On the same weekend every August, two of the biggest car events of the year, the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance in Carmel, California and the Woodward Dream Cruise, in Detroit, invade two cities on opposite sides of the country. This year, I went to both of them. And at some point in your life, if you love cars, you should, too. Ideally you’d pick one per year, but I’m a glutton for punishment so I did a lap of America in three days, all for your education. So, who did it better this year, Pebble or Woodward? Let’s do this scientifically.
There’s a reason people pay $400 per round to play the Pebble Beach Golf Links: The scenery is spectacular. Monterey, California may have an overrated restaurant landscape, but the actual landscape is clean air, ocean breeze, just enough mist in the mornings to seem charmingly British, and the stunning Del Monte Forest, through which 17-Mile drive winds you down towards the weekend’s main event. Oh, and there's Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, the jewel of American road racing circuits and without question America’s finest motorsport-spectating facility. The 180 feet of elevation change on the track itself, and the mountains surrounding the track, provide for literally hundreds of different vantage points to see and hear the bellows of vintage race cars at the Monterey Historic races. Monterey itself is charmingly, quintessentially northern California, with artsy stores, fresh seafood restaurants, and plenty of monstrous ocean-view houses for automakers to rent out and throw parties in. Bottom line: Your Instagram feed will look sick.
The downside? The only way to get to and from many places in Monterey is on single-lane roads, so traffic can be brutal during car week—a fact often mitigated by the likely treat of being stuck behind, in front of, and alongside a fine assortment of vehicles worth more than every house on your block combined.
Some 2,500 miles to the northeast, Woodward Avenue runs northwest out of Detroit, 21 miles to Pontiac, Michigan. To the untrained eye, it doesn’t look like much. Flat, straight, and wide, Woodward (also known as the M-1) is a major thoroughfare for tens of thousands of commuters a day. Drive down it and you see the usual suspects: Starbucks, Subway, various versions of Detroit’s famous “Coney Island” diners, gas stations, offices, and homes. To appreciate Woodward though, is to appreciate the role Detroit played in the American auto industry—which is to say, all of it. Woodward is the home of the Automobile in America. The road dates back to 1805, and more than 100 different automakers have built cars along the route. More importantly, to drive it is to understand the mindset of America’s “golden era” of muscle cars and hot rods. Woodward was, and is, the most perfect street racing road in Detroit. It’s divided, four lanes wide, and has traffic lights in nearly perfect quarter-mile and half-mile increments. Turns onto or off of the road are 90-degree, slow corners. The perfect car for a race there only needs to be able to travel straight and ride on semi-crappy pavement. For half a century, Woodward was America’s Nürburgring, and the fastest car from light-to-light, or the smoothest car over the winter-beaten tarmac, was the king of the city. The cars our parents loved (the same cars European enthusiasts have spent decades shitting on) come into perfect focus with one drive on Woodward Avenue. Beginning in the 1960’s, aftermarket shops, drive-in’s, and diners fed muscle car culture for twenty years, replaced today by State Farm Insurance brokers, middle eastern restaurants, and the occasional gun store, the parking lots of which fill up with miniature car shows and tailgate parties for Dream Cruise weekend.
The downside? It rains. I’ve come to Dream Cruise three times and every time, it’s rained. Local friends tell me that’s S.O.P.
Winner: PEBBLE BEACH
Detroit knows how to party. The towns through which Woodward Avenue passes absolutely pop off during Dream Cruise weekend, especially Royal Oak and Birmingham, which survived the recession mostly unscathed, with restaurants and bars packed with car enthusiasts, parking lots filled with Chevelles, Vettes and Shelbys. For every bottle of Dom Perignon popped at Pebble, a 30-rack of Miller Lite gets crushed in Detroit. Detroit is the Sebring 12-hour to Pebble Beach’s Le Mans. Detroiters are a proud and strong people, but they also don’t take themselves too seriously. Dream Cruise is a party first, a car show second—at least, for anyone under 50 years old. Park on the side of Woodward and watch the world go by, and you’ll be treated to some of the finest expressions of character available anywhere. Self-awareness is simultaneously through the roof and nonexistent. Though the Woodward Dream Cruise is, by volume, the largest attended car meet in the world, with over a million cruisers and spectators each year, and a huge percentage of them are either Detroit locals, or a short driving distance away, making the event feel more intimate, more connected to the specific history and demographic of that area.
The downside: Every year, it seems the number of people under 50 gets smaller and smaller. And anywhere you’ll find people gathered, the soundtrack options are limited to Sock Hop hits from sixty years ago, or Journey.
Pebble Beach is a destination show. People come from far and wide; Monterey’s tiny airport overflows with private jets and enclosed transporter trucks. Hotels and four-figure Airbnb’s fill up with the world’s richest and most celebrated car collectors, Formula One and Trans Am legends, celebrities, and the automotive media, which covers Pebble Beach to Dream Cruise 10-to-1. Every manufacturer has a presence, a reveal, and a party. Luxury brands duke it out to disperse bits of schwag equating to the GDP of Biloxi, Mississippi to people who definitely do not need the handouts. Last year, at the seven major auctions happening during the weekend, $463 million worth of cars changed hands. And that makes for great people watching. From the outfits and the hats, to the nonchalant way a man in sweatpants will wave an auction paddle and offer seven figures for a car he may not even plan to drive, to the beautiful women (some of whom, to their credit, are die-hard car enthusiasts but most of whom look bored), Pebble Beach is a glimpse into how you want to imagine the other half lives, outside your field of view.
Just because these people are rich and wear linen, though, does not mean they can’t rage. Manufacturers feed clients and media an endless river of shrimp and booze. If you’re lucky enough to score a ticket to the Quail—A Motorsports Gathering, you’ll be treated to stands of free oysters, caviar, champagne, and bottomless Bloody Marys. We’ve had many nights at the Crown and Anchor, a British-style pub in the heart of the city, where billionaires rub shoulders with locals and plebs like me, and the word “underdressed” is not welcome. The Concours itself is fantastic people-watching; every year, at least three media outlets dedicate stories to hats alone. The best part? Most owners of these fantastically unobtainum machines are die-hard enthusiasts themselves, and will happily talk to nearly anyone about the ins and outs of their cars. Listen, and collect stories for a lifetime.
While scenery, history, and people-watching play equally important roles for any automotive destination, we all know the real reasons for schlepping to Detroit or Monterey for the weekend: an unparalleled look into an idealized automotive world, where every other car on the road is special.
My housemate Nino, a Detroit native and decided non-car-enthusiast owner of a 2007 Dodge Nitro, perhaps the world’s worst car, refers to the Dream Cruise simply as “expensive traffic.” But I think that sells it short. The Woodward Dream Cruise embraces customization, and not just in the traditional “slicks and skinnies” hot rod sense, though there is certainly plenty of that. I saw no fewer than a dozen vehicles that I could only describe as “contraptions,” home-built toys in various states of completion, some of which are clearly designed and built only for Dream Cruise. A Ford ladder-frame chassis with simply a steering wheel, pedals, and a sofa comes to mind, alongside homebrew Batmobile replicas, dune buggies, even full-on race cars being driven on the street. Detroit’s police, already limited on resources, focus their full effort on maintaining order for the tens of thousands of cars cruising Woodward, but don’t pay much mind to how or why some of these cars have license plates on them. I saw two Radical SR3’s cruising together, ten feet from an exact replica of the Bigfoot monster truck. Actually, who knows? It could easily have been the real thing. Pro-touring muscle cars with double-stacked blowers are the norm, not the exception. Fear and Loathing-themed white-on-white Caddys were popular this year, along with entire crews of Raul Duke lookalikes. There are street rods, rat rods, ten-second diesel trucks, minivans with tank treads, and my favorite, a 25-foot boat on a trailer, driving itself down the street, carrying a dozen people, all of whom appeared shitfaced. In case you missed that, I said driving itself. No tow vehicle.
Americans, more than any other nationality in the world, love personalizing our cars. Built, not bought, is the Detroit way. The American way. And if you build it, bring it to Woodward. Not just American cars, either! Woodward is as open and accepting place to be a car guy as I’ve seen anywhere. I’ve seen modified German and Japanese cars scattered all about the Dream Cruise, as well as a smattering of modern and semi-classic exotics to boot. You can park up in one of the lots on the side of the road, crack a Miller Lite, and the show comes to you. Or, you can hop in your ride and be the show. While on the move, you’ll be so overloaded with the number of interesting cars, that I dare you to not nearly have a rear-end collision from all the distractions.
The downside: taste varies. The first car I saw as I turned on to Woodward was a Plymouth Prowler on 24-inch chrome rims. There were dozens upon dozens of cars that I (inwardly of course) call heinously ugly, garish, ghastly, fucking awful. But I kept that shit to myself, because I’d describe the drivers of those vehicles in the same manner, and who wants that kind of headache when you’re driving a $350,000 Rolls-Royce Dawn (the subject of next week’s column).
But Pebble Beach goes so far beyond Woodward, it defies logic. For every ’69 big block Camaro cruising Woodward, there’s a McLaren or Ferrari in Monterey. As I entered the greater Monterey area on Saturday Morning, I readied my iPhone to take a photo of a “Monterey” sign for Instagram. As I passed the sign, the first car I saw was a Ferrari Daytona Spider, 1 of 122 ever made and worth deep into the seven figures. Your 458 Italia won’t even get a second look in Pebble, because there’s a 1-of-2 Ferrari 250 TR Spyder Fantuzzi, or an Aston DB4GT Zagato burning leaded race fuel eight feet away. You could find yourself in a traffic jam consisting of, no joke, ninety percent Lamborghini Miuras. I once found myself at a traffic light on the 68 near Laguna surrounded on all sides by Carrera RS 2.7’s. I’ve gone over Laureles Grade, the mini-canyon running south from Laguna Seca, and been stuck in a traffic jam consisting of only Paganis.
Where Woodward embraces customization, Pebble seeks preservation, originality, and provenance. In an effort to outdo all the other old white men year after year, these people spend millions of dollars on the rarest, sexiest, most perfect, most expensive classic rides, just to tool them around in Monterey traffic, or race them at the Monterey Historics. If you grew up watching Trans-Am, Can-Am, or LeMans in the 1960s and 1970s, be prepared to see those very race cars being driven down the road to the Quail, or winding their way down 17-mile to Pebble Beach.
You see cars that don’t even exist. Vintage manufacturer prototypes, late-development cancelled projects, experimental powertrains—these cars still hide away in manufacturer museums, only to be dusted off and brought to Pebble for VIP’s to drive and ride. There is simply nothing like it in the world. At Woodward, you’ll see an old Rolls Royce sedan turned into a convertible by some backyard mechanics as a goof. At Pebble Beach, you’ll see an old Rolls Royce sedan turned into a convertible by Rolls Royce, from the factoryfor some Sheikh to visit his camels. And then it will sell for three quarters of a million dollars.
Winner: PEBBLE BEACH
I always like to say that variety is the spice of life, especially when it comes to cars. And if you’re into cars, which, presumably, is why you’re reading this piece, take my advice and open your mind. Find out how the other half lives, whether that means trying out a racetrack with corners in it—or, conversely, one that doesn’t—or taking a year off Woodward or Pebble Beach to try the other one. This year, Pebble Beach did it better. The sheer number of rare, gorgeous pieces of automotive history on display, from the batshit crazy French designs of the 1930s to the AMX/3 Prototypes to the LeMans- and Sebring-winning Ferraris, will take you down a trip through the last twelve decades of automotive history, the likes of which you cannot experience anywhere else.
Next year it may be Woodward who comes out with a bang. Woodward simultaneously looks backwards and forwards—the history of hot rodding, right alongside today’s trends in modification, style, and performance.
Just trust me on this part: Don’t try to do both in the same weekend. Unless you have a private jet. Then, by all means do, and invite me along.