14 March 2013

Masters of the Lawn

What does it take to win big at Pebble Beach?


To show a car at Pebble, now in its 62nd year, you first must apply. More than 700 would-be entrants vie annually for about 200 places on the 18th green at the Lodge at Pebble Beach. The finest and rarest automobiles and historic motorcycles are divided into 20 classes, several of which change each year. It’s not easy to get in, it’s hard to win your class and it’s nearly impossible to capture the top prize.

From the moment the show cars emerge out of the early morning fog and take their positions on the lawn, Pebble Beach becomes a colorful and dramatic pageant. Suspense builds throughout the day. While elegantly dressed men and women sip champagne and crowd around the cars, knowledgeable class judges in blue blazers meticulously scrutinize each car’s restoration accuracy or preservation integrity, as well as mechanical function. Points are deducted for imperfections, inaccurate details and over-restoration; they are awarded for style, beauty, color and field presence. Each winning entry must be driven over the show ramp to claim an award.

A class victory at Pebble Beach confirms that a car is both historically correct as it came from the factory or coachbuilder, and arguably close to perfect. But even that’s not enough. From those class winners, the Best of Show is chosen by a secret ballot cast by the Chief Class Judges and a cadre of Honorary Judges, many of whom are past or present automobile designers, as well as event Chairman Sandra Button. Any Pebble Beach award increases a car’s value, compliments its owner and honors its restorer. Once your car has won at Pebble Beach, recognition follows you throughout the old car hobby. It only multiplies for Best of Show.

The Dream Catchers
Although a few past Best of Show winners restored their own cars, most were restored professionally. Hagerty Classic Cars spoke with three winning restorers to better understand why Pebble Beach commands the respect it does, what winning Best of Show at Pebble means and what these shops do to prepare. Each of the three was preparing an entrant for 2012 when we spoke with them.

Paul Russell and Company, in Essex, Massachusetts, has had two past Pebble Beach Best of Show winners: a Mercedes-Benz SSK roadster and a Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic, both owned by Ralph Lauren. More recently, Arturo Keller’s 540K Mercedes-Benz Autobahn-Kurier was a runner-up for Best of Show. “Pebble Beach is the toughest concours,” Russell says. “The judges are the most knowledgeable. They’re judging technical authenticity, competence, style and elegance, compared to events where judging is purely subjective in the ‘French style.’ We don’t prepare a car any differently for Pebble, but we do mount a spirited defense for our authenticity choices. It starts with extensive research on each car. We make that into a book that we have on hand during judging.

“Most clients leave the day-to-day decisions to us,” Russell continues. “We love competing at Pebble. We want to compete against the best, and our clients want a validation of their choice of these particular cars as well as their taste and judgment in selecting the colors and the interiors.” Asked if he can pick a Pebble Beach Best of Show winner, Russell says: “It’s like the judge who was asked about pornography. ‘I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it.’

“Winning Pebble Beach establishes your shop as a brand,” Russell says. “And it establishes the credibility of the winning car. There’s not more you have to say after that.”

Preparing a car for the concours is hard enough, but then there’s the Pebble Beach Tour, a somewhat grueling 65-mile drive around the Monterey Peninsula. “The Tour is a challenge, because we’re pretty much sticklers for authenticity,” says Russell. “We don’t use auxiliary fans or electric fuel pumps. So you might have a Ferrari built to run well on open roads, stuck in a long line of traffic. But it’s a chance to see the cars dynamically, to hear them run, and that’s important.”

The shop is restoring Paul Andrews’ 1928 Mercedes-Benz S-Type Avante-Garde Torpedo Roadster for Pebble Beach this year. Its one-off body was crafted by Jacques Saoutchik’s Paris carrosserie, and with drop-dead styling — and Saoutchik a featured class — it certainly will be one to watch.

A Sixth Sense
Rich Fass owns Stone Barn Automobile Restoration in Vienna, New Jersey. In the last nine years, he’s had three Best of Show awards (2003, 2005, 2011) and four runnersup. “Pebble is a great place to go,” he says, “and it’s very exciting to win.” He’s been showing cars there since 1985. “Everything on display is perfect,” he says. “You never know what’s going to appear at Pebble, so that’s another exciting aspect. You think you have great cars and on that Sunday, you turn around and here comes another great car. Usually it’s the first time out for those restorations.” This year, Stone Barn is preparing a 1932 Packard Custom 906 Dietrich convertible sedan — formerly owned by Al Jolson — for David Kane.

“Pebble Beach judges know what they’re looking for,” says Fass. “They key into every little aspect of the car. You have to be good to be invited out there, so the judges have a very hard job, but they do a very good job. I appreciate that.”

Fass takes special measures to prepare a car for Pebble. “If you have a potential Best of Show car, you go [at it] from every angle, making sure it’s authentic, from bumper to bumper. Bodywork, paintwork, upholstery and chrome have to be perfectly matching, so everything clicks. We usually have the same people do all of our work. We try to make every car perfect, but it’s the overall look of a car that makes it considered for Best of Show. It has to strike you from every angle.”

“It seems as though European coachbuilt cars have that flair that puts them over the top,” Fass notes. “There are very few American cars that can be Best of Show, unless they’re a custom body. The European cars are the ones that are usually up there for the final trophy.

Can he pick a winner? “I’ve been doing this so long that I can look at a car that’s unrestored and I can picture it finished, in the correct colors, something that’ll really put it over the top. Certain cars have that look. I’ve sometimes told my customers, ‘This car can go all the way.’ So I can help them [determine] which way we’re gonna go about it.” Color is key, he says. “You want to attract the judges, of course, but you just know when a particular car has a chance.” As for the Tour, Fass has mixed feelings. “I think it’s something that should be done. You want the cars to run as good as they look. And customers feel they spent all this time and money getting the car ready, having it trucked out to California, getting it prepped. But then you go on the Tour, and there’s more dirt and more cleaning.”

Several Best of Show winners from 2001 to 2011 — like Sam and Emily Mann’s Voisin in 2002, their Delage in 2005, and Peter Mullin’s Voisin last year — did not go on the Tour. “But Bob Lee went on it with his Horch,” Fass says. “And Harry Yeaggy went on it with the Mormon Meteor. It’s a ‘Catch 22’ situation. We have to restore them so they will drive,” Fass declares. “That’s what my customers are looking for.

“Winning at Pebble Beach is definitely a reward,” Fass says, “because you wind up working long days and long nights, and that whole week before. But when you really come down to it, I love seeing the expression on the customer’s face when he wins.”

As Perfect as Possible
RM Auto Restoration, in Chatham, Ontario, Canada, has won Best of Show four times: In 2001, with a 1928 Mercedes S for Arturo Keller; in 2004, with a 1938 Horch 853A for Judge Joseph Cassini; in 2006, with Bob Lee’s Daimler Double Six; and in 2010, with Jim Patterson’s 1933 Delage D8.

“I consider Pebble Beach one of the best shows in the world,” says Mario Van Raay, RM Auto Restoration General Manager. “The judges are extremely knowledgeable. Although it’s a big show, it’s an intimate atmosphere and you can’t beat the setting. We treat all our cars, no matter where they go, with the same level of detailing, making sure mechanically that everything works. We do a lot of research and ensure the people who represent the car are very knowledgeable about its provenance and history.” This year, RM is preparing a 1937 Talbot-Lago T150-C by Figoni et Falaschi for Jim Patterson. “If a car goes to Pebble,” says Van Raay, “it has to be as perfect as possible, exactly the way it was built. We have very, very serious competition.

“A car’s rarity, provenance, history and special features are all factors for Best of Show. When you watch the cars drive in, you get a special feeling when you see the car. It’s an amazing thing that there are people who can pick that car out even before the judges have had a look. There’s something about a Best of Show car. It has a special presence.

“The Tour is a grueling trip, a real test of the car,” Van Raay says. “But we try to encourage the owners to enter. It creates a lot more work for us, but we’ve never had a car fail. We are set up to help anybody’s car and we will if we’re needed.”

But it’s what happens on Sunday afternoon that is most special for Mario Van Raay and RM Auto Restoration. “We’re very proud in the satisfaction we get from a job well done,” he says. “It’s important for everybody who’s worked on the car. Our customers’ enthusiasm and pride on the podium are also very important. The pursuit of perfection drives us, and we have had many late nights, but it’s all paid off.”

The Moment of Truth
The Best of Show presentation is the most anticipated moment at Pebble Beach. Each class winner has been parked in a “holding area” after class trophies are awarded. Spectators and judges look at them one last time. The ballots are submitted and counted. The finalists, usually three cars, line up in front of the ramp. Then the runners-up are called forward, until just one car remains. Often accompanied by the car’s restorer, the owner pulls forward onto the ramp. Trumpets sound and there’s an explosion of confetti. The crowd cheers and everyone surges forward to congratulate the winner.

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