One Place In The U.S. Where The Recession Isn't: Pebble Beach

There is water, golf and Ferraris that go for $22 million a piece.

Even as Republican Presidential hopefuls Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney criticize President Obama for vacationing while threats of a double-dip recession loom large, there is at least one place in the U.S. where signs of a faltering economy are as hard to find as goldfish in a piranha tank.

Every August, Pebble Beach Golf Resort and the surrounding area play host to the mother of all collectible car gatherings -- The Pebble Beach Concours De Elegance, the Rolex Motorsports Reunion and other events and auctions all related to the buying, selling, caring and feeding of the most valuable automotive treasures in the country.

What kind of money are we talking about? This year, there were some 20 Ferrari 250 GTO sports cars displayed, with about half of them taking to the Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca. Each one, if they were to sell, goes for about $22 million. No wonder super-lux Swiss watch company Rolex sponsors the race.

This is the place where hard-to-find, limited edition, or even bespoke cars made for the rich and famous find homes, draw eyes, and, yes, many wallets at the auction blocks.

Some highlights from the RM Auctions in Monterey this past weekend:

A 1957 Ferrari 250 TR Prototype sold for record $16.39 million.

1935 Bugatti Type 57 "Grand Raid Roadster sold for $900,000.

A 1974 Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona Spider sold for $1.02 million.

A 1963 Ferrari 250 GT Lusso Berlinetta sold for $825,000.

A 1955 Ferrari 750 Monza Spider sold for $2.3 million.

There is a theme here among the top sellers and collectors. Though Ferraris are relatively rare in terms of new cars sold in North America (the company sold 1,750 in 2010), they seem as common as Chevy Malibus on the Monterey Peninsula. Indeed, at the Concorso Italiano at Laguna Seca on August 19, there was a sea of collectible Ferraris, with few on hand being worth less than $200,000.

The Concours De Elegance definitely favors import makes over Detroit classics. Another eye-popper was a 1939 Mercedes-Benz 540 K Spezial Roadster with Coachwork by Singlefinger, which sold for $4.2 million. Can you say "lower the capital gains tax?"

Pagani Automobili SpA, the Italian supercar maker whose $1.2 million Huayra gull-wing coupe is a favorite among the hedge-fund class, came into the weekend hoping to sell eight cars to the fat-wallet brigade, according to one executive, but word around the luxury suites was that it finessed business Sunday with 12 twelve orders!

No wonder the cigar sellers at the shows were selling smokes for $40 and up, and we saw hundreds of dollars being forked over as easily as quarters in a vending machine for just a few cheroots among friends. Hotel rooms around Monterey that normally go for $300 a night were booking for more than $800. Tickets to Sunday's show cost $200.

The Best of Show at the 2011 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance was Peter Mullin's 1934 Voisin C-25 Aerodyne, which was also named the best car in the 1932-1937 European Classic category. Peter Mullin is the founder of he renowned Mullin Automotive Museum. The top winner is chosen based on the quality of restoration work on a rare car.

Haven't heard of Voisin? Founded by Gabriel Voisin, one of the leading European engineers and aerodynamicists at the turn of the 20th century, the company manufactured airplanes before building automobiles after World War I.

As is the tradition of this weekend of shows, exhibitions and auctions, pre-World War II cars tend to win the top awards if not necessarily all the cash on the auction blocks. In fact, in the 61 years of the Concours De Elegance, which consists of 200 carefully screened entries displayed along the 18th fairway and green of the storied golf club, no car built after the war has ever won Best In Show.


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