How Pebble Beach Has Become THE Concours d’Elegance

by | August 2016

It started with racing.

“Four Races THRILLING EUROPEAN STYLE ROAD RACE FEATURING THE WORLDS FASTEST SPORTS CARS” was in bold print on the poster advertising the event. While the poster never mentioned the Concours, it promoted “Tickets $1.00” and “Free Parking.”

The first Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance took place on Sunday morning, November 5, 1950. It was the warm-up event for the inaugural Pebble Beach Road Races that started at noon that same day. By the third year, posters actually mentioned the show: “Concours d’Elegance, Saturday, April 19, 1952 from 1:00 to 5:00, the day before the Road Races.” Although organizers did not print a Concours-only poster until 1958, the entire scene changed dramatically after Ernie McAfee died after an accident during the 1956 race. This spurred locals to build Laguna Seca Raceway; the races started there in 1957.

The first big turning point for the Concours came in 1955 when Phil Hill won Best of Show with his 1931 Pierce-Arrow 41 LeBaron Convertible Town Cabriolet that he restored with his brother Jerry. It was the first overall win for a prewar car and was a preview of the future. As an early sign of his coming greatness, Phil also won the Pebble Beach Road Races on Sunday, the day after winning Best of Show at Pebble Beach. The Concours benefitted from the energy of the Pebble Beach Road Races.

Since 1972, Pebble Beach has presented a trophy in Gwenn Graham’s honor for “Most Elegant Convertible. The 2013 recipient, a 1934 Packard 1108 Twelve Dietrich Convertible leaves the stage. Photo courtesy Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

Gwenn Graham was the lead organizer and promoter of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. She handled publicity and public relations for Del Monte Properties Company until she died in 1968. In Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance: Celebrating Fifty Years of Automotive Style 1950-2000, Beverly Rae Kimes wrote, “Gwenn Graham has been described as gentle, perceptive, decisive and gracious. But her velvet glove covered a hand of steel. Concours committees arrived and left and made little difference. Gwenn single-handedly ruled the Concours.” Graham also managed the social nature of the show through the early years, maintaining a balance between the new cars that dominated the early years and the emerging interest in prewar cars, and among the owners from each group. She also kept the show relevant after the races went to Laguna Seca and the Concours became a stand-alone event.

Lucius Beebe, an author, photographer, and gourmand, brought a sense of style and flair to the Concours from the mid 1950’s to the mid 1960s. His 6’4” height matched his presence, which suggested fun on a grand scale, ranging from his wardrobe that often included a top hat, to the private railcar in which he traveled to the Concours. He was the force behind getting Rolls-Royce its own prewar and postwar classes in 1958, the first single make class besides the MG class at the inaugural Concours in 1950. The Concours awarded its first perpetual trophy, in his memory – The Lucius Beebe Award – to the best Rolls-Royce starting in 1966.

Lorin Tryon, left, and Jules “J” Heumann compare notes. Photo courtesy of Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

Jules “J” Heumann and Lorin Tryon were standing next to a hedge at the Silverado Concours d’Elegance in 1971, discussing the decline of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and what they would do to improve it if they were in charge. Charles A. Chayne, Buick’s chief engineer and by then the Honorary Chairman of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, was on the other side of the hedge. He asked them if they meant what they said. They both replied yes and so began one of the great partnerships that changed the course of the event. Pebble Beach entries had declined since 1968, the year Gwenn Graham died. Entries slipped from 143 in 1966 to 107 by 1971. After their appointment as Co-Chairmen, the pair completely restructured the Concours for 1972. It had been on its own as a stand-alone event for 16 years. There weren’t other events taking place before or after it in those years. They moved the event date to a Sunday in August to become the culmination of a big weekend and to ensure better weather. Judging took a two-pronged approach that included Class Judges and Honorary Judges who provided authority and who respected the prewar Concours d’Elegance tradition. Class judges were experts that Heumann and Tryon chose from the Classic Car Club of America, the Antique Automobile Club of America, the Horseless Carriage Club of America and individual marque clubs. Honorary Judges selected Special Awards, including the Gwenn Graham Trophy awarded to the car voted “most elegant” at the event.

As a result, Pebble Beach occasionally has exceeded its own high expectations. 

It’s likely these six cars were never together – even at Bugatti’s factory. This one-of-a-kind reunion of the Royales involved individuals, museums, and even governments. Photo by John Lamm.

On August 25, 1985, the Concours accomplished what other events had failed. It displayed all six Bugatti Type 41 Royales together for the first time. It was a monumental achievement that involved cooperation and collaboration from dozens of people on both sides of the Atlantic. The U.S. government granted France full diplomatic immunity for the two Royales domiciled there, a first anywhere for an automobile!

That is the significance this event has acquired.

But 1986 was a great year too, celebrating the Mercedes-Benz centennial, welcoming the first Automotive Fine Arts Society (AFAS) exhibition, and inaugurating Rick Cole’s Monterey Vintage Sports and Race Car Auction at the Monterey Conference Center. In addition to the Concours and the races at Laguna Seca, the art exhibition and auction extended Pebble Beach weekend into a multi-event “happening” that continues to grow. There are now six auctions and numerous single marque or single nation displays during Monterey Week.

Bruce Meyer smiles broadly holding his first-in-class trophy for the 1932 Doane Spencer Ford hotrod. Photo courtesy Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

Bruce Meyer smiles broadly holding his first-in-class trophy for the 1932 Doane Spencer Ford hotrod. Photo courtesy Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

The Tour d’Elegance gives owners a chance to exercise their cars through some of California’s most spectacular scenery. Photo courtesy Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.       

Special Classes and Display Classes have kept the event fresh such as welcoming auto manufacturers to display concept cars in 1993 and surprising traditionalists when organizers invited historic Hot Rods – another first – in 1997. Tryon and Heumann staged the first Tour d’Elegance in 1998 to answer critics who complained the cars were “trailer queens”, unable to operate as originally intended. These may not have been classic cars’ first tours – England’s London-to-Brighton run holds that distinction. But it challenged owners to drive and then present their cars in spotless condition.

Sandra Button, Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance chairman. Photo by Martin Klimek, courtesy Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

Sixty-five years after the original event, Pebble celebrated its racing heritage with a recreation tracing the original circuit, between hay bales and trees. Photo courtesy Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

Sandra Button, the current Concours Chairman and her predecessor Glenn Mounger (Heumann’s successor) have built on the success of those before them. For the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Concours, they presented a Display Class of 20 past Best of Show winners, and in 2001, a Prewar Preservation Class made its way on the 18th Fairway that expanded in 2007 to include a Postwar Preservation Class. Then, honoring their beginnings, in 2015 on the 65th anniversary of the inaugural races, they invited the cars – and surviving drivers – back to restage the event. Irreplaceable racers and invaluable racecars charged around on dusty roads between hay bales and trees to recreate history for the benefit of participants and enthusiasts. History came alive.

Pebble Beach has become THE Concours d’Elegance because it innovates, it entertains, it excites, and it enlightens – to say nothing of the fact that it is the finale to the best and most complete automotive week all year.

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