One sunny afternoon last week, the well-heeled crowd was milling around a showroom at Gooding and Co, the antique car auctioneer, to preview the prized relics that would soon go on the block.
They paused to admire the sumptuous 1929 Duesenberg and spotless postwar Ferraris. They appraised a gleaming MacLaren F1 and the perfectly restored 1936 Bugatti Atalante - a specimen rumored to be worth US$10 million (NZ$12.3m).
But what stopped many of the car aficionados in their tracks was a decidedly less-than-perfect Bugatti, an aqua-blue racecar from 1925 with worn upholstery, peeling paint on the hood and surface rust wrapped around its rear strut.
Despite the superficial flaws, the attention lavished on the Type 35, as the Bugatti is known, embodied an accelerating trend among car collectors that values authenticity and originality above cosmetic perfection.
In the last few decades, a growing number of hobbyists flooded the market with flawless restoration pieces and restoration experts exhausted every possibility for technological improvement. But now more and more collectors are prizing original untouched cars known as "barn finds" - vintage vehicles that had been locked up and forgotten for a half century or more.
OUT OF A BARN
"They drag them out of a barn after 50 years and don't even clean the dust off" before they are submitted for competition, said Ian Davey, the co-owner of RX Autoworks, a Vancouver restorer who gained worldwide praise last year for an award-winning Alfa Romeo restoration.
"I guess it's not good news for my line of work," he added with a chuckle.
The Bugatti Type 35, a two-litre, 90-horsepower model that practically swept every Grand Prix race from Tripoli to Boulogne in the late 1920s, will be auctioned at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. One of the most exclusive annual competitions for classic cars, it has morphed into a full-blown week-long festival.
The Type 35 is estimated to fetch between US$2.5m and US$3m but could go for much higher, if the recent trend favouring originals holds up.
The Pebble Beach show features 260 historic cars, including classic Lincolns, as Ford Motor Co tries to revive its luxury brand.
Last year, Gooding and Co auctioned a well-preserved Shelby Cobra for US$1.3m, well over the estimated price range of US$800,000 to US$1m.
"It was a very common car on the market but a supreme original," said Paul Hageman, a Gooding specialist. "These cars are becoming increasingly important, increasingly valuable."
Some say the shift in taste is a sign the US classic car market is maturing. The classic car market remains young compared with that of antique art, watches or furniture.
DOCUMENT OF HISTORY
"We see original cars as a document of history," said Peter Hageman, Paul Hageman's father and the chief judge of the "preservation class" at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, which added a new competition category in 2007 to recognise the cars.
"If they have been modified or changed or restored, it modifies the story."
Still, many of the top US collectors continue to put a higher value on flawlessly restored models, while the European market has long shown greater favour to time-worn cars. But Peter Hageman said with a hint of satisfaction that the growing preservation movement in the United States suggested a diminishing gap between Old World sophistication and New World glitz.
"There are people who like wools and leathers, and then those who like chrome and glass," he said. "Europeans have more of a sense of old streets, old buildings, and old furniture. Europeans are quite ahead of us in many ways."
Collectors these days even tell technicians to go to great lengths to make a car for which they paid hundreds of thousands of dollars look worn look by distressing the leather upholstery or not polishing exposed metal, mechanics said.
"In their zest to have the best-preserved car they end up resurrecting a corpse, dressing it up in brand new finery and then making it look old again," said Herbert Glasier, a mechanic at Alan Taylor Co, an Orange County restoration shop.
But enthusiasts insist that an experienced eye will always spot the difference between the new fake and a time-tested gem like the 1932 Stutz LeBaron sedan that won the prewar preserved car award at Pebble Beach last year.
Much of the paint has separated from the body and the interior suffered some damage from moths and mites, said Jim Callahan, the car's owner. But at car competitions and gatherings, Callahan said, the showstopper is usually guaranteed to be the Stutz - rust and all.
"This is the one everybody's interested in next to these perfect things that are too good to be true," said Callahan, an Oakland, California-based piano dealer, who also expresses a preference for vintage Steinways and worn leather jackets.
In 2007, before he submitted a different vintage model for competition, he debated whether to glue tiny specks of stripped paint back onto the car. But he was later glad he did not, after one of the judges told him they were impressed by his "restraint."
"You won't believe how many people still ask me: 'When are you going to repaint it? When are you going to restore it?" Callahan said of his beloved Stutz. "They just don't get it."