Walk down the 18th fairway at the 2019 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance on August 18 and you’ll see rows and rows of gleaming, immaculate collector cars—all special in their own way. What you won’t see, unless you get there early enough in the morning, is the frenzied rush to prepare each car for judging. Winning at a concours like Pebble Beach doesn’t just require the best car, it also requires the best car preparation. Arrive at Pebble Beach at dawn as the show cars are driven to their spots on the grass and you’ll see some of the final preparation right before your eyes as entrants rush to make sure their cars are as spotless as possible before the judges arrive to determine their fate.
To get a better idea of the level of preparation required to win at a venue like Pebble Beach, we talked to the experts at Griot’s Garage, a Tacoma, Washington based car care product supplier whose products are no stranger to the concours lawn. Sam Battersby, Griot’s Garage product specialist and Forrest Davis, Griot’s Motors shop foreman sat down with us to share some tips of the trade and give us the inside story on the challenges of making sure concours vehicles are looking their best on show day. Here’s what we found out.
AM: Getting a car ready for concours is a massive process. Where do you even start?
SB: Most cars, the first thing you’ll start with in concours prep is taking the wheels off, getting it up in the air, and then making a detailing checklist and a correctness checklist. If there’s an oil cap that needs to be changed out or re-plating a metal fastener.
FD: If you have a car and it wasn’t necessarily restored, it was just really well maintained, you’re looking at the zinc coatings on little parts. You know, this is supposed to be black oxide and this is supposed to be yellow zinc and this is supposed to be chrome and does that fuel filter have the correct screen printing on it? It gets really hardcore with the judges. And the judges know. If you’re going to Pebble Beach, they know. They’ve done days of research making sure they know what they’re looking at and if something’s been changed or not.
The biggest stuff first is usually how I tackle it. Usually if you’re going to show a car, it’s already close and you just start chipping away at what’s going to take the longest. If you have to send a fastener out and it takes three months to get back from plating, you need to prepare for that.
SB: I’d probably start with all that, make sure everything’s correct on the car, then begin your cleaning and detailing. I would definitely start with engine bay, wheels and tires and undercarriage first because that’s where you’re going to have the most dirt and grime. You’re probably also going to have overspray [from cleaning product] onto other areas so you want to get that done first before you get to paint, glass and interior, and so on. That’s normally the hardest part of concours prep, I’d say, because it’s very tedious. It’s a dirty job. You’re not working with paint, you’re working with oil and grease and road grime.
FD: Part of my role at Griot’s Garage is that if we take a car to a show, usually I will go with it. I’ll be in charge of making sure the prep happens on the car, making sure the car is protected and taken care of during transport, making sure that I’m there to take the car off the transport when it gets there, making sure it gets to where it needs to go. Then, making sure that it’s perfect once it’s on the lawn right up to the moment that they say ‘towels down.’ Because usually at a concours there’s a time when you can’t touch the car anymore. It’s right before judging—there’s a time limit and they’ll say ‘put your stuff down,’ and at that point you’ve just got to roll with it. You’re done!
Typically there’s a 100-point system at a concours and you’ll be docked points accordingly. Usually there will be a checklist with what judges are looking for and how many points they’ll dock you for a specific thing. This is dirty, or the tires aren’t dressed.
AM: How much time does all of this take?
FD: Most of the guys that are doing concours prep exclusively are spending two weeks plus on a car. There’s a whole class of detailers that only do concours prep. They’re in charge of prepping the car, then managing the car once it’s there and making sure it’s safe in transportation.
AM: What is your process with regard to paint?
SB: Primarily, poring over every square inch of the car. This one [the black 1968 Lamborghini Islero shown in photos] we didn’t have to decontaminate or clay because it wasn’t driven often prior, so we could get straight to paint correction. We essentially dusted it off with a detail spray, used the surface wipe product to strip off the old protectant, then did a three-step polish because the paint on this car is very soft and responds differently to an OEM paint to polishing. Before polishing we’ll remove or tape-off any rubber or even chrome trim so it doesn’t get damaged. We did a moderate cut, it didn’t have heavy defects but there were some scratches we had to spend some time on. Then we did a polish and a second polish. The first polish didn’t get it as perfect as we want in terms of removing all the hazing and fogging that the first step put in, so the second polish helped to fix that. We do all that by machine, then apply our Best of Show wax by hand. We spent probably 20 machine hours over the course of three days.
FD: Another thing when we’re doing this is light. We’ll use a lot of different flash lights, we’ll use lights for looking at the paint surface constantly. If we’re polishing a section, we’ll have the reflection of a high-intensity, usually LED, light bouncing off the paint so we can see exactly what’s happening as we’re polishing. It’s the same thing with the engine bay also.
The most important part is we’re looking at the reflection of the bulb in the paint surface to find defects. You can walk it back, up and down to see scratches. Without using lights, you’ll see perfect paint, but that’s not what you’ll see when the sun’s shining on the car.
AM: What are some of the challenges in detailing the engine bay?
SB: We’ll spend a lot of time under the hood, as the judges will. Often the tough part about detailing engine bays on concours vehicles is that you don’t want to introduce water, normally. In an engine bay like this on a car this age, not everything has the corrosion protection that today’s cars do. It’s easy to get water into areas that you’re not going to be able to get it out of, risking rust and other issues. I’ll start by wiping down all the basic stuff that’s easy to get to, sometimes we’ll use a detail spray for that process. We’ll start with fender liners and wheel wells, then all your caps and reservoirs are usually pretty easy to get to.
We’ll use a selection of brushes, these have pretty flexible boar’s head bristles that are good for getting into carburetors and stuff. Usually I’ll have a cart with several different brushes and swabs on it and that’s when I’ll buckle down and start spending the time doing all the tedious stuff. Typically for oily or greasy parts, I’ll soak them with a cleaner, let them dwell, then agitate with a brush and if it’s in a spot where we can blow it out with air, I’ll do that into a towel so it’s catching all the dirt.
FD: A lot of the time, the disassembly is more involved than the cleaning. If we decide that the engine block is dirty and we have to pull the rack of carburetors off to get inside and clean it, then we’ll do that. Cleaning and mechanical work are really intertwined in concours prep.
SB: That’s one of the things you can really get docked for, if you’ve been lazy about cleaning something inside the engine bay that may not necessarily be easy to get to, but you can see it.
AM: What about the interior?
SB: I normally like to do the interior before I do the exterior, typically just to get it out of the way. Typically, a car that you’d bring to a concours won’t need more than a couple hours for the interior.
If it’s a car that is original, hasn’t been restored, I’ll remove the seats so I can get every last bit of dust and debris out of the vehicle. Then I’ll dress all the leather making sure there’s no residue on the door panels or carpet. Dressing the leather to be sure it looks original. Leather tends to take on shiny spots as it’s sat in, so we want to make sure it looks as good as possible. You’re somewhat limited to what you can fix and usually you’re not up against a dirty or worn interior in a concours car. Seat belts can be overlooked. They’re often being touched and up against your skin, so they can take on stains and residues.
Windows are a big one, they’re one of the first things you see when you walk up to a car and glass is often difficult to get perfect. That’s another reason to bring a brand-new set of towels, you might want to wipe down the windows several times. That’s another one where it can look perfect indoors but you pull it outside and the glass is streaky.
Rubber seals are a big one that you get on concours cars. Often seals are reused and not replaced during a restoration because they can be hard to find. We make sure they’re conditioned and not cracking or visibly dirty or oxidized—rubber can oxidize and take on a white, dingy appearance as it oxidizes. We have a product called Rubber Prep that works really well.
Pedals are another big one. Make sure you clean them really well, obviously don’t put any dressing on them, but that’s one that we see missed in a lot of high-end details. Guys don’t think to clean off the pedals. And then again, when the car’s on the lawn, quickly wipe them down. Gauge faces and instrument clusters, any clear plastic, make sure it’s polished. Door jambs are another big one that gets overlooked.
AM: So you’re at the concours, the car has arrived safely, you’ve spent days and weeks on prep, but the detailer’s job still isn’t over?
SB: That’s something you’re going to want to focus on, not only how are you getting the car perfect before the show, but how are you going to maintain that perfection when you’re at the show. Making sure that there’s not dust on it when you cover it, and all that. There’s a lot that can happen between heading out the door here and getting onto the lawn.
If you’re doing the driving tour, you’ll spend the rest of the time up until the show re-prepping the car. It may not take the full amount of time, but you want to give yourself the full amount of time. You never know if it’s going to have picked up something from the road that’s difficult to take off, or if new scratches have been put into the paint. You won’t want to wash the car, because you’ll have water getting everywhere and dripping. You’d use a detail spray and rinseless wash type product extremely carefully because the car will have dust on it.
FD: Typically when we’re at that point, we’ll have put in a significant investment in restoring the car, in the car itself, transporting it to the show. So any time you can put in that gets you closer to that win is time well spent.
AM: When you’re actually on the field, what are you focusing on?
FD: The typical last-minute things are wiping the car down again with a detail spray, doing the wheels, the windows, checking the interior, making sure nothing’s transferred from your shoes to the car.
SB: There’s probably a bit of brake dust that’s accumulated on the wheels, exhaust tips sometimes you’ll get a little moisture or discoloration. Maybe you had to drive on wet grass or some mud, so you’ll want to deal with that. And this is all early in the morning as you know if you’ve been to dawn patrol.
FD: There are guys out there with headlamps on just to see what they’re doing.
AM: What sort of products are most used in all this preparation?
SB: The towels are very important. We found the towels we were using on OEM paint were leaving some fine scratches at one point, so we ended up moving to a really plush towel. We bought a band new set of towels for detailing, then another brand new set to go with the car.
FD: We use a lot of microfiber, that’s really all we use for towels, we don’t use cotton at all. We have swabs and brushes and an air hose—air can get to places that your fingers can’t. Lots of times we’ll spray something to loosen up the dirt, then blow it off into a towel.
AM: What’s the key to winning a concours like Pebble Beach, in terms of car prep?
FD: Pebble Beach is really the top dog as far as concours go. There are a lot of variables. The known factor is having a perfectly clean car, because you won’t win if you don’t have a perfectly clean car. If you were judging a line of 10 Porsche 356s and the second one you walked by, you can see the fine scratches in the hood, you’d probably just keep walking.
Judges are going to crawl around on the lawn, looking underneath to see what’s dirty. You really have to look at what show you’re going to, what are the stakes, what are the expectations and change your plan of attack for those expectations. If it’s Pebble Beach, it’s got to be perfect. You might have weeks of disassembly just to do cleaning to make it perfect, then putting it back together again to put on the trailer and go to the show. Also, does the car run, does it work and function like a car? A lot of times we forget these are cars. They’re rolling artwork on the Pebble Beach lawn, but they’re also cars and they’re meant to be driven.
SB: Also, if the car picks up dust prior to being needed to wipe down, don’t wipe it down. Every time you touch the surface you’re risking putting defects in it. Obviously, you don’t want the dust to get so heavy that you’re putting defects in the paint wiping heavy dust off either, but I think there is a general rule where if you don’t have to wipe it down, don’t touch it. You’re imparting some risk there.
AM: What are some of the most obsessive things you’ve seen on the concours lawn?
SB: One of the craziest things about Pebble Beach is the level that people will clean tires on the pre-war cars, it is intense. They’re in there with brushes, scrubbing every little groove in the tire, making it perfect. And that’s all last minute, on the lawn. So they’re rolling the car to its spot and as soon as it stops, they’re cleaning every part of the tire tread that they can get to. If you’re a guy putting a car into a concours, then you’re already pretty extreme. But then there are guys that are even more extreme, like turning all their fasteners to the same point.
FD: Like if you look at these valve covers here, some guys would say that each of these bolts needs to be turned the exact same way and some would say it’s not supposed to be like that for originality.