Peninsula, it wouldn’t have even bought them a vintage Ferrari. At Quail Lodge, Jackie Stewart was asked how much he would be making if he was racing in the 21st century and he replied, “Over $100 million a year, maybe even $200 million.”  (If she were in Monterey, Massachusetts, Senator Liz Warren would surely make the point of saying the rich are under-taxed. On the other hand, Tony Dolan, who was a speechwriter for President Reagan, replied when I expressed enthusiasm for Pebble Beach with this: “Government under big-spending liberals would take all of that away.”) 

The warmth and generosity of 21st century America was also on display: at every auction, the bidding action was interrupted to sell a car for a designated charity. And these worthy causes invariably got the loudest cheers.  (On more than one occasion, the person winning the car immediately donated it back so the vehicle could be auctioned off again to raise even more money for the charity.)

Every auction house had multi-million dollar cars hammered down and almost every one of them broke last year’s new sales records.  According to the classic car insurer Hagerty, total auction revenue hit an all-time record of roughly $430 million, up over 25% from last year’s record high.

Ferrari certainly had a week to remember: besides the record-breaking auction prices, a 1954 375 MM Scaglietti Coupe was chosen Best in Show, a first for a Ferrari in a major surprise. (A Duesenberg and Talbot-Lago had been the favorites of several insiders.)

American carmakers also showed the flag, as Dodge in its centennial year debuted the Charger SRT “Hellcat” with an American record 707 horsepower and the first sedan to top the 200 MPH mark. To keep all that speed from getting out of hand, Dodge also immediately introduced the 2015 Charger “Pursuit” police vehicle.   (We may be seeing some wild chase scenes in a few years.)

Even visitors from London, Rome and Paris were repeatedly commenting that Monterey was better than anything they had ever seen in Europe.  Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a booster of alternative energy while in office, was there to check out the latest hybrids. (Porsche, Volkswagen and Toyota are reportedly working on hybrids that will get over 80 miles per gallon.)

Jay Leno is on record as calling Pebble Beach “the world’s greatest car show.” If it is not, I’d love to see one that is better.