Monterey Auto Week Part 1

Monterey Auto Week Part 1

Written by Rich Maez

“The Pebble Beach car show is this weekend,” followed a little later by, “It’s all a bunch of stuck up, rich assholes.”  If you’re the person sitting behind me and next to this guy on my flight to San Jose at the beginning of Monterey Auto Week, there are both truths and untruths in his opinion.  Yes, the uber-rich gather, exhibit, and spectate there, but so do normal people.  And the insulting part of his comment?  I’ve never run into anyone during Auto Week who was anything other than gracious and enthusiastic.  For a little more than a week each year, the petrolhead world meets on the Monterey Peninsula in California to celebrate and view the best of automotive design and manufacturing from the past 100 years or so.

I started going to Monterey thirteen years ago and have attended every year since.  My early years were put together on a budget and included spending the night in a hotel after flying in and spending a Sunday at the week’s capstone event, the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, then flying home the next morning.  Since then my trips have become longer so I can take it in a number of the other events during the week, including Retro Auto, the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion races at Laguna Seca, Concours d’Lemons, the Concorso Italiano, the Werks Reunion, and even one year at The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering.  These are just a few of the events that take place during the week, but if you’re a car person, there’s more happening in a week than you can get to and absorb anyway.

If you’ve heard about Monterey Auto Week or any of the events going on but have never attended and you fancy yourself a gearhead, shame on you.  For one week, Monterey turns into the equivalent of automotive Mecca.  Everything from modern exotics like McLarens and Aston Martins (so many, in fact, that they garner little attention) to restored and resto-modded muscle cars to curvy pre-war coachbuilts and just about anything else that’s motorized, wheeled (two, three, or four), or oiled is driving around.  There are places where you can take home souvenirs like $10 t-shirts and others where you can buy a Ferrari at auction for $44 million.  There are rare parts swap meets; historic art, books, and posters; and forums where the people involved in the automobile industry, from collectors like Ralph Lauren and Neil Schon to modern auto designers like Henrik Fisker and Frank Stephenson are available to talk.  There’s generally something for everyone.

My week this year was limited to four days and just a handful of events so a lot went unseen, though that happens every year.  I’ll try to describe each to you as best I can, beginning with some of the events I missed.  It’s also impossible to describe the sheer sensory overload of the week.  The noise, smells, and feel are those things like good wine or architecture that just have to be experienced in person to fully comprehend.

The Concours d’Lemons  proudly celebrates “the oddball, mundane, and truly awful of the automotive world,” and it takes place on the Saturday at the end of the week each year.  It’s a parody of every hoity-toity car gathering in the area.  Held on the lawn of the Seaside city hall, this is the freak show of the week.  The “Lemons” hosts everything from cars that have no business being driven, much less exhibited, to modified ghost-chaser camper vans and everything in between.  Nothing is off limits.  At the end of the day a “Worst of Show” award is given while spectators spray the recipient’s vehicle with Silly String.  And the best part?  It’s free!

Exotics on Cannery Row  is basically downtown Monterey’s street party gift to the car world.  Dozens of exotic hypercars line the curbs of Cannery Row along with representatives from multiple manufacturers showing new vehicles and public viewing of hundreds of cars that will be put up for auction within the next two days.  Also free to spectators.

Retro Auto began as a place to buy and see historic automotive memorabilia and has evolved into a sort of upscale indoor flea market where everything from antique posters from the Mille Miglia to cufflinks made out of the wheels of rare crashed cars to furniture made from auto parts to hundreds of automotive books in various languages to maybe that antique French foglight lens you’ve been looking for over the past decade can be found for sale.  There are vendors for just about everything here.  Retro Auto takes place at the Inn at Spanish Bay is open to the public and free.

The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering is not open to the public, and is not free.  The Quail is a semi-private Concours event that is limited to 3,000 people to prevent crowds.  Tickets are hard to get and have to be purchased well in advance (there’s a waiting list), though for your effort and determination you can stroll around the lush Quail Lodge & Golf Club amongst examples of the world’s rarest cars with the likes of Nick Mason and Mark Knopfler on your way to gourmet cuisine.  As the years go by, tickets get more expensive and harder to obtain.  It’s quite an experience but it ain’t cheap.

The auctions.  There are dozens, including all of the big names: Mecum, RM, Russo and Steele, Gooding & Co., and what seems like dozens of smaller auctions everywhere you look.  RM and Gooding & Co. have a lock on most of the truly high-end vehicles offered up each year, and they charge to view the offerings as well as attend the auctions.  Bidders must register.  The less upscale auctions may also charge to view or attend, but prices are usually lower.

The events I did get to attend this year all had one thing in common: it was unusually warm and as you go further inland it gets even warmer.  Northern California has been dry this year and there was a fair amount of fine dust everywhere until you got to the golf courses where a lot of the events were held.  Bring sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen.

I started the week with the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, otherwise known as the historic races.  Racing takes place at the Weathertech Laguna Seca racetrack, which sits in the hills outside of Monterey.  Getting to the track means driving on an access road that could be a circuit itself, snaking around hills and dips until you come to the parking area, basically a dry field.

Competition cars from the 1900s all the way to modern racers are grouped with like cars and make heated and very spirited laps around the track, doing exactly what they were intended to do: rub paint and slide sideways while trying to go as fast as possible.  Ultra-rare Ferraris from the 1960s can miss corners and run into the gravel while Le Mans Porsches from racing’s golden age battle their way around the track.  There are no limits to where you can wander around the track or stands, including the pits, and walk right up to everything, peer inside, look underneath, and speak to owners, technicians, and drivers.  Ever wanted to know how to tune a quad set of double Webers?  Someone here can tell you.

Cars that you thought you’d only see in books sit in stalls being worked on, tuned, and warmed up in front of their trailers.  The technicians are happy to answer questions and let you take pictures and drivers will tell you all about the ins and outs of what it’s like to drive the cars.  I spent quite a lot of time talking to the owner of a silver 1960 Ferrari 250 GT SWB and how much work he’s done to get the car competition ready.  Ed, the owner, purchased the car as an auction queen with a lot of shine but a number of incorrect parts and bad repairs and has spent the last few years bringing the car back to original racing spec at considerable expense.  The little 3.0L V12 made a hard, nasally noise when revved to warm up before heading out of the pits towards the track entry gate, followed by a red 250 GT SWB that was driven by Stirling Moss in the past, along with about 10 other cars from that era.

It’s good that this car had a famous driver—otherwise, it’d be nothing.

There were hundreds of other racers, including two of the three Ford GT40s from 1966 when Ford finished one, two, and three to finally beat Ferrari and win the 24 hours of Le Mans; Aston Martins, Lancias, Corvettes, various Bugattis from the 1930s, BMW “Batmobiles,” historic Alfas, and just about everything that’s ever been shod with rubber and driven in anger.  All of the cars here are raced as intended without getting dangerous.  Drivers have respect for what they’re piloting, but the cars actually compete.  The sound of engines, pops on downshifts, and the smell of hot tires is everywhere.  When walking along the fence around the track you can watch cars descend through the Corkscrew or stand at the Dunlop bridge that crosses over the straight and hear everything rev to its max as it passes under you.  If you go, be sure to buy a bottle of water or two from the Boy Scouts near the entrance.  It’s bright, hot, and dry out there and you don’t want to have to deal with a dehydration headache later.

A couple of GT40s in front of a Cobra.

Considering that only 56 427 Cobras were built, this is about 7% of the total!

A ridiculously beautiful Aston Martin sports-racer.

A Lancia D24. These things are very rare.

A couple of Bugattis and a Mercer–maybe. Nothing to see here…..

The distinctive engine-turned dash of a Bugatti.

Just of couple of Batmobiles….

…and a racing M1.

Yes, that’s a Ferrari prancing horse—but it’s an Alfa Romeo, raced by Scuderia Ferrari (SF), the team managed by Enzo Ferrari.

Compare this to a modern engine hidden under a plastic cowl. Art.

The spartan interior of the legendary Old Yeller II, a Buick-powered homebuilt that took on the world. The drivers may have helped.

The highlight of the day came just as I was about to leave.  Tucked into a corner behind a trailer was a 1957 Maserati 450S, the car that I have at the top of my “what would you buy if you had the money to buy anything” list.  Bright red, curvy, and in perfect condition, this was the world’s fastest racing car in 1957.  I’d been looking for this car every year in Monterey for about the past 10 years.  Here it was, battery charger connected and rear tires being replaced.  I spoke for a while to Lucy, the owner along with her husband Joel, who told me the history of the car and how its racing career ended when the heir to the Kleenex fortune [that would be Jim Kimberly, I think–-Ed.] bought it and found it so powerful that it scared him, retiring it soon after.  It was purchased by Joel and restored over a few years until it was completed in 2008.  It’s been racing around the world ever since.


Compared to Old Yeller, this is luxurious: padded seats!

The next day was the annual Werks Reunion Monterey, the largest Porsche gathering of the year in the US.  The Werks Reunion is located near Laguna Seca at the Corral de Tierra Country Club and admission is free, as the event was originally set up by the Porsche Club of America to promote ownership.  Porsches of every kind are displayed and prizes are given in almost two-dozen categories.  Most awards go for maintenance and originality.  If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “There’s no such thing as a special 911,” the Werks Reunion both proves and disproves that point.  If ever there was an “everyman’s sports car,” it’s the Porsche 911.  There were hundreds on the greens and it has to be the least rare sports car in Monterey.  Every model, every year, every variant, they’re all represented in multiples here and shown by people who know every detail about their cars and take pride in the fact that they run as well as (or better than) new, which makes them truly special to their owners.  356s in every color you can imagine are there, some in concours condition, some in daily driver condition.  Rally cars are there, as are a few dozen 914s.  There are also endless rows of Boxsters and Caymans, modified custom cars, and a handful of racing cars from every decade since the 1950s.  There was even a plum colored 911 convertible with a purple interior—probably not something you’d see everyday.

Porsche 906. I think.

A 935. These things dominated sports car racing for years.

Ho-hum, another priceless racing Porsche….

If you own a Porsche and would like to discuss the finer points of, well, anything at all with fellow owners, this is the event for you.  There are tents with Porsche swag, maintenance manuals, posters, coffee mugs, shirts, wheels, tires, IMS bearings, tools, and whatever kind of racing accessory you’d ever care to put in your car or garage.  The entire gathering is an endless supply of everything Porsche, set amongst the trees and cushy grass of a country club golf course where the sun beats down on you and burns the top of your ears (ask me how I know).

To some extent, Werks is overwhelming.  The sheer number of cars that look so similar and have the same shape, all lined up in perfect rows next to cars that are just like them is unlike any other car show I’ve ever seen.  At first everything seems the same and then after a while you walk around and you realize that every car is just a little bit different based on the whims of their owner.  There’s the guy that painted his wheels gold and put them on his orange GT3 having a conversation with the couple with the roof rack on their C4S to carry their bikes or skis around who just made arrangements to go to Sonoma with a woman who agreed to drive them all there in her white Cayenne Turbo with the red leather interior.

I’ll admit that the Werks Reunion gets to be a little much for me. I come to Monterey to see the rarities, the things I’ll likely never see again the rest of my life.  This an event where you’ll see dozens of variants of cars you’ll see everyday.  Werks is a gathering of people with a shared passion for a marque that really hasn’t changed the basic design of its flagship car for over 50 years because it hasn’t needed to.  The Werks people celebrate their cars.  They can tell you every detail about how they’ve improved power or braking, even while arguing about the merits of air-cooling vs. water-cooling with the guy next to them.  If you own, plan to own, wished you owned, or are just a fan of Porsche in general, the Werks Reunion should be a required experience at least once in your life.

[We’ll have Part 2 of Rich’s coverage of the Monterey Auto Week in Copper #70—Ed.]

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