Backstage at Monterey 2015: If there are traffic jams in Heaven, this is probably what they look like
By Simon Kidston
It’s Davos for petrolheads, the World Series for car auction houses, and High Noon showdown time for the rarest, most beautiful and most valuable four-wheeled machinery ever to grace the road or racetrack. Fuelling the excitement are the dealers, historians, journalists and restorers who earn a living from them, and the high-rolling collectors who will go to extraordinary lengths to own the best. It’s August and it’s Monterey week…
If you’re in the business, you can’t afford to miss it. For over a decade I’ve served as a judge at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance which is, after all, how the event started in the first place, way back in 1950. What those early participants would make of the 2015 version we can only guess, but they’d probably be wide-eyed: from two dozen concours contenders for the inaugural edition – the ‘Up To $10,000’ class seems particularly quaint – to ten times that many this year, their combined values now representing the GDP of a small country.
Did I mention that’s just the main event? The week-long build up includes major league auctions and pretenders to their thrones, friendly ‘shiny car’ get-togethers (where a red Ferrari is your ‘starter’ classic), new model launches, endless gala dinners and cocktail parties, and even the opportunity to peruse and order your next executive jet. As regular guest Jay Leno once put it, “It’s a place where mere millionaires get to play with the billionaires”.
It’s 7am and the sun’s peeking over the horizon as our company car emerges from the infamous Chateau Marmont’s garage into early morning LA traffic. Ahead lie 322 miles of Californian coastal highway including some of the world’s most iconic scenery along State Route 1 – the same road James Dean took on his last, ill-fated journey. We’re luckier, and exactly seven hours later our bug-spattered Silver Arrow pulls up in Big Sur to rendezvous with the K500 team who have flown from the UK, ready to meet, greet and do business.
The next four days are a whirlwind. Kicking off the real action, Gordon McCall’s Jet Center Party that evening is loud, glitzy and overflowing in every sense, from the cocktails to the cocktail dresses. You’re not sure where to look, although one man’s interpretation of the ‘Ferrari 500 Superfast California Spyder’ begs your guilty attention. Oh, to arrive at the next Ferrari Classiche certification committee meeting with that…
Another early start rewards you with the entire Pebble Beach field – well, almost, some either overslept or wouldn’t start – thundering off on a 60-mile tour to prove that they don’t just look good. If two cars tie at Sunday’s concours, the one which completed the tour wins. If there are traffic jams in heaven, this is probably what they look like.
Collector Chip Connor’s dinner party that evening is the most coveted invitation on the peninsula, but you daren’t stay late as the next day has become synonymous with another unmissable event: The Quail. Fellow Hong Kong tycoon Sir Michael Kadoorie’s five-star resort hotel plays host to the most exclusive concours of the weekend, with tickets allocated by lottery and sold out – no matter who you are – weeks in advance. Our well-used hack sits happily in traffic en route there, serves as mobile office-hospitality-bar on the show field, and then ferries us around the auctions, shows and racing at Laguna Seca better than any Hertz rental. Just don’t ask about the air conditioning.
You’ve probably already read our take on the ‘premier cru’ auctions at www.k500.com, so we’ll simply add that the overall statistics aren’t what most magazine headlines would have you believe. Three trends stand out if you look closely.
First, overall turnover is largely meaningless. If you want to churn more, you simply add another day’s sale and accept more cars. What’s more relevant is who consigned the best cars, and achieved the best results with them. Here the two biggest players – RM and Gooding – were pretty evenly matched. As it happens, the weekend’s total was largely unchanged from 2014, which should be cause for relief rather than disappointment. Stability is a much missed element in most markets right now.
Second, look at auction results vs. pre-sale estimates and you’ll see that this year, far more cars were sold under the average estimate rather than above. This tells us that no matter how far prices have risen (answer: plenty, the K500 index jumping from 449.1 to 487.7 as a result), sellers were hoping for more but ultimately common sense prevailed.
Third, demographics: the cars sold are getting younger. In 2013 the average was 1957; last year it was 1960; this year it’s 1965. You can interpret this either way: the market’s moving forward with the generations, or older classics are the preserve of long-term collectors who keep them whilst younger models are traded like commodities by speculators. I believe it’s both.
And so the final day heralds the earliest start of all: the first cars roll onto Pebble Beach’s hallowed 18th fairway before there’s enough light to see the ornate Rolex clock showing 5am or the sun has begun its climb over the Pacific. The judges convene as the final cars are positioned, and from here on it’s relentless until the drums roll, breaths are held and rival competitors hold their smiles as Best of Show is announced. And the winner is…