Kia joins Bentley in wooing the 1% crowd at Pebble Beach

A 1962-63 Ferrari 250 GTO Berlinetta before it took the stage at the Bonhams Quail Lodge car auction in Carmel, Calif., on Thursday. It sold later Thursday for $38.115 million, becoming the most valuable car to be sold at auction, according to Bonhams.

Photo credit: REUTERS
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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- As Sandra Button, chairwoman of the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, begins the annual classic automobile event's tour through the winding roads of this resort community south of San Francisco, she points to Mercedes-Benz cars glistening in and around a temporary glass building that looks like a piece of jewelry on the famous golf course's third fairway.

"It's stunning, their showroom," she said early Thursday. Then she notes that Maserati built stone-like walls at its temporary display for this weekend's event, which ends with the car show on Aug. 17 that, according to organizers, attracts 15,000 people to view about 200 cars including Ferrari Testarossas and Rolls-Royce Phantoms.

Global automakers' participation in the activities has surged in recent years, she said. Event organizers said that 22 concept and production cars were unveiled at last year's event.

"We've had sponsorships for almost 20 years, but they seem to be using this more and more as they do for big motor shows," Button said. "A lot of cars get sold this weekend."

Interest in the classic-car events at Pebble Beach reflects the increasing number of automakers fighting for a piece of the luxury new-vehicle market. High-end sales, fueled both by more mass-market brands offering upscale vehicles and more premium marques offering cheaper choices, have outpaced the U.S. auto industry's growth since 2012, according to Edmunds.com, a Web site that tracks auto sales.

'1 percent'

"They're catering to the 1 percent," Mark Takahashi, who reviews cars for Edmunds, said of the automakers at the Councours. "It may help some on an aspirational level -- raising a brand's positioning."

The six days of events is primarily about classic cars with a parade Thursday, auctions of vintage models and this weekend's Concours classic-car contests.

A Ferrari 250 GTO Berlinetta sold for a record $38.1 million Thursday at Bonhams's auction in Carmel.

Sprinkled among the events are displays by automakers of all price points.

It's no surprise to see an elite brand such as Bentley, which rented a 4,000 square-foot mansion in Pebble Beach where customers can mingle while they pick out interior and exterior accessories from among the 1.3 billion combinations available on the $303,700 Mulsanne.

Now volume brands are there, too, such as Kia, which set up a roadside tent offering test drives of its new K900 sedan that starts at $59,500 as well as cold drinks and a place to sit.

Infiniti's 5,600-square foot pavilion and display with room for as many as 20 vehicles.

Photo credit: INFINITI

'Quite affluent'

Nearby, General Motors' Cadillac has a pavilion with vehicles on display and across the street at the 5,600-square foot pavilion for Infiniti as many as 20 vehicles were being shown with young and attractive product specialists on hand to answer questions.

"The crowd is by-and-large quite affluent," said Kim McCullough, Land Rover North America brand vice president. "The composition of the people who are here are absolutely in our target audience."

Land Rover along with sister brand Jaguar held a party for as many 700 people Thursday night where they showed off three vehicles, including the global reveal of the 550-horsepower Range Rover Sport SVR.

Jaguar showed the prototype of the lightweight E-Type, of which the company plans to build only six for customers and revealed the North American version of the F- Type Project 7, a limited-edition speedster scheduled for sale next year.

Dealer orders

Some customers are flying into Pebble Beach from London and from the East Coast of the U.S. specifically to see the Project 7, said Jeff Curry, Jaguar North America brand vice president.

"I would imagine that a high percentage of those cars in the U.S., for example, could get dealer orders related to its showing during the Pebble Beach weekend," said Stuart Schorr, a company spokesman. "Globally the car is limited to 250 units."

The companies are bringing in top executives to meet directly with customers as high-end luxury buyers look for a different buying experience.

Peter Grady, head of the Maserati brand in the United States, said he planned to spend the weekend with customers who have less time and interest in buying a new car in the traditional way.

"It is not what I'd call the traditional auto show or vehicle display that traditionally an automotive manufacturer would be a part of," Grady said. "This really turns into more of an event where you're rubbing elbows, you're talking to the influencers, you're talking to people that are advocates for your brand and you're trying to get advocates for your brand."

Growing importance

Pebble Beach took on greater industry importance during the past decade, said Ed Welburn, head of GM design. A dozen years ago GM had a small presence, said Welburn, who is a judge in the Concours's classic-car contests.

GM's participation has only grown since then, he said, as Cadillac has used the venue to test the waters for new design cues that have shown up in production models.

"It has really helped us quite a bit, at least from a design perspective, on what is right for the Cadillac brand moving forward," Welburn said in an interview. "Because it's so prestigious -- the most prestigious classic car event in the world -- I believe that luxury brands have really found it to be a venue to not only celebrate the history of their brands but to showcase to the public their very latest offerings. It's an incredible luxury car show."

Mercedes first

Mercedes was the first automaker to sponsor the Concours, Button, the chairwoman said, and it continues to play a large role in the weekend with a traditional private party held Friday evening that in past years has attracted car collectors and celebrities such as Jay Leno.

Mercedes also works to leverage its classic-car business: helping enthusiasts buy parts, arrange restorations and make purchases.

"It has developed over time," said Mike Kunz, head of Mercedes' Classic Center in Irvine, Calif. "I remember the early days when we were involved we had a very small presence. It was more or less a small tent and kind of more like Boy Scout camp in a way and now it has morphed from tents to building things that can actually be called buildings."

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