Driving Range The Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, pinnacle of the car show circuit, is a weekend-long, over-the-top homage to the greatest sheet metal on the planet--and winning is in the details
By Sue Zesiger

(FORTUNE Magazine) – "We are not judging perfection, just authenticity," explains J Heumann, co-chairman of the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. "If you have equal cars pointswise, then the one that moves you is the one to pick. And remember, we make deductions for various technical flaws, but we add points for elegance."

He is addressing the 48th annual gathering of automotive luminaries who make up this year's 89 judges and 24 honorary judges (including the likes of racing legend Stirling Moss, Ford CEO Jac Nasser, and Wolfgang Porsche) at this, the Oscars of car shows. In a few minutes, the group will leave the conference room overlooking one of the world's most famous golf courses and begin to assess which of the 178 rare and extravagant cars parked on the 18th fairway will win Best of Show, among other awards.

In an annual August weekend packed with memorable car-related events--two auctions, a sea of vintage races at Laguna Seca, art exhibitions, fancy dinners, and (new this year) a driving tour for the participating owners--the Sunday Concours is unquestionably the most important. Millions and millions of dollars of head-turning cars are here, but to view the event solely through financial eyes misses the point. For vintage-car owners, being asked to participate in the Pebble Beach, Calif., event is like making it to the Olympics. Entry automatically increases the resale value of a vehicle; the extreme level of obsession with detail needed to make it here is understood. Most owners spend years restoring their cars, toiling to find the right type of radiator hose, the correct upholstery or latch. Sometimes the obsession is pushed too far; as one judge said, "Some guys will paint a car to a level of luster that the original could never have had. What's the point of making it something it should never have been?"

The cars are painstakingly shipped in from as far away as Europe, Hawaii, and Australia; each entrant, a gleaming example of automotive history, is here because it has been deemed particularly important by the organizers. And although the most prominent car collectors in the world are often represented, says Pebble Beach executive director Sandra Kasky, "ultimately, it's the car we're inviting, not the person."

FORTUNE, too, is invited to participate: For the first time, the powers at Pebble are allowing a journalist to observe the judging process. And to give me the most intensive view of the proceedings, I am assigned to the absurdly rigorous Ferrari group.

A navy-blazered, straw-hatted band of seven, the Ferrari judges are the car show equivalent of the Supreme Court. Some have written books about Ferraris; others own Ferrari-restoration businesses; all are longtime owners and historians with unimpeachable brand knowledge. There's a special air of pride about them, perhaps because Ferrari is the only postwar car manufacturer with its own class and its own set of judging rules. Chief Ferrari judge Ed Gilbertson explains the process to me. "We break the judging into three categories--interior, exterior, and engine and chassis. Normally, at other regional and national events, we have one judge on each, but the quality of the cars is so high here we have to double up." That way, when an irate owner protests a point deducted for a nonoriginal knob, say, here are two experts to argue with instead of one.

Ready to begin, we head out onto the field, clipboards in hand. What a sight it is: Duesenbergs and Delahayes, Porsches (the featured marque this year) and Bentleys, Pierce-Arrows and Bugattis. For us, a cluster of eight world-class Ferraris gleams in the sun, all looking, well, priceless. A good Ferrari restoration, says judge Wayne Obry, costs well into five figures, not including the cost of the vehicle itself. But a fat checkbook will never assure an owner of a winning car--there must be historical accuracy, elegance, and authenticity behind every bolt. It's the intangibles at Pebble as much as anything else that win the elusive medals.

Gilbertson estimates we'll spend about 15 to 20 minutes per car. The ritual begins with the first entrant, a 1967 Ferrari 330GTC by Pinninfarina. "The color is called fly yellow," explains Gilbertson, "because for some reason it attracts flies." He introduces the group to the car's owner, Vincent Marella, with the ceremony of a court dancer, and then the judges begin to crawl over every inch of the vehicle. The exterior is examined, the interior delicately assessed ("Judges never put their feet inside the car," says Gilbertson), and the engine scrutinized. Marella opens the trunk and watches nervously while the contents of his tool kit are compared with the diagram in the owner's manual. "A single tool missing could make the difference," says Gilbertson. In Marella's case, several tools are; he receives a two-point deduction (out of a perfect score of 100). After Marella starts the engine and turns on all the lights, the judges make notes and move out of earshot to powwow.

Another entry, a drop-dead silvery-green 1953 342 America Pinninfarina Cabriolet (one of two ever made) owned by Mexican billionaire Lorenzo Zambrano, captures particular attention. "It took six months to get the paint matched to the original," comments Steve Tillack, the car's restorer. "We eventually found a paint chip." I can tell from the lack of scribbling that the judges are impressed. "This car has been shown several times recently," whispers Doug Freedman, president of the Ferrari Club of America. "A lot of little things have been found wrong, and it's been consistently brought up to a higher level. They've gone back and corrected everything--hoses and clamps, paint flaws." The car loses half a point because the spacers used on the exhaust hangers are too narrow.

As we work our way through the group, pushing past the ever-growing crowds of spectators, I watch the owners' faces. Several are visibly sweating, and all indulge in defensive chatter. One owner even waves a roll of microfilm to the group to document his claim. (I wouldn't be surprised if Gilbertson were to whip out a portable viewer.) Another pulls out a leather-bound scrapbook with yellowed photos and ancient Italian paperwork to attest to the correctness of certain details. "I feel like a kid during the final exam!" exclaims Zambrano as we watch them circle his baby.

Of all the heart-wrenching Italian beauty present, it is the small selection of Scaglietti cars that steals the show. During its 50-year history, Ferrari has had eight main coach builders, including Sergio Scaglietti, who designed bodies for many of the company's most famous racecars as well as numerous (and now priceless) one-of-a-kinds. This year Scaglietti is honored at the Concours with a special subclass for his cars, and the diminutive 78-year-old legend himself is here, looking a bit distraught over the trail of media behind him. It is his first trip ever to the U.S., and the first time in 40 years that he has seen one of his most audacious designs, a one-off coupe body on a 1954 Ferrari 375MM chassis built for film director Roberto Rossellini.

The car's current owner, Jon Shirley, Microsoft's president during its formative years, has spent the past three years restoring the pearly-gray 375MM. His time has not been not misspent: After a hushed discussion the judges agree they have a 100-point car--only the third perfect-score Ferrari in Pebble Beach history. A certain reverence hangs in the air.

Others aren't so lucky: David Smith's lustrous black 1959 250GT LWB Spyder California has the wrong weather-stripping around the windshield, and its air cleaner tag isn't stamped. Zambrano's other entry, a 1959 SWB Scaglietti Berlinetta, is missing the stamp on the fuel filter's lead seal and the boot on the hand brake. (A heated discussion ensues over whether the hand brake should have a boot.) Oscar Davis' 1960 400 Superamerica has a pinched rubber door gasket but the correct British hose clamps--go figure. In an arena of hand-built cars with tons of irregularities, it seems all too easy to have the wrong irregularities.

By noon it is clear that the 100-point Shirley car is the winner of the Scaglietti class, and the Zambrano 342 America, at 99 1/2 points, the winner of the Ferrari class. Still, the group files back to the clubhouse to begin the laborious process of retallying scores. "I'll have owners calling me for weeks to go over what we found," explains Gilbertson. "So we like to be as specific as possible."

After tabulation, all the chief judges gather and vote on this year's Best of Show, a 1938 Bugatti Type 57SC Corsica Roadster. How do you distinguish one above all others--particularly when a Ferrari has received a perfect score? "It's like great art--or pornography," says Winston Goodfellow, a chief judge for the Grand Touring classes. "You know it when you see it." Or, as Gilbertson points out, postwar cars simply don't win Best of Show--yet. "Judges identify with the dream cars of their youth," he says. "Most judges are older, so their eyes are attracted to prewar classics."

In a few years, postwar cars may start to win. But in the meantime, no one present can deny that when the Bugatti proudly drives across the awards platform under the hot afternoon sun, it has the blinding glow of a winner.