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Has Pebble Beach jumped the shark?
As Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams famously made clear last year, they hate these blurred lines. And after a few days at the Pebble Beach Concours and other gatherings, I’m starting to agree.
What started as probably the most elite classic car show on the planet, featuring only truly extraordinarily rare cars plus a few small but lavish parties on the side, has become a calendar of increasingly unfocussed events and non-events that now takes up the best part of a week.
Don’t get me wrong - I still love the place and the key events, and it’s a privilege to be invited.
It’s just that the Pebble editing policy seems to have gone almost completely out the window, and needs to be rethought. And that’s not just my view - several top execs from the big luxury brands agreed.
The warning signs started several years ago when the carmakers started piling in to the fringes, to show new models to the well-heeled visitors. Nothing wrong with that when it’s done in a tasteful way, suitably out of sight or in keeping with the main events.
The problem, more noticeable this year than any other, was that the corporate presence smothered the Pebble exhibits they were notionally there to support. And it wasn’t at just one event, but pretty much all the ones we went to.
At the Quail, billed as ‘a motorsports gathering’, the sporting equivalent of the Pebble Beach Concours - and usually a fascinating one, too - the biggest news this year was not a car or cars. It was where to find the free oysters and caviar.
There were a few remarkable motors there - the old Maseratis and a yellow-skinned Vignale-bodied Ferrari, for example - but not the deep bench of motorsport history we’ve come to expect.
So, with nothing extraordinary to distract us, we were left looking at the manufacturers’ mostly non-motorsports exhibits lining the periphery and wondering what had happened. Like I say, there wasn’t anything wrong with it, but it just wasn’t what the Quail has built its reputation on: a super-exclusive and eclectic mix of hand-picked race cars.
Then there were the historics over at Laguna Seca the next day. With a paddock bursting with evocatively noisy and suitably smelly classic cars - and owners champing at the bit to exercise their toys - you’d think it would be a perfect day to watch billions of dollars worth of old metal swapping paint on the edge of adhesion.
But as Jason pointed out in his event round-up elsewhere on TG.com, at the very moment when the racing got interesting they black-flagged the two people actually racing and left the rest of the procession to file dutifully over the line. This is not what anyone wants to see, least of all the owners and racers, so what happened there? Are the cars now simply worth too much to risk rolling them into a ball? The owners don’t seem to think so, so why should we stop them? Clue: we shouldn’t.
Yet this was nothing compared to the Concours, the Big Event, on the Sunday. Now, we all have a different view of what luxury means depending on our circumstances. And that’s all well and good. But it really shouldn’t be negotiable for something as exclusive as the Concours. The world comes here expecting to see the best and nothing but the best.
So imagine our surprise when there, front and centre at the bottom of Hay Hill, one of the main thoroughfares through the event, we saw what looked distinctly like a Kia stand.
Can’t be, we said. Not at Pebble. Kia is to the Concours what nylon is to silk. Both perfectly good at what they do, but very different and best not mixed.
But here it was, a bright white, modern Kia booth complete with K900s, Kool Aid drinks and uniformed staff. This was probably seen as a huge win for Kia, getting a foothold in the grand palace of luxury to display its cars, and the organizers probably didn’t mind the bump in the bottom line of the Concours budget.
But it neatly summed up how the event has lost - or is losing - its way.
I’ve got absolutely no problem with Kia but - and this was a collective opinion - the brand does not belong at the Concours yet. It doesn’t elevate Kia, and it reduces the special atmosphere, so it doesn’t work for anyone.
But how should the organizers say no when the Koreans call up wanting space and backing that up with a big cheque? The event has to pay for itself and gives generously to many worthy charities all year.
Well, how about this: you can’t have a stand in the grounds of the concourse unless one of your cars has been selected by the judges - and only one is all it would take - to be exhibited in the Concours itself at any time since the show began 64 years ago? That way there would be a defensible reason to decline, say, Kia’s offer - and spur them to find a suitably interesting example of their original cars. If they can’t, they can’t come in. Simple.
And while we are on the subject of judging, what’s with the Concours having a stage full of honorary judges? When the call went out for them to assemble, half the occupants of the corporate suites emptied onto the stage. How on earth are so many people supposed to pick a Concours winner? To some observers it looked a little too much like a reward for sponsoring the event.
This intermingling of the corporate and the cultural seemed to run deep at Pebble. Despite a post-war Ferrari having only once won the big prize of the weekend in the past 49 years, a 1954 375 MM, almost as part of the weekend’s Maranello saturated schedule - Ferrari was the featured marque at the big auctions, the races and the concours - won the big prize, too.
As the car-shaped confetti blasted into the air to celebrate the Ferrari’s success floated slowly back to earth, it was hard to fight the feeling that the decision - as correct and fantastic as it was - might have just been helped over the line by a shove and a wink from someone wearing a Prancing Horse lapel pin.
We’ll be back at Pebble next year for sure, as the good still far outweighs the awkward. But I - and plenty of others at this year’s events - am just hoping the tide of new money doesn’t wash out all the old tradition. Enough with the blurred lines already.