Sandra Button: Queen of the Concours d’Elegance

James Raia

Sandra Button the chairwoman of the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.

The Concours d’Elegance was doing fine 30 years ago. It had honored the 100th anniversary of Mercedes-Benz and celebrated milestones of many others carmakers along the way — Bugatti to Ferrari to Maserati.

Sandra Pruin (now Button) had also been hired as special events coordinator for Pebble Beach Company to help organize dog shows and golf tournaments — and the Concours d’Elegance part-time.

The Conours was already internationally prominent and it remains the apex of Monterey Auto Week.

But Button has now orchestrated the event for three decades. And she’s been a keen observer as the peninsula’s importance as an automotive-themed destination for events ranging price-gasping auctions to memorabilia shows has expanded.

Niche events have come and gone several times, but the umbrella of events continues to expand with automobile and motorcycle events reaching a scheduling saturation.

Sandra Button the chairwoman of the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.
Sandra Button the chairwoman of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

“I think there’s amazing enthusiasm and a thirst for these events,” said Button, who in 1991 became the Concours d’Elegance’s first full-time executive director.“Obviously, there’s no possible way for someone to attend everything.”

“It seems like a few years go by and there’s a crescendo; there are so many events you can’t figure out where to go when and then maybe a will got away. It’s sort of self-limiting. People have to pick and choose where they want to be.”

While the Pebble Beach Concours has remained the grand finale, the majority of other peninsula cities have also cultivated yearly loyal followers to car-related activities.

The Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca began in 1974 as the Monterey Historic Automobile Races. The RM Sotheby’s auction has been held in downtown Monterey for more than 25 years. The Quail: A Motorsports Gathering will be held for the 13th time at Quail Lodge in Carmel Valley. The Concours of the Avenue will have its eighth edition in Carmel. The Little Car Show in Pacific Grove is now six years old.

“I wouldn’t say the grandeur or prestige of our event has changed that much,” said Button, “I think what has really changed is the scope of these events all over the world. I’m pleased to say that the Pebble Beach Concours has stayed on top without getting a lot bigger or changing that much.”

Derek Hill, the new master of ceremonies for the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, has made an annual visit to the peninsula since he was young boy. He’s participated as a driver, spectator, car owner and judge.

“I do sort of reminisce about the more simple days when it was just the Pebble Beach Concours,” said Hill. “There was a lot less traffic. But like anything, it has evolved into a whole new weeklong extravaganza. The Concours remains as the main event, but to see the whole week filled with auctions and the other things, I feel like there’s a little bit for everybody.

“And that’s the beauty of it. None of the events stand alone and have to be the only event. The auctions car be very exciting. It’s a lot of fun to watch people bidding up cars in such huge increments. It can be pretty mind-blowing. Our family has sold cars at auction and it’s a real nail-biter.”

The peninsula events with long histories and newer gatherings like with Concours d’LeMons (It began 2009 in Monterey but his now held in Seaside), thrive or disappear via car enthusiasts’ interests — rare cars to infamous, ill-fated machines equally treasured.

The Concours d’LeMons, an automotive parody, is promoted as a celebration of the “Oddball, Mundane and Truly Awful of the Automotive World.” It’s also touted as an “Ugly Oil Stain on the Pebble Beach Auto Week.”

It’s also now nationally popular with annual events celebrating the AMC Gremlin to the Pontiac Aztec also held in Georgia and Michigan.

“If I look back at the Concours, there were years when the winners were Rolls-Royce or more formal town cars,” said Button. “That was where the interest was in those years. Then maybe there were a number of years when people felt, wrongly or rightly, if they didn’t have something with French coach work or something more swoopy it would be impossible to win.
“I really like that. The enthusiasts and the people who take care of these cars kind of drive where the interest goes.”
Button and the Concours committees have also added uniqueness to the event, sometimes taking several years to orchestrate the addition of a rare and sometimes often forgotten manufacturer.

Last year, Ruxton, a New York carmaker that made about 100 cars only in 1929-1930, was featured. This year, eight DuPont vehicles will be included.

“We have a process where we have well over 1,000 contenders come as possible cars for the show,” said Button. “We narrow it down to a couple of hundred cars and in that process there’s a lot of time looking a photographs, reading about the cars, visiting the cars.

“I always think I’ve invested all this thought, time and energy and sort of obsessively looking at the list of cars and even after all of that, the morning of the Concours I am also stunned at the cars that surprise me. Even though I know they’re coming, I am just baffled. A couple of cars will really turn my head, and think ‘Wow. I didn’t expect that car to have that kind of presence.’ ”

(Originally published in the Monterey Herald.)

Article Last Updated: August 12, 2015.

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