17 November 2016

Two Views of Paradise

How far will a grand take you at car guy meccas Pebble Beach Week and the Woodward Dream Cruise?

The third week of August is arguably the biggest automotive summer vacation in the world, with Pebble Beach and the Woodward Dream Cruise competing for our time and money. We gave Detroit-bred Senior Art Director Todd Kraemer a grand and sent him to Pebble Beach for the first time. Then we gave car designer-turned-Digital Managing Editor Yoav Gilad his own thousand and dropped him into the Dream Cruise for his first time. Their objective was simple: Who could get the most bang for the buck? The rules were simpler: No insider favors from colleagues to stretch those dollars or open doors. Let the games begin, gentlemen…

TODD: I was born and raised in the Motor City. The Woodward Dream Cruise was the only car event happening every August. Period. Monterey and Pebble Beach were simply places I went on my honeymoon.

My career as a car magazine designer introduced me to a broader automotive spectrum than the one fostered by my AMC mechanic father and lifelong GM man of a grandfather. I’d now become aware of this happening on the left coast that always eclipsed the coverage of my beloved Cruise. It was high time I rubbed elbows with the collector car elite in California. I had $1,000 and a plane ticket. The rest was up to me.

I had a plan, but it was going to be tight. Airbnb hosts were already raising rates to take advantage of the crowds that descend on the Monterey Peninsula, so I found a quiet trailer on a hillside in Watsonville, about 40 miles north of the chaos, for only $70 a night. Booking an economy car in Seaside saved me 50 percent.

My next call was to good friend and photographer Evan Klein. He upped the ante on my car week adventure by suggesting we break in his newly restored 1967 Alfa Romeo Giulia Super by driving to Monterey from his place in L.A. The car looked flawless and performed beautifully.

We arrived on the Peninsula Wednesday evening, and it was cold. Monterey is in California, right? The sky was gray every morning for the week I was there. The sun never even made an appearance before noon. [ED: They call that the “marine layer.”]

My accommodations — a fifth wheel camper on a horse ranch — were excellent. The fridge was stocked with farm-fresh eggs, coffee, fruit, English muffins and beer. Every morning the host's dog, Jack, greeted me on my patio overlooking the ranch in the valley below and helped me pack the rental car for the day ahead — days spent exploring a car guy's utopia from sunup ’til sundown. Well, exploring some of that utopia.

There would be no visiting Friday’s Quail Motorsports Gathering for $600, nor hitting the fancy cocktail parties with my colleagues. But auction previews were less than 50 bucks. Some even let you in for free. That was to be my bread and butter — the free events — even if the bread and butter themselves were ridiculously priced at the concession stands. What’s in a $30 sandwich anyway? Jack in the Box makes a great burger and fries combo for less than six bucks, thanks, and gas station coffee was a suitable substitute for all the pricey wine and Champagne that surrounded me.

Oh, the traffic. I've not known more frustration than seeing the checkered flag for the destination on the GPS, but realizing I’m still a half-hour away. But the cars zigging and zagging through the streets of Monterey, Carmel and Pacific Grove were as spectacular as any on the concours lawn. Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Bentleys, Maseratis and Rolls-Royces line the streets like Focuses, Chargers and Impalas back home.

First on the agenda was Thursday’s Pebble Beach Tour. Although it’s free to watch the cars line up and roll off, access to The Lodge at Pebble Beach does require an $8.95 gate fee for access to 17-Mile Drive. I got there early for Hagerty's free coffee and doughnuts, and to see many of the beautiful classics that would be shown on the 18th green Sunday morning. Those in the know jumped in their rent-a-rides as the last car took off and headed to Carmel, where the tour ended and lunch was served.

Many of the pre-war machines parked in Carmel at the end of the tour were huge, as were the crowds. It became so thick with folks gathered between them that I wondered how many zippers and cameras banged into their beautiful paint. I was told there were armies of detailers standing by to patch them up.

On Friday, Evan invited me to join him as navigator in the Alfa in the Pacific Grove Concours Auto Rally. There was even a free BBQ dinner for the participants. Score! I saved enough money to buy a souvenir hat. Well, maybe half a hat.

The rally was well managed and included a hundred cars and a good crowd turnout, but it wasn’t a zoo. You could walk around and talk to the owners. Most of the entries were attainable cars like Alfas, Porsches and Corvettes, owned mostly by people who came to watch this week in their moderately priced classics.

Saturday was a study in polar opposites. Laguna Grande Park in Seaside hosted the anti-Pebble Beach. Behold the automotive levity of the Concours d’LeMons. No pieces of art here, unless you consider rusted-out Volvos, Bricklins wearing oversized cowboy hats and Halloween-themed rat rods art. Mozart was replaced by the Beach Boys. Even some collector car heavyweights got in on the action. Wayne Carini drove through the gates (just barely) in the worst, rustiest Karmann Ghia I’ve ever seen. It was perfect for LeMons.

Sadly, Evan and I had to skip out halfway through the “Worst of” awards presentations. As much fun as it was to listen to MC Alan Galbraith and each winner’s rationale for owning their cars, we had business elsewhere. The time had come to spend $100 on admission to the Rolex Motorsports Reunion at Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca.

At the track we were greeted by vintage race cars of every kind packed tightly in the paddock rows. There were BMWs, Alfas, Ferraris, Porsches, Can-Ams and Trans Ams. I couldn’t take photos fast enough, and Evan had to yank me out of the way of the paths of race cars several times. I was a kid in a candy store. Except the candy was all brightly colored and loud, with stripes and numbers, and it smelled of race fuel.

While the views from the stands and around the paddock were all my ticket allowed, I did cheat a bit on our agreement not to use my connections to get into places the average Joe couldn’t. When Evan said he could get me behind the pit wall and along the tire wall at Turn 15, was I going to turn him down because of a handshake? Those engine sounds filling my ears and the feel of pavement shaking as the racers streaked by made it well worth it.

Was I on the floor at RM Sotheby’s to see the gavel fall on the most-expensive Cobra ever? Nope. Did I ever make it to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance to see 17 Ford GT40s all in a row? I did not. That ticket would have busted my budget. But I laid eyes on most of those breathtaking cars and so many others at cheap and freebie events all week long. I saw and did a whole lot! A thousand dollars well spent, and I even got that souvenir hat.

YOAV: The moment the light went green, the rear tires of a wicked-looking ’55 Chevy squealed and the front lifted. The driver shifted into second and the fronts momentarily kissed the ground. About 50 feet later the driver spotted the black Ford Explorer in the median. The officer was already rolling slowly, his quarry caught. The ’55 touched down, its engine burping and bellowing on the overrun. The moment it passed the Explorer, blue and red lights bathed the street.

This was my first impression of the Woodward Dream Cruise, and already it was living up to its reputation. It was my first time on America’s first concrete paved road, and the wheel-standing Gasser impressed me. Although I’ve been to Pebble Beach and its related events multiple times, I’d never given Woodward much thought. My background is in automotive design, and I’ve always preferred coachbuilt one-offs and post-war sports racers to mass-produced cars stuffed with big engines. Woodward? Probably just a bunch of boring muscle cars, right? Well, I had a $1,000 budget and an assignment: Get down to Detroit and see what’s what.

I drove down in my ’96 Dodge Viper GTS and the rest was up to me. I had booked a Detroit loft on Airbnb that looked downright swanky in the photos. It wasn’t. Turns out the same 72-dpi photos that hide imperfections in online automobile classifieds do the same for online lodging ads. At $145 per night, it was overpriced, with a moldy shower and a stained couch that looked like it was dragged upstairs from the abandoned building next door.

It was only Thursday afternoon and, technically, the Cruise didn’t begin until Saturday, but traffic was already heavy. Like the driver of the ’55 Chevy, clearly there were already some old racers here. I headed north on Woodward from downtown Detroit, where I passed a gorgeous yellow-and-black three-window Deuce (1932 Ford) coupe. My destination was Pasteiner’s Auto Zone Hobbies in suburban Birmingham, and when I arrived, there was a ’97 Viper GTS in the Pasteiner’s lot. I liked this place already.

Where to begin? Pasteiner’s is an automotive-themed bookstore and model shop, where the only realistic question is, “How much can I afford?” After an hour of browsing, I decided on an anthology by Leon Mandel, AutoWeek’s longtime editor, and a Woodward Dream Cruise street sign for my garage.

I hit the road again and made a couple trips up and down Woodward, stopping for dinner at a car-nerd haven — Vinsetta Garage. Along the way I saw countless primary- and secondary-colored Mopars, modified Chevys and Fords, a few hot rods and even some donks and lowriders.

Friday morning brought the opportunity to wheelstand and race — legally — on Woodward. It was courtesy of Roadkill Nights, Powered by Dodge and hosted at the new M1 Concourse. For the first time ever, a stretch of Woodward Avenue in Pontiac, Michigan, was shut down for drag racing. Man, was I excited.

I arrived just before registration closed, completed a form, got ready for tech inspection and suddenly realized that my helmet was sitting on a shelf, at home, 220 miles away.

The guy in tech suggested borrowing someone else’s bucket. It was over 90 degrees and the humidity was on par with a rainforest. No, thank you. Instead, I checked out Roadkill’s Show-n-Shine and drifting. They had a variety of instructor-driven Dodges giving attendees thrill rides around a small course in the middle of the Concourse. The line for drifting Chargers, Challengers and Vipers looked eternal.

I spotted Richard Rawlings of Fast ’n’ Loud by the food trucks and asked for a photo. He replied, “Go ahead.” A crowd formed quickly, and I overheard a woman as she walked away tell her spouse that “[Rawlings] is not very personable.” What did she want, a sweaty hug?

It was time to rehydrate, so I hit a Coney stand close to Woodward for a pair of dogs and lots of Coke. I’d been told that it wasn’t a real trip to Detroit without Coneys. I ate as I took in a gleaming ’65 Chevelle in the parking lot. I’m not sure how combining hot dogs, chili, mustard and onions works, but it does.

During lunch, I did some rough math on my expenses. The total for my loft, fuel, food and souvenirs came to about $650. Minus the loft and souvenirs, I had only spent about $75 on meals and $100 on gas. I imagined Todd shelling out six dollars for every bottle of water.

On Saturday, I hit the birthplace of democratic American motoring, Ford’s Piquette Avenue Plant. The dirty red brick building sits squarely in Detroit’s Milwaukee Junction neighborhood, where empty buildings outnumber occupied ones. It’s also where the iconic Model T was developed and introduced for 1909. The purpose-built facilities included many revolutionary construction features for the era, including ventilation and firebreaks, and the railroad tracks behind the factory building served to carry some 12,000 Model Ts to points across the U.S.

After the plant, I headed back to Woodward to see if it had become the “Dream Crawl” that friends had warned me about.

But calling it the “Dream Crawl” is cynical and misses the point. I’m glad that it took almost an hour to cover the seven miles from 8-Mile north; it gave me a chance to check out all the cars parked along the route. Everyone was out celebrating their cars and their relationship with cars. It was a carnival where all were welcome. Realizing that I hadn’t seen the people and cars lining the southbound route, I turned around and extended my Dream Cruise for another couple hours.

Woodward’s reputation as America’s Main Street is well deserved. There is no pretense. Compared to Pebble Beach’s manicured greens, cosmetically enhanced patrons and beyond-perfect restorations, Woodward is downright low-brow. But everyone was cruising happily, showing off what, in many cases, they had built, sweated over and loved. Is it for me? I’m not sure, because with few exceptions, I have seen it before and I’m always chasing a new automotive high. But every time a kustom or hot rod passed by, I got excited. “Check it out — four freaking engines!” Yeah, it’s cool. Best of all, I had change from my thousand.

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