A Brief History of the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance
By Kandace Hawkinson
The history of the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance is the history of a passion, a place, and their pairing.
Decades before golf links were laid out along the cliffs of Pebble Beach, decades even before the first Log Lodge opened, Pebble Beach was known for its scenic drive, winding seventeen miles through pine and cypress forest. The drive was created in 1881 for the pleasure of the first guests of Hotel Del Monte, which had opened just east of Monterey the previous year. Of course, carriages then were horse-drawn, and the drive took the better part of an afternoon. Most passengers stopped for a picnic and made a relaxing day of it.
The first horseless carriages were introduced in Germany in 1886 by Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler and quickly crossed continents and seas. Mechanical improvement and innovation led rapidly to a multitude of new 'self-propelling machines' on both sides of the Atlantic, and comparisons between them were inevitable. Speed, of course, was key. Races were organized, and their outcome often spelled immediate success or failure for a marque or model. Style grew in importance, too. In Paris, where elegant horse-drawn carriages had long paraded at a leisurely pace along scenic boulevards, the formal concours d'elegance, literally 'competition of elegance,' was born, and it was soon duplicated in other pockets of posh society.
In the United States, style, speed, and performance mattered to some degree, but more practical matters such as price more often determined choice. Henry Ford cornered the majority of the burgeoning market for motor cars by developing a cheap and serviceable product and finding a way to mass-produce it. His Model T, affectionately dubbed the 'Lizzie,' was introduced in 1908 and was soon rolling off an assembly line at the astonishing rate of one car every ten seconds of each working day.
It was no coincidence that the first Log Lodge opened in 1909, initiating the formal development of Pebble Beach; the advent and increasing availability of the automobile made the area accessible. A fire burned that Log Lodge to the ground less than a decade later, but it was soon replaced with the new Del Monte Lodge, later renamed The Lodge at Pebble Beach. Pebble Beach Golf Links opened officially in 1919, and golf would come to be the primary focus of this new resort community, but it also sought to offer a full calendar of sporting events and entertainment. In the twenties, the horse track at its parent resort, Hotel Del Monte, periodically featured motor races, but it wasn't until 1950 that motor sport in serious form arrived on the Monterey Peninsula.
The Birth of the Pebble Beach Road Races and Concours d'Elegance
World War I briefly interrupted motor sport and the motor industry, but World War II decimated it. Production and competition ceased and factories were retooled for the war effort. After the war, those who could, regrouped. Ultimately, of course, the auto industry would return in strength; society had already changed in response to it, and there was no turning back.
The Automobile Racing Club of America, which had conducted many road races and rallies in the thirties, was a war casualty. But in the mid-forties, many of its former members, supplemented with new supporters in the form of returning GIs, established the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) with the goal of 'spreading the exciting gospel of motoring as a sport and of automobile engineering as an art.' They decried that time a generation prior 'when the American automobile declined from the level of a distinctive and cherished possession to that of something on a par with an icebox, a telephone, or some other routine accessory whose primary purpose is one of utility.'
Evangelistic efforts on the East Coast advanced quickly, focusing on the success of an annual road race in Watkins Glen, New York—a race that was being termed the American Grand Prix. West Coast members of the SCCA wanted a Watkins Glen of their own, and Pebble Beach, with its already famous 17-Mile Drive, seemed the perfect location. Respected racer and auto manufacturer Sterling Edwards approached John B. Morse, then president of the Del Monte Properties Company, with this idea, and he readily consented to add a road race to the Del Monte Lodge calendar of events; it made good business sense. Likewise, regional automobile dealers lent their support.
As an afterthought, perhaps following the example of Watkins Glen, a concours d'elegance was paired with the race.
A few critics would later assail both the Pebble Beach Road Race and Concours as promotional events, and others would dismiss them as social affairs. In truth, these events included more than a dose of promotion, pitch, and party. But that didn't negate their serious side. The original goals of their sponsoring organization, the SCCA, shouldn't be ignored, and the sincere enthusiasm of early and ongoing participants should not be forgotten.
In the 1950 race and concours program, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Barney Clark declared that these events were 'more than an exciting weekend outing for a relatively small group of motor enthusiasts or a colorful spectacle for their friends.' He expressed the firm belief that these events would have a decisive influence on the future of road racing and sports car contests. And indeed, they did.
The first Pebble Beach Road Race and Concours d'Elegance drew 10,000 spectators. It included three preliminary races pairing cars with similar-size engines, and a final race open to the top four finishers of each preliminary race. Preliminary race winners included John von Neumann driving an M.G. TD, Sterling Edwards with his 1950 Edwards R-26 Special Sport Roadster, and Michael Graham with a Cadillac-Allard J-2. Phil Hill, who took second in the last prelim, went on to win the first Pebble Beach Cup with his Jaguar XK120, proving that it was not simply the 'world's fastest stock car,' it cornered.
Concours entries, roughly thirty in number, were displayed near what is now the Beach and Tennis Club, and they also paraded down the start/finish stretch of the races. Leading that parade was the oldest entry, a 1904 Buick owned by Alton Walker, a local resident and car collector who served as the first Chairman of the Concours. The official list of Concours entries included two other antiques, two vintage cars, and four cars now recognized as classics (a 1938 Bugatti Type 57 Coupe de Ville, a 1939 Chrysler LeBaron Phaeton, a 1939 Mercedes-Benz, and a 1941 Darrin Packard), but the vast majority were new models. Sterling Edwards' car, which wasn't on the official list of entries, was named Best of Show.
The Races End
Crowds doubled for the second annual pairing of Race and Concours, and nearly doubled again for the third.
Bill Pollack won both the 1951 and 1952 races driving a Cad-Allard J-2. Hill battled back to take the trophy again in 1953 and 1955, driving first a Ferrari 250 MM and then a Ferrari 750 Monza. He would go on to become the first World Drivers Champion from the United States. Edwards, driving a Ferrari 340 MM, won the race in 1954. And Carroll Shelby, driving a Ferrari 750 Monza, won in 1956.
Vintage races with 'a roster of ancient but virile racing cars' were an added attraction in 1954, and they proved such a success that they were repeated annually thereafter.
The press was soon asserting that the Pebble Beach Race Course had achieved a reputation equal to that of the by-then famous Pebble Beach Golf Links—a reputation as 'the course that meets the best in the sport and seldom gets beaten.'
Regrettably, it was that toughness that was to prove its undoing.
A minor accident in 1951 first warned of trouble: James H. Kimberly rolled his Ferrari on a wide turn. But Kimberly walked away without a scratch and received a kiss from Ginger Rogers, who was standing nearby. Consequently the warning went unheeded. Tight turns and trees took their toll in cars every year, but for a while injuries were minor. In 1954, a more serious accident brought an early end to the last of the preliminary races: an M.G. hit a tree and then was hit by three other cars, and its driver was rushed to the hospital with severe head and internal injuries. Opponents of the races called for them to end, but Samuel F. B. Morse, whose vision had created Pebble Beach, quickly stopped speculation. 'I'm for it, I want it,' he said. 'I hope the thing goes on for 150 years or more.' And so, for a while, it did.
The 1956 race program posed the question 'What does the future hold?' and it promised much: 'Great racing, of course. But far more than that. The continuance of a tradition, the thrill of a race that is now—and will probably always be—the Big Race in America.' But heading into a turn that year, Ernie McAfee lost control of his Ferrari, struck a pine tree, and died instantly. The Big Race was over.
' Too much car and not enough race course,' said Edwards later.
A formal track was carved into the rolling hills of nearby Laguna Seca and competition moved there. For a brief time, the races were still identified with Pebble Beach in title, but that soon ended.
The Concours Defined
Without its partner, many people expected the Concours to fold. But the 'afterthought' had garnered its own following over the years. It remained at Pebble Beach when the races moved, and the separation enabled it to define itself more clearly.
Initially, there had been uncertainty as to what a concours d'elegance was—and what exactly was being judged. While the race programs listed Concours entries, they never attempted to describe or explain it. The Monterey Peninsula Herald reported just prior to the first Concours that cars entered in the contest would be judged on their beauty and practicality. The next year, the paper described the Concours as a display of unusual automobiles meant primarily to give one a peak at the future. It said that judging was 'based on the beauty of design and the standard of maintenance or preservation' of the cars, but 'modifications for the comfort of the passengers or for easier driving' were also considered and additional points were awarded for 'the beauty and costume of the one feminine passenger or driver allowed in each car.' Subsequently, the paper simply referred to the Concours as 'an automobile style show' for cars 'both classic and modern, American and European.' Modern and European predominated in the early years.
From the start, the Concours had separate classes for prewar and postwar cars, and soon there were additional period, price, and style divisions. There was a special class for M.G.s the first year and for Cords and Packards in 1955, but it was the marque Rolls-Royce that first had its own class annually. In fact, from the late fifties through much of the seventies, there were often two or three classes for Rolls-Royce and one or two for Bentley.
Quite early, the Concours, now staged regularly on the lawn of Del Monte Lodge, began to offer special exhibits; in 1953, for example, the Concours featured the two cars that had won the previous Mexican Road Race (Le Carrera Panamericana): a Mercedes 300 SL sedan and a 1953 Lincoln.
Official entries that year jumped to sixty, and local papers reported that actual entries numbered in excess of one hundred. The papers also noted, with satisfaction, that winning cars from other shows 'did not place here.' That indicated the show's proud independence, but that didn't necessarily equate with good judgment; Best of Show that year went to an Austin-Healey rather than Alfred Ducato's Ferrari 212 Inter Coupé by Vignale.
For the first five years, the show's top award went consistently to cars just off the showroom floor. A 1931 Pierce-Arrow 41 LeBaron Convertible Town Cabriolet reversed that trend in 1955. It was the very car in which Phil Hill had learned to drive, and in a labor of love, Hill himself had restored the car meticulously from the ground up. He entered it into the Concours without expectation; he couldn't begin to guess that it would win Best of Show, giving sudden credence to the then-new thought that cars built between the wars—cars now called 'classics'—had some worth. In ensuing years, with few exceptions, classics would take the top award at Pebble Beach consistently.
The Concours had found its focus, and it was developing in style as well. Lucius Beebe had joined the Concours' team of judges in 1954, and his attitudes and actions set the tone for the event through much of the following decade. Beebe did all that he did with aplomb. He traveled to the peninsula in his private railroad car and he entertained his admirers there. He regularly wore top hat and tails or three-piece suit and bowler to the Concours, and he donned white gloves to determine if the undersides of fenders were truly clean. He also saw to it that French champagne was served to the Concours judges as they exercised their duties.
He had a distinct preference for some marques, and he didn't try to hide it.
' I prefer Rolls-Royce and Bentleys simply and without equivocation because they are the best,' he explained in a biographical essay. 'Not just runners-up or compromises, but the best, like Bollinger's, Colt's firearms, suits by Henry Poole and traveling Cunard.'
His standards set the standards for the early Concours, and few measured up to the mark. One who did was J. B. Nethercutt. In 1958, Nethercutt brought a meticulously restored 1930 duPont Model G Merrimac Town Car to the Concours, and he went home with the Best of Show trophy. The following year, he repeated his win with a 1939 Bugatti Type 57C Atalante. Nethercutt went on to win the show's top award a record six times. His nearest rival, William Harrah recorded four wins. Sam & Emily Mann have won three times, and four others have won twice: Phil Hill, Ralph Lauren, John Mozart, and Arturo & Deborah Keller.
Struggling toward Success
With a growing reputation for excellence, and with determined effort by Gwenn Graham, who handled publicity and special events for Del Monte Company, the Concours easily weathered the transition from afterthought to independence. The year the races moved to Laguna Seca, the number of Concours entries remained high, exceeding 100 cars, and over 10,000 people returned to the lawn of Del Monte Lodge to view them. The following two years, the same proved true.
Then in 1960, the Concours skipped a beat. It had been scheduled for late fall, but bad weather forced its cancellation and a full Del Monte Lodge calendar was said to preclude it's immediate rescheduling. Devotees worried, but the tenth annual Concours was held early the following spring. When bad weather again made it impossible to host the event on the fragile Lodge lawn in 1963 and 1965, organizers opted to stage the event on the Polo Field.
The list of entries remained impressive, and the crowd was often star-studded as well. In 1967, Bob Hope stepped up to the mike to entertain the crowd during a lull in the program, just as Jay Leno has often done in more recent years.
The price of admission to the Concours had initially been included in the one dollar price of admission to the road races. After the split, Concours officials hesitated to institute a fee immediately. Finally, in 1961, a donation of one dollar was requested, and proceeds were designated to charity. Regular participants and local business leaders also began to donate items for charity raffles and auctions. That pattern is followed to this day; through the years, the Concours has raised approximately 7.5 million for charity.
After Graham died in 1968, the Concours struggled to remain a success. No-shows were increasingly common, and the cars that did show were often repeats. Moreover, there was increasing criticism that its search for perfection was reaching ridiculous proportions. One woman explained her late arrival at a pre-event party, stating that she had been polishing the underside of the family Jaguar with her Christian Dior nail polish remover.
In the early seventies, company officials met with concerned local car enthusiasts, including Charles A. Chayne, formerly of General Motors, to discuss how the Pebble Beach Concours might be improved. Everyone agreed that the show needed more guidance from people with a real knowledge and passion for cars. But who would provide that?
A short while later, Chayne overheard two men who regularly judged the Concours discussing changes they would make if they were in charge. He asked the two—Lorin Tryon and Jules 'J.' Heumann—if they were willing to act on their ideas, and then he arranged a meeting with Del Monte officials. One meeting turned to two, and eventually the company agreed to let Tryon and Heumann take over certain matters. They were to work closely with Carol Rissel, who had taken over Gwenn Graham's role at the company after Graham's death, and they were given just one year to prove themselves.
' If we were to be successful in effecting a meaningful change that year the show would be continued; otherwise it was to be dropped from the Pebble Beach Company's list of activities and become merely a memory,' Lorin recalled years later.
Nonetheless, the two men stepped eagerly to the plate, viewing mandate as opportunity. They affirmed publicly that the Concours would focus primarily on 'classics,' and they sought far and wide for those classic cars that best exemplified and integrated innovative engineering and elegant design. They also revamped the judging criteria and instituted a system whereby class awards would be determined by teams of expert Class Judges. A separate panel of Honorary Judges, led by Strother MacMinn, would determine the winner of a new trophy, named for Gwenn Graham, to be awarded to the Most Elegant Car.
' We lived, breathed, ate, and slept Pebble Beach,' said J.
The 1972 Concours was a feast, and in an interesting twist, J's own 1922 Hispano-Suiza H6B Labourdette Skiff/Torpedo, restored over nine years, won Best of Show. Company officials immediately gave J. and Lorin carte blanche to do as they wished from then on. The enthusiast press raved over the results: 'Pebble is again an excellent technical show,' noted Competition Press & Autoweek. 'The judges are qualified hobbyists and the judging is highly democratic.' Road & Track called Pebble 'the show by which all other gatherings for the admiration of the automobile are judged.' Old Car Illustrated equated the Pebble Beach Concours with the summit of the pinnacle of the old car hobby. Auto International said simply that the Concours was 'an event without equal.'
On its twenty-fifth anniversary, Alton Walker boldly declared, 'A synonym for Concours d'Elegance is ‘Pebble Beach.''
Coming Full Circle
History is not linear, and in an odd way, history came full circle in 1974. Early that year, Steve Earle approached Carol Rissel and company officials with an interesting proposal: he wanted to pair the Concours with auto races once again—vintage races to be held at Laguna Seca the day before the Concours. The events would be distinct entities, but participants and spectators would naturally overlap, and there would be other links as well. The best vintage racers would be invited to the Concours, and one would be awarded the Pebble Beach Cup that had previously gone to winners of the road races. Company officials gave Earle their blessing, and so the Monterey Historic Automobile Races began.
Success breeds success. And within a few years, other automotive events—some with direct ties to the Concours and some without—began to crop up on what would come to be called 'Pebble Beach Weekend.' Auto clubs began to meet in tandem with the Concours. Automotive auctions and exhibitions were held. And to an increasing degree, the elite of the auto industry were on hand. Automotive executives, designers, and engineers enjoyed the opportunity to meet casually with each other, to entertain key clients, and to unveil new products and get initial comments from an auto-savvy crowd. In return, they aided the Concours in many ways, bringing rare cars and their creators to Pebble Beach, sponsoring special awards and events, and donating items or underwriting particular costs thereby increasing the proceeds for charity.
External growth was impossible to check, but the Concours was selective in choosing its formal partners, and Lorin and J. tried to stay focused on the show itself, on choosing the best entries and the best judges. Their goal was, quite simply, to improve the show each and every year. To the extent that they succeeded—and succeed they did—they faced an increasing bounty of options and the selection process grew more difficult. Eventually, they would gain permission for the Concours to spill from The Lodge lawn onto the eighteenth fairway.
Before the seventies ended, to insure that excess didn't overcome excellence, the Concours began to feature one or two specific marques or special classes each year. In this manner, respected marques like Duesenberg, Delage, and Delahaye and more whimsical gatherings of Dream Cars, Microcars, and Hot Rods have all had their day. Honored guests often add to the occassion. Nuccio Bertone was on hand when three of the B.A.T.s (short for Berlina Aerodynamica Tecnica) that he built for Alfa Romeo were displayed. Sergio Scaglietti, Giotto Bizzarrini, Giorgetto Giugiaro, Peter Morgan, Tom Tjaarda, and others have also been paired with their creations.
It was the 1985 Pebble Beach Concours, however, that solidified its reputation globally as the automotive show of shows. The creations of Ettore Bugatti have taken the top award at Pebble Beach a record 10 of 54 times, and Bugatti's masterpiece—Type 41, more often called Bugatti Royale— is said to mark the zenith of the classic car. In all, just six of Royales were created, and in 1985, Pebble Beach sought to bring all six together for the first time in history. Gathering them together was no easy task. Two of the six Royales resided in France, and their ownership had been a matter of long dispute; the French government considered them French historic monuments and insisted that they be granted full diplomatic immunity before they would even consider shipping them overseas. Another Royale was in the Henry Ford Museum, which refused initially to release such a prize. Moreover, three of the six cars were not in working order, and their bulk made maneuving them more than a chore. J. and Lorin and a multitude of the Concours' ardent supporters worked throughout the prior year to make the impossible happen, and on August 25, 1985, all six Bugattis reposed on the upper lawn at The Lodge at Pebble Beach.
The following year might have been sheer disappointment. Thankfully, 1986 marked the one hundredth anniversary of the first automobile. The featured marque was, of course, Mercedes-Benz, which was celebrating its own centennial as well. Walking past the exhibits, Sandra Kasky, then director of catering for The Lodge, was struck by the atmosphere of the Concours—its calm gentility mixed with a crackle of energy—and she knew instantly that she wanted to be a part of that. In just a handful of years, she became the event's full-time Executive Director, overseeing the Concours' corporate and community relationships, interacting with vendors and suppliers, providing full support to J. and Lorin in their selection of cars and the judges, and choreographing the show, which grew more complicated with the ever-increasing number of class and special awards.
In 1997, when Lorin and J. celebrated their twenty-fifth anniversary as Co-Chairmen of the Concours, Lorin thought back to their initial mandate. 'It appears that we were successful in our endeavors,' he said, adroitly.
Of course, he and J did not rest on their laurels. They set about addressing the ongoing criticism that Concours cars are too seldom driven and too often overrestored. In 1998, they instituted The Tour d'Elegance, an annual driving event for Concours entrants held a few days prior to the show. Simultaneously, they introduced a special award for the car that is most elegant in motion. And in 1999, a special award was offered for the best original, unrestored car.
Sadly, Lorin was taken ill before the 1998 Concours and he died early the following year. J. also lost his wife, Sally, his constant support, in the same time frame. And so the Concours faced transition once again.
No one doubted that the Concours would miss the leadership of J. and Lorin. As the Rev. Paul Woudenberg, longtime Concours announcer, noted, 'their gifts, their contacts, their vision' were impossible to replace.
Thankfully, Lorin and J. had previously planned this transition to some degree—though they had hoped to institute it only after the Concours celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in August 2000.
Glenn Mounger of Bainbridge Island, Washington, a participant and judge at the Concours since the early eighties, stepped into the position of Concours Chairman in time to oversee the details of that celebration and it went off without a hitch. Posed at water's edge, were two special displays: a collection of past Best of Show winners and a selection of cars that had done well in the early Road Races.
Glenn asked Sandra Kasky to serve as Co-Chairman in the spring of 2002, and she readily agreed. J. is now officially Chairman Emeritus, but he remains a very active member of the Executive Committee.
This new team is bolstered by some very dedicated staff members and a host of volunteers.