It started out humbly enough in the years after the Second World War. Okay, maybe not so humbly, but it was just a few dozen millionaires back then, many local, turning up for a weekend each August to show off their stylish old cars at Pebble Beach, the tony golf course overlooking the Pacific Ocean from California’s Monterey Peninsula.
But people and millionaires being what they are, it didn’t take long before the affair grew serious. Notoriously sniffy judging became the norm and the phrase “Pebble Beach restoration” has long since connoted an obsessive, no-expenses spared makeover of a car to better than new condition, the type of job you’d undertake only if the machine in question was historically significant, your pockets were bottomless and you were hunting for trophy gold.
But then the actual concours, or “Pebble” as it is shorthanded by the cognoscenti, was subsumed into a series of activities spanning a whole week, comprising not just the legendary concours on the lawn, but also now several other nearby car shows, and a full weekend’s worth of vintage racing at Laguna Seca racetrack, the Monterey Historics. With additional categories of cars being shown at Pebble Beach – including in recent times hot rods and more modern classics -- the concours field now numbered in the hundreds and the week’s expanded card brought in competitors and competitive types by the gross load. Again they were almost exclusively of the well-heeled variety. You don’t go racing in a million-dollar vintage racecar with a million-dollar tow rig unless money is your thing.
Nevertheless, it all made Pebble a more broadly appealing enthusiasts’ destination, with a growing number of international visitors making their way each year. Dealers in automotive art and literature piled in, too. By the time the Nineties rolled around, old car collecting had become big business and world-class auctioneers had also joined the Pebble processional with dazzling fields of classic automobiles scattered around the area, waiting to be peddled and collectively netting the auction houses in recent years hundreds of millions of dollars per annum. As investing in cars became a related field to investing in Art, with a capital A, still more money descended and much of it changed hands, with big banks even setting up shop on the premises to enable the fluid flow of funds.
And that, as they say, was that. For we know corporate society can’t let any scene emerge without attempting to stake branded flags at its summit, much less a scene that happens like this one to be composed of some of the world’s richest people congregating of their own volition to outspend one another. A catnip scenario to high-end makers of new cars, here was an opportunity too excruciating not to co-opt. So around twenty years ago, a few new car companies started turning up at Pebble and nowadays they’re all here, throwing their cash around, filling the hotels, booking the restaurants, sponsoring the corporate tents brimming with caviar and bubbly. The consistent message? This is how we roll, rich people, this is our brands letting our hair down and acting totally rich, just like you, our dear, financially comfortable friends. We know what it is to be you here at [insert car company name,] and we belong, at the very least, in your thought set.
So it has become today that any brand with any aspiration to luxury whatsoever believe they have to be at Pebble, whether they really belong, whether they really benefit or not. Because here, here among the fifteen or twenty thousand people who might turn up for the week, are that most favorite demographic band, the richest people in the world, at least the richest ones who care about cars. And watches. And caviar. And cognac, champagne, cabernet, leather goods, expensive sunglasses, you name it, Pebble has become a pop-up mall for rich folk and the brands who cater to them.
That’s why Jaguar Land Rover was at this year’s Pebble with a stand offering test-drives in some pretty smoking cars to anyone who wanted one. And it was why they invited distinct non-luxury types like me and a few other automotive journalists from around the world, to join them, as their guests, to better wow us with the cavalcade of cash that Pebble has become, so we can go home and associate their names with all the luxury we saw. Which is what I’m here to do.
The same conditions also figure in to why all the other luxury automotive brands like Bentley, Rolls Royce, Ferrari, Maserati, Porsche, Audi, Mercedes, BMW, Cadillac, and even borderline cases like Lincoln and Infiniti were here in force, with their own retinues of top executives, designers, publicists and journalists in tow. Always with a new model to announce or some other PR agenda item to share, but basically just being seen being here, hanging out, trying to look prosperous and sucking up to any private citizen who might one day buy a car or a dealership or an island.
Staking a claim at Pebble means creating an on-site presence which means renting luxury hospitality suites, the supremely located, revenue-generating private boxes in the reviewing stands at Sunday’s gala Concours d’Elegance, the weekend’s official big money climax. It also means renting large blocks of pricey hotel rooms (like JLR,) or erecting temporary structures (like Cadillac and Mercedes) or renting multi-million dream homes for the week (Bentley, BMW). Prime real estate like this is deployed for customer relations and party operations, places from which to organize and launch test drives between the busy schedule of auctions and car shows, to wine and dine brand loyalists and potential customers, plus business associates and, of course, all the bloggers and scriveners they’ve flown to California, and the occasional wandering stray, champagne flute at the ready, going off menu and hitting the party from some competitive manufacturer’s rooming list.
There’re not a lot of us, but what’s exclusive about automotive journalists is that we are a low-paid bunch, almost exclusively. Still, it must be said, the perks are good. And, ask any publicist, sustained exposure to luxury has a proven effect on journalistic perception. When they pull back the curtain on the lifestyles of the rich and famous, inviting us in, it sets the pampered mood we’re supposed to associate with their cars; everything seems better. And because it works to a high degree, we’re treated often to the rich-person-for-a-day treatment when we’re whisked somewhere glamorous for a car launch. But they’re two night events and to attend Pebble with a luxury-minded host is a step up to the rich person for four days or more regimen, which for some is life-changing. At least it is for their mini-bars. When the world’s most fortunate motoring scribes turn up here in their blazers and chinos with their swizzle sticks handy they have one basic directive that’s easy to remember in mind: help yourself. It’s a singular extravaganza of freeloading, as a celebratory blur descends that barely discriminates between freelancers and car company staff and the wealthy with whom they hobnob.
During the Pebble Beach week, Jaguar Land Rover introduced a new Range Rover Sport variant that is even more sporty, as well as a new special operations division that, for starters, will build six exact recreations of the famous lightweight racing version of their beloved E-Type roadsters. Start collecting the deposits on those returnable bottles of Bud Light Lime, kids, “recreation” E-Type Lightweights won’t be cheap with a starting price tag of over $1.6 million a piece.
On the other hand, you could spend millions just coming to Pebble -- like the car companies, some of the racers and the auction-goers with itchy bidding paddles. Or you could visit for a sum in the low thousands or even hundreds if you’re thrifty enough in your choice of accommodation (for one thing, stay far, far away.) To do so, you must avoid certain events with pricey tickets and meals in trendy restaurants. Or you could become an automotive journalist.
One night, BMW hosted a dinner at a palatial, modernist home they'd rented. They were honoring the first buyers of their new carbon-fiber, hybrid gas/electric AWD sports car, the much-lauded I8 and I tagged along. Many of the customers BMW were looking to salute would be in the neighborhood anyway, and since it was northern California, they brought along the celebrated chef Thomas Keller of French Laundry in Napa (sort of in the neighborhood) and Per Se in New York. A serial BMW owner (and now a brand spokesman) Keller and his staff were responsible for cooking and serving dinner, which struck me as a capital idea. So when a kindly owner of a new I8 at my table invited me to discuss my career in the music business, having already indulged in champagne and a number of fine vintage wines, I felt moved to tell a story at some length about how I came to be the manager of indie rockers, They Might Be Giants, and how well that had gone. I finished with a flourish and then my friendly inquisitor Barry Klarberg politely but quickly explained how he had gone from a career as CPA to being a successful sports agent to also managing the finances and fortunes of Justin Timberlake, Russell Simmons, retired NHL star Mark Messier and dozens more of your favorite A-listers, stars with earning power so big they made his $135,000 I-8 seem like a throwaway purchase. It was now time for me to concentrate on the fine meal.
The accompanying photographs can only hint at what it’s like to be at Pebble, but it’s safe to say there’s nothing like it. Because this side of the bullion depository at Fort Knox or some military air show -- with all the world’s arms merchants and larcenous authoritarian potentates on hand -- you will likely never be surrounded by more cash than you will be when you’re here. It’s Disneyland for rich car people, a theme park for the post-self-sufficient and heavily motorized. It is at once awesome and awful. Responses may vary, but Pebble Beach in August is absolutely worth seeing in one’s lifetime at least once.