It was a car buff's dream.
The fiery red 1935 500K Mercedes-Benz Special Roadster parked on the green near the Rancho Santa Fe Inn dazzled passers-by with its sleek, sensuous lines. It had silver-spoked wheels, spotless whitewalls, honey-beige leather, sterling-like chrome, and a body as smooth as silk.
It was the kind of car once driven by the Fairchilds and the Vanderbilts.
As a crowd ogled the elegant car, Victor Mature, one of Hollywood's top leading men of the 1940s and '50s, rounded the curve in his own shiny red vehicle--a flashy golf cart.
"Hey! That's a beauty!" he called, taking the wheel of the Mercedes with a flourish and a jaunty wave for photographers.
Because Mature has a youngster in Rancho Santa Fe's middle school, he knew why the vintage Mercedes was there. It was the teaser--a sneak preview for the fourth annual Rancho Santa Fe Concours d'Elegance of classic cars, to be held from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday at the Fairbanks Ranch soccer field. Proceeds from the event will go to the Rancho Santa Fe School's Parent
Teacher Organization and the San Diego Automotive Museum.
School supporters will join vintage car enthusiasts, celebrities and international guests for San Diego's swank show of shows, underwritten this year by Symbolic Cars of La Jolla. For a $10 entry fee, concours guests will meander among 100 custom cars. The 1986 concours coincides with the 100th anniversary of the automobile.
A concours (a contest or show), a display of vehicles and their accessories, dates back to the Roman era when citizens flaunted their finest chariots, horses, harnesses, costumes and equipment. Today, a concours showcases meticulously restored automobiles, rated by seasoned judges. For winners, there's the prospect of adding thousands of dollars to the worth of their already valuable vehicles.
California, dubbed the Concours Capital of the World, is home to what many call the Triple Crown--in Pebble Beach, Newport Beach and Rancho Santa Fe.
This year's concours will feature 100 cars in 10 classes, such as "Classics, through 1932, Open," "Mercedes-Benz, through 1970," and "American Contemporary, 1948-1965." Snappy roadsters and genteel touring cars, snazzy coupes and powerful racers will transform the acres of playing fields into an opulent showcase.
"It is certainly the largest and most elegant automotive event in San Diego County," said Michael Richter, the display's chairman.
Former President Gerald R. Ford, Helen Reddy, John and Bo Derek, A. Peter Young, Oldman and Nebbela Kashoggi, and the presidents of Rolls-Royce and of Ferrari of North America are planning to attend. A total of $12 million worth of cars will be sold, with the poster car, the 1935 Mercedes-Benz Special Roadster, one of less than a dozen ever produced, expected to go for more than $1 million.
A black-tie dinner dance at the Hotel Inter-Continental on San Diego Bay is planned for Saturday, and Symbolic Motors will be the host for invitation-only International Collector Car Auction Sunday night after the concours. Cars to be auctioned include glorious pre-World War II Duesenbergs, a '38 Horch, a '39 Alvis, and a matched pair of '56 Mercedes-Benzes with consecutive serial numbers--a 300SC coupe and a cabriolet, complete with luggage, tools and all manuals.
Buyers who can afford these sumptuous toys will be flying in from around the United States, Europe and South America.
"There are maybe 200 buyers in the world for these cars," said Owen Ward, of Symbolic Motors.
Rancho Santa Fe's concours originated several years ago with the community's schoolchildren in mind. As public school funding for affluent districts was decreased by new legislation, Rancho Santa Fe parents and the community vowed to work together to bridge the gap.
"What Proposition 13 did was to equalize expenditure per child statewide," said school Supt. Roger Rowe. "With Proposition 13, everyone's alike."
While some San Diego districts have thousands of students, Rancho Santa Fe's entire K-8 population numbers less than 500.
"With a school this size, when you lose a media center director, you lose it for the whole district," Rowe said.
Initial fund-raising efforts included "The Big Squeeze," a sale of oranges from local groves (parodying the state funding squeeze), huge community musicals and luncheons.
When the PTO was brainstorming for a new fund-raiser, a concours seemed a natural, with Rancho Santa Fe's lush backdrop and with many residents already serious car collectors. The first concours in 1983 raised $25,000, and this year organizers hope to double that figure.
The money goes for science equipment (microscopes, slide sets, salt and fresh water aquariums); Orff Schulwerk classes (a combination of music, dance and language); computer programs and equipment; cultural events, after-school sports and awards programs.
PTO President Midgie VandenBerg, gave high marks to two teachers hired with PTO support--music teacher Peggy Jacobson and art teacher Peggy Lang.
A Rancho Santa Fe third-grader said: "I know how lucky we are to have Mrs. Jacobson and Mrs. Lang. We do neat stuff with them and other kids don't get that."
What does concours mean to the children?
A first-grader told her mother: "It's going to make me an artist!"
Another 6-year-old, who had never sold anything in her life, raced into Ashley's, the local market, to sell concours tickets.
Like VandenBerg, Anne Feighner, PTO officer and mother of three, is deeply involved in the concours planning. "I believe we've missed the boat in education by cutting cultural programs from the schools," Feighner said. "Programs like music, art and enrichment are regarded by some as frills. I consider them essential. Today, facts alone don't make it. We have to help children learn thinking and problem-solving to help them deal creatively with the complex problems of society."
"The concours is one of the main elements of parental and community support," Rowe said. "It's a grand, grand occasion."
For the first three years, the concours was a family happening, with the cars displayed on the school grounds and residents providing guest rooms for visiting car owners. The dinner and auction were held at the Rancho Santa Fe Garden Club.
Some residents are uneasy about the Concours d'Elegance becoming less a community event than a grandiose gala. "The charm was when the concours was local," one resident said, "and the local people brought their cars out."
The concours' other beneficiary, the San Diego Automotive Museum proposed for Balboa Park, is still in the planning stages. The museum will feature an extensive research library, a core collection of classic cars, visiting exhibits and an educational program which will provide San Diego schools with the history of the automobile in American society. Museum President Dan Biggs noted that vehicle donations are starting to come in, including a 1907 International Harvester, a sort of 'motorized buckboard.'
The concours taps a discriminating group of vintage car lovers. The license plate of Bob Shannon's 1957 Mercedes-Benz 300SL reads MBZBEST.
"It's one of Mercedes-Benz's best models," Shannon proclaimed. "Cars like this hold the world record for their class at Bonneville."
Standing beside his gleaming slate-gray Mercedes with red leather interior, Shannon, retired president of I. Magnin, offered a five-minute primer on antique cars. He lifted the hood on the fastidiously clean 6-cylinder, fuel-injected engine to point out the original yellow marks left by German mechanics, indicating that seals have been adjusted and torqued to factory specifications. A mere 16 quarts of oil keeps the car in racing form. Shannon will also show his 300SL '55 Gullwing Coupe, competing with another prize-winning Gullwing restoration being trailered down from L.A.
Shannon does minor adjustments himself but expert mechanics handle the detailed restoration and upkeep.
He is a founding member of the San Diego Automotive Museum.
When a car aficionado opts for restoration, we're not talking one-day paint shops, budget auto parts and corner gas stations. With lathes, drill presses and other specialized equipment, irreplaceable parts are retooled. Q-tips and toothbrushes are called into use for the painstaking final details. Even undercarriages receive attention. The high gloss polish of the body results from the deluxe paint job, some cars requiring as many as 25 coats, with meticulous sanding in between.
According to concours chairman Michael Richter, expert mechanic Thomas Kreid's shop is "like an operating room. He specializes in Mercedes-Benz and virtually re-manufactures them. He's one of the best in the world."
"The people who do restoration are as dedicated to their work as the old craftsmen who used to do everything by hand," said Gwen Whitehead, whose son, Bruce McBroom, spent two years restoring her Stutz. "I went to see it, and all that was there was the metal frame. All the other parts were out being repaired or replaced."
There are experts who handle only one facet of the job: chrome work, body work, the canvas tops.
Whitehead's parents gave her the '32 Stutz, a two-door coupe with a rumble seat, as a high school graduation present, for her years at Northwestern University in Illinois. "My father was a car buff and wanted to give me the nicest thing he could think of," she said. "The family joke is that I wanted a Ford because everyone else had a Ford."
Many vintage cars have colorful histories. Ranch resident Warren Wyman's shiny black '36 Jensen (an English car with a Ford motor), one of three models built in 1936, is entered in the Antique and Vintage Class in the concours. Mrs. Wyman still remembers Clark Gable whizzing by in the car in Beverly Hills wearing a yellow turtleneck sweater.