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On the lawn at Pebble Beach every car has a famous story

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It’s a strange sort of art show where the artwork is required to burst into noisy, clattery, smoky life.

Such is the case at the annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, widely considered the best display of rare vintage sheet metal in the world. Even just being allowed to roll onto the lawn in the grey, predawn light is a privilege for automobile collectors. To win an award is like ascending Everest.

Pebble Beach is, it has to be said, a somewhat frou-frou affair. While the cars themselves are incredible, a spectator walking through can’t help but watch people instead. There are fancy hats in abundance, drivers in period-correct leather caps and goggles, lots of mahogany-coloured octogenarians with improbably perfect hair. There are people who’ve come to look and people who have come to be seen.

To the jaded eye, the trappings that go along with Pebble can be a bit excessive. However, there’s no denying the beauty of the machinery on display. Where else can you see not two, not three, but 16 Ford GT40s, most of them cars that won their drivers podium places at the 24 Hours of Le Mans?

You can practically hear the history echoing out from these machines. Two of them cemented the legend of the GT40 with a 1-2-3 finish at Le Mans in 1966, dealing Ferrari a crushing blow. Books have been written about these cars, and there they are, gleaming beside the sea.

The crowds are dense, but access to most of the cars is surprisingly good. Over in a line of five Lamborghini Miuras, comedian Adam Carolla is showing off a freshly restored SV. He seems preoccupied – judging of his car is imminent – but he’s also perfectly happy to chat with both fans and fellow car enthusiasts.

The Miura celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and is often considered to be the most beautiful supercar ever made. The five examples here are absolutely stunning, particularly the Verde Metallizzato 1971 SV recently refinished by Lamborghini’s in-house Polo Storico restoration crew.

In total, there are 229 cars and motorcycles here this year, divided into 28 classes. These range from the expected Rolls-Royce and Dusenberg categories, to some unique classes of two-man Indianapolis racing cars and some particularly special BMWs.

As an example of the incredible history that can be wrapped up in a car, take a closer look at the 1937 BMW 328 Mille Miglia “Bugelfalte” roadster. A streamlined shape bearing easily recognizable twin-kidney grilles, this car somehow managed to survive the tumult of the Second World War and passed through the hands of several famous owners.

After winning its class in the 1938 Mille Miglia, this car was dismantled and rebodied by BMW for the 1940 running of the race. It was presented to infamous Nazi minister Albert Speer during the war, then seized by the invading Russians. They gave the car to aircraft engineer Artem Mikoyan, the “Mi” behind planes such as the MiG-15 of the Korean War. He lent the 328 to his son, and it was eventually traded to a Latvian gentleman in exchange for a new Lada, in 1972. When the Iron Curtain fell, the car was driven straight from Riga to Munich, and entrusted into BMW’s care.

Incredible stories such as this one are part of nearly every car here. A 1957 BMW 507 on display once belonged to Elvis, who had the originally-white car painted red after fans kept writing messages on it in lipstick. A 1959 Maserati Tipo 60/61 “Birdcage” features an exposed frame under the slanting windshield; Stirling Moss once broke a Nurburgring lap record with it. Two of the very rare AMX/3 mid-engined cars are here, the V-8-powered pinnacle of the American Motors Company.

There’s simply too much to look at, with every car here boasting a pedigree as long as your arm. Tours hosted by well-informed volunteer staff guide herds of spectators around, listing off forgotten details, and placing each machine in context.

Or, if you prefer, you can follow one of the judges around and observe an owner’s nervousness as what appears to be a perfect machine gets picked apart. The owner of a 1956 Ferrari 290 MM Scaglietti Spyder looks nonplussed as a will o’ the wisp of burning oil wafts up out of the engine bay in front of the blue-jacketed judges. This car was piloted by Juan Manuel Fangio, perhaps the greatest Grand Prix driver of all time. It is worth nearly $30-million, but value doesn’t guarantee a win.

After each class winner has been declared, a strange and arcane process takes place behind closed doors to select the overall winner of best in show. It’s no longer a case of assigning demerits for flaws or awarding points for originality. Something more ephemeral is required to raise a car from the lawn to the prestige of the podium.

This year, the crown went to a 1936 Lancia Astura Pinifarina cabriolet from the European Classic Early category. Like everything else here, this is an amazing car, with a unique history. Eric Clapton once owned it, declaring it, “The most fun I’ve had offstage and out of bed.”

This is the first time a Lancia has ever won Pebble outright, and it’s the first time the owner has ever won even his class. Richard Mattei, an Alfa-Romeo collector from Arizona, was just happy to be invited to show off his car. He embarked on the six-year restoration in an effort to preserve this special car’s beautiful coachwork, not aiming for a trophy. The car also won awards for most elegant convertible and most elegant French car.