Do judges favor non-American cars at Pebble Beach?


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In a pre-Trump America, mention of the word “foreign” likely triggered images of places, people and products that were exotic, glamorous, alluring, even romantic and magical.

It’s still that way when it comes to collector cars. Consider that the last time an American-produced vehicle won Best of Show honors at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance was 2013, and that was only the second time this century that a domestic vehicle was selected for what is considered the most prestigious award the hobby has to offer.

Europeans win top honors 5 years running

Cars from Europe have won top honors at Pebble Beach for the past five years in a row — a 1954 Ferrari, 1924 Isotta Fraschini, 1936 Lancia, 1929 Mercedes-Benz and 1937 Alfa Romeo.

But that run doesn’t compare to a 12-year winning streak for European cars from 1995 until 2007, and European vehicles have won 10 of the 11 years since that streak ended.

However, it hasn’t always been this way. 

Anyone remember the car that first won Best of Show at Pebble Beach? It was a 1950 Edwards R-26 special sport roadster, built just up the coast from Pebble Beach in San Francisco by Sterling Edwards and a team that included designer Norman Timbs and race car builders Emil Diedt, Lujie Lesovsky and Phil Remington. 

Edwards reportedly sold only six of his sports cars — one for each year he was in business. The various cars were powered by V8 engines from  Ford (flathead), Oldsmobile, Chrysler or Lincoln. That 1950 Pebble Beach winner was on the docket at an RM auction in 2011 with a Jaguar XK120 engine and rear end, various ’50s Ford components and British Smith gauges. It sold for $143,750.

And amazing as it might seem from the contemporary perspective, domestic vehicles were the judges’ choice for Best of Show at Pebble Beach from 1977-1981.

History leans Europe’s way

On the other hand, of 68 Pebble Beach Best of Show winners, 51 have come from Europe. Of the 17 American winners, six were Duesenbergs and four were Packards. Chryslers and Pierce-Arrows won twice, with Cunningham, duPont and Edwards each winning once. But no Cadillacs. No Lincolns. Not even a Cord or a Graham.

Meanwhile, Bugattis have won nine times, Mercedes-Benzes eight times and Rolls-Royces on five occasions. Nineteen European brands have received Pebble Beach’s top accolade, and if there’s a surprise, it’s that Ferrari has won only once, in 2014 becoming the first post-war car to win since 1954.

The winning cars tend to have unique coachbuilt bodies and bespoke interior accoutrements rather than sheet metal and leather installed on an assembly line. There were some American companies that did such work, and did it very well, but as one collector car expert pointed out, the experienced experts in such things tended to be in Italy or France, and even with shipping costs, the price of such work was less expensive even for American car owners.

Still, a 51-17 margin of victory seems pretty lopsided. 

But is there bias? I asked someone who has been one of the Pebble Beach judges for going on three decades. John Carlson set me straight.

How Best of Show is selected

“There are lots of false perceptions,” he told me. “The most significant misconception is about how the Best of Show is selected. It’s really straightforward. It’s selected by secret ballot from the chief class judges,” who are instructed not to share their thoughts as they make their way around the cars. A very few honorary judges might be invited to vote as well.

After being driven across the awards platform, the vehicles that have been judged the best in their respective classes are gathered together in a roped-off area. The chief class judges then walk among them all. 

But this time there are no judges’ point sheets to fill out. That was done during the judging for class honors earlier in the day. Objectivity gives way to subjective appreciation, at least to a point. Now, the chief class judges simply have a ballot on which they write their choice for Best of Show. Those ballots are counted and the top three vote-getters are driven back to the awards area, with the winner announced and driven back up onto the stand, taking its place in concours d’elegance history while being showered with confetti and applause.

While all of the best in class winners might be considered gorgeous vehicles in their own right, Carlson pointed out that Best of Show is not just a beauty contest. Significance and presence also are factors.

“A pre-1940s V12 Packard convertible sedan is stunning, but all of a sudden you put it beside the swoopiest of swoopy Delahayes and it just overwhelms the American car,” he said. 

Still, many of us non-judges who were at Pebble Beach this August thought the Best of Show had to be a 1937 Cadillac with a V16 engine and bodywork by Swiss coachbuilder Hartmann. But then we also fell in love three years earlier with another American car, again bodied in Europe, a 1938 Graham Model 97 convertible by Saoutchik.

But it’s the judges’ eyes that must be pleased, and they look at things differently from the rest of us — and Pebble sets the tone for the other concours. Perhaps the Euro advantage is why some U.S. concours award both Best of Show European and Best of Show American, and why so many car shows also have People’s Choice awards, and thus letting the rest of us have our say.

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Featured Image Credit: Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance photo.