Saturday, December 12, 2009

A car is never only a car

Autos, enthusiasts park for a weekend
at Pebble Beach's Concours d'Elegance

by Tod Mesirow


With apologies to Groucho Marx or Sigmund Freud: a car is never just a car.

(You probably forgot that Groucho’s show “You Bet Your Life” was sponsored by the Chrysler DeSoto for years.)

Regardless of where you live, every few days you run into someone who says “my car is only a means of transportation, I only use it to get from here to there.”

But even the most ardent cars-are-utilitarian types waiver in their lack of ardor upon sighting something as exotic as a modern supercar, or a 1930 Bugatti with elephant belly seats. It’s all but impossible even to feign disinterest when presented to an immaculate Alfa Romeo or a rare racing Porsche.

Zagato, front grille.

There’s no way not to have a love/hate relationship with the car, the penultimate creation of modern technology, the apotheosis of the wheel, the holy grail of independence. A car is really magic – it’s a time machine, a trance machine, an embodiment of freedom, of personality, an extension of our limited physical abilities. There’s nothing on earth not man-made that can outrun a car. In the old days when the iron horse ruled the landscape there were famous races between men on horseback and the steam and coal powered behemoths that traversed our massive continent. Eventually the horses lost. When cars came into existence around the turn of the last century, the racing resumed. These days there’s no contest. Unless your electric car runs down its battery.

But the car is also profligate in its use of resources – oil, steel, concrete, rubber – and elephant belly, if you own a 1930 Bugatti. An inordinate amount of the world’s economic production is tied up in one way or another in the creation, use, and maintenance of the automobile-based transportation system. Some studies claim greenhouse gas output of cars and trucks is challenged in the United States by methane from cows used in the beef production system, but cars and trucks spew significant amounts of pollutants – to wit this one, claiming that “transportation is the largest single source of air pollution in the United States.”

Which leads some people to triumphantly predict the end of oil, the turning off of the pumps at the gas station, and a transportation future powered by quiet clean electric vehicles sourcing their energy from the sun, the wind, and the earth – if they can ever figure out how to generate geothermal energy without causing earthquakes.

The day may come when cars run on something other than petroleum. But that day is way more than the normal “in ten years” time-frame that is attached to any promising futuristic technology. It’s always ten years away, no matter how many years go by. It’s that future that seems to get further away the closer we get to it.

Next to no one who attends the annual automotive version of a religious ritual really gives a rat’s ass about all of this – other than the elephant belly interior. Thousands and thousands journey from across the globe to attend the premiere car event of the year, complete with a dizzying array of auctions, awards, and people dressed up in period costumes. The former weekend has expanded to nearly a week, with new events being added and old ones expanding. They’re referred to as Pebble Beach, and the crowning event in most people’s minds is the Concours d’Elegance, held at the Pebble Beach Golf Links every August since 1950, cars “are invited to appear on the famed eighteenth fairway.”

a 1941 Thunderbolt

But that’s Sunday. My third time there, only the second consecutive year, started on Thursday, when I drove up from Los Angeles in my relatively new, though purchased used, 530xi BMW wagon. It’s about a six hour drive from LA to Monterey, depending on the normal things like the chosen route, the traffic, and one’s willingness to exceed the posted speed limits. Often there’s difficulty along the 101 through Santa Barbara, and the speed limit is 65. Another option is the 5 freeway, which takes the driver over the Grapevine, a massive, steep, pass through the Tehachapi Mountains and down into the Central Valley.

It’s completely dramatic, both visually, and from the driver’s standpoint. There’s a slow truck lane to the right; there are huge, long, if-your-brakes-fail ramps towards the bottom, that seem as if there’s no way they would stop a runaway 18-wheeler. But I’m sure they would, otherwise why build them? Just for peace of mind? It would be fun to see one tested. Evil Knievel, where are you when we need you? Maybe we can get the Mythbusters to try it.

After the descent into the valley the speed limit bumps up from 65 to 70; using the tacit add-ten-mph understanding that seems to function on major highways I set the cruise control for 80. There’s a bit of weaving in and out of trucks and slower cars that a pack of us undertake as the 4-lane divided highway stretches off beyond the edge of the flat horizon. At the 46 things change again – the preferred route - most direct, least amount of curves and grade changes – several of us in the pack peel off and head west. Now the limit drops down to 55, and the road is two lanes – one in each direction. Oil pumps line acres on either side, eventually giving way to orange groves, then almond groves. The challenge here is to take advantage of the passing zones, and zip around the trucks and other slow-moving vehicles, without having to play chicken with on-coming traffic. And as always to avoid the officers of the law and their desire to catch people driving above the posted speed limit.

One of the pleasures of a road trip is the anonymous group driving that one can fall into – following someone with a radar detector, or just a willingness to ignore the possibility of an expensive ticket. It’s even more fun on a two-lane road like Route 46, where just because the BMW Z3 I’m following is able to get around the several slow-moving cars and trucks in front of us, I may not be able to tuck in behind him and keep up. Hence the challenge, and the enjoyment in taking it on. My friend Mark always talks about how golf is a perfect opportunity to learn a lot about someone’s personality in a very short period of time; so is driving, I think.

I make it up there safely, and without any short term painful relationships with the Highway Patrol. My friends Michael and Michael, who have known each other since they were in diapers, and have been attending the Concours nearly as long, have beat me by a day, and are set up comfortably at the bar at the Fishwife Restaurant, next to the Beachcomber Inn, where they always stay.

I join them in a martini, and we talk of cars, and their drive. Michael has a 1972 Ferrari Daytona 365 GT they drive up every year. Sweet sweet car. The best thing is to see it stomped on, which both Michael and Michael do on a regular basis. I’ve been in the passenger seat, but have not yet taken a turn behind the wheel.

There are all kinds of things to do the following day – several different events – but I’m going to try and get into the Quail. A mere $400, and called “a motorsports gathering.” It’s held at the Quail Lodge Resort & Golf Club – last year I managed a press pass, but at the time I was the executive producer of an NBC prime-time pilot that everyone expected to go to series. Top Gear, the most popular car show in the world, produced in London by the BBC, was, everyone thought, coming to NBC. The people who created the British show – Andy Wilman and host Jeremy Clarkson – had hired me to make the American translation. Our hosts were Adam Carolla, Tanner Faust, and Eric Stromer, and everyone connected with the BBC show – most importantly to me, Andy Wilman and Jeremy Clarkson – thought we had succeeded. Everyone now knows what happened to NBC – they continued their drive to prime time insignificance – and decided against picking up the show to go to series. Several people have since been fired at NBC, and Leno is often lucky to beat the top cable shows in the ratings. Which is a long-winded way of saying this year I wasn’t perceived as someone with the same level of importance as last year.

I had dutifully e-mailed and called the appropriate PR people connected to the event. And had no assurance of being able to gain admission. Nor was I prepared to spend $400 for a ticket. But even if I had been willing to, the event was sold out. There was no desire to stuff as many people as possible into the rarefied air of the Quail. No – exclusive means not everyone gets in. At breakfast Michael and Michael asked me my plans. When I told them they said “good luck with that.” But my thinking was pretty basic – there was no charge to park, and if I didn’t get in, so be it.

The parking lot at the Quail is an event unto itself. There is no massive expanse of black top, with concrete car stoppers and white stripes to delineate spaces. When one drives to the Quail, one is directed to park one’s motor vehicle on the grass, the green green grass of the golf course. There are amazing cars everyone, cars not on display, per se, but driven their by their owners as their means of conveyance to this event. A more subtle form of display, perhaps, but only subtle in this environment, where a Ferrari is not rare, where an Aston Martin DBS warrants a glance perhaps, but nothing more. This is the domain of the serious serious car aficionado, which most often goes hand in hand with serious cash.

After attempting the frontal approach with the people at the media tent – “hello, I sent an e-mail and called; in the past I did (and so forth); currently I’m developing (and so forth) for Discovery Channel. No, it’s not on yet.” Failing, I manage to get one of my friends on the phone, despite the normal signal strength problems one encounters always at the wrong time, though the right time for signal problems are rare; and he manages to find a spare media ticket for me. I have one of those moments of transformation from being on the outs to being one of those inside, the privileged few. Among the chosen. It reeks of Jane Austen somehow. Though I try to adopt an air of Hunter S. Thompson, I feel like I manage to get a bit past Nick Carraway. The champagne and oysters make a big difference.

That’s the thing about the Quail – it’s really pretty hard to beat as an event if what you like is really good food and amazingly rare and beautiful cars, in an uncluttered gathering – that is an appropriate word, it turns out – a gathering of the faithful, with the cars grouped by year, by design, by manufacturer. As I attempt to find the end of the oyster line, there are other people doing the same thing. Without ropes and stanchions it’s up to the members of polite society to figure out the form of the line themselves. A woman with a hat – which describes half the women there, reminding me of one of my favorite works of children’s literature, which actually now that I think of it, does involve cars – Go, Dog, Go! – with the female dog asking her male friend “do you like my hat?” on various pages throughout the book – looks at my wrist, and says with a playfully accusatory tone “where’s your wristband?” the signifier that I have not actually snuck in, but did indeed buy or somehow procure a ticket to the event. You think I’ve managed to sneak in, don’t you? I return the challenge, pulling my actual ticket confidently from my jacket pocket and saying “I didn’t want to bother with the wrist band.” She laughs, and her companions – one is her husband, I’m guessing, and the other couple their pals – hand me a glass of champagne as we wait in the oyster line. We make polite conversation; I ask them if they’ve seen the Bugatti with the elephant leather seats. They say they haven’t yet. We talk of cars – of course – and at the mention of Lamborghini someone in line with us asks if we would like to see his Lamborghini. By now we’ve made our way to the head of the oyster line, where 6 people stand behind ice and oyster laden tables, a veritable Shangri-la of bivalves, and I’m more focused on enjoying the incredible taste and texture of amazing oysters, being shucked as I slowly make my way from one shucker to another, eating eating eating with an occasional sip of champagne the ocean coming to life on my tongue as the oyster’s life is ended; from the sea we came and to the sea I return with every precious experience, the chilled salt water the slippery deliciousness – did I use that word already – it’s hard to describe to a non-oyster lover the crystallization of the sensory experience of a perfect oyster, accompanied by a worthwhile champagne or super premium super chilled vodka. Ah but there it is, the end of the line, the last of the shuckers, and I pause an extra moment, down the last of the champagne, and avail myself of one last oyster. Slowly I ease away from the table by nothing less than sheer force of will, fighting with myself to find some semblance of decorum when confronted with such a rare and powerful opportunity. I emerge from my food fugue, and find my fellow oyster eaters nearby. Come look at my Lamborghini says one of them. I follow them all, the two couples, the Lambo owner, and his son.


The Lamborghini is indeed beautiful, immaculate, and very cool. We’re all invited to sit in it, and I do. It provokes the era in which it was made – the mid 60’s – all Italian clean elegant modern design. A worthy object, this car, and probably fun to drive, though I imagine it drives like the past as well. Stiff and unforgiving and not how one imagines it would be. But fun to think about. I ask the owner’s son if he gets to drive it. Absolutely, he assures me, which is a great answer. They take it out most weekends, he says. Which is better than most rare objects – less than 200 were made – put to use, and not just turned into a full-sized expensive Matchbox or Hot Wheel.

We all wandered off separately. I went back to the elephant car. Even though I know things were different in 1930 – there were more elephants, the world seemed bigger, Histoire de Babar was to be published in 1931 for the first time – it still seemed somehow wrong to have the hide of an elephant adorn the inside of a car. Even though it took fewer elephants than cows to provide the leather, it was a bit unusual to see the interior and think about the elephant that was wearing the seat I saw in front of me.

ol' No. 18, a '32 Studebaker

More eating, more drinking, more strolling around and soaking in the sense of luxurious living. Old Ferraris are rare enough, but the dark blue Ferrari has its very own special lineage. I wonder who Prince Bernhard is, thinking maybe I’ll have to look him up on the internet some time. Turns out he was from Holland, and visited the Ferrari factory in Italy several times as the car was being made. He sold it in 1961. I wonder if he missed it.

A one-off MGA built in 1960 looked very Buck Rogers. Especially with the wooden seats.

I was in no hurry to leave, but I also didn’t want to be the last one there. So déclassé. Besides, they took down the oyster bar, and closed up the champagne. There was really no point in hanging around. Time to get out with the rest of the hoi polloi.

The next day was the Historics – the name by which most people call the Historic Races at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca – when old cars are taken out of the showroom, the garage, the museum and actually taken out on the track and run around the course. Not just oversized, overpriced Hot Wheels, but actual cars that run, going wheel to wheel, on the famous track where legends have been born, records set, and lives lost. It takes some balls to put a million dollar rarity on the track and subject it to the vagaries of actual use as opposed to reserving it for idolatry.

Each year the event honors and features a particular car manufacturer. This year it was Porsche, and America’s most famous Porsche collector, Jerry Seinfeld, was there with a car. Rumor had it he was going to get behind the wheel of one of his cars and take a turn or two on the track.

There were a few people looking at a Porsche with some significant history in mid-restoration. The signage that explained which Porsche it was – and sure enough there was Jerry, with a few squires in attendance. He wasn’t being mobbed, but it was fun to see people walk by, and every now and then stop in recognition, and think to themselves – do I really want to go over and bug him? Most walked on.

The Seinfeld Porsche was right next to an actual movie star Porsche, the one that Steve McQueen drove in the movie “Le Mans,” the number 20 Gulf Porsche, with the classic baby blue with orange color scheme. These cars were parked near the entrance to the track, where race cars were driven from their paddocks out into the pits, prior to taking their turns in class-by-class races. A small group of people hung around, waiting for certain favorite cars to make their way through the crowds. It was one of those scenarios ripe with small drama, from the track safety people, to the fans, to the casual car tag-alongs, there to please their spouse, loved one, or friend, and the actual drivers, mechanics, and owners themselves. Robert Duvall can extol the smell of napalm in the morning, but to these people nothing beats race fuel and exhaust any time of the day or night.

One of the fun things about attending the Historics is to stumble across the odd, the rare, the unusual and actually see these often unique one-of-a-kind vehicles opened up on a race track. This year I was fortunate enough to see the “Battlebird” in action for the first time out on the track. Built in 1957 by Ford, the special edition Thunderbird was one of two built for the Daytona Speed Week competition. Chris, the driver, gave me some details from the “Battlebird’s” past. Ford was after a new record in the “flying mile” on the hard-pack sand of Daytona Beach, a popular location for land speed record attempts in the old days, when those sorts of records were a regular staple of the popular media, and the cars and drivers enjoyed the limelight as legitimate sports celebrities.

The '57 Ford "Battlebird."

In 1957 the “Battlebird” made 1 pass and recorded at time over 200 miles an hour, pretty sweet for the day. But the time would only stand as official if a second pass above 200 miles an hour was recorded. Mechanical problems prevented a successful second run. The second of the two “Battlebirds” built for the effort is in the record books with two runs above 160 miles an hour. No one knows where the second “Battlebird” ended up.

There was a happy group sitting in the shade in their paddock area, behind a beautiful blue 1932 Studebaker, an Indy car, #18 Studebaker Special. While holding on to his tuna fish sandwich, the owner told me how the car was a true barn find, and how much fun it was to run the boat tailed, flat 8 around the track. He was fine with people sitting in the one seat and posing for pictures, and it was interesting to see how far race cars have come in 77 years.

I ended up wandering through the booth area with books, shirts, posters, and other race and automotive related items for sale on my way to an area next to the field where a new car was on display. Something that may be historic, and one day show up on the track, but for now is for show and tell - plug-in electrics being developed for market. An interesting combination of gasoline and electricity, the supercar styled hybrids can be recharged by normal 110 volt house plugs, but also feature a small on-board engine that runs on gasoline. The gasoline engine, unlike the Prius-type hybrid, does not work in conjunction with the electric engine. Rather, it’s designed only to recharge the on-board batteries that power the electric motors that make the car move. CEO and designer Fisker stood in front of his two door roadster and four door sedan, the first vehicle, named Karma, and posed in true captain of industry/superhero fashion. If his Fisker Automotive succeeds, he’ll be both.

Time for a few races, more wandering amidst the rows and rows of amazing cars, and off I went for the day. At a certain point it’s impossible to absorb any more.

And then it’s Sunday. The main event – the anchor of the nearly week-long immersion into the world of gears, wheels, deals, and big dollar cars – the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the 59th Annual event, with cars from around the world, lined up on the 18th fairway of the golf course by the water’s edge, separated by category, competing for various awards and trophies.

Hard to miss was the 1921 Paige – bright yellow, with a smiling woman in period costume holding an umbrella. I asked her if she donned her get up to go galavanting about in the car, which made me think of a crayon box; maybe it was the yellow and the green grass, the object from the past. No she told me. Once you drive it, you can’t show it. These cars adorning the pristine grass were specimens, museum pieces, rare examples of design, engineering, manufacturing; a display of passion and obsession for preservation and perfection. They’ve ceased to be cars in the actual specific sense, and have ascended to Mt. Olympus as car-like objects of reverence, representative of their time and place of origin, but no longer mere mortal cars to be used for something as mundane as driving them.

A Ferrari from 1957

My favorite of all the cars on the lawn was the 1937 Alfa Romeo 6C 2300B Pescara Berlinetta. The entire family was standing around enjoying themselves, and thrilled to be there from Europe with the car. The wife told me they were told it would take 3 years to restore, and it took 6. Just like construction – double the time estimate. From the fin on the back, to the rear wheel covers, the inset door handles, the circles on the engine covers – the integration of all the design details into a comprehensive and alluring whole strike one as so cohesive, so elegant and ideal. Looking at it made me smile, and this feeling of pleasure was enhanced by how happy the owner and his family were, standing around and soaking in the scene. They had somehow incorporated the car and their experience into their family dynamic – it had become a member of the family.

would you early Alfa?

Two Chryslers from 1941 made a matched set of style and innovation – the Thunderbolt, designed by Alex Tremulis and the Newport, designed by Ralph Roberts and Alex Tremulis. Some reports say five of each were built. The Newport was chosen as the pace car for the Indianapolis 500. Both cars made me think of the design palate of the film Roger Rabbit. The fanciful dual cowl, the voluptuous curves, the streamlined nature of them both leave one feeling drenched in nostalgia. They were built in 90 days, an almost impossible feat. And the Thunderbolt took two years to restore to its original condition. Which proves the maxim that it’s always more difficult and time consuming to fix something than to build it in the first place.

Nine years later and curves were still in – at least in Italy. The 1949 Fiat Topolino 750cc Zagato drew an appreciative onlooker. The Topolino name was reportedly based on affection for Mickey Mouse, “topolino” meaning little mouse in Italian.

1911 Oldsmobile Limited. Interesting to see how far things changed in 30 years, going back to the Thunderbolt and the Newport. From a hulking behometh more closely resembling farm equipment than the elegant lines of what was to come, its ability to endure the decades is impressive. The horn resembling a tuba, the wooden-spoked wheels borrowed from an actual horse-drawn wagon. Transportation in its purest, utilitarian form.

The oddest vehicles, in some ways, were the 3-wheeled Morgans. A white 1947, and a black 1937. Ten years on and the design relatively the same – the spare tire conveniently attached to the back end of the vehicle. 3 wheeled vehicles being less expensive to produce, and due to reduced weight and smaller engines, less expensive to operate. All in the pre-Hummer days of course. One would not want to meet up with a 4-wheeled behemoth in their sprightly little 3-wheeler.

And there are more. And still more. Great hats, bow ties, people dressed up and turned out for the occasion. Some remodeled and restored themselves, the running joke in the car world – customizers of cars have custom wives as well. At a certain point there’s a satiation factor that sets in, and I retreat from the field to the Mercedes Benz suites, thoughtfully placed in the prime location with access to the viewing and judging area, as each car will drive the short distance from its viewing location past the throngs and judges, to be considered for one of the awards and prizes. By then, I’m long gone. Another year marveling at motor cars, their fans, owners, and keepers.

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