From Brilliant, to Boorish, to the Way It Used to Be

With the concours season now upon us, it got me thinking about last year, and what happened. That passage of time turned out to be a real asset when reflecting on things, for it brought out the good, the brilliant, and the unexpected awful.

So lets take a look…

While I’m the first to admit the behavior of asset markets can be very interesting, prior to Monterey in August, there was so much price-centric conversation and speculation in the press and amongst enthusiasts about car values and where they were heading, that I was ready to hurl. The way everyone was talking, it seemed as if only the auction companies would be on the Monterey peninsula, and that events such as Pebble Beach and the Historics didn’t exist.

The Club at Las Campanas on the outskirts of Santa Fe. Not a bad place to hold a car show, one that was (literally and figuratively) a world apart from the proceedings in California several weeks earlier.

Thankfully, when the week was said and done the dialogue returned to cars, rather than their perceived worth. For that, we can thank Pebble Beach’s masterful Best of Show winner, the fabulous one-off 375 MM that was made by Sergio Scaglietti for film producer Roberto Rossellini.

That Ferrari became the first postwar car to win the gold at Pebble since 1968, but what made the victory all the more impressive was it came against arguably the finest field of cars I’ve ever seen. No matter where you turned there was something spectacular, so much so that Marek Reichmann, Aston’s head of design, and I spent a good couple hours walking the 18th Green to take everything in. The class that likely impressed us the most was Fernandez et Darrin Coachwork; neither of us knew much about the firm and their work was stunning, the epitome of flamboyant French design from the 1930s.

When the four Best of Show Nominees lined up at the end of the day, Bob Lee’s stupendous one-off Fernandez et Darrin-bodied Hispano Suiza seemed to be the odds-on favorite. But it was not to be, and the 375’s victory thankfully took attention away from the talking point that had been on everyone’s mind: the sale of $38 million 250 GTO at Bonhams three days earlier. Many people thought the Ferrari was going to really ring the bell, so much so that I was given 3:1 odds in two bets, with my wager being the hammer price would be under $60 million (I was figuring $40-50).

A tasty group of Maseratis showed the marque’s complete heritage. The class included machinery such as an A6G/54 Frua berlinetta, a 300 S and an OSCA MT4 and 1500S.

Bonhams’ display for the GTO and nine other Ferraris in their special one-night sale may have been the finest I’d seen at any auction. Everything was set up to look more like a Tiffany’s exhibit than a sale of cars, which is just another indicator of how certain market segments are veering away from their automotive roots and more towards fine art. (We’ll delve into this in detail in the future.)

That unexpected Pebble win and the GTO sale fostered serious mainstream media coverage, and this brings new people into the collector car arena. Back in the old days, we thought this was really cool, as we wanted to share our enthusiasm and passion with everyone so the rest of the world could see what fun we were having, and what they were missing.

Monterey though, really made me question such altruism. No question new blood is good for the longevity of anything, but it all depends on what that “new blood” is composed of.

To wit: at The Quail, an event that is all about exclusivity with limited ticket sales and a big price tag to get in, not one but two women attempted to disrobe while everything was in full swing! (Both were foiled.) In this day and age where so many people crave to be a celebrity of some sort, especially when notoriety and not some type of talent is all that is needed, in both cases the striptease was being recorded so it could be posted online.

This is not a good precedent, and the Quail wasn’t alone. One of my favorite hangouts during Pebble is the McLaren pavilion right next to the show field. In there was a twenty-something wispy blond haired Hollywood starlet wannabe who knew this wasthe place to be on Sunday. She also knew that she, rather than the cars in the pavilion, or the show outside, should be the center of attention. We had a brief, pleasant but very vapid conversation, where she punctuated the end of every sentence with an exaggerated pout of her lips, and tilting her head one way. When she wasn’t pouting she effortlessly sashayed around the suite, making sure everyone noticed her.

After watching this “display” in amazement, I headed back out to that stellar show field, and didn’t see Ms. Pouty again…until that evening at the Gooding Auction where she was frequently flitting up and down the center aisle, once again doing her best to make sure everyone knew she was there. And, just to be certain Charlie Ross’ expert management of a heated bidding exchange wasn’t the center of attention, at one point Ms. Pouty slowed down to speak to a dealer from the UK, who then cracked some joke. But rather than simply stand there, laugh with him, or continue on her way, she hauled back and slapped him on the face, and then flitted away.

There was more boorish behavior elsewhere that was also new to the peninsula, but I won’t bore you with it. I’m now wondering if 2014 was a one-off occurrence, or the beginning of an era where those who dwell in the center of their own universes will eventually outnumber the cars. After all, that breed of individual tends to gravitate to the best, most prestigious venues around so they can be seen, and that makes the Monterey week an exceedingly ripe target.

All that doltishness and excessive price-centricity had me yearning for the old days. Back then, cars were a joyful creation that entertained the driver and passenger like nothing else so people used them all the time, regardless of rarity or value. Their history and the driving experience was just too overwhelming, too alluring, to leave them sitting in the garage.

Thankfully, I unexpectedly found that 1970s/80s vibe several weeks later at New Mexico’s Santa Fe Concorso. Now half a decade old, the Concorso is held in that gorgeous mountain destination at one of the best times of year (late September) to be there.

Friday evening, restoration impresario Paul Russell and I went to the kick off party, and not one person there seemed to be unduly craving attention. We then headed to the historic plaza in the center of town for dinner at a coffee shop, and it was an incredibly pleasant unhurried hour, two buds talking life, automotive history and the restoration/judging game at an exceedingly high level. Afterward we strolled the square, for there was no rush to get anywhere, and the slightly crisp, still night air was gorgeous.

The following morning, the cars gathered at the Plaza for a driving tour through town, and out into the countryside. The itinerary had a start time listed, but rather than being a hard and fast “you must be here precisely at this hour and minute or you’re out,” it was more of a recommendation on when you might want to consider showing up. As Paul and I checked out the arriving cars, there was lots of elbowroom as spectators and entrants milled about. The whole scene was also devoid of “HEY, LOOK AT ME” peacocking, just a genuine interest and enthusiasm for everything there.

As we head out of Santa Fe on the Concorso Tour, master restorer and lead foot Paul Russell keeps the rental car ahead of a Shelby Cobra.

In a brilliant touch, breakfast was served in an art gallery that overlooked the Plaza and the cars, and the Tour ended at an old west town, where there was a buffet lunch. Then most everyone took their cars over to the show field or returned to their hotels, for there was nary an auction anywhere, and no required formal dinner party to get gussied up for, and rush off to. I was invited to a lovely, informal dinner gathering at a home in the hills, where people with a strong mutual interest (cars) reveled in that and the other similarities in their lives.

On Sunday at the Concorso, my judging cohorts were Hagerty’s Derek Prechti, and racing legend and local hero, Al Unser, Sr. Derek always had a smile, and Al Sr. couldn’t have been nicer, and had a very impressive eye and knowledge base. The cars we judged were all over the board, from a Pebble major awards contender (one of the four 1937 Cadillac V-16 Stationary Coupes) to things you would see at the local concours (a 1955 Buick Century Hardtop, for instance). A number of the big boys were there with some pretty impressive machinery, but I didn’t see a single restoration/detailing team prepping a car.

To really highlight how far removed this was from the hullabaloo in California a few weeks earlier, my favorite entrant was the owner of a 1970 Monte Carlo with a 350 topped by a two-barrel carburetor. While there was no way that Chevrolet was going to contend for any award, that guy couldn’t have been more thrilled to share its story with us, and have it judged by a hero of his, Al Unser.

The genuineness of it all was a true breath of fresh air, and organizers Bev and Dennis Little are promising to preserve that feel, even as they strive to up the Concorso’s game every year. I know we can’t turn back the clock, but if you want a sense of what it was like back in the day when true passion was the prevailing force behind most everything automotive, New Mexico is where you should be this September.

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