Italian luxury cars star at Pebble Beach Concours

Jenny King
Special to The Detroit News
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Pebble Beach, Calif. – -- Are 17 Isotta Fraschinis too much of a good thing?

To the average car lover, the answer likely is “Yes.” The luxurious Italian classics, however, were not too much for wealthy Americans - including Hollywood’s finest - who craved them in the years before the Great Depression and provided a new market for the Milan-based auto maker.

The 1928 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A SS chassis was built in Milan, then shipped to LeBaron for coachwork: a two-seat boattail design to please American entertainers with deep pockets.

Visitors to the extravagant Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance expect too much of a good thing, and they got it, including a bevy of Isotta Fraschinis, with bodies open and closed, at the 67th event on August 20.

As one of the featured marques, the imposing luxury cars drew visitors familiar with the brand and as well as many who had never heard of the Isotta Fraschini name. The cars shared the shoreline with a string of sleek Ferrari racers.

In case guests who had questions were shy about climbing over the white chain cordoning off the vehicles, some owners or handlers positioned themselves up front. Judith Groner of Oil City, Pa. was among them. She cheerfully related the history of the 1928 IF Tipo 8A LeBaron Cabriolet owned by her companion Peter Boyle of Covington, Ohio.

“The car’s inaugural year at Pebble Beach was in 2007, following a two-year restoration,” Groner said. “It weighs 3-1/2 tons and has a 160-horsepower straight-eight engine.”

Its two-seat boattail body was created by LeBaron for Marguerite Clark, known as America’s “Darling of Broadway and The Silent Screen.” Clark was said to be the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Snow White character.

The green ribbons on cars including Boyle’s meant they had been driven in tours a few days earlier - an exercise that required hours of cleanup before the Sunday event.

To restore or not to restore?

Bruce R. McCaw, whose 1929 Mercedes-Benz S Barker Tourer won Best of Show this year, said he decided, after reviewing photos and early materials, to turn the car over to the restoration shop of Steve Babinsky in Lebanon, New Jersey. Said to be show-ready only days before the event, McCaw’s decision paid off.

Another collector, Richard Anderson, didn’t have to ponder long. His 1904 Rambler Model H was in remarkable condition when he bought it from an estate sale in 2010. The chain-driven Rear Entrance Tonneau, powered by a one-cylinder, 1.9-liter, 7-horsepower engine, was out and about on new tires following some work in its transmission and new tubes.

Anderson, of Coupeville, Wash., explained to Concours judges that the rear seat with its door could be completely removed and stored. In case it was out after curfew, the Rambler was equipped with a huge center headlight in front of a Swiss cheese grille, plus brass side lamps and a spotlight.

A descendant of the famous Gullwing SLs of the 1950s, this 1963 Mercedes-Benz 300SL, owned by Lucas Huni of Zurich, Switzerland, was among the most presentable in the unrestored or preservation classes of the concours.

A 1963 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Roadster belonging to Lukas Huni of Zurich, Switzerland was among the cars in the postwar preservation category. While the ’63 300 SL has the same driveline as the famous Gullwing from the preceding decade, its engine block is aluminum; disc brakes were another update.

“Mercedes built 1,858 of these 300 SLs between 1957 and 1963,” said Andy Hilton of restorers Paul Russell & Company of Essex, Mass. “This car, with a four-speed manual, would have been priced at $6,000 new - a lot of money at that time.” Sales were disappointing, he said.

Back for an encore

There were several return engagements for vehicles this year. Among them was Rick Cannon’s 1949 Cannon Mk 1 Special. Built in California for racing by Tex Cannon and Jim Seely, the Cannon participated in the first Pebble Beach races in 1950. Dave Seely, of Utah, said he is its designated driver for vintage car events.

Dave Seely served as spokesperson for this 1949 Cannon Mark I Special which his father, Jim Seely, built with Tex Cannon of San Jose, Calif., using parts from a number of vehicles.

“Ted Cannon was an engineer. He and my father put this together using parts from an early Dodge, aluminum body pieces including a deck lid from a Zephyr, and a Ford flathead V-8 with overhead valve and semi heads,” Seely said. His father, Jim Seely, brought his expertise as a wartime fighter pilot to the project.

As the 2017 Concours appeared to run smoothly, thanks to a large contingent of volunteers assisting on the field and in checking guests in, one sensed plans already under way for the 68th annual gathering, scheduled for August 26, 2018.

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