Canadian cars vie for best in show at the Pebble Beach concours (again)
|driving.ca 14 Oct 2019 at 03:25|
If you were having trouble finding the lone Canadian-owned automobile at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance this year, all you had to do was trust your instincts and look for the car wearing plaid.
Yes, it’s a stereotype, but in this case keeping your eyes open for the pattern was probably the best way to single out Brent Merrill’s 1930 Willys-Knight from the two-hundred-and-a-dozen other entries on the fairway at the world’s most prestigious classic car event, held every year in Monterey, California.
The doors on Merrill’s Amos-Northup-styled Griswold-bodied roadster – one of 400 Model 66 Bs the marque built, and one of 13 surviving – aren’t painted in the same tartan as your favourite flannel, but the loose cross-hatch still earned the handsome rumble-seat cars the nickname “Plaidsides” when new. Just think of the luxury car as wearing a lumberjack-inspired tuxedo vest.
“I like the unusual cars,” beams the Toronto-based Merrill, showing off the car’s Trippe driving lights, advanced ‘Ride-Control’ suspension and thermostatically controlled grille shutters. “In the sea of Packards and Cadillacs, the people need to see some different things!”
They also need to see that when it comes to contests like Pebble Beach, where only the world’s finest classic cars bear the scrutiny of expert judges while vying for best-in-class or best-in-show, that Canadians can compete, too — and win.
This August, like every August for the past 65-plus years, the fairways at the Pebble Beach golf course have been transformed into a parking lot for rows and rows of gleaming, Gatsby-esque pre-war convertibles; lithe, custom-bodied ’60s sports cars; and dozens and dozens of examples of cars from the featured marque — this year it’s Bentley, in celebration of its centenary .
Walking the lawn from Merrill’s car to the Postwar Touring class, I spy, in order, a 1931 Cadillac V-16 Phaeton belonging to writer Clive Cussler; Jay Leno prodding the owner of a ’33 Bugatti with a barrage of questions; and about five ’50s-era Ferrari race cars, each worth at least seven figures.
But when I walk up to Robert Fram and the 1950 Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 Coupe he’s just helped restore for Jon and Wendy Segal of San Diego, he’s not intimidated by any of it. Nor should he be.
Last year, the ’37 Alfa rebuilt by Fram and his colleagues at won Pebble Beach’s top honour, Best in Show, securing the restoration shop’s reputation as one of the world’s absolute best.
For Fram, there’s less stress in finishing a car to this degree – that of immaculate, better-than-new condition – than there is stimulating challenge. “It’s work, but it’s still fun for us. It’s our hobby as well,” he explains. “It’s much more exciting to work on something that ends up here, versus [something someone plans to drive] on the Alaska Highway.”
Eleven wild classics from the 2019 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance
Fram, the mechanic, worked with Mike Taylor, bodywork; Ian Davey, paint; and RX’s newest hire, Jeff Parker, on putting together this Alfa 6C in way less time than you’d expect. “It came out of the paint booth five weeks before we shipped it,” Fram says. “Not a single screw on it. Had a driving show car in five weeks. So, some long days.”
It was only possible because RX has honed its restoration process over the years to minimize time wasted. Fram takes the car apart and begins dissecting and rebuilding the drivetrain and suspension components while the body gets prepped for metalwork and then paint. The scheduling works out so Fram’s ready to install those subassemblies as the body’s being finished.
“We’ve done it enough times that we work pretty seamlessly that way,” he shrugs nonchalantly. “This is our fifteenth car here, so — kind of used to it.”
A 1950 Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 Coupe “Supergioiello” restored by RX Autoworks Alex Reid
The explanation behind the routine doesn’t take away from the absolutely stunning car on the lawn at Pebble. This year’s Alfa is one of four Supergioiello or “jewel coupes” built by Ghia, and the only one built on an advanced tubular chassis engineered by Gilberto Colombo, known for designing Ferrari’s early V-12s.
Every detail on the car looks just as it did in 1950 — no easy feat considering it rolled into RX Autoworks a “previously-restored-several-times-over” kind of car, with badly repaired bumpers, doors and windows that wouldn’t work properly and only a few original photographs of the car to use for reference.
And then there was the paint scheme. Originally white with a dark colour on top, the owner had pushed for a bronze-and-brown two-tone. RX had a period-correct Ghia white already mixed from a prior car, so sprayed half the car white, half the car bronze and rolled it outside to compare the hues.
“We went, ‘Ah, f***, I guess we’re going bronze,’” says Fram. “Owner came up, facing the white side, was like ‘Ahhh, that looks awesome!’ We said, Walk around the car. He said, ‘Oh, no, that’s the colour!’”
The Segals were sure the car had a chance at taking Best in Show this year , while Fram was more confident of a Postwar Touring class win. (He ended up being right.) Taking home any sort of trophy is a feat at Pebble Beach, though, and RX’s cabinet-ful explains why the shop has an eight-year waiting list.
His wasn’t the only Canadian effort vying for the hardware at this year’s concours; it’s a matter of fact that every year a number of cars in the contest will have been put together by RM Restorations, based in the same HQ in Chatham, Ontario, near London, as sister company RM Sotheby’s auctions.
RM’s a bit bigger of an outfit than RX, with a staff of dozens of mechanics, restorers and experts to the B.C. shop’s four craftsmen. And of course RM Sotheby’s hosts one of the several auctions that takes place during Monterey Car Week in the lead-up to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Odds are good a car that crosses the block there will break a record for “most expensive blank ever sold,” .
A 1935 Bugatti Type 57 at the 2019 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance Tom O Neal / Rolex
There’s too many other Canadian ties to mention. A 1935 Bugatti Type 57 Drophead Coupe, a previous Pebble Beach class winner back out on the lawn again this year, was sold new to Quebec-based newspaper publisher Wilson McConnell. At the adjacent The Quail: a Motorsports Gathering event earlier in the week, showgoers gawked at a 1974 Fiat 124-based art car, sculpted by Canadian Michael Pistol and commissioned in 1988 by Toronto’s Shirley Zinman. The Friday before the concours, a downtown bar finds itself crowded with Canadians collected there by Hagerty insurance, talking oddball microcars they’re thinking of buying, or of coordinating an impromptu parade of Ferrari F50s — their car alongside the other four in Monterey that week.
A 1974 Fiat 124-based art car, sculpted by Michael Pistol and commissioned in 1988 by a Toronto enthusiast, at The Quail Nicholas Maronese
That’s not to mention the fact the exclusive expert judging teams charged with scrutinizing the mind-blowing cars at Pebble Beach – they grade them based on authenticity, fit and finish, and, of course, elegance – is lousy with Canadians, some of whom know more about certain marques than anyone else on the planet.
(The roster includes the chief judge of Ontario’s Cobble Beach Concours d’Elegance , British Columbia-based John Carlson; and Chrysler stylist Ralph Gilles, to name just two.)
All of it points to it a simple truth: that in any real competition of the world’s finest classic cars, you’ll find more than a few Canadians involved one way or another. From collectors like Merrill to restoration shops like RX Autoworks to auction houses like RM Sotheby’s, cars are as much a part of Canadian culture as they are in the U.S., Europe, or anywhere else you’d care to name.
The stereotype that we can be a little modest has some truth to it — we don’t always brag about the hordes of enthusiasts, experts and craftspeople that call our country home. But if you want to track us down at an event like the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, we’re usually not too hard to find. Just look for the plaid.