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Cars are often described as rolling sculptures — and in recent years there are more ways than ever to see radical sports cars and sedans from the 20th century presented as objects of design in a new context, as the future of mobility shifts.
“Automania,” a major exhibition about car design, is on view at the MoMA, and the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is showing “Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950–2020.” “One of the angles we’re taking is to hone in on car design as a practice and process, helping us to correct historical imbalance in the popular understanding of car design and bring something to light that’s happened largely behind locked doors,” said DIA curator Ben Colman. The Petersen Museum in Los Angeles is devoted entirely to car culture, including the current show, simply titled “Supercars.”
Yet, viewing valuable collector cars in a site-specific setting adds another dimension to the physicality and context of seeing cars as design objects. That’s one reason why so many of the top car collectors travel to the Monterey Peninsula every August for the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. The event was canceled last year due to COVID-19, and so last month car collectors were eager to return. Despite the risks of in-person gathering at this stage in the pandemic, the crowds were flush on the green.
The field overlooking the Pacific Ocean was a sight to behold as 230 of the finest cars from around the world competed in categories judged on significance, restoration quality, and provenance. Cars must be vetted and selected to show at Pebble Beach, an honor, which contributes to their future provenance and value.
What makes these cars show worthy is also what makes them highly collectible and museum caliber: the car must be rare, it has to have a low number of miles, it must be historic to the canon, and, of course, deemed desirable. Another layer of scrutiny is added as the cars need to be able to drive, and there’s always a bit of high drama as old cars roll in at dawn for judging. Once parked on the lawn, spectators wander to get a closer look throughout the day. The pageantry culminates as the cars drive up a short way to the judge’s stand at The Lodge for final appraisal.
A stunning 1939 Mercedes-Benz 540k Autobahn Kurier, won best in show this year. A 1914 Packard 1-38 Five Passenger Phaeton won the Ansel Adams award, named for Adams who served as a past honorary judge. A 1963 Iso Grifo A3/L Prototype Bertone Coupe won the Art Center College of Design Award.
The Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance dates back to 1950, and is slowly changing to add more modern cars. It was originally modeled after the European shows from the 1920s and ‘30s. Over the years it has grown into 10 full days of activities that show cars valuable vintage cars across the Monterey Peninsula.
Each event during Car Week highlights a separate element of car collecting. The Rolex Monterey Motorsport Reunion focuses on vintage motorsport racing on harrowing 2.2 miles of racetrack over three days. Everything from a 1989 Porsche 962C 3200 to a 1934 ERA R2A won a place on the podium, which offers a nostalgic view of what motorsports looked like in eras past.
The high-dollar auctions are usually newsworthy, and as car collecting is at all-time high so were the bids. A Mercedes-Benz 26/120/180 S-Type Supercharged Sports Tourer sold for $5.39 million at Bonham’s. A 1962 Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato took in $9.25 million at RM Sotheby’s. The show stealer was the Gooding & Company sale of a 1995 McLaren F1 that sold for a record-breaking $20.46 million, the most expensive car sold at any auction in 2021.
Outside of the events, every parking lot in Monterey was an impromptu car show. Luxury auto brands also have a major presence during car week, highlighting their past and future vehicles. Ferrari and Aston Martin constructed exclusive and elaborate displays for their guests. Concept cars such as the Maserati MC20 and the new Lamborghini Countach were shown on the lawn. Lincoln unveiled a collaboration with Shinola. New players Rimac and Lucid sought out swatches of real estate to highlight their cars of the future. Mercedes offered a hush-hush peek at the new Mercedes-AMG SL, a California convertible that dates back decades, which will be unveiled at the Frankfurt Auto Show in the coming days.
My personal highlight was driving a California perfect car, an original 1957 Mercedes-Benz SL roadster, on the open road. Despite all the pomp and circumstance at car week, it all came down to this feeling: the wind whipping my hair, and the thumbs up from car enthusiasts I passed by soaking up the Pacific scenery. It’s a prime example of car design as poetry in motion.
I was reminded of a conversation I had with Michael Simcoe, vice president of GM Global Design, about car design as an art form. “If you think about automotive design in the 20th century and now the 21st, it’s arguably the most significant art form of this period,” he said. “If art is all emotion and reflecting community and changing people’s lives, there’s nothing done in a more powerful way than automobiles. They reflect the art of the moment. They reflect the people. They reflect the environment they were developed in. If that’s not a sculptural force, what is?”