Last week was Car Week in Monterey, California, which got me thinking about an odd experience. In the late 2000s, the previous airline I worked for flew direct flights to Monterey from Denver, Colorado. It was a preferred destination for obvious reasons, but as a pilot, once you’ve been to the same layover dozens or even hundreds of times, you often settle into a routine. Over the years, I’d had lots of adventures and fun layovers in Monterey, but with the regularity that I frequented the delightful seaside city, it had become just another town in which to spend the night.
On this particular night in late August, we landed just as the sun had set. When we cleared the runway, there were lots of well-dressed people and well-healed cars spilling out onto the general aviation ramp. “Ah, it’s Car Week,” I thought. Our hotel was in the heart of downtown, and by the time we had arrived and checked in, it was just after 8:30 p.m. There wasn’t much time for entertainment before our early departure time the next morning.
Once I hit my room, I immediately shed my flair—tie, epaulets, wings, and ID badge—and hit the ground running, wearing only my black trousers and white pilot’s shirt. There was no time to change (not that I had packed any street clothes for the two-day trip anyway). My target was a crêpes shop a few blocks away that closed promptly at 9:00 p.m.
This was my routine on the short Monterey layover: land, hotel, and walk briskly (or run, if necessary) to make it in time for a Nutella-and-banana crêpe before the shop closed—a glamorous life indeed! Sometimes I would make it, but sometimes the doors would be locked, and my night end with me staring longingly through the glass for a few pathetic moments before sullenly walking back to my hotel room for a morning wake-up call that always came too soon.
On this particular night, downtown Monterey was bustling with activity. The sounds of exotic cars filled the night air with the shrieks and wails of flat-plane V8s and equal-length long-tube headers. As I rounded the corner to the crêpe shop, I saw a bare-metal-silver Austin Healey 3000 with a suspicious number of hood louvers casually parked on the street in front of a pair of Morgan Speedsters, the former likely having a GM LS2 engine tucked under its bonnet (maybe it was this one). The British-car fanatic in me begged to stop and investigate, but time was short, and I needed to stay on mission.
I was glad I did, because I made it through the doors with barely five minutes to spare. However, order complete, crêpe in hand, oozing Nutella from the corners—a dangerous proposition for someone wearing an unsoiled white shirt—now I could wander and take in the scene. As I neared Fisherman’s Wharf, I drifted past the various enclaves of Ferraris, Porsches, and Lamborghinis until a BMW M1 caught my eye. At the time, the M1 was still an “affordable” exotic; if only I could go back in time, I would have one. It was being driven from an outdoor staging area into a large building, with many people queuing up at the entryway.
A pilot, in uniform, walking with purpose, can split a crowded shoulder-to-shoulder airport terminal like Moses parting the Red Sea without saying a word—but this was downtown Monterey (or Pacific Grove; the lines are blurry). By the time I reached the line, my crêpe was long gone, and the M1 had disappeared inside the building. I joined the queue, but I had not shed the air of purpose that had got me to the crêpe shop before it closed. I had a new mission now: I wanted to see that M1!
The people around me seemed to respond to my sense of purpose, which was odd, I thought, but time was short, so I figured that I might as well take advantage of it. I funneled through the door to the lobby, where I happened to follow another man who was also wearing a white shirt and walking with purpose.
As we wound our way through the lingering, waiting crowds, everyone seemed to move out of our way. I could hear the sounds of an auctioneer in the distance, and they were getting louder. The man in front of me had a pace that was disproportionate to everyone else’s energy, but it was working, so I stayed tight behind him.
At the end of the hall, we walked through a set of double doors into a large room with a magnificent big brass-car-era Bentley in the center. Lights were focused on the center of the room, with tiers of chairs crowded to the brink surrounding it. Above it was a sign that read Russo and Steele, Auction in the Round.
Holy cow, I was in the auction! Somehow I had managed to walk right in without a ticket or pass, and we were now headed down to the floor. Not wanting to get too close to the action, I broke formation with the white-shirted man in front of me. The room was packed, with nowhere to linger, so I eased next to a row of seats on the edge of the aisle.
How did I get here so easily? It made no sense. Next to me was a man wearing tan loafers, creased jeans, and a tweed sport coat over an unbuttoned polo shirt. He had a large orange lanyard with a laminated badge around his neck. Without missing a beat, he handed me a half-empty champagne glass. “What a nice gesture,” I thought, but I had to fly in the morning, so I responded, “Oh, no thanks.”
He chuckled and murmured, “Good one!” before turning his attention back to the auction, leaving me holding his glass.
In an instant, it all became clear; right now, right here, at this moment, I was the help! Tempted as I was to play it up and head for the auction floor, discretion won the day, and I tucked my tail and headed for the exit. I passed off the champagne glass to another waiter and departed for the hotel, never catching another glimpse of that beautiful BMW M1.
I hope it sold for a record price.—Alex McCulloch