Elegance on Wheels

Elegant motorcars like the 1963 Mercedes 300 SL are TIME MACHINES in a way . . . transporting us back to a far more gracious era. Our John Blackstone has hitched a ride:

It's just after dawn on Stillwater Cove, where California's Pacific coast meets the celebrated golf course at Pebble Beach.

But the competitors entering the fairway today aren't bringing their clubs . . . they are bringing their cars. And what remarkable cars they are!

Actor and auto enthusiast Edward Herrmann is among those up early for a first look: "It's full of people who come out in the gray dawn light and welcome the owners onto the field."

Many come from the earliest days of motoring, living examples of makes that died off long ago: Pierce Arrow, Packard, Duesenberg.

Each driver is greeted by Sandra Button, the chairman of the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, "competition of elegance."

"The cars look like jewelry laying out in somebody's jewelry case," she said.

And like fine jewelry, the cars are carefully polished and presented - as much pieces of art as they are machines.

"Even though a car is a machine just like your refrigerator, it's not," Button said. "It's something that, kind of, reflects your style."

"It's an event that reaches back to an age of a little more gentility," said Herrmann.

While this event exudes sophistication, glamour and good manners, look under the hood and you'll find fierce competition.

"If you bring your car to Pebble Beach, you're here to win," Button said. "And winning something at Pebble Beach matters.

At his home near Pebble Beach, Chip Connor has high hopes for his 1938 Alfa Romeo Touring Spider. He graciously allowed Blackstone to keep his shoes on as he slipped inside.

"I don't wanna jinx myself, so I'm not gonna suggest that, you know, that I'm gonna be cutthroat in terms of my aspiration," Connor said. "But the car is gonna be a real contender."

Jim Patterson from Louisville, Ky., thinks he could have a winner, too, with his 1933 Delage D8S De Villars Roadster.

"Even though most of the people that we've met in the last few years are good friends, we still compete," he said.

"You wanna beat 'em," Blackstone suggested.

"We wanna beat 'em!" Patterson laughed.

"Everyone on the field wants to win Best of Show, it's why you're there," Emily Mann said.

Emily and Sam Mann, from Englewood N.J., are showing a 1930 Duesenberg that they are certain is worthy of a top prize.

"Well, look at it. I mean, it's just spectacular," she said.

Sam Mann extolled the "magnificent, expressive lines" and the car's "finesse." "The fender finishes in a blade, virtually," he said.

Of course, this spectacular design can come with a spectacular price. To get an idea just how big, drop into the auction tent where David Gooding's company is offering more than 100 classic cars for sale.

Gooding showed us a 1928 Mercedez Benz. "This is one of the fastest, most expensive and most powerful cars that you could buy in the 1920s."

It's value today? More than $3.7 million.

"For a used car?" Blackstone asked.

"A well-used car, as you can see," Gooding said.

But WHO used it adds to the value.

"It was owned originally by the Marx Brothers," Gooding said. "So it's got a wonderful, wonderful Hollywood history."

The Hollywood elite once gathered to watch the Marx Brothers' Mercedes race a Duesenberg owned by Clark Gable's agent. The Marx Brothers lost.

But their car did win a bit part in the Katharine Hepburn-Cary Grant movie, "Sylvia Scarlett."

Gooding also showed us one of the stars of the Saturday night sale, a car Blackstone described as "kinda flashy."

The winning bid on the 1951 Ferrari was $2.3 million.

Over the Concours d'Elegance weekend, Gooding's company sold 106 cars, for a total of almost $65 million.

"There's a lot of money being spent around here," Blackstone said. "Is this too extravagant for these days?"

"Probably is," Emily Mann said.

"Yes, it is," Sam Mann laughed. "I don't know how to talk about it, frankly. But then each of us only have one life to live. And you know, if this is your hobby, and you've got something truly excellent, it's hard not to want to have the world recognize it as being that."

And that recognition is on the line when the judges arrive.

They are knowledgeable . . . and nit picking.

As the judges ponder their decisions, the tension builds.

"Sometimes the competition gets a little crazy," Herrmann said. "You have to stand back, say, "Relax, guys, it's a car show, you know?'"

Jim Patterson called it "nail-biting time."

"We've gone over one hurdle, now the big mountain is left to climb," he said.

Sam Mann said he was really nervous from about five o'clock this morning, "if you really want to know. Now it's even more nervous, nerve-wracking."

And just then the judges called.

"Us? They want us up above." Emily Mann said.

Blackstone said, "That means - "

"We don't know," she said.

When the awards start coming, Sam and Emily Mann's 1930 Duesenberg wins one honor - the most elegant open car.

But it's not the top honor. The most coveted award is yet to come: Best in Show.

The fireworks, streamers and confetti leave no doubt that in the world of classic cars, this is a big deal, as Jim Patterson drives up with his wife, Dorothy.

She told Blackstone she couldn't remember what her husband said when the judges announced Best in Show: "I can t remember, I was shaking. Oh, it was so exciting, I wanted him to win so badly."

And he wanted to win pretty badly, too. "Yeah, I did, I sure did," Jim said.

Now Pebble Beach can return to the golfers, and Jim Patterson can finally relax on a nice, long Sunday drive.

For more info:
Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance
Gooding & Co. Auctions