America's elite classic-car show

Car-buff entrepreneurs flock to the nation's leading vintage-auto exhibition. Here's why.

by Alex Taylor III, FSB Contributor

(FSB Magazine) Monterey, Calif. -- It's 6 a.m. and still dark out, but to beat traffic I climb aboard a shuttle bus with a crowd of other car enthusiasts and head for the Pebble Beach Golf Links. Today is the last day of Monterey Speed Week, and the marquee event - the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, the largest, most glamorous classic-car exhibition and competition in America - is set to begin.

The trip from my hotel is short but not exactly easy. The legendary course is tucked against the shore of the Pacific Ocean and accessible only by a series of twisted two-lane roads, followed by a brisk walk across the club grounds. My wife, Mary, and I arrive just in time to see the contestants - 202 of them, from 30 states and 12 countries - start to drive up the fairway out of the ocean mist. Among the cars in procession are 38 Aston Martins (including the DB5 that James Bond drove in Goldfinger), 17 Ferraris, and an 1897 Henriod Duc Kellner Phaeton. Only the rarest cars in the world are invited to appear. Spread gorgeously across the 18th fairway, they are worth more than $200 million in total.

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Top Design: A 1931 Duesenberg J Weymann Tapertail Speedster
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The wheels that won the 2007 Concours d'Elegance. This 1935 Duesenberg SJ Special was the fastest car of its day.
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New York City architect Harris with a 1973 Porsche 911 Carrera RS
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Th Champion: A 1935 Duesenberg SJ Special
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First in Class (Vintage Category): A 1919 Pierce-Arrow Model 66A-4 Don Lee touring car
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Vintage Indy 500 cars in the pit at this year's Laguna Seca historic historic-car races

Fortified by coffee and doughnuts, we watch proud owners wielding last-minute toothbrushes and polishing rags. The immaculate natural scenery provides a spectacular backdrop for the chrome, brass, and steel before us.

Launched in 1950, the Concours (pebblebeachconcours.com) has grown over the years into a weeklong celebration of vintage autos. The serene morning contrasts sharply with the rest of Speed Week, a medley of rallies, showcases, auctions, and parties up and down the stunning Monterey Peninsula during the days leading up to the show. Hotels and restaurants were packed all week, and revelers thronged the streets until well after midnight. The traffic was terrible. But the Mazda RX-8 sports car we drove (lent to us to mark the 40th anniversary of the rotary engine) was equal to the task. So how could I complain, surrounded by Aston Martins, Shelby Cobras, and so many red Ferraris that they seemed as common as Toyotas?

This year's festivities - like others around the country - were the best attended in the history of the Concours. That's because collecting old cars has never been more popular. Affluent baby-boomers, now entering retirement age, have the time and means to indulge in such luxe hobbies. RM Auctions (rmauctions.com), based in Blenheim, Ont., estimates that 40% of its buyers are new customers.

What's more, auto collecting has undergone an image makeover in recent years, thanks to the vogue for classic, affordably priced American muscle cars. Most of us aren't about to shell out $3.9 million for a 1938 Talbot-Lago, but there's a much bigger market for a 1965 Mustang coupe priced at $15,500 to $22,000. So while high-priced cars and over-the-top bidding still dominate the Concours, recent years have drawn a more diverse audience of car lovers - many of whom aren't just window-shopping.

Not surprisingly, the most frenetic events of Speed Week are the auctions. All that shiny hardware and frantic bidding, mixed with abundant liquid assets, create an atmosphere that's a cross between a Hollywood opening and a Persian rug bazaar. I heard the commotion erupting from two such events via loudspeakers positioned outside my hotel. Rarefied rides, such as a pair of vintage Mercedes 300 SL Gullwings worth half-a-million dollars each and a yellow Lamborghini (about $200,000, nicely equipped), were parked nonchalantly on the street outside the Monterey Marriott, where the auction was taking place.

While some collectors treat their cars like Old Master paintings, never allowing the rubber to touch the road, others seek what are known in the trade as "daily drivers" - vehicles that can be taken out for a ride on Sunday afternoons. Then there are the novelty items. One auction showcased a 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood limousine formerly owned by Elvis Presley. Being unrestored, it offered buyers the chance to imprint the same seat cushion once graced by the King's backside.

Jeffrey Brynan, who owns a legal practice in Beverly Hills, grew up in a car family - his father was a used-car dealer in North Hollywood. Brynan started collecting cars years ago and passed the vintage-car bug down to his 21-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter. "For us, cars are a bond," he says. At the Gooding & Co. (goodingco.com) auction, Brynan, 55, sold one of his Porsches and bought a 1955 Austin Healey 100M. Both deals closed for less than $100,000.

Brynan is more interested in owning the car than in making a profit on the sale. "Just the smell of the tool kit in the Austin Healey reminds me of being a teenager," he says. Brynan has the right attitude - analysts say the only old cars worth investing in are the ones you love. The market, after all, is prone to the whims of fashion. Transaction costs are high: Buyers and sellers each pay about 10% of the sales price to the auction house. And restoration costs can easily run in the tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Steven Harris, 57, owns half-a-dozen old Porsches as well as the New York City architectural firm that bears his name (stevenharrisarchitects.com). When I met Harris a few days before the Concours, he was kicking the tires of a Jaguar more than a half-century old. He bid on two Jaguars during the week: an XK120 coupe and a roadster. The coupe went for $90,000 plus the 10% buyer's premium, and the roadster sold for $210,000 plus premium. Both prices were "well in excess of the price guides and the auction history," Harris reports. "They are at the very top of the market."

Harris decided to save his money for another day. For him the Concours is far more than a car auction. "It is the extraordinary diversity of people obsessed with old cars," he says, "that makes many of these events so interesting." Over the years Harris has met a rock star, a fast-food mogul, the inventor of the magnetic keycard, and a Disney Imagineer.

Gallery of cars at the exhibition

Traditionally, the Concours has been thickly sprinkled with the rich, the powerful, and the celebrated, including designer Ralph Lauren and auto executive Bob Lutz. We spotted Jay Leno at the Quail Lodge exhibition and auction ($200 a ticket), where more vintage autos were displayed and sold. Clad in denim shirt and jeans, he was eyeballing a 1907 Packard that eventually sold to another collector for $403,000. Leno owns more than 50 cars, all of which he keeps in running condition. As hobbies go, he jokes, collecting cars is cheaper than drugs or illicit sex.

Besides the auctions, the Speed Week crowd goes wild over the races, the best-known of which takes place at the Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca, about ten miles south of Monterey. Laguna Seca is one of the few old-time tracks in the U.S. that hasn't been gobbled up by real estate developers. It sits atop a plateau hundreds of feet above the highway, and the view from the surrounding hills is almost worth the price of admission ($65 on Saturday).

This year's three-day event drew 40,000 spectators and 375 vintage automobiles - the oldest a 1914 Mercer - that raced in 14 classes. Indy Car roadsters from the 1950s were the featured class, and the highlight of the afternoon was seeing former Indy 500 drivers, some in their late 60s, such as Johnny Rutherford, bumping cars with one another like teenagers.

Still, when the actual Concours d'Elegance finally arrives, we are reminded why more and more car fans pay $175 apiece to attend this event on the third Sunday of August every year. Actor Edward Herrmann, a car collector himself, oversaw the contest. Throughout the day judges in ties and blue blazers made the rounds, carefully inspecting each car in the competition.

They picked winners in 24 classes, including Class A (Antique through 1915), Class H (Rolls-Royce Prewar), and Class J-1 (European Classic Open 1932--1939). Prizes went to, among others, a 1913 Chalmers Model 18 Touring. At 4:45 p.m. the judges presented the award for best in show: a streamlined 1935 Duesenberg SJ Special that belongs to Harry Yeaggy, the owner of Union Savings Bank (unionsavings-bank.com) in Columbus. It happened to be the same car that made a splash at Speed Week three years earlier, when it was bought for a record $4.45 million. "I knew I had a great car," he said, accepting his trophy. "In my opinion, this is the most significant American car ever built."

As I prepared for my flight back to the East Coast, I made a resolution to save money for a more modest representative from the Golden Age of American automobiles: a 1930 Auburn Boattail Speedster. On my Fortune salary I should have enough in about 40 or 50 years.  Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.