That's Luxury in the County Driver's Seat

Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Candice Pratt, 15, has her future all mapped out. "On my 26th birthday, I'm going to get a red Ferrari Testarossa convertible," says Pratt, who lives in Laguna Niguel. And after that, she plans to become a U.S. senator and eventually president.

Richard Mairena, 32, wasn't interested in the presidency when he was 15. He just wanted a Ferrari. And 3 years ago--that's right, before he was 30--he wrote a check for roughly $72,000 and drove away in a black Ferrari Mondial 400.

Welcome to Orange County, the land where status car dreams come true. Statistics are hard to come by; the Department of Motor Vehicles doesn't keep track of how many such vehicles are registered here, either by make or by price tag. But when was the last time you looked around--on the freeway, on Pacific Coast Highway, in just about any parking lot--and didn't see a Mercedes-Benz, a Porsche or a Jaguar?

Sales of dream cars are booming here, according to the people who sell them. Although Ferrari sales can't go higher because production is limited, the county does have the world's largest Ferrari dealership: Newport Imports, which also handles Jaguar, Aston Martin, Lotus and Range Rover. Jaguar sales have quadrupled since 1982, according to Newport Imports manager Don Moothart.

Mercedes-Benz dealer Jim Slemons says his sales went up 15% in 1988, and this year's sales so far are ahead of last year's.

"There's nowhere in the United States where you see as many luxury cars as you will in Newport Beach," Moothart says. "Nowhere."

Newport Beach may have a high concentration, but the rest of the county has its share of status cars too. The other day at a north county K mart, the blue-light special announcements were interrupted by a notice that "there's a royal-blue Jaguar in the parking lot with its lights on."

"People do kind of stare at you when you drive into the lot at Fedco or the Price Club," Rolls-Royce owner Linda Weaver says. "It's like, 'What are you doing here?' "

But of course people look, whether you pull up in front of a discount store or an exclusive restaurant. Isn't being seen the whole point of driving a status car?

Not necessarily, according to some owners. Although status is a factor, it isn't always the most important one.

"You can't really draw conclusions about someone's motivations by simply noting that they possess this object," says psychiatrist Martin Brenner, medical director of CPC Santa Ana Hospital and the owner of a 1986 Jaguar Vanden Plas, which cost him "about $40,000."

"I always dreamed of having a Jag," Brenner says. "I loved the old XKE, it's an awesomely beautiful car. And when I got my car, I just felt good with myself that I was driving a car that I liked and that I felt proud of."

In Orange County, having a nice car is simply "conforming to the prevailing custom," Brenner says. "You fit better. It's like going into a very nice restaurant where everybody's dressed nice."

Brenner concedes that although he bought the car primarily for himself and not to impress others, "I do enjoy the fact that I get positive feedback about my automobile."

But Richard Engel, owner of a blue 1986 Ferrari Testarossa, says status is the primary reason he bought his car. "A lot of my friends have status cars too--Ferraris, Lamborghinis, whatever--and I would say that status is probably the controlling aspect of why we buy them.

"This is the most powerful, fastest car made, ever. It looks great, and it makes me feel great. I like to be looked at. It's a conversation piece.

"I'm not a snob about it. If a boatload of kids start honking, I'll roll down the window and talk to them about it. That's part of the fun."

Engel, who lives in Newport Beach, had to wait 18 months to get his car 3 years ago. Now the wait is 2 1/2 years, according to Ed Woodburn of Newport Imports. "A couple of people have gotten tired of waiting and taken their names off the list," Woodburn says. "But not many."

The Testarossa sells for $141,780, Woodburn says.

Weaver says she wishes that her 1979 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith had dark-tinted windows because "I prefer not to get looked at." But she's well aware that not everyone feels that way. Weaver, co-owner with Mairena of Pegasus, a courier and limousine service, sometimes rents out her own car through the company to customers who definitely want to be seen in a Rolls. Unlike a stretch limo, she says, "it's easier for them to make people think it's their car."

Weaver, who lives in Irvine, owned a Mercedes-Benz and had been shopping for a new one when she came across the used Rolls about 5 years ago. "A new (Rolls) was extremely out of all reason," she says. But she was able to get the older model for "in the neighborhood of $50,000," about $15,000 less than the she would have paid for the new Mercedes she had in mind.

"I've always wanted a Rolls," she says. "It makes you feel like what you worked for has turned out right. They do ride so nicely; that's really the pleasure of the car. It's like taking a scenic ride on your couch to Santa Barbara or whatever. It's so quiet, it's just not as stressful."

Mairena, Weaver's partner, says that "as a child, the Ferrari was the ultimate car I wanted to have. I started thinking about it from the time I started thinking of what I was going to be when I grew up."

"It's kind of nice when people look," he says. "But it doesn't really matter. That's not the intent. It's not a red Ferrari; it's a black Ferrari. And you don't really know it's a Ferrari until you look at it, really look."

Mairena's first vehicle was a 1956 Ford truck, followed by a Volkswagen beetle, a Fiat, a Porsche, then the Ferrari.

"The Ferrari was everything I expected it to be," he says, "even though it doesn't have all the whistles some American cars do, such as electronic seats that recline and turn."

Mairena isn't sure how big his car's engine is or how fast it can go, but he has taken it up to 125 m.p.h. and "it didn't seem to be straining."

The Ferrari doesn't do as well when it's stuck in traffic, however: "It's terrible because you have to keep shifting."

Gary Babick of Newport Beach may be a more typical owner of a luxury car. He drives a 1986 Mercedes-Benz 300 and a 1983 Porsche 911se. "But I don't consider either of them a status car. In California, there are so many nice cars, even a Mercedes is commonplace."

Although he admits to being "into cars," Babick says he picks his cars because they please him, not for the effect they may have on others.

Luxury automobile dealer Slemons is also active on the county social circuit. He says a Mercedes-Benz is "definitely a status symbol."

"There are more of them in Newport Beach than any other kind of car," says Slemons, who also sells Acuras, Hondas, Jeeps and Eagles (in addition to Volvos in Hawaii).

A Mercedes-Benz is "almost like a uniform," he says. "It's a way of saying you've arrived."

Slemons says the Mercedes fits the county's conservative image better than some more expensive, flashier cars: "It's conservative, classy, just like people in south Orange County are conservative in their attire, their politics and the things that they do."

His own car of choice is a 1972 Mercedes-Benz 280sl, which he bought used from a dealer in Hawaii.

Another up-and-coming status car, Slemons says, is the Jeep Cherokee Limited. "It's sort of a status second car."

If you want 12 cylinders but can't quite afford a Testarossa, there's the new BMW 750il with a sticker price of $73,000. It can theoretically go up to 185 m.p.h., although "there's a governor on it that keeps it down to 155," says Harry Taylor of McLaren's BMW in Fullerton.

Engel says he has had his Testarossa up to 187, "but that was on a test track."

Pratt, a freshman at Capistrano Valley Christian High School, says that in her age group, "the girl who has the Mercedes definitely gets more attention. But mostly, people don't judge you by what kind of car you have. It's really just whether you have a car or not.

"Kids don't see their first car as the one of their dreams."

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