The birth of this country's classic-car Olympics took place at Pebble Beach, Calif., on the scenic Monterey Peninsula, in the simpler, quieter time of November 1950.
Harry S. Truman was president, the Yankees had just embarrassed the Phillies in the World Series, and college football was far more important than the professional version. On the first of the month, the Dow Jones industrials closed at 225.60; the greens fees at the Pebble Beach Golf Links, where judging for the prestigious Concours d'Elegance will take place Sunday, were $5, a long way from today's $495 (caddie not included).
Players behind growth
Much of the credit for the growth of the Monterey auto extravaganza belongs to four people who had the vision and the ambition to build it up.
Jules Heumann and Lorin Tryon, San Francisco businessmen and classic-car owners who took over the artistic management of the Pebble Beach Concours in 1972, were the first two. Over the next quarter-century, working for no pay, their work elevated the event to the country's finest.
In the early 1970s, when used sports-racing cars were mostly gathering dust, vintage-car collector and racer Steve Earle gathered some friends and their cars at the Laguna Seca road circuit. In 1978, Mercedes-Benz brought its world-champion 300 SLR and had race-driving champion Phil Hill drive it. Sellout crowds followed, and Earle ran the Monterey Historics, which became a model for other events of this type, until 2009.
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American awareness of foreign cars was, on a percentage basis, somewhere to the right of the decimal point. Hardly more than a few thousand people, mostly on the East and West coasts, knew that Ferrari was a car, not a pizza joint. Most had never seen one, or a Porsche, either. In Detroit, the Chevrolet small-block V-8 that would dethrone the Flathead Ford as the American racers' engine of choice was still a few years from introduction.
The event started as a small sports-car meeting, advertised as "European road races," that ran on a 1.8-mile makeshift circuit in the Del Monte Forest, admission $1. More or less as an afterthought, a car show, given the French title of Concours d'Elegance to maintain the European theme, attracted 32 entries, most of them new models owned by Forest residents, was added. Admission was free.
A college dropout from Santa Monica with ambitions to be a racing driver won the main event in a Jaguar XK120, despite an uncooperative clutch. In later years, he would win at Pebble Beach again and also win the concours' Best of Show award with a 1931 Pierce-Arrow that he and his brother had restored. The erstwhile student was Phil Hill, who would ascend to the title of World Driving Champion in 1961.
Since that modest beginning, the Pebble Beach meet has grown to become America's classic-car extravaganza, a gathering of magnificent machinery that includes no fewer than eight concours, five auctions and three days of racing for 550 cars at the Laguna Seca road circuit, as well as various tours, sales of automobilia and, increasingly, promotional events by automakers.
Most of the action happens in mid-August, with the climax being the 63rd Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance — which can lay claim to being the world's most important — on Sunday. Over the years, activity has spread from the Del Monte Forest to 16 locations in the Monterey area, including Carmel's main thoroughfare, Ocean Avenue, where more than 200 cars gathered on Tuesday for the seventh annual Concours on the Avenue.
Admission to that event was free, but free is a seldom-used term on the Monterey Peninsula during the week. Among the ticket prices: A three-day pass to the races at Laguna Seca goes for $150 at the gate, and a Premier Pit Row seat, which includes breakfast, lunch and drinks, is $510.