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PLEASURES OF THE ROAD : KEEN FOR A DAY

<i> Dean is a Times staff writer. </i>

If you need something beyond your four-door flivver for a special occasion, how about taking the wheel of a fabulous Ferrari or a ravishing Rolls? Here’s our guide to exotic car rentals.

At times, in California, we simply are not what we drive.

Consider the young man in the flying Ferrari who recently roamed Beverly Hills escorting a pink, nubile daughter of the upper crust.

She was real money.

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He wasn’t.

He was a sailor from the Long Beach Naval Shipyard who had rented the Ferrari 328 for a series of fast weekends in which to impress his wealthy lass.

Then there was the couple in bobby sox, letter sweaters and turned-up Levi’s who dated in a 1960 Chevrolet Impala convertible and left a drive-in movie heading for Mulholland Drive and . . . well, you just know what they were up to.

Except he’s a Century City attorney. She’s his wife of 28 years. They’d rented the ragtop to celebrate a wedding anniversary by re-creating their very first date.

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“About 40% of our people are tourists following their ideas of how people live in Los Angeles,” says Cindy Harris, general manager of Dreamboats Rent-a-Car of Beverly Hills. “They think all we do all day is drive around in convertibles and wave at the stars.

“So that’s what they do. They rent a 1962 Thunderbird convertible from us; they stick out like sore thumbs . . . but they see themselves as part of the scene and they thoroughly enjoy that.”

Showing off. Remembering when. Or blending in. No matter the motive, the renting of exotic cars has become one of the latest and slickest layers of the California identity and our self-indulgence.

Sure, wherever the Sun Belt shines, even in places where the permafrost steams, there are agencies that, for small fortunes a day and dollars-per-yard, will rent out the pick of a guru’s stable of Rolls-Royce, Cadillacs, Porsches and Mercedes-Benzes.

But only in Los Angeles, from the California Classics collection of National Car Rental at LAX, can you drive the 1960 Cadillac once owned by David (" . . . while searching for a one-armed man”) Janssen. Or, from the Exotic Car Collection of Budget Rent-A-Car in Beverly Hills and Marina del Rey, the cardinal-red Ferrari 328GTS driven by Eddie Murphy in “Beverly Hills Cop II.”

A major supplier of cars to movie and TV production companies, Budget’s sub-specialty is renting out exotics that have been touched by the derrieres of such stars as Tom Selleck (one of the “Magnum P.I.” Ferraris ), Linda Evans (Krystal Carrington’s blue Rolls-Royce in “Dynasty”) and Madonna (whose “Material Girl” video featured a black Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible).

“We do promote these celebrity cars, and we do have people who specify that they want to rent the Magnum Ferrari or the A-Team Corvette,” explains Corky Rice, a co-owner of the Budget collection. “We have 500 cars, of which 400 are exotics. We have 92 different makes or models. There’s a Range Rover in our fleet, a V-12 BMW, a Ferrari Testarossa, a Bentley, Cadillac Allantes, Jaguars . . .”

Yet, exotic car rentals, say the agencies, indulge much more than fantasies and fluff. There’s ego and self-esteem involved, because a diamond salesman who drives a Mercedes 560SL at home in Amsterdam doesn’t quite see himself puttering around in a Chevy Nova while on business or vacation in Los Angeles.

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But at National, says station manager Cary Tanner, “we’re not going for the business or the fantasy market . . . we’re going for the ‘50s and ‘60s nostalgia.”

National’s fleet of 125 American Graffiti classics (“All American made . . . all convertibles,” Tanner says) is a direct feed from today’s vogue for aluminum-packaged diners, cherry Coke and James Dean retrospectives.

“When they (customers) show up to rent the car, they do an age regression,” Tanner says. “We let them browse and shop the lot before making their choice and, among the Chevy Bel Airs, the Chrysler 300s and our Corvettes, you can see them regressing to their teens.”

Dreamboats has 26 models of yesterday’s dreams; they are out on rental seven days out of 10. Customer appreciation, Harris says, is clear: “They see so much more style in cars of that period.

Southwest Car Rental, with Southern California outlets from San Diego to Bakersfield, began dealing in exotic cars more than a decade ago with rentals to George Harrison and Rolling Stone Mick Jagger. Now, says president Ken Kerzner, the company specializes in studio, star and four-star hotel rentals with a client list containing TriStar, Reliant, the St. James Club, the Four Seasons Hotel, Roy Scheider and Treat Williams.

Avon calls with everything--from Cadillacs and Lincolns (“always to people from Chicago or New York who just don’t feel safe in a small car”) to the neoclassic Clenet (“driven by guys between the ages of 45 and 55 who keep the car for three or four days and want to buy it”) to BMWs (“mainly to professionals as insurance replacements for their BMWs damaged in accidents”).

Plus, of course, the inevitable turquoise and salmon and cream concours d’elegance of 35 Ford Fairlanes, Chevrolet Bel Airs, Thunderbirds and Corvettes of the ‘50s.

These cars are available at reasonable rates. Avon charges $59 a day for its classic convertibles. National gets $49.95. Dreamboats’ land yachts vary from $99 a day for a grinning, pink, finned 1959 Cadillac convertible to $69 a day for the first of the Ford Mustangs.

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Yet, the best bargains remain a juggle of daily rates, insurance costs, freebie miles and charged miles that vary wildly among the competing agencies.

Budget’s Testarossa costs $1,000 a day. Avon’s Countach is less at $795 (and faster at 180 mp.h.) but there’s a hefty charge of $2-per-mile.

In general, expect to pay around $500 a day for a Rolls-Royce, $300 for a Bentley, $225 for Jaguars and the BMW 750iL and $100 for Range Rovers--with varying teases on mileage allowances and rates.

Nota bene : Most exotic car rentals require hefty credit-card deposits. Budget expects a $7,500 guarantee before anyone drives off in one of its Ferraris. If you want a $140,000 Lamborghini Countach, Avon wants a $5,000 deposit.

Renter age limits vary. So do insurance requirements. Some rental agencies cover you; others like customers to be covered through “nonowned car” clauses in their own policies.

In the exotic-car-rental business, the gulp factor of the horror story is in direct proportion to the original cost of the vehicle.

One agency head still winces at the memory of a Mercedes 500SEL that was stolen. It eventually was located in a European customs shed. In an effort to smuggle it into Spain, the renter had torched the car into three pieces.

This year, Lorimar studios rented a 1988 Jaguar XJ6 from Avon. Silver delivered a sedan, all walnut and leather, that had been driven a mere 1,200 miles.

“Then the studio called and wanted to know how much did I want for the car,” says Silver. “I asked: ‘Why?’ They said: ‘Because we’ve just driven your car over a cliff.’ I said: ‘If you’d told me that ahead of time, I’d have sent you a 1986.’

“They said: ‘No sweat. It was in the budget.’ ”

At National, there’s a graphic rental reminder in a piece of office furniture.

“We rented a ‘50s Oldsmobile 88 convertible; the customer took it out, got into an accident and the car was totalled,” says manager Tanner. “So we took it to a chop shop and had it reshaped and painted and made into a couch.”

WHERE TO FIND THEM

Following is a sampling of firms offering exotic-car rentals:

Avon Rent-A-Car, 9220 Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles 90045; telephone (213) 568-9990. Hours: 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., Monday-Friday; 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday-Sunday.

Budget Rent-A-Car, 9815 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills 90212; telephone (213) 274-9173. Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday-Friday; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday-Sunday.

Budget Rent-A-Car, 300 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles 90048; telephone (213) 659-3473. Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., daily.

Budget Rent-A-Car, 4500 Lincoln Blvd., Marina del Rey 90292; telephone (213) 821-8200. Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday-Friday; 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday.

Dreamboats Rent A Car, 8536 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills 90211; telephone (213) 659-3277. Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., daily.

National Car Rental, 9419 Airport Blvd., Los Angeles 90045; telephone (213) 670-4950. Hours: 24 hours.

Southwest Car Rental, 7000 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood 90028; telephone (213) 461-6200. Hours: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday-Friday.


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