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Ferrari fans hit California coast to share love of a classic machine

A world-class event in Monterey attracts the rarest cars and a sea of fans -- who bond over pristine paraphernalia like vintage seat belt buzzers.

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MONTEREY, California -- The Ferraris arrived in the still, chill air of dawn.

Volunteers pointed the drivers to different parts of the golf course. Four seaters (called 2 + 2s) built before 1964 were directed to the middle of the fairway. Sleek, sloopy "Dinos" formed a curve around an area staked out just for them, while newer Testarossas headed up the hill. In all, about 250 Ferraris were arranged along the undulating slope.

We were in Monterey, California, for the Ferrari Club of America's Annual International Meet, a three-day event hosted by the car club's local Pacific region.

Ferrari Club of America's Annual International Meet
About 250 Ferraris gathered for the Ferrari Club of America's Annual International Meet. Steve Souza

Most of the Ferraris assembled at the Nicklaus Club - Monterey golf course were built between 1950 and 1995. Some were here simply to be admired. Others were here to be judged in a Concours d'Elegance competition, where cars were rated on their authenticity and condition. Besides the concours, (pronounced "con-COR," in both singular and plural) the event included rallies through scenic Big Sur and stomach-lurching drives on the nearby Laguna Seca racetrack.

Monterey hosts an FCA meet every 10 years or so. Events cycle through most of the club's 16 regions, but the ones here almost always draw the biggest crowds and the rarest Ferraris.

The reason: timing.

The meet immediately follows Monterey Car Week, also held in this coastal town 110 miles south of San Francisco. Monterey Car Week, the second week in August, is a nonstop extravaganza of races, auctions and concours. It's capped by the world's most-prestigious car show: the Pebble Beach Concours. Many of the Ferraris that competed in Pebble Beach on Sunday were on the field this Monday.

1954 Ferrari 500 Mondial
This blue 1954 Ferrari 500 Mondial also competed at the Pebble Beach Concours. Steve Souza

"I'm here because it's a terrific opportunity to be with like-minded people," Tom Peck told me while we stood in front of his blue 1954 Ferrari 500 Mondial. "I'm with people who love cars from the '50s," he said, adding that people admire their racing lines and rugged simplicity.

The car was beautiful, and no wonder. Peck sent it to the Ferrari factory in Maranello, Italy, where it was restored, part for part, to look exactly as it did originally. The Mondial won its class in Pebble Beach, where 130 or so judges reward originality and authenticity while penalizing cars that look better than they did new.

Those same criteria applied in the FCA concours, where my husband and I put our humble 1975 308 GT4 under the same rigid scrutiny. (Essentially the poor man's Ferrari, a 308 GT can be found for as low as $15,000.) Winning a concours requires an absurd level of detail and attention.

Twelve years ago I watched my husband contact a parts dealer in England to buy the correct windshield spray nozzles after a concours judge penalized our GT4 for sporting the wrong squirters. Eleven years ago he combed the Internet to find factory-correct decals for the wheels. (It was a lot harder than it sounds.) In 2004, he discovered -- and reattached -- the supremely annoying seat belt buzzer that was de rigueur in cars built in the early- to mid-1970s.

Famed car designer Sergio Pininfarina had a hand in this 400 Superamerica Pininfarina Coupe Aerodinamico Prototipo. Steve Souza

I decided to wander among the Ferraris before the judges stopped by. A pure white 400 Superamerica Pininfarina Coupe Aerodinamico Prototipo (I had to look that up before typing it) caught my eye. Interesting factoid: Ferraris that were unveiled at the Geneva, Paris or Turin car shows in the 1950s and '60s were often painted white. It turned out this particular car, from 1960, was a styling exercise, with which car designer Sergio Pininfarina himself explored aerodynamic concepts. It, too, had appeared in the famed Pebble Beach Concours the day before.

"The scale of this event is unbelievable," said Matthias Bartz, author of the "Dino Compendium," who arrived from Germany to evaluate a concentration of 206 GTs and 246 GTs. Most people know them as Dinos because founder Enzo Ferrari refused to put his last name on anything with fewer than 12 cylinders. They're named in honor of Enzo's son Dino, who died in 1956 when he was 24.

"In Europe, owners just want a car. Here, the owners have a relationship with their cars. You can't have this kind of fun in Europe," Bartz said. "There's a positive attitude here. You don't feel the difference among the people who own the cars and the spectators who just appreciate them."

Judging time arrived. Three experts -- one for the interior, one for the exterior and one for the engine -- looked at every aspect of the car to see how closely it matches what rolled out of the factory 40 years ago. That can be a challenge for owners of older, hand-built cars that were always more exotic than practical.

Our humble 1975 308 GT4, ready for the judges. Rochelle Garner/CNET

In FCA judging, cars are ranked by points, and a car must garner at least 95 points to get a platinum. I watched the judges' expressions for tells. Nothing. We'd have to wait four hours to see if we'd be called to the podium.

In the meantime, we socialized. "You'd think Ferrari owners would be snooty, but surprisingly it's a great leveler," said Pat Thomas, a onetime Lotus dealer from Spalding, England, who doesn't own a Ferrari. "I've met Belgians, Dutch, Canadians and Australians -- people from around the world."

In fact, 43 Australians -- most of them members of the Ferrari Club of Australia -- showed up for this national meet. Brenden and Leona Bonning, from Brisbane, Australia, convinced 30 of them to fly here and meet folks from the San Francisco Bay Area.

"You don't realize it, but it becomes an integral part of your social life," said Brenden Bonning, when asked why they'd flown halfway around the world to attend the event. "It's about the cars, but it's also about the people."

Hours later, we were told we'd won an award and to drive the 308 GT4 up to the podium. We were handed a plaque that informed us we'd won a platinum. Our poor man's Ferrari had done us proud.