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A warm wind blows off the hills, spinning dust devils in the farm fields behind us. Though we’re climbing the steep grade out of California’s Central Valley, the big engine under the hood of our 2002 Cadillac Escalade keeps pulling. The road is a series of zigs and zags, crests and falls, through countryside brown from a summer even drier than normal. We clear the summit and begin a slow descent to the sea.
We’ve taking a crescent moon’s course from swanky Santa Barbara that will eventually lead to the rugged shoreline of Pebble Beach—just in time for the annual Concours d’Elegance. Celebrating its Golden Anniversary, the annual Pebble Beach event is America’s premier classic car show, the automotive equivalent of the Academy Awards. "It’s never about quantity, but the quality of the cars," explains Concours Chairman Glenn Mounger.
One could use that definition to distinguish between an everyday SUV and a luxury sport-ute. It’s not necessarily the price you pay, but the refinement and quality you get for your money. Cadillac learned the hard way, blithely ignoring the emergence of the luxury SUV market for nearly a decade. But that opposition ended when Lincoln’s full-size Navigator hit the ground running. Ford’s factories couldn’t keep up with the demand and suddenly, for the first time in seven decades, Lincoln was outselling its cross-town rival.
Embarrassed by the turn of events, Cadillac scrambled into action, slapping its wreath and crest badge on an outdated version of the GMC Denali, and rushing it off to truck-hungry dealers. Like Lincoln, Cadillac couldn’t keep up with the demand, despite harsh and unkind reviews. The original Escalade was slow and ungainly. Its interior was an ergonomic nightmare—the power seat controls, for example, were so poorly placed you needed to open the door to reach them.