I was standing at the counter at Budget Rent-A-Car in Denver, waiting in line behind six people. I had reserved a standard, normal, regular car at $43.95.
I naturally assumed that the folks in front of me had done the same.
I was wrong. One by one they signed rental agreements to drive Corvettes, BMWs and Audis.
The cars rented at rates from just $49.95 to $79.95 a day. When it was my turn at the counter, I couldn't resist. I rented a Corvette, and then, for the next three days, I did my best to avoid a speeding ticket.
A few days later I was in Seattle, and had reserved a regular, normal car with Hertz. But when I got to the counter, they explained that they were all out of normal, regular, standard cars, but they had one they could still rent me for the same price, "although it might not be what you had in mind."
I drove out of the airport behind the wheel of a mammoth stretch Lincoln limousine. When I arrived at my hotel, the staff rushed to the car and opened the doors, only to find that the chauffeur--me--was also the only passenger.
If you're willing to pay the extra tariff, the business of renting a car is getting to be a little more fun. All across the country, rental fleets are being changed, and the choices improved. Luxury cars and exotic sports cars are being offered at more and more rental locations.
With National Rent-A-Car's "Cheap Thrills" program, if you call 24 hours in advance, specify that you want a sports car and the special rate, you will pay only $29.95 a day on weekends and $32.95 on weekdays (with unlimited mileage).
About 10% of the National fleet, which includes 95,000 automobiles, are now sports cars.
"The 'Cheap Thrills' program is aimed at the business traveler, so it's popular in the big cities," says National spokeswoman Sue Haberle. Most renters "are people who wanted to drive this kind of car for a long time but thought it was too expensive."
If you want a more upscale vehicle, you can rent a Buick Park Avenue, Oldsmobile 98 Regency or Cadillac Sedan de Ville for as little as $42.95 a day.
But if you're not in a big city, you may be surprised to find that you can rent a Chevy Camaro, Pontiac Firebird or Pontiac Grand Am if you need one in Omaha, Neb., or Burlington, Vt.
At most Hertz locations, about the most exotic cars you can rent are a Chrysler Le Baron or Ford Thunderbird for $35.90 on weekdays. On weekends the rate is a mere $22.90. Among the selection of sports cars are the Datsun 200 SX, Plymouth Laser, Pontiac Firebird, Chevy Camaro and Dodge Daytona.
"We don't really go in much for exotic cars," Hertz spokesperson John Britton says. "You wouldn't find all of our selections at one location, and at some, you wouldn't find any of these cars."
Except in Los Angeles. Hertz has Mercedeses available at its L.A. International Airport location. Hertz will rent you either a Mercedes 380SL convertible or a four-door model.
When I called the toll-free number to inquire about this, I was told that yes, Hertz did have Mercedeses available, and that the "affordable daily rate" (the clerk tried to stop from laughing as she said this) was a mere $164.99 a day, and no, the rates don't get better on a weekly or weekend rental basis.
However, as a magnanimous gesture, Hertz will throw in free mileage. (At these rates, be sure to take a change of clothes, because you'll probably have to justify the expense as having stayed at a very small German hotel.)
Elsewhere in America, Hertz has between 6,000 and 8,000 American-made luxury cars as part of its fleet: Lincoln Towne Cars and Mark 7s, Cadillac Sevilles and Sedan de Villes.
Added conveniences of a rented luxury Lincoln, for example, include cruise control, four-speaker stereo and a digital instrument panel that indicate speed, fuel consumption, how many miles traveled and time elapsed since travel started--handy for getting the car back without paying exorbitant extra-hours penalties.
At Avis you can rent a Cadillac Coupe de Ville, El Dorado, Sedan de Ville, Lincoln Continental, Chrysler Le Baron convertible, Riviera and a Volvo DL.
But that doesn't mean the car you want is necessarily available. If you really want to rent one of the special cars from Avis, call their toll-free number and ask for the special services desk.
If the company has a special vehicle available at another location, they will transport the car, or a similar model, to the requested rental location. Of course, you should expect to pay whatever the company had to pay to transport the car there.
Ferrari or Rolls
That's definitely not a problem in Southern California. Luxury and exotic cars are existing fixtures. If money is no object, you can easily rent anything from an amphibious landing craft to a Ferrari or Rolls-Royce.
In Beverly Hills, Budget's "Drive A Dream" is operated by Margaux Mirkin, whose father started Budget Rent-A-Car more than 30 years ago.
Included in the "Drive a Dream" fleet, the brainchild of Mirkin, are Ferraris, a complete line of Mercedeses, and Rolls-Royces. You can rent a Mercedes 500 SL for $125 a day, a Ferrari for $300 and a Corniche Convertible Rolls for $400. Oh yes, there's a mileage charge, too. Each mile costs between 40 and 50 cents. (Alas, if you have to worry about mileage costs, you shouldn't rent the car. . . .)
Driving a dream
Despite the prices, the cars (there are 125 such luxurious models) stay rented, with an average rental rate of 85%. Who drives these cars? "Everyone from Aunt Rose and Uncle Sid in Omaha to top-name rock 'n' roll stars," says Mirkin. "People come here to express themselves, and drive a dream. They park their Chevy and see Hollywood like the stars. . . . I have the most beautiful cars in the world here," she says.
In a city where style often takes place over substance, Mirkin's expensive rental cars do very well. "People are either coming to drive a car as a status symbol," she says, "or to wave their hair in the wind and get closer to the California life style."
Sometimes, it can be the reverse. Diane Keaton goes into Mirkin's place to rent a VW Rabbit--"so she won't stand out." But other celebrities, who seem to go for flashier rental transportation, include Warren Beatty, Fred Astaire, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Elton John.
For the time being, you can forget about renting a Rolls in Omaha. "We would never rent out a Rolls-Royce there," Mirkin says. "You need a place with a certain magic, and there are few places like Beverly Hills." However, Mirkin does plan to expand her fleet in the Italian Riviera and Honolulu by the end of this year.
You can even rent a helicopter from Budget's Beverly Hills office. The cost is a hefty $550 an hour but there is room for six passengers, more than a Ferrari can handle comfortably.
Elsewhere in Southern California, you can rent exotic luxury cars from Showcase Rental Cars. It has offices at LAX and the San Francisco airport. The selection includes Alfa Romeo Spider convertible and GTV-6 models, Peugeots, Volvo, and the Saab 900 Turbo, Special Edition. BMWs are to be added to the fleet sometime this year. The cost ranges from $33.95 for a Peugeot 505 GL, for example, to $64.95 for the Alfa Romeo Spider and includes 100 free miles.
"You are paying for a very affordable experience," says president and owner of the company, Stanley Plog. "We have more interesting cars, offer more personal service to clients, and are very price-competitive."
Plog, who has a Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard, thought of the idea when he discovered that half the people getting off any plane own an import car and are often geared up for a miserable airport experience. "Airports are crowded, there are long lines, missed flights, delays, parking is a mess, and the rental experience is rated the worst.
"Passengers have to carry their bags, wait for the bus, everyone is stepping over feet, you stop at every place, pull your baggage out, and then load the rental car." Plog's solution: "We meet all of our renters at the airport and drive them to their cars. They don't handle their luggage or wait for a bus."
Or wait for a mechanic. Because of the capricious and delicate nature of the imported luxury cars, Showcase may be the only rental car firm to hire factory-trained mechanics. According to Plog, this costs the company $135 per car a month, compared to Hertz and Avis which spend an average of just $20 a month per car. "If we rent you one of our cars," Plog says, "you can be sure it's in top shape."
If, however, your expensive, exotic rental car breaks down on your way to having a good time, there still might be a rental Chevy--somewhere--to at least get you where you're going.