In the early days of automobiles, a Concours d'Elegance--which translates literally to Elegance Competition--featured modern cars and, like our modern auto shows, gave coach builders a chance to impress society's upper crust with their products' sartorial splendor. All that changed after World War II, when well-preserved antique and vintage cars began to compete in classes of their own, eventually pushing the modern cars out to the perimeters of the tailored concourse (usually golf course) greens.

In this new "old" world, the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance became the nation's preeminent event. Though the area's geography was one major advantage--with beautiful grassy bluffs precipitously dangling over the southern edge of the Monterey Bay--the early event drew crowds from an exciting sister event, the Pebble Beach Road Race. Phil Hill won the first race in 1950 (coincidentally showing his family's 1931 Pierce Arrow Le Baron in the Concourse), but the hazardous contest over the twisty tree-lined 17-Mile Drive ended after racer Ernie McAfee crashed fatally in 1956. By then the concourse had taken on a life of its own, and when the Monterey Historic Automobile Races moved in to Laguna Seca in 1974, it was only natural to tie the two events together.

The "Monterey Weekend" has since become the biggest tourist draw to California's central coast. The crowds eventually became so intense that the powers that be at Pebble went to what some consider drastic lengths to reduce attendance: Entrance fees doubled in 1999 from the already high $50 per person to $100 per person. As hotel and restaurant prices have climbed as high as the market will bear, many predicted that 2000's overall event price tag would cause a severe drop in attendance. Yet, while the crowds were certainly thinner at Laguna Seca and Concorso Italiano (the third big event of the Monterey Weekend), the 18th green at Pebble Beach still grew remarkably crowded as the 50th Anniversary edition of the Concours d'Elegance unfolded on August 20, 2000.

In honor of the birthday, the Concours gathered 20 of the cars that have won Best of Show over the last 50 years. Winners from the first half of the 1950s were all new cars, so the first classic to win--and the first featured in this special class--was Phil Hill's family car, the 1931 Pierce-Arrow mentioned earlier. Cars from the 1930s dominated the Best of Show ranks for all 50 years, and this selection makes that dominance even more obvious: Only three of the 20 cars on display were not from that decade--two Hispano-Suiza H6B Labourdette Skiffs, both from 1922, and one 1929 Rolls Royce Phantom II. This last car evokes the Golden Age of Hollywood, as its owner, actress Constance Bennett, regularly rented it to the studios for movies like Carole Lombard's "The King and the Chorus Girl."

The 1930s were clearly the Golden Age for coachworks, too. American winners included that Pierce-Arrow, a 1930 Packard 740 Roadster and two Duesenbergs Js--both from 1933 and both Rollston Torpedos, though the second was nicknamed 20-Grand (because that was its astronomical price in that economically depressed year). The height of Mercedes-Benz pre-war glory was represented by three examples, two 500K Specials (a '35 and '36) and Count Carlo Felice Trossi's custom SSK built for him when he was president of (and driver for) Scuderia Ferrari. Though that Italian chose a German car, the deluxe Italian Isotta Fraschinis won Best of Show honors twice, and both were included in the 2000 display: one 1931 Tipo 8B built for the Danish Consul and often driven by the Danish Prince Henrik, and a 1930 Tipo 8A Castagna originally owned by the American Lucky Strikes cigarette tycoon. The only Alfa Romeo to ever win Best of Show was here as well--probably the most coveted Alfa ever (and valuable, with an example expected to fetch $3-5 million at the concurrent Brooks Auction)--the 1937 8C 2900B Touring Spyder.

Even with these gorgeous offerings, it's clear that Pebble Beach judges have consistently favored a particularly French brand of elegance, and among those the Bugattis have been favored above all. Italian expatriate Ettore Bugatti and his son Jean were responsible for no less than eight Best of Shows, the most for any one marque. Examples on the green last August included the two-tone 1932 Type 50 Profile, the 1931 Type 41 "Royale" (complete with a rearing elephant hood ornament), the 1938 Type 57SC Corsica Roadster with alligator upholstery, and finally the most dramatic, Ralph Lauren's 1938 Type 57SC Atlantic. This is the car that wears the famous riveted seams--Bugatti intended to use the non-weldable combination of aluminum and magnesium known as Elektron for the body panels. The plan proved unworkable and the car came out in aluminum, but the original design was honored nonetheless.

This heady display of heavy metal was not the only special class on the green for the 50th anniversary. A line of race cars from the original Pebble Beach Road Race featured two Ferraris (a 340 Mexico and a 340 MM), three MGs (two Ken Miles and one Von Neumann), another fabulous Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B, along with two Allards, a Jaguar, a Simca and, of course, a Porsche 550 Spyder.

Other special classes honored American and European Boattail and Teardrop Designs (cars from the 1920s and 1930s), and as part of the tie-in with the Historic Races, Maserati appeared in three specials classes: Custom Coachwork, Sports & Racing, and Open Wheel Race Cars. Regular classes contained examples of everything from a 1903 Lenawee to a 1964 ATS Allemano Coupe, and high above the Lodge modern concept cars ranged from sedate Bentleys, Cadillacs, and Lexuses to the more dramatic Mercedes Benz AMG F1 Safety Car, the new Viper GTS/R and the new Jaguar F-Type.

It was a stunning array of automobiles, on a weekend chock full of classics of every description. Is it worth a hundred-dollar hole in the pocket? For plenty, the answer was clearly yes, and if the stock market doesn't crash before August this year, it will be again.

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