The Concours d'Elegance: Horsepower Heaven

It's a sun-drenched Sunday in Monterey, Calif., as you stand looking out on a sea of cars,175 of the most elegant and desirable dream machines in the world sitting fender to bumper. You name it, and it's here: exquisitely restored turn-of-the century antiques, the classiest of classic chassis, a roll call of thoroughbred models--Rolls Royces, Bugattis, Bentleys--along with a sprinkling of historic open-wheel and standard racers, and the newest and most sensational show cars and prototypes.

You're in horsepower heaven, also known as the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance

The Creme de la Creme of the Car World Every August, thousands of affluent aficionados--collectible-car owners, enthusiasts, restorers, designers, and captains of the automotive and related industries--converge on the broad lawns and fairways of the 18th green at the Lodge at Pebble Beach. There, spread out against the dramatic backdrop of the rugged Monterey coast, is a spectacular celebration of glass, rubber, and steel on wheels.

First held in 1950 for 30 exhibitors as an adjunct to the Pebble Beach Road Races, the Concours d'Elegance has evolved into a highly touted rite of summer for the creme de la creme of the international collectible car world, along with interested local parties and corporate groups--a crowd of 88,000 in 1998. And as the event's popularity has grown, so has its stature. Fashion mogul Ralph Lauren, "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno, and comedian Jerry Seinfeld are familiar faces at the event, along with honorary judges, such as Grand Prix racers Jackie Stewart and Phil Hill, and famed Italian designers Sergio Pininfarina and Piero Ferrari.

"It's the oldest and most prestigious concours in the U.S.," notes Robert Lutz, former president and CEO of Chrysler, which hosted a group of its best clients at this past summer's event. "It has a geographical advantage because it's in California, the heart of importer territory, and there's a heavy concentration of people who appreciate fine autos, old and new."

To keep excitement high, the show features a completely new group of marques each year. A traditional requirement is that every entry must be driven onto the grounds, and their arrival on the display field, starting at about 5 a.m. on Concours Sunday, is a show in itself. In addition to the judged classes of vehicles--which compete for 23 awards, including the highly coveted Best of Show--Pebble Beach traditionally features several special classes of cars. This year, a collection of Porsches were honored for the company's 50th anniversary, along with a select group of pre-war Minervas and Derby Bentleys and postwar works by famed designer Sergio Scaglietti.

New this year was the Tour d'Elegance, a 46-mile drive around the Monterey Peninsula for some 70 exhibitors. Also rounding out the event were the Historic Car Races at nearby Laguna Seca Raceway, with everything from vintage 1902 two-seaters to Formula One cars competing; a fashion show; the Automotive Fine Arts Society's exhibition; and Christie's auction of exceptional cars, which this year included a 1989 Jaguar XJS coupe owned by the late Frank Sinatra.

Sponsorship of the Concours offers high visibility and confers considerable cachet on a number of corporations, including car manufacturers such as Chrysler and Ford and purveyors of a range of products from Champagne Mumm to Meguiar's car polishes. Here, the focus isn't on flagrant commercialism but "relationship marketing," as well as blue-chip incentive travel for top-selling dealers and performers.

For Chrysler's Dealers: First-Class Treatment Chrysler Europe's involvement at Pebble Beach began in 1992 and was gradually extended to a number of fronts. "Six years ago, the people who were running Chrysler were passionate car enthusiasts with their own collections, including Bob Lutz, then president, and Tom Gale, the executive vice president of design," recalls Tom Kowaleski, vice president of marketing for Chrysler Europe, Brussels. "They realized that many of the company's sponsorship activities had nothing to do with automobiles, and they wanted to do something about that."

Chrysler's participation at the Concours began with Chrysler U.S. sponsoring a dinner on Saturday evening for about 500 participants and judges, along with Chrysler owners, on the grounds of the Pebble Beach Lodge. "It's usually held in a large, beautifully decorated tent, and it's a very elegant buffet," says Kowaleski. "We have a selection of classic and new Chryslers, and we give a presentation. Some years there have been drawings, and other times, art auctions." In addition, the company is the title sponsor of the Monterey Historic Car Races at Laguna Seca, held the day before the Concours.

In both 1997 and 1998, Chrysler Europe also used the event as an incentive trip for its leading distributors and dealers. Fifty couples--the company's top performers from both its sales and distribution offices in Europe, as well as some office managers who qualified, and its leading three or four dealers--were flown to Monterey, where they stayed at the Inn at Spanish Bay. Hosting them were Chrysler Europe's President, Tom Marinelli, plus Kowaleski and Vice President of Sales Maurice Rourke.

Highlights of this year's trip were a car rally down Highway One in Chrysler convertibles, giving people a chance to see the scenery, and a dine-around that night in either Monterey or Carmel. Qualifiers spent Saturday at the Historic Races, then attended the Saturday dinner and the Concours on Sunday.

Feedback on the Concours trip has been very positive. "Every year Chrysler Europe asks both its retail and internal customers which events they like and want to see repeated," says Kowaleski. "Pebble Beach always shows very strong. People just love the weekend. And it continues to increase sales."

Chrysler has a prime viewing location for the Concours, a restaurant right by the reviewing stand. "That's ours as part of our sponsorship," says Kowaleski. "It's just sensational--you sit in the beautiful sunshine and have a great lunch while you watch all these gorgeous cars go by."

In August '95, the company also used Pebble Beach for its second annual Viper Owners Invitational, a customer event, where some 600 Viper owners showed up. "Viper is our sports car, which we've been building since '92 in one little factory, and it's becoming a classic--that's what we won LeMans with this year," says Kowaleski. "It's a real pavement burner, and there's a cadre of Viper owners who are passionate about the car."

Chrysler Europe has recently merged with Daimler, which may change its presence at the Concours once again. "We don't now do anything jointly with them at Pebble Beach, but I think that will be open for review as we become Daimler Chrysler," says Kowaleski.

Champagne Mumm: Entertaining in High Style Seagram's Champagne Mumm has been a Concours sponsor for several years. Champagne Mumm is also poured at all the special events--at the Winner's Circle and various parties--and the winner of the Best of Show receives a nine-liter bottle. "It's a great way for us to leverage our product," says Trevor Lawrence, category manager for champagne and sparkling wine at Seagram's, Rutherford, Calif.

The company hosts its own suite on the day of the Concours, and invites its key clientele in the Bay area and around Monterey, both retailers and restaurateurs. The company's suite is in prime territory, overlooking the grassy area in front of the Lodge where all the cars are parked. "As a sponsor, we're entitled to 200 guest badges," says Lawrence. "We serve a buffet with Champagne Mumm from magnums throughout the day. At the end of the day, after the judging, the winning cars are driven up one by one to the Winner's Circle for their awards, and they queue up in front of our suite, so our guests are able to view all of the goings-on."

Although the company doesn't use the event as an incentive, its local salespeople attend to visit with their accounts. "The event does provide a means to capitalize on, or solidify, established relationships," Lawrence observes. "We don't try to gauge specifically how well the Concours works for us. But this year I spoke with several accounts during the afternoon and we came up with some promotional ideas, and now one of those is coming to fruition. So fruitful meetings do occur when you can talk with your clients in such a relaxed environment."

Meguiar's Mingles With the Best For Barry Meguiar, president and CEO of Meguiar's Inc., Irvine, Calif., an association with the Concours is a natural outgrowth of his business. The company, which makes surface-care products for cars, was already an established name at Pebble Beach by the time it signed on as a sponsor five years ago. "We got involved because our products are used by most of the participants," notes Meguiar. "Our business is to make paint finishes on cars that are absolutely show-perfect. The high-end car painters, called custom painters, all use our products. So Pebble Beach is a presentation of our products at their best."

Meguiar notes that the Concours is far from a commercial event. "At a lot of car shows, you'll see banners and signs and cigarettes being advertised. Pebble Beach is more prestigious. They don't allow flagrant commercialism. This is the event for the car collector. To host people here--you don't get any better than that."

The company has a hospitality suite on the green, with a raised deck that affords a panoramic view of all the cars. "It's a million-dollar suite," says Meguiar. "It's the best spot--everybody says so. Lexus is on one side, Cadillac is on the other, and the Winners Circle is directly in front of us. And the setting is gorgeous--a magnificent lawn leading up to the lodge, which is so stately, and the bay on the other side. All the car owners and restorers are there, and they're our clients. So providing them with someplace to sit and relax allows us to network with them."

The company brings about 40 staff members to the event to mingle with customers. "Collectors are always looking for our people to ask, 'How do I take care of this marque or resolve this problem?' " explains Meguiar.

This year, the company leveraged its presence at the Concours in a new way: Barry Meguiar hosted a talk radio show during the day that was broadcast live on six regional and national stations, during which he chatted with various industry luminaries, including the heads of Porsche and Cadillac and such car-buff celebrities as Jerry Seinfeld. The show was also taped for broadcast on cable TV.

Meguiar's also entertains some clients at private dinners. And for the past two years, on the Wednesday evening preceding the Concours, the company has co-hosted a hospitality night with Motorworks, a car detailing company, at the Monterey Airport. A number of cars that will be shown at the Concours are on display, "and we bring in aircraft from Gulf Stream and some vintage airplanes," says Meguiar. "We take over a hangar at the airport. It's a nice social evening."

Aston Martin: High Visibility, Low Key Ford is another major sponsor of the Concours, and the company's crown jewel, Aston Martin, also gets mileage out of the event. "We've been actively doing things at Pebble Beach for four years," says Andy Watt, vice president and general manager of Aston Martin North America. "Ford has a presence there through Lincoln, which has sponsored the Automobile Fine Arts Society exhibition of auto art for four years.

"But Aston Martin is the company they naturally turn to here. We're talking to the right clientele, and Aston is in the league of 'car as art.' Our cars are also being shown there, so that's definitely a link."

This year, Aston Martin held a buffet breakfast on show day, followed by an informal discussion, for about 150 invited guests at Club 19, a French bistro at the Pebble Beach Lodge. "We had a display area outside with three cars: One was a concept car, our current model, which had been given a suspension and brake conversion to make it sportier. Then we had a DB 4 GT Zagato, a 1960 owner's car that's one of only 19, which we flew in specially just after a full restoration--a million-dollar car."

Hosting the breakfast were Watt, Aston Martin Chairman Robert Dover, President William Donnelly, several other directors, and other Aston staff. "We were all milling around and chatting," says Watt. "Some people wanted to talk to us about older cars, some about restored works, and others about current cars and future projects."

Among the attendees were some owners from overseas, and others who were Concours participants. "They're nice people to meet. They're enthusiasts, and they help spread the good word about Aston Martin, because they're knowledgeable about cars and are often opinion-formers," he points out. "The fact that they come along and see us means that we're not a dinosaur."

Other guests included Aston Martin dealers and distributors as well as various industry professionals the company works with. "We tend to take things here on a very informal basis with our owners and dealers," says Watt. "Pebble Beach itself is a formal day--it's very English in its sensibilities, and you dress up to go to it, which is rather nice. Ladies wear hats and gentlemen wear flannels and cravats. You wouldn't be seen without a blazer, and a white shirt and striped tie are de rigeur. So we try not to make our events too structured and formal."

Last year, Aston Martin held a barbecue off-site for some 400 owners and friends, as well as a luncheon on Concours day. In addition, the company took over the Stone Pine hotel in Carmel Valley, and made rooms available to clients at their own expense. "There wasn't any program here, but we invited people to drive their cars with us," recalls Watt. "We had a number of DB 7 owners drive up from Los Angeles and down from San Francisco to stay for the weekend."

As Watt describes it, Aston Martin thinks of its owners almost as family. "We make so few cars--only 200 a year for the U.S.--so we do get to know everybody. In blunt terms, what we do would probably be described as 'relationship marketing' nowadays, but we've been doing it for so long that I think we transcend that category."

In other words, the weekend is anything but a hard sell. "Being with us at Pebble Beach may put people in mind that they'd like a new car, but we're not handing out sales cards," says Watt. "It's not that kind of weekend. People are coming to Pebble Beach to have a good time."

Even among Aston Martin dealers, the level of enthusiasm runs high when it comes to the Concours. One dealer, a Porsche enthusiast who owns a Spider, even drove across the country this year with a couple of colleagues to attend the 50th anniversary Porsche activities. "We've got people who are passionate about cars involved with us," says Watt, "and they'd naturally be at Pebble Beach because it's an event that celebrates the beauty of design and the interesting ways cars can be created--or re-created."