Sixty-eight years ago, a small group of collectors drove a few dozen glamorous cars to California’s Monterey peninsula to exhibit, race and to serve as pretext for a bit of imbibing, showing off and indulging in end-of-summer merriment. The organizers awarded a few trophies, champion driver Phil Hill won the road race and everyone decided the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance must be held once again in 1951 and every year afterward.
This year, Pebble—as it is familiarly known to enthusiasts and collectors—has grown into the top event of its kind in the world, a week-long extravaganza of automotive opulence and finery, culminating in a Sunday awards ceremony on the 18th fairway of the renowned Pebble Beach golf course. The contest is set against the Pacific backdrop to determine the best classic cars in a slew of categories. At other times in the preceding days, former and current car drivers duel at the nearby Laguna Seca track. In Carmel Valley, notably at The Quail Lodge, manufacturers debut new models and serve haute cuisine—all to pay homage to the history, engineering and artistry of the motor car.
Six major auctions over three days attracted thousands of collectors this year, many of whom were buying and selling automobiles, as well as gaining a sense for the direction of what has become a lively and sophisticated market similar to that of the market for fine art.
“From a market standpoint the Pebble auctions simultaneously show the overall health of the market and set the tone for the next six months.” —McKeel Hagerty
“The Pebble Beach Concours and the surrounding events represent the pinnacle of the collector car world,” says McKeel Hagerty, chief executive of Hagerty Insurance Agency, which is based in Traverse City, Mich. “From a market standpoint the Pebble auctions simultaneously show the overall health of the market and set the tone for the next six months.”
Hagerty has created an iPhone app to follow the auctions and market values of classic cars in real time. This year through Saturday, 841 cars were sold at the six auction houses, roughly 61 percent of the more than 1,300 offered for sale, representing a total value of $367.5 million or an average of about $437,000 per vehicle. Two spectacular transactions on Saturday dominated the interest and conversation of classic car enthusiasts in attendance: the $48.4 million sale of a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO at the RM Sotheby event, setting a new auction record, and the $22 million sale of a 1935 Duesenberg SSJ Roadster at the Gooding & Company auction.
Despite those eye watering prices, a person doesn’t have to be wealthy to dabble in vintage vehicles. According to Nick Smith, a specialist employed by Worldwide Auctioneers, some classic cars can be bought for as little as $10,000 to $15,000. He mentioned a red Volkswagen Beetle prior to Worldwide’s auction at Pebble. “It’s very important, even for the less expensive cars, to do one’s homework and be extremely knowledgeable about the type of cars and what makes them more or less valuable.”
A car that wins a Best in Show or Best in Class award at Pebble or other important show instantly gains in importance and, of course, value. Judges score vehicles that have been meticulously restored often over thousands of hours and at costs sometimes running into the millions of dollars. To win an award, the car must be driven across the award stage. (Yes, there have been a few awards lost as a result of untimely mechanical breakdown.) This year, according to analysts examining auction results as well as many private sales, post-World War II sports cars—especially Ferraris—are holding their value better than pre-War cars.
A smaller category gaining in popularity among collectors is so-called “preservation” segment, older cars that are maintained in original condition, as they were when they left the factory. Often they are rusting, their upholstery is tattered and the chrome is faded. But they epitomize and embody historical accuracy. Among the top sellers this year at Worldwide was an impressively preserved 1916 Locomobile Model 68 Cabriolet that sold for $473,000.
Overall Top 10 Sales from all auctions through Saturday:
- 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO SI Coupe sold for $48,405,000 (RM Sotheby’s)
- 1935 Duesenberg SSJ Roadster sold for $22,000,000 (Gooding & Company)
- 1963 Aston Martin DP215 Competition Prototype sold for $21,455,000 (RM Sotheby’s)
- 1966 Ford GT40 Mk II Coupe sold for $9,795,000 (RM Sotheby’s)
- 1958 Ferrari 250 GT TdF Coupe sold for $6,600,000 (Gooding & Company)
- 1955 Maserati A6GCS/53 Spider sold for $5,170,000 (Gooding & Company)
- 1955 Ferrari 500 Mondial SII Spider sold for $5,005,000 (Gooding & Company)
- 1957 Porsche 550A Spyder sold for $4,900,000 (RM Sotheby’s)
- 1998 Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR Coupe sold for $4,515,000 (RM Sotheby’s)
- 1956 Maserati A6G/2000 Zagato Berlinetta sold for $4,515,000 (RM Sotheby’s)