Paul Eisenstein  /  Paul Eisenstein
By various estimates, the 180 classic vehicles on display this year at the annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance were collectively worth more than $250 million.
Image: Paul A. Eisenstein, msnbc.com contributor
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/23/2010 1:51:22 PM ET 2010-08-23T17:51:22

A crowd has formed in front of the 1934 Duesenberg — no surprise considering talk show host and uber-classic car collector Jay Leno is giving the elegant convertible a close inspection. But when Leno wanders off to check out a nearby Delahaye, everyone else stays put.

This is, after all, the annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, a place where the cars are the stars — and where a classic can command a price tag that might make even a celebrity like Leno blush.

If the Concours is any indication, the market for these rare cars has bounced back in a big way, as an auction held in conjunction with the show brought in a record take of nearly $65 million.

“The best classic car show in the world,” proclaims Leno, who’s a regular fixture at the event, which is held on a verdant expanse behind the Lodge at Pebble Beach on California's Monterey Peninsula.

As always, Leno served as one of the commentators for the event, though the lantern-jawed comedian frequently also enters a classic of his own from his vast and esoteric collection. And Leno is not alone among celebrities — fashionista Ralph Lauren and Porsche-crazed comedian Jerry Seinfeld also regularly enter cars from their collections.

The rest of the field are less likely to be known to the general public, though it takes deep pockets and serious commitment to land a car in the Concours. By various estimates, the 180 classic vehicles on display this year were collectively worth more than $250 million, and it’s not unusual to see an owner invest as much as $5 million into the restoration of a truly great vehicle with a chance to take the event’s coveted best-of-show honors.

But a win can readily “increase the value of a winner by at least a million dollars,” notes Jim McCraw, a long-time automotive journalist and a regular attendee of the show.

The annual charity event draws collectors and fans from all over the globe, and by lunchtime it can become so crowded that visitors will have to be satisfied with snatching glimpses of a fender or hood. That’s prompted the most devoted aficionados, known as the Dawn Patrol, to line up by first light. This year they were rewarded with an eclectic assortment of rare automobiles, ranging from a 1902 Mercedes-Benz to a 2010 Alfa-Romeo concept car.

The Pebble Beach Concours has traditionally emphasized prewar classics, particularly some of the rarest and most expensive models from long-gone marques like Talbot-Lago, Delahaye, Bugatti and the 1933 Delage D8S De Villars Roadster that took this year’s Best.

In recent years, organizers have tried to broaden the event’s appeal by adding an assortment of new classes, including hot rods and even old travel trailers.

Among this year’s more unusual entrants were Number 666, also known as Beast III, a '50s-era race car that set a land speed record of 238 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats. It was parked nearby an ancient motorcycle with a hand-made aerodynamic fairing that also made its claim to fame on the Flats. Driven by New Zealander Burt Munro, it became the inspiration for the 2005 film "The World’s Fastest Indian."

While the field of entrants has broadened — there’s even a class for unrestored automobiles, such as a rusty ’38 Packard and a 1908 Pierce-Arrow — the cars on display face a rigorous judging process. Judges routinely knock down a promising entry to has-been status simply for using the wrong bolt in the engine compartment. Organizers have eased off slightly, and entries are no longer penalized if a judge finds a blade of grass in its tire tread.

Celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance has spawned an array of imitators from Beverly Hills to New York’s Rockefeller Center. Along the Monterey Coast classic car fans now have plenty of other options to keep them busy over the extended weekend.

There are additional car shows, including the limited-attendance concours at the Quail Lodge, and another gathering, the Concorso Italiano, that celebrates brands like Osca, Maserati, Lamborghini and Ferrari.

Gearheads don’t even need to buy a ticket for one of the costly car shows to get a thrill. Try to drive through the seaside community of Carmel during the weekend and you’ll likely to run into the most lavish traffic jam in the world, one where Porsches seem more common than Pontiacs.

Pebble Beach becomes a place where millionaires and billionaires regularly compete to see who can bring the most intriguing automobiles. Cuban émigré and Rolls-Royce collector Michael Fuchs brought a half-dozen of his vehicles, lending them to various events for display.

“I love cars,” he said, in vast understatement, as he picked up a new white-on-white Rolls Ghost during the show at the Quail. He also expected to take delivery of a new Mercedes SLS supercar.

Some of the hottest action of the weekend, however, could be found at the various auction tents dotting the grounds of the gated Pebble Beach community. Last year’s economic slump took a big toll on players like Gooding and Company, the Concours’ official auction house. But even as the mainstream U.S. auto industry struggles to regain lost ground, Gooding saw sales jump from 2009’s $50.8 million to a record $64.6 million. The firm reported moving 106 vehicles; three of them, including a 1959 Ferrari 250 GT LWB California Spider, went for more than $6 million each.

Surprisingly, there were bargains as well. Some less-desirable models gaveled in at barely $10,000. No wonder that for collectors of every strata, Pebble Beach is automotive mecca each August.

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