Judging the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance is an honor

The day starts before dawn. And like all the other eager folks who scurry onto the misty 18th fairway at Pebble Beach in the dark, I take my place in line for coffee and doughnuts courtesy of the Hagerty elves.

Cars soon appear through the haze, their drivers greeted by Chairman Sandra Button, then follow golf cart-piloting volunteers to each class grouping and their place on the manicured emerald. Like everyone else present, we judges jostle to score one of the popular and collectible Dawn Patrol caps. Then we go to work.

For me, that means a day spent scrutinizing Rolls-Royces and Bentleys. My expertise has been a long time coming.

In 1952, my father bought me a mothballed U.S. Army-surplus 1946 Willys Jeep, along with a shop manual and tools. I was 12 years old, and he told me to get it running and take care of it or he’d sell it. So I did. That Jeep sparked my lifelong hands-on interest in cars, mostly 1930s and ’40s Fords, but by my 40th birthday, I decided what I really wanted was a Rolls-Royce. While researching the marque, I discovered Bentley, then bought a 1957 Bentley S1 with 90,000 miles on the clock. After 12 years, thousands of dollars in restoration and maintenance projects, and 254,000 miles, I tearfully sold it. In the meantime, I became deeply involved in marque-specific car clubs and attended meets and events both here and abroad. I also acquired a few Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, both pre- and post-war.

Among the many fascinating people I met was Bill Davis, a retired banker from West Virginia, noted collector of both marques, CCCA president and immediate past-president of the Rolls-Royce Owners Club. When the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance began expanding, organizers sought out specialists to help guide the event. One of those experts was Bill, and in 1984 he was asked to head a new Rolls-Royce and Bentley judging team. He then asked collectors Neal Kirkham, Roger Morrison and me to join him. Thirty-two years later, we’re still together. Other marque specialists have joined us, as needed, as classes expand and change every year.

Judging at Pebble Beach is a privilege and a pleasure. Always well prepared for this formidable task, we receive advance photographs, research data and copies of the entrant’s registration documents. And like most car nuts, we have extensive marque-specific libraries and files of our own to consult. We do our homework, in other words, and we come prepared.

We are acutely aware that a win at Pebble is an extraordinary award for both car and owner. The concours is by invitation only, and with space limited to about 200 cars, the selection process is discriminating and exact. Eligible cars are generally coachbuilt or hand-finished, rare and/or represent a milestone in motoring. No car is allowed more often than once per decade, and only the most extraordinary examples ever make more than one appearance.

Becoming a judge at Pebble Beach is not unlike receiving any other job offer, I suppose. It’s all about experience, training, knowledge and, let’s face it, it’s sometimes about who you know. None of us pretend we are the only ones qualified; we were merely fortunate to have been included. Even after all of these years, when I enter the judge’s meeting at 7 a.m. on the third Sunday in August and look around at the roughly 100 people in that room, I can hardly believe my eyes: It’s humbling to be included with the shape-makers in the automobile world.

Our team assembles on the field by 9 a.m. We walk the line-up and gather first impressions before the judging process commences. We are careful to allow each car equal time: Eight cars over three hours, so about 20 minutes per car. Our team’s priority has always been authenticity. An over-restored car will receive deductions in equal measure with incorrect or faulty items. Using a 100-point system, the car is inspected and unlike many judged events, we include a “start and idle” procedure.

Infrequently, there’s a tie, and the Tour d’Elegance — Thursday’s 50-mile escorted tour open to all cars entered in the concours — helps break it. The nod goes to the car that completed the tour. Otherwise, we try to determine which car represents the more elegant of the two. Class awards are for 1st, 2nd and 3rd. All class winners are eligible for the Best in Show, which is determined by Honorary and Senior judges plus a few select team members. In addition to Best in Show, there are four Elegance Awards and over 20 Special Awards.

When the day ends, an incredible exhaustion sets in, but also a feeling of immense accomplishment. And as I drive the 740 miles home to Portland the following morning, I recall the billionaire’s nervousness as he fumbled to open the bonnet of his fresh-from-the-restorer entry, or the elderly couple who drove their Bentley from Los Angeles, gave it a bath in the motel parking lot, entered it for judging and won 2nd. And I’m always so pleased to know that again, we not only were treated to a rare experience, judging these wonderful cars, but we were honest in our judging. Our compensation is the honor knowing that we are part of this world-class event. We judged the cars, not the owners.

Learn more about the world’s most prestigious concours at http://www.pebblebeachconcours.net.

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