Long before the sun rises on Sunday, on what is almost certain to be a cool, wet morning, the crowds will begin to gather on the carefully manicured lawn behind the Lodge at Pebble Beach. Known among the early risers as “Dawn Patrol,” they’ll get the first look as the nearly 200 classic cars roll out for Sunday’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
Within hours, thousands of fans will spill onto the lawn for a glimpse of some of the world’s most rare, unique and expensive antique automobiles. Widely considered the world’s most prestigious classic car show, the Concours is entering its 69th year and anchors a steadily growing list of events that has become known as Pebble Beach Car Week.
That includes not only Sunday’s Concours but an assortment of other classic car shows that focus on unique niches, like the Concorso Italiano, the Japanese Automotive Invitational, and the “Motorsports Gathering” at the Quail Lodge. For those who prefer to see their classics in motion, there’s also a long weekend at the Laguna Seca track where antique race cars, some dating back more than 100 years, will compete.
As granddaddy of all the week’s events, the Concours has humble roots, debuting as a small fundraiser for local charities back in 1950. But the striking location, along the craggy shores of the Monterey Peninsula, quickly garnered the attention of some of the world’s most well-heeled collectors.
The vehicles they bring may carry familiar names, like Ferrari, Packard, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz, but there are the rare Talbot-Lagos and Delahayes. Some once belonged to presidents, emperors, and celebrities like Elvis Presley, whose 507 BMW was a star attraction several years ago.
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The list is limited to around 200 cars each year, with no more than 30 different classes. For a collector, an invitation to compete is the automotive equivalent of an Oscar nomination. And, for a winning vehicle, its value can increase by millions of dollars.
But what makes for a Concours-worthy vehicle? “Authenticity,” said Sandra Button, who has chaired the event since 2002. Judges often look for the smallest of details — even the wrong screw under the hood can cost points. “Provenance,” a car’s story, is also a factor. Elvis’ BMW had a definite advantage, but so did the unique “swan” cars designed for an Indian maharajah that delighted fans earlier in the decade.
“The hard work, discipline and logistics required to produce this special event never fails to impress me,” said Mitch Katz, a long-time Pebble Beach attendee and chief executive officer of Premier Financial Services, which provides leasing for exotic and classic cars. “Even if you don’t own a classic car, you can appreciate and enjoy the spectacle that takes place on this one Sunday in August each year.”
The Concours d’Elegance continues to serve as a charity fundraiser — and it pulls in some big numbers each year, with tickets going for $375 just to get onto the lawn.
Fans have to dig even deeper into their pockets for the other big show of the weekend, Friday’s “The Quail: a Motorsports Gathering,” at the Quail Lodge in Carmel-by-the-Sea. As the name implies, the event focuses on high-performance vehicles, especially those with a racing history. Each of the limited supply of tickets goes for $950 and there’s a years-long waiting list.
The Pebble Beach celebration now runs for a full week, with any number of specialized events popping up across the Monterey Peninsula.
Adding to the energy, the Concours and Quail events have become a popular backdrop for high-line automakers to introduce new products. This year, that will include everything from Acura’s Type S Concept — a preview of its upcoming TLX sedan — to the Pininfarina Battista, a $2.3 million battery-powered hypercar.
For those who believe cars were intended to be seen in motion, there are a variety of opportunities, starting with a drive around Pebble Beach featuring many of the cars that will later compete at the Concours.
There’s also the annual Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion at the Raceway Laguna Seca. For four days, some of the world’s oldest, fastest, rarest and most expensive cars compete on the serpentine circuit, some driven by their owners, others by legends of motor sports like Derek Bell and Stirling Moss. Better yet, fans are able to get an up-close-and-personal look at many of those vehicles — while chatting with the owners and drivers — in between races.
There’s also a business side to Pebble Beach Car Week, with the leading auction houses competing for collectors' dollars. In 2018, these events generated nearly $120 million in sales — $48,405,000 of which came from just one car, a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO. It was one of just 36 built, and not only has a distinctive pedigree on track but is part of a series eagerly sought by collectors.
Whether this year’s auctions will generate similar excitement — and spending — remains to be seen.
Paul A. Eisenstein
Paul A. Eisenstein is an NBC News contributor who covers the auto industry.