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“The Olympics of the Car World”: Chairman Sandra Button Previews the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance

Widely regarded as one of the world’s pre-eminent classic auto events, the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance® combines a unique competitive spirit with a reverence for vintage machinery to attract attendees from all around the globe. Some pay tribute to modern design and engineering by booking an XOJET charter flight to the event—they arrive in Monterey, CA aboard a sleek and ultra-luxurious Cessna Citation X or Bombardier Challenger 300. In fact, the natural affinity between world-class private aviation and the setting for this magnificent event has spawned an official alliance: Last fall, Pebble Beach Resorts made XOJET its Official Private Aviation Partner, signing a multi-year agreement.

“Concours d’Elegance”—the first part of that high-styled French phrase means “competition.” The seriousness of it is palpable when all 150 judges head out to inspect the cars on the morning of the event, which this year is Sunday, August 20th. That’s when impeccably restored vintage automobiles will line the 18th fairway of the Pebble Beach Golf Links®, home to the PGA Tour’s annual AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am as well as five past U.S. Opens. And for the preceding five days, when the Pebble Beach Concours offers preliminary activities—like the Tour d’Elegance, Classic Car Forum, and RetroAuto—that for many attendees are almost as enjoyable as the competition itself. Whatever you know about the art and science of classic cars, you can learn plenty more at the Concours—check out the agenda here.

Concourse d'Elegance 2015 Best in Show

At the center of it all is Sandra Button, a force of nature in the world of vintage automobiles who has served this Concours d’Elegance for 32 years, including more than 10 years as Chairman. Renowned for her expertise in automotive history and her inspiring leadership qualities, Sandra makes all the moving parts come together seamlessly. Always in demand, but especially so this time of year, she took time to reflect on her rich experience and describe what the Pebble Beach Concours means to those who participate in it.

“To me it’s the Olympics of the car world,” says Sandra. “Most people who compete here are at the pinnacle of their careers. There’s an atmosphere of unveiling, given how many years a car can be in active restoration—often following several years of research and preparation for the actual work.” Indeed, such is the prestige of this gathering that automakers in the luxury end of the car market go to great lengths to establish a strong presence at the Concours, in some cases building their marketing calendars around it.

Over 200 cars will be arrayed along the famed 18th hole of the Pebble Beach course, with a somewhat smaller number entered officially for judging. “If there are 180 or so judged cars on the day of the show,” Button explains, “I’d say at least 100 of them are there with a serious feeling on the owner’s part that they have a shot at Best of Show.” Indeed, that does set the stage for vigorous competition.

Seeing how these vehicles—like last year’s Best of Show, a 1936 Lancia Astura Pinin Farina Cabriolet—are primped and fussed over is part of the fun. Even after driving just a short distance to the show field, each car is fastidiously staged—any traces of dirt of twigs caught in the tire treads are removed, along with even a single blade of grass stuck to a fender. Obviously, any gull gliding over the 18th from Stillwater Cove gets the eagle-eye from crews down below.

If you’ve ever attended a premier thoroughbred race like the Kentucky Derby, you likely have a sense about the pinned hopes and crossed fingers on the part of highly devoted connoisseurs, exposing themselves to a sometimes-unforgiving competitive process. “When our owners finally get to Pebble Beach, they can become very wound-up,” says Sandra. “There’s a requirement to show not just the beauty but the functional capabilities of their entered car—and these are sensitive machines that sometimes don’t want to start when you turn the key.” It all adds up to “captains of industry who become visibly nervous,” says Button, with detectable empathy in her voice.

The status of the classic-car owners—and of the event in general—is evident by the number of private jets seen flying in, according to Button. “Just as people flock via private jets to Art Basel Miami or the World Economic Forum at Davos in winter, many fly here in summer,” she says. XOJET aircraft are always among the many private planes that make this trip—you can still schedule yours by visiting our XOJET or calling 877-599-6538.

Unlike a Triple Crown horse race, the Pebble Beach Concours isn’t handicapped or even previewed exhaustively by journalists hoping to pick a winner. And the audience of unaffiliated attendees is unlikely to rally behind any kind of crowd favorite. That said, there are moments when fan support becomes palpable. “You can tell which cars are gaining fan enthusiasm by the number of pictures people take,” says Sandra. “Years when Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld are here showing cars, the cheering is noticeable.”

Don’t be surprised if you spot faces in the assemblage that bear family resemblance across generations. It’s more than a cliché to say that classic auto restoration gets in one’s blood—indeed it gets in one’s bloodlines. The Concours actually started as a pretty serious road race, with one World Champion race driver, Phil Hill, staying on to become a vital figure in the evolution of the event, having first made his mark here. In fact, the Concours now grants scholarships in his name to help keep this cherished tradition thriving.

Phil Hill at the Concours d'Elegance

Like any skill or craft dedicated to superseded technology, maintaining and restoring cars built in the first decades of the automotive age isn’t something many people—especially young people—know how to do. “The shortage of qualified restoration mechanics is one of the reasons for the lengthy time lag between when a car is discovered—usually it’s in pieces, of course—and when all the work is completed so the car can be shown,” laments Sandra.

By the same token, those “unveilings” she spoke of can only keep occurring as long as sleuths following tips and leads into sagging barns and garages keep striking gold—in the form of high-end antiques suitable for rejuvenation. It’s commonly lamented that the searching will someday come up dry in every case, but Button isn’t so sure.

“People always imagine that, but there are amazing discoveries still being made out there,” she says. And if the car that’s discovered has the right pedigree and some good luck in the restoration process, it will most likely enjoy an unveiling of its own—at a summertime pageant of art and engineering called the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

*Photos: Copyright © Kimball Studios / Courtesy of Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance

Visit our website or call 877-599-6538 to book your flight to Pebble Beach with XOJET, offering private jet charters into any airport of your choice. We recommend Monterey Regional Airport, a 15-minute drive from Pebble Beach Resorts.

About the Contributor

David Gould is a writer, editor and consultant with expertise in travel and the transportation industry. He is the former executive editor of Travel + Leisure Golf and the author of several books on golf history and course architecture. He is a Boston native and lives in Massachusetts.