A Somewhat Brief History of the Pebble Beach Concours
Hill is the Key
Phil Hill was best known as the 1961 Formula 1 World Champion. He was one of just two Americans to hold that title since the modern era began in 1950. The other was Italian-born Mario Andretti, who won in 1978.
Hill's biggest imprint on the automotive enthusiast world, though, most surely would be the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance and the Pebble Beach Road Race, where he was a veritable Juan Manuel Fangio in terms of his effect on both the show and the races. Eight years before, he began his F1 career, Hill won the first feature in the Pebble Beach Road Races, in the fall of 1950, driving a Jaguar XK 120.
Hill won again for the third time in 1955, this time in a 3.0-liter Ferrari. That same year, his 1931 Pierce-Arrow 41 LeBaron Convertible Town Cabriolet, which belonged to his family since new, won Best in Show and became the first "classic" to take that title in this nascent event in beautiful Pebble Beach, nestled against Carmel on California's Monterey Peninsula.
Until then, the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance mostly consisted of new cars.
"Thirty-one cars were entered in that first concours, and for the initial five years the show was as much about production cars as vintage machines," AUTOMOBILE Magazine contributor John Lamm writes. That comports with the contemporary meaning of the term concours d'elegance. Before World War II and for a period after, concours usually entailed a fine fashion show combined with the latest luxury cars, many of them custom-bodied or even one-offs.
By the time the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance became an annual event, all but the most exclusive of luxury cars were mass-produced. Meanwhile, the collector-car market began to heat up, driving up the value of early classics that otherwise could be had for the price of a good used Chevy. To this day, the Classic Car Club of America defines "classic car" as "fine or unusual motor cars that were built between and including the years 1915 to 1948."
In other words, Lamborghini need not apply.
The first Best in Show winner in 1950, named while Hill was blazing around the hay bales that helped define the forest's twisty road course, was the 1950 Edwards R-26 Special Sport Roadster. Owner/builder and San Francisco industrialist Sterling Edwards displayed his car along with a handful of others at the Pebble Beach Club. The concours was "so much a success, it was repeated the following spring," about six months after the first one, according to the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance's official history.
In 1952, organizers moved the Concours to the lawn of the Del Monte Lodge, now called The Lodge at Pebble Beach. By 1953, the Concours lured more than 100 entries and staged its first special exhibit, which showed two Carrera Panamericana winners.
Before Hill's Pierce-Arrow transformation in 1954, newspaper columnist, gourmand, private railcar owner, boulevardier, and Rolls-Royce aficionado Lucius Beebe joined the concours as a judge. After his death in 1966, the concours issued the first annual award named for him, to a given year's Rolls entrant "most in the Lucius Beebe tradition."
Along with giving the Hill Pierce-Arrow its historic win, the 1955 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance was first to name a featured marque and, in this case, two: Packard and Cord.
The following year marked the last time the road races and the concours would be held together at Pebble Beach. In 1957, Monterey County opened the Laguna Seca racetrack on property that had belonged to the U.S. military, and, naturally, the races moved there under the direction of the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP).
J.B. Nethercutt, who used much of the fortune he made after he founded Merle Norman Cosmetics to assemble a large collection of classics, won his first of six Best of Show awards at the Pebble Beach Concours in 1958 with his 1930 duPont Model G Merrimac Town Car. Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce got its own ongoing class. Hotel and casino mogul and car collector extraordinaire Bill Harrah won his first of four in 1963.
The 1960 Pebble Beach Concours was canceled due to bad weather. The next year, organizers asked a $1 donation "entry fee" for the first time, and forwarded proceeds to the Monterey Peninsula Hospital Auxiliary. The event grew carefully through most of the 1960s, with Eldon Dedini, a cartoonist who contributed to Esquire, The New Yorker and Playboy, creating the first two of his 11 posters for the 1966 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.
But when Gwenn Graham, who had overseen Pebble since its early years, died in 1968, there appeared to be a power void. Even the official history says it was on shaky ground for the next three years. Nineteen-sixty-eight also marked the first time since Hill's '31 Pierce-Arrow took the '55 Best of Show award that it went to a postwar car. The winner was just four years old: a 1964 Maserati Mistral.
Lorin Tryon and Jules "J" Hermann became co-chairs and "strengthened the field and judges" in 1972, according to the concours. Strother Mac Minn of the Art Center at Pasadena was named chief honorary judge, and the event built on its reputation for being picky about the cars that would be invited to cross the 18th green.
The next big change came in 1974, when Steven J. Earle organized the first Monterey Historics races at the 17-year-old Laguna Seca circuit. Like Tryon and Hermann, Earle's event also was by invite only, though it favored both pre-war and post-war race cars. That first year, Robert Ames' 1951 HRG won The Pebble Beach Cup.
Earle held those first Monterey Historics on Saturday only, Lamm says, as the concours is always held on Sunday. "They tried to make sure that nobody who is judging on Sunday is also racing. Everybody who is a judge shouldn't have to race on Sunday," Lamm says. He attended his first Pebble Beach Concours in 1973 and has made every Monterey historic race since 1974. About the same time, the nation's enthusiast community were starting to notice, with chief honorary judge Mac Minn writing about the Pebble Beach Concours for the December 1975 Road & Track, and John Christy covering Earle's Third Annual Monterey Historics for the December 1976 Motor Trend.
Taste for pre-war classics and mid-century and earlier race cars seemed to grow as contemporary cars grew big bumpers, and development budgets and federal regulations forced some pretty unappealing car designs.
The Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance and the Monterey Historics carried on with only occasional notoriety outside the orbit of the San Francisco and Monterey bays for the next couple decades. In 1985, organizers arranged for all six Bugatti Type 41 "Royale" models made between 1927 and 1933 to roll along concours ramp on the 18th fairway. The next year, Fangio and Stirling Moss nearly tipped over on the ramp in a replica of the 1886 Benz Patent Motor Wagen, the world's first car.
Then in 1990, a couple of new events on the Carmel-Monterey Peninsula amped up the commercial appeal of the concours. They were Christie's Auction and the Blackhawk Exposition of classics. Luxury auto brands took notice and eventually erected their own tents full of new models—shades of the original definition of "concours"—and even have unveiled concepts like the 2011 Cadillac Ciel. Mazda and Nissan have held press-trip drives to Pebble Beach and Monterey of their latest models. Mazda continues to do this annually and bought the naming rights to the Laguna Seca circuit in 2001.
"I would say, in the early 2000s, it began to grow," Lamm says. He is a Concours d'Elegance judge (for 2016, in the "Fiats with trick bodywork" category) and is on the organizing committee for the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion.
The concours loosened its definition of "classic" a bit and hosted its first hot rods and a special microcars class in 1997. In 2000, its golden anniversary, the concours named Glenn Mounger its new chairman, and Ed Gilbertson chief judge. Also in 2001, the concours added a classification for unrestored "preservation" cars, the first trophy going to Jack Passey's 1919 Locomobile 48 Sportif.
Sandra Button became concours co-chair in 2002 with Glenn Mounger, who retired in 2005. In 2007, the concours added a postwar preservation class. Steven Earle had passed 30 years as the major domo of the Monterey Historics, deciding each year which cars and their owners would be invited to what was by now a full weekend of vintage racing.
Then, after the August 2009 Monterey Historics, Earle suddenly hung it up after a still-unexplained disagreement with SCRAMP, Laguna Seca's governing body. He allowed SCRAMP to use the Monterey Historics name for 2010, and then the vintage races were renamed the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Renuion at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
One thing that certainly changed since the mid-'70s was the economics. Like Formula 1 in the late '60s and America's Cup in the early '90s, the concours was transforming from a cozy local event into an international extravaganza drawing the rich and famous from around the world.
"Even in the 1980s, the hotels in the area would get new names" because they struggled to fill rooms and would change hands, Lamm explains. "Now, they have a four-day minimum and cost big bucks.
"The Quail event is $600 a ticket and has been sold out since early June. Pebble Beach Concours tickets are $325 in advance. Concorso Italiano is $100," Lamm says. Fifty-five years after first charging a $1 donation entry fee, the concours has raised more than $20 million for charity, $1.9 million of it in 2014 alone.
The 2014 Pebble Beach Concours also marked the second time since Hill's Pierce-Arrow win that a post-war car earned the Best in Show award. It was Jon Shirley's 1954 Ferrari 375MM Scaglietti Coupe, originally purchased by film director Roberto Rossellini, for his wife, Ingrid Bergman. By the time this car won Best in Show, it was 36 years older than Hill's '31 Pierce-Arrow was when it won the award.
The concours has expanded into what the Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau cheerfully calls Monterey Car Week & Concours d'Elegance. It begins this year with people and their old cars gathering in town Monday, August 15, with the Carmel Concours on the Avenue on Tuesday and includes the Pebble Beach Tour d'Elegance on Thursday, the Quail on Friday, and Concourso Italiano and Concours d'Lemons on Saturday, just ahead of Sunday's Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. Meanwhile, the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion covers Friday through Sunday, with drivers and judges forming the basis for the Dawn Patrol, a group of enthusiasts who watch the concours cars roll off their transport trucks, then hightail it back to Laguna Seca.
It's the only way to beat the traffic. If you have any remaining doubts about the future of automotive enthusiasm, try to get from one Monterey Car Week event to another on the same day.
"The biggest problem with Car Week is there are too many cars," Lamm says. "It's hard to get around." Read about all of the events happening this year in our complete coverage.