The members of Stanford's ME200 'Understanding Historical Significance,' were given a rare seat at the table at this year's 2013 Pebble Beach Concurs d'Elegance: the opportunity to present a special award at the historic event.

The day started for us before sunrise, and after watching the cars roll onto the lawn we were invited to attend the judges’ morning meeting, before setting off to scrutinize the cars on our short list.

Our first visit was to one of the 1910 Prinz Heinrich Benz cars, which had over the course of the previous century had its body lost and was completely rebuilt, also outfitted with an electric starter. Speaking with the owner, we learned a great deal about the car, acquiring information that was unavailable to us in prior research. We also had the opportunity to hear and see the unbelievably advanced (for 1910) engine run.

The next car on our list was the Lamborghini Miura, the last left-hand drive model assembled, with a tuned engine and special factory trim. The story of the car, originally owned by young playboy, provided dramatic color to the story, matching the striking white interior contrasting with a jet black shell. Our third car, a rare-in-America Tatra, also had a colorful history as first a German officer’s car, a barn find, and now a show car and frequent driver. The car itself was a marvel of engineering, showing many innovations which influenced the design of the VW Type 1 (Beetle), and some surprising features, such as the lack of an engine cooling fan (one would have to suppose that Hans Ledwinka, chief designer, didn’t expect the aerodynamic car to spend much time in traffic).

To see more photos from the students' trip to Pebble Beach, click here.

Our pre-event analysis was structured so that points were allocated to each category based on a-priori weights:

  • 10 points for aura
  • 8 points for ‘does this car represent an inflection point in design and engineering’
  • 6 points for ‘uniqueness of the car’
  • 4 points for ‘did this car have a lasting impact on design and engineering’
  • 2 points for ‘provenance of the individual car on display’

The weights were decided on by the group, and our voting assigned the points in that category to our short-list of cars, with the Porsche 901 prototype the clear winner, followed by the Lamborghini Miura, and the Prinz Heinrich Benz.

At Pebble beach, we used the same unequally-weighted scales to re-assess the cars. Being able to speak with the owners and assess the vehicles for ourselves in person allowed for a different sort of assessment: we learned more about the specific cars on the lawn, information unavailable to us in the research phase, and thus were able to make a more reasoned assessment when combined with our previous research in the library and on the internet.

Re-evaluating our rankings in light of what we learned from the owners and from seeing the cars firsthand, our top choice and the trophy stayed with the Porsche 901, but the weightings did shift as a result of seeing the vehicles in person and hearing the stories from the owners. The top car of our pre-event list was the Porsche 901 (the only extant prototype of the 911). Speaking with the owner and scrutinizing the car, we got to see firsthand the differences between the 901 and 911, features that didn’t make it to production, and to learn about the specific history of the vehicle, including the extent of restoration.

Interestingly, several similar, and potentially significant vehicles were at the event, including an unrestored (aside from a necessary engine rebuild) 911 cabriolet prototype, prepared by Karmann and apparently hidden in a warehouse for many years after the decision was made to build the 911 Targa rather than offer a true convertible — still bearing the extra holes where the cloth top would have been anchored, scratches in the paint and peeling vinyl as evidence of years of neglect before its resurrection. Also on the lawn were the first Lamborghini automobile sold to the public (a 350GT Touring Coupe, later updated by the factory to 400GT standard), the second of three prototype Lamborghini Miuras (with distinctive trap-door vent in the roof), the first Duesenberg road car, and a second of the ten 1910 Prinz Heinrich Benz cars (owned by the Mercedes-Benz Museum).

Presenting the trophy to Don Meluzio, owner of the Porsche 901 ‘Barbarossa’ prototype brought the entire group to the stage, and showed to the crowd the unconventional nature of the judges for this award. While more than a few of the judges at Pebble Beach have been judging Concurs for over 30 years, few of the students are even that old -- and thus bring very different sensibilities to the task of choosing a car. Additionally, the criteria for the Revs award, ‘historical significance’ is very different from the criteria applied in other categories, such as meticulousness of restoration, provenance, and overall presentation.

An additional opportunity at Pebble Beach was lunch with luminaries from the automotive world, which provided an opportunity for candid conversation with Chris Bangle, former chief designer at BMW (1992-2009), as well as several Bay Area restorers, discussing how they became ‘car guys’ – and their take on restoration and preservation.

It was the culmination of a great day at Pebble Beach and another amazing learning experience from this class.