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Splendor in the Fairway

If you were to think of elegant events on great golf courses, you would likely start with the Masters at Augusta or the British Open at St. Andrews. Yet the most glittering gathering of all has nothing to do with the game itself.

The event is the annual convergence of the world's most beautiful vintage automobiles—on the sweeping oceanside eighteenth fairway at Pebble Beach. Once a year, the smooth green swath from tee to clubhouse is trampled by thousands of devotees of four-wheeled art.

Perhaps "devotees" is too timid a word. How about "pilgrims," or "true believers"?For the venerable Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance—this year will be the fifty-fourth gathering—is akin to a religious happening, a motoring mecca of vintage automobiles. The spiritual connection of the faithful to the shimmering, sculpted forms of classic cars is, of course, intertwined with the sheen of big money. Many of the cars are priced well into the seven-figure range and represent tens of thousands of dollars' worth of meticulous restoration. (A couple of years ago, a Mercedes race car driven by the legendary grand prix champion Juan Fangio in 1955 had a price tag of $11 million, and it still had oil stains from its last race.)

Auctions and expositions and sales by Christie's, the Blackhawk Collection in Danville, California, and others occupied much of the extended weekend last year. Related events built toward the climax of Sunday's Concours. On Friday, on another scenic golf course, Black Horse, the Concorso Italiano filled a par-five fairway and then some with classic Lancias, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Alfa Romeos and even the rare little Fiat "Topolino." On Saturday at the nearby Laguna Seca racetrack, sports cars, prototype racers and Formula One machines charged out of the past (sometimes the very distant past) and went hub to hub around one of America's most beautiful circuits.

But Sunday is always the true magnetic moment. Eye-popping echelons of prewar Alfa Romeos, Delahayes, Packards, Rolls-Royces, race-ready Bentleys, even a wooden-bodied "skiff"-type Mercedes made Pebble's eighteenth look like the parking lot in Valhalla. In the Bugatti area sat Ralph Lauren's spectacular black 1938 Atlantic, one of only two in existence—with the other parked just next to it. Class groupings included fifties and sixties Ferraris, Maseratis, Jaguars, even the rare and exquisitely sculpted 1948 Cisitalia. As part of Ford's one hundredth birthday, a magnificent seven GT40 race cars formed an honor guard just where a misplayed second shot would roll into the surf. A vintage Ford trimotor Bushmaster 2000 aircraft flew overhead as the judging began, and it was easy to imagine Jay Gatsby up in the plane eyeballing the scene approvingly.

I've watched a PGA event or two on this course, and to be honest, the crowd at the Concours is more fashionable than the Pebble Beach Pro-Am galleries. Owners often wear outfits reminiscent of the styles of their cars' eras, and everyone seems determined to dress up for the elegant automobiles. The best way to pick out the real connoisseurs is to watch when an old Rolls or Mercedes starts up. The people who stand by the exhaust pipes and breathe deeply are the true believers.

There were more than two hundred cars lining the eighteenth fairway last year, and for each there was a story and a proud owner to tell it. Robert Cory of San Francisco has owned his stunning black 1937 Delahaye drop-head coupe for forty years. "I had helped a friend buy it to restore it," Cory recalled. "He poured a lot of money into it and one night called me up, in his cups, and told me he was going to take the car up to Mulholland Drive and push it off a cliff. I pleaded with him to sell it to me instead."

Cory's own restoration was no less frustrating than his friend's had been. Because of some miscommunication, the car was completely disassembled and left in hundreds of pieces by a restorer. "I had to figure out how to put it together myself," the besotted owner said. It took him seventeen years. Once he used the car as collateral for a loan to fund a project that eventually fell flat. "I had the car up on a ranch near San Francisco," he said, "and when the bank sent a marshal to take the car, I hid it under a haystack so I wouldn't lose it."

The ruse worked. Cory soon paid off the loan, and years later he stood at Pebble Beach beside one of the most beautiful automobiles in the world with a beatific smile—and no doubt that his devotion has been worthwhile.

2004 CONCOURS D'ELEGANCE, AUGUST 13-15
Tickets for the Concours weekend are priced separately for each event and range from $100 to $350 for Sunday's Pebble Beach Concours. Entrée to the lavish sponsor suites is harder to secure. Last year they included Mercedes-Benz, Ford and Chopard, which made the connection between its race-themed watches and the Concours' lineup. For tickets and more information call 831-622-1700 or visit pebblebeachconcours.net.

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