The Pebble Beach Tour d’Elegance Presented by Rolex is a veritable Tour de Force
Thursday morning, 8 a.m. Three days to the Concours. There is palpable electricity in the air on Portola Road in Pebble Beach. Officials bustle about, clipboard in one hand and steaming coffee cup in the other, as 165 cars take up their positions in three neat rows to participate in the 2018 Pebble Beach Tour d’Elegance.
Understandably nerves are running high. By entering the tour, the Pebble Beach Concours entrants commit to over four hours and 70 miles of driving up hill and down dale, across the Monterey Peninsula and beyond, which can be as exhausting as it is exhilarating. Add to that the fact that some of these cars are centenarians, many are rarely driven and all will be exhibited on the 18th fairway at the Concours the following Sunday, and the Tour d’Elegance becomes a real Tour de Force.
“I think the Tour is incredibly important — quite possibly the most important event of the whole darn Concours!” remarks Anne Brockinton Lee, owner of the Robert M. Lee Automobile Collection in Sparks, Nevada, as she leans against her spectacular 1931 Cadillac 452A Boattail Roadster with stunning Pinin Farina coachwork. This car — better known as the “Tiger Car” because it was commissioned by the Maharaja of Orchha specifically for hunting — was entered in 2018’s Motor Cars of the Raj class and was named First in Class at the Concours the following Sunday. “The Tour kicks off the week,” Anne says, smiling. “It gets everyone involved in the Concours, as well as the local community, really revved up in the true spirit of why we are all here.”
By 9 a.m. engines are humming — or occasionally sputtering — and the smell of hot oil and the sound of well-tuned engines fill the air as drivers and “navigators” (who really only have to follow the car in front) scramble into their automobiles ready for the “off.” Well-wishers, spectators and officials wave as the cavalcade of classics stream by — an assembly that includes 16 OSCAs and 10 Tuckers (the largest number of these rare automobiles ever gathered together at any event) and several prewar cars (that is pre-WWI!). Scores of rare cars have been shipped in from 17 countries including nine from India specifically to participate in the Motor Cars of the Raj Class.
About three quarters of the way down the field is the 2018 Pebble Beach Concours poster car — a magnificent 1935 Rolls-Royce Phantom II Continental Streamline Coupé with coachwork by J. Gurney Nutting, painted in green and cream especially for the Maharaja of Jodhpur. Superbly restored by current owners Amir and Wendy Jetha of Mumbai, this is the only remaining Phantom II Continental left in India. A few cars down the row, a 1921 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost James & Co. Open Tourer quietly awaits the start. This unique Rolls-Royce was originally commissioned by the Maharana Amar Singhji of Wankaner especially for ceremonies and weddings. Dubbed the “Wankaner Rolls-Royce,” the car has been with the same family for all of its 97 years. This superbly preserved automobile, with its dignified fading paint and beautifully patinated leather, has only 3,000 miles on its odometer and is possibly the lowest mileage Silver Ghost left in the world.
“I think the Tour achieves a number of objectives, including getting the cars driving on the road and completely overcoming the outdated ‘trailer queen’ criticism,” says Craig Davis, former Concours judge and the man who initiated the first Pebble Beach Tour d’Elegance 21 years ago following a trip to Italy where he witnessed the excitement and frenzy surrounding the Mille Miglia. The Pebble Beach Road Races ceased in the 1950s, after which there was little opportunity for people to see classic cars driven on the roads around Pebble Beach. “These automobiles are not pieces of art to hang on a wall,” says Craig, “They were built to be driven! In Europe owners take their cars out, they drive them. They get ‘pranged’ — they repair them. They get dirty — they clean them. Then they take them out again.”
Many believe that classic automobile owners have a responsibility to share their wards with the public. For those who are unable to attend the Pebble Beach Concours on Sunday, as well as the many local residents who gamely put up with the inevitable traffic delays which accompany the event, the Thursday Tour is a chance to see these fabulous motorcars doing what they do best. And in response the cheering spectators turn out in their thousands. “Half the fun for the Tour drivers is the crowd!” says Craig. “They cheer and yell and we honk our horns and rev our engines! It’s a moving motorcar museum!”
On the first Tour d’Elegance in 1997, Craig drove a 1960 OSCA 1600 Zagato and was assigned to lead the field, proudly wearing the number “1” Tour decal. “Of course, as they waved the flag to go — my car wouldn’t start!” he recalls. Frantically trying to get the engine to fire, he waved the other drivers around him, finally managing to hotwire the OSCA and join the group at the rear. “We drove the whole way hotwired so couldn’t turn it off. It was a wild ride!” he chuckles.
In the 2018 Tour, car number “1” — a 1957 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Roadster — was driven by Martin Button with co-pilot and Concours Chairman Sandra Button. Although the 300 SL started up without hesitation, the Buttons hung back to watch the cars go by and joined the field midway. “It’s the Magical Mystery Tour,” enthused Martin. “Magical because — well, look — the sound, the sight, the smell! And a mystery because you’re never quite sure if you’ll finish!”
Indeed, sadly there is always some attrition en route. In 2018, 10 cars experienced difficulties and needed roadside assistance from the support crew but almost all were able to finish the tour. One of the trickiest parts of the route is the long hill climb before the Tehama Monterra coffee stop. Most drivers left extended space between their cars and took a good run at it but a few struggled with the gradient. “It’s gut-wrenching to see your friends stopped on the side of the road,” says Elad Shraga from Tel Aviv, who was driving his 1949 torpedo-bodied OSCA MT4 Siluro that had been flown in from Israel along with his 1952 OSCA MT4 MM Spider. “Everyone dreads driving excruciatingly slowly up steep hills and overheating.”
Elad should know. He and his compatriot Amir Almagor organize the challenging Holyland 1000 Tour in Israel and understand the intricate logistics of managing such an event.
This year Chairman Sandra Button and Tour Director Sean Jacobs met with the local California Highway Patrol and emphasized that these automobiles needed to drive at the speed limit to avoid back-up and overheating. “The police kept things moving and waved us straight though all the red lights,” says Elad. “They really got it right and the pace was perfect. Fast enough not to overheat and slow enough to appreciate the scenery!”
And the scenery is indeed something to behold. After passing in front of The Lodge at Pebble Beach, the entourage enters the cool cover of Del Monte Forest, and then heads out toward Big Sur, where Highway 1 is a ribbon of asphalt sandwiched between earth and ocean. “As I came around that turn, into the sun and the sea breeze blasted us, I elbowed my wife. We grinned like kids. Sheer bliss!” says Elad.
Alan Tribe agrees: “It was a beautiful drive — stunning!” Alan brought his 1939 Lagonda V12 Rapide from Perth, Australia, for his second outing on the Tour — his first foray being in a 1930 Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 Super Sport four years ago. “One of the most impressive moments is as you pass by the returning cars, an oncoming stream of open tourers, sports cars, vintage cars, Rolls-Royces, and OSCAs! The majesty of a parade through the centuries, each one with masses of history and provenance, and miles of exploration under its hood. It’s almost a sacred moment to ponder.”
The Lagonda, complete with its synchromesh gearbox and quiet, powerful motor was fresh from restoration in New Zealand. “It’s a car that was built for fast and silent touring. None of the crash and bang of the Bentleys,” says Alan.
“There’s no better feeling than nonchalantly accelerating through a red light with the police waving you on while the crowds whoop and holler!”
At every corner, at every red light and everywhere in between, people gather — many with outstretched phones
or preposterously long camera lenses — to catch the glory of the moment. Rather fortuitously for one Tour car–owner, a father and son were watching from the edge of Highway 1 and caught the car on video as it lost its “snubber” or shock absorber. The dutiful duo retrieved the jettisoned part and drove straight to Ocean Avenue in Carmel where the cars had convened for lunch. They approached Terry Bare, the Security Committee Chair who was working at the Tour reception desk, and explained the situation. “They showed me the snubber, we watched the video and thought we identified the car,” says Terry, “but when we got to the yellow and black 1921 Paige Model 6-66 Daytona Speedster, Tom Martindale — the owner — looked under his automobile and stated, ‘It’s not mine!’” Tom then watched the video and determined that the motorcar in question was actually the yellow and black 1921 Kissel Model 6-45 “Gold Bug” Speedster. The whole group hustled down the street to the Kissel where owners Andrew and Tanya Heller of Ft. Lauderdale were getting into their car. “A quick look underneath and sure enough the snubber was returned to its rightful owner,” beamed Terry. “Case closed and happy smiles all around!”
The gathering on Ocean Avenue is unequivocally one of the most popular stages of the Tour, both for participants and onlookers. The motorcade reverently parades into Carmel surrounded by throngs of spectators as the cars fill both sides of Ocean Avenue for five blocks or more while the drivers and their passengers proceed to Devendorf Park, where they are treated to a spectacular and well-earned lunch. Meanwhile, thousands of auto-enthusiasts, locals and international visitors alike, are free to meander among some of the most interesting and prestigious automobiles in the world, squeezing between the bumper of a 1922 Hispano-Suiza and a 1939 Lagonda V12 Rapide, or posing for a selfie with a 1955 Ferrari 500 Mondial as a backdrop, flanked by a Duesenberg and an Isotta Fraschini. With the sun glinting off highly polished brightwork, and amidst the sweet aroma of cooling brakes and overworked clutches, there is quite simply no better time or place for the auto-obsessed than Ocean Avenue on the day of the Tour.
Contrary to popular opinion, participating in the Tour doesn’t earn a point from the judges at the Concours d’Elegance – although completing it may be used as a tie-breaker. The real bonus after racking up 70 extra miles, risking overheating (and in some cases divorce), is to have the ultimate story to tell. It’s an event that is quite possibly the most stressful and simultaneously stimulating experience of a lifetime, driving a dream while thousands of people cheer and applaud your automobile.
As Anne Brockinton Lee puts it, “Is there anything I would rather be doing? I think not!”