The Purr Of The Lancia, The Smell Of The Crowd

I'm stuck in traffic. Again. For the fifth time this weekend, I'm on a two-lane highway that resembles a very exotic parking lot filled with Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Cords--a whole world of dream machines. Even when I get back to Carmel, so many classic cars crowd the streets that those of us with more pedestrian wheels become jaded. "Oh, another Testarossa," we shrug.

That's what it's like at the annual late-August classic-car weekend on California's Monterey Peninsula. Are the '90s a decade of more restraint than the excessive '80s? You wouldn't know it here. The only things more eye-catching than the caravan on the roads are the rare autos competing at the 44th Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. "I'm like a kid in a candy shop," says Jack Telnack, Ford Motor Co.'s chief designer and a Pebble Beach judge. Telnack is one of a handful of Detroit executives who make the annual pilgrimage.

FERRARI FANCIERS. Sprinkled amid the weekend's displays and races are three auctions. There's even a bit of talk about whether the market for vintage-car investments is finally poised to take off again after years in the doldrums. "Everyone's saying right now that this is the best time to buy, that we're at the low point right now," says Telnack. "Of course, there has been an awful lot of speculation...and a lot of people have lost their shirts."

But most classic-car devotees readily admit they're not worried about that--they're way too attached to consider selling. "If you don't lose money on it, you're not enjoying it," insists talk-show host Jay Leno, the proud owner of a prize-winning 1931 Duesenberg Beverly. Leno is sure he has spent more than $200,000 on it so far, but says: "I couldn't care less. It's a piece of automotive history."

The car extravaganza kicks off with Friday's Concours Italiana in the Carmel Valley, just east of the seaside village of Carmel-by-the-Sea. This year was declared the year of the Ferrari, and hundreds of the sleek, low-slung cars converged on the town. At the show, men sporting huge gold medallions--the Ferrari trademark prancing horse--mingled with well-groomed women in designer clothes, while in the "Ferrari corral," guys in shorts and caps--diehard garage-tinkerers--dickered over the price of a clutch for a GTE 250.

Saturday's historic-car races at Laguna Seca Raceway east of Monterey attracted an even more diverse crowd. Wealthy owners of vintage McLarens, Lolas, Ferraris, and Lotuses--some, such as the Stutzes, dating back to 1915--rubbed shoulders with a T-shirted mob of race fans.

On the track, the drivers tooled around the winding course, glad for the chance to drive their prize gems the way they were meant to be driven--very fast. But not too fast. No one was taking any risks with a car worth a half-million or more. To discourage speeding, event organizer Steve Earle awarded prizes to whoever finished eighth--a number he picked out of a hat--in each category.

GREMLINS. Sunday's Concours at Pebble Beach, the weekend's premier event, was a kaleidoscope of shiny classics. Pierce-Arrows, Packards, Isotta-Fraschinis, Horchs, Bugattis, Bentleys, Delahayes, Delages, Hispano-Suizos, and Cadillacs--were spread out on the lawn behind the famous golf course's lodge, with the sparkling sea and twisted cypresses for a backdrop. The featured car this year was the Pegaso, and a dozen of the little coupes and touring cars made in Spain during the 1950s were clustered near the 18th hole.

At length, all this gleaming metal paraded slowly past the judges. Karl Keller, a car fancier from Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., had a few anxious moments when his 1938 Mercedes 540K roadster wouldn't start just moments before his turn at the reviewing stand. After thousands of hours tearing down and reassembling the roadster, Keller's crew spent 150 hours cleaning the car and transported it in a dustproof truck. A glitch would have ruined its debut. But two mechanics crawled under the car and found a loose wire. And the parade came off without a hitch.

The sheer wealth required to buy, restore, and maintain this historic sheet metal awes even automotive heavyweights. "The amount of money is unbelievable," says Chrysler Corp. President Bob Lutz, no pauper himself. "You hang around [here] for a couple of days, and you start to get an inferiority complex."

Not everyone here is rich or famous. Some, like Margaret Kelly, are simply car buffs. "Years ago, I wanted to be a race-car driver," the young minister admits. "My particular fetish is Ferraris." Michael and Margo Speakman, who own a bath shop in Pleasanton, Calif., braided their Hungarian sheepdog's hair into dreadlocks for the occasion. Tasu Papu, Margo says, likes to ride in their Ferrari 308 with his paws up on the window. Tish Parashis, who wears a black sweater emblazoned with a sequined Rolls Royce emblem, is people-watching, while her husband, Harry, checks out the cars. "It's a man thing," Parashis confides.

Many of the assembled cars have relatively few miles on the odometer and are likely to stay that way. Leno, however, announces his intention to take to the road in his maroon Duesenberg. "As of Monday, this is a street car," he declares. "So if you see me on the Ventura Highway, get the hell out of my way." That is, of course, if he ever makes it out of the traffic jam of Porsches and Lancias at Pebble Beach.

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