IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Americans’ love affair with autos is still alive

Image: 1937 Horch
A silver and gray 1937 Horch 853 Sport Cabriolet, winner of best in show at the annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance classic car show.Paul Eisenstein for
/ Source: contributor

Two weekend events, at opposite ends of the country, suggest that despite the recession-induced automotive slump, America’s love affair with the automobile is as strong as ever.

At least 1 million people turned out along Detroit’s fabled Woodward Avenue this weekend, hoping to get a glimpse of the estimated 50,000 to 60,000 muscle cars, hot rods and sports cars participating in the annual Woodward Dream Cruise.

Nearly 2,000 miles to the west, thousands more automotive aficionados made a pilgrimage to California’s foggy Monterey Peninsula for a weekend of motoring events, highlighted by the annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, considered the most elegant and important classic car show in the world.

“When you come here and see all the traffic, it makes you forget all the troubles we have in the industry,” said Ernst Lieb, CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA, as he looked out over the sea of people crowding the greens behind the Lodge at Pebble Beach. The crowd was so thick it was nearly impossible to see the cars on display.

The Concours attracts some of the hobby’s most competitive players, including celebrity collectors like Jay Leno, Yves Saint Laurent, and Jerry Seinfeld. The latter took home a second-place trophy for his Porsche 908 race car.

Capturing best-in-show can add millions to the value of a vehicle, so insiders hint that some collectors have spent as much as $5 million on a ground-up restoration. Bob Lee, of Sparks, Nevada, wouldn’t confirm that. He took top honors with his silver and gray 1937 Horch 853 Sport Cabriolet.

But he conceded that he has spent “five years on the restoration, and the last few weeks were nearly 24/7 getting it ready” for judges who will knock a potential winner out of the box if they notice even a tiny spot of oil in the engine compartment.

The events surrounding the Concours underscore the breadth of the automobile’s appeal. A few miles away from the gated Pebble Beach, hundreds of classic cars spent the weekend at the challenging Laguna Seca Raceway. The annual Monterey Historics saw thousands of fans covering the hills surrounding the serpentine track for a glimpse of the three-day event where some of the cars first saw action 100 years ago.

A few miles further down Route 68, it was a very different scene at the first Concours Le Mons — definitely not to be confused with the Le Mans endurance race. The newest addition to what insiders call the “Pebble Beach weekend,” was a gathering of normally unloved cars from the ‘70s and ‘80s, considered by most to be an era when the automotive industry lost its way. But even vehicles like the Ford Pinto and AMC Pacer, it turns out, have their fans.

All the action on the Monterey coast nearly overwhelms normally quiet communities like Carmel, bringing the Pacific Coast Highway to an occasional halt. But that’s nothing like what the Motor City faces on Dream Cruise Saturday.

Actually, that’s something of a misnomer. While the Woodward Dream Cruise may have had its official run on the 15th of August, dedicated cruisers have been spinning tires along the 8-lane boulevard for nearly a month.

“I was out there sitting in my lawn chair a week ago,” said Nick Twork, a General Motors employee.

While Pebble Beach — with the exception of the Le Mons Concours — appeals to the automotive elite, Dream Cruise is decidedly down-market. Sure, a few Ferraris, and even a Lamborghini Gallardo, could be spotted creeping along in the flow of man and metal, but for this “audience,” the stars were cars like the newly reborn Chevrolet Camaro, along with the countless GTOs, Deuce Coupe hot rods and other muscle cars of the era when Detroit iron ruled the road.

“It’s really energizing,” said Mark Fields, Ford Motor Co.’s President of the Americas. “It reminds me of why I’m in this business.”

Those in the business could use an uplifting reminder considering how tough a year this has been. The American auto market has plunged by more than 40 percent from the peak it set earlier in the decade, when annual sales were nudging past 17 million. The market has shown a bit of a revival in recent weeks, spurred on by the so-called Cash-for-Clunkers program. But for many enthusiasts, the success of that new Camaro has been even more rewarding with GM struggling to catch up with demand.

By its very nature, the Pebble Beach Concours is an anachronism. With rare exception, the vehicles outside the Lodge are at least a half century old. To critics, the Woodward Dream Cruise is just as much a thing of the past. The Sierra Club notably counter-programs the event, a week before, with its Green Cruise, featuring an array of vehicles running on alternative power.

But to some, like GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, the two cruises are “not mutually exclusive.” Indeed, though the 77-year-old executive is an unabashed fan of performance cars, and a skeptic when it comes to global warming, he’s also the man behind the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid and the broader GM push into “electrification.”

Battery power, Lutz notes, “has some real advantages when it comes to performance.” Unlike a conventional, gasoline engine, electric motors generate maximum torque the moment they start up. And that could have given them a real leg up on some of the original Woodward cruisers during Detroit’s golden era.

Significantly, the new Tesla Roadster, with its 6800 laptop computer-derived batteries, can launch from 0 to 60 in about four seconds, about as fast as a Porsche 911 or Ford’s Mustang spin-off, the Shelby Cobra.

Sure, more mundane “green machines,” like the Toyota Prius or Honda Insight, will likely never set hearts aflutter at the Concours d’Elegance or Woodward Dream Cruiser, but as long as there’s a demand for more passion and performance, manufacturers will likely find a way to keep delivering it.