That new car spell

Times Staff Writer

Porsches don't share at the 2003 Greater Los Angeles Auto Show. They have their own room at the convention center. And they always draw a crowd. Near a shiny 2003 Boxster, a sign asks: "Remember what your first car meant to you?"

In case you've forgotten, the answer is right there: "unbridled freedom."

If a Porsche is your first car, either your daddy's rich, you hit the lottery or you are way older than 16.

"I always wanted a Porsche. They just get more expensive as I get older," says John Accornero, 51, a furniture designer from South Pasadena, scoping out the car show with his daughter's boyfriend. He got his first car in 1967 when he was 16, a '56 tan Mercury Montclair "from Aunt Shirley and Uncle Joe." As he drove around Eagle Rock, Jimi Hendrix and the Doors rocked on his radio.

Overheard at the car show, near a red Grand Prix:

She: "I want this car because I look cute in it."

He: Silence.

Car sales, one of the engines that drives the U.S. economy, represent nearly 4% of consumer spending. Automakers sold 16.8 million cars and light trucks in 2002, according to figures released Friday, with SUVs and pickups accounting for nearly half of the market.

California -- with about 12% of the nation's population -- buys more than 12% of the nation's new cars.

This is car country.

"In France, you are what you eat. In New York, you are what you do. In L.A., you are what you drive," according to W. R. Chadbourn's 1984 book, "How to Speak L.A."

So it is not surprising that the auto show, which ends Sunday, expects to attract more than 1 million car club members, auto fans, looky-loos, and many dragged here by their more enthusiastic friends or relatives.

Overheard at the James Bond exhibit, near a silver Aston Martin, a coral Thunderbird and an emerald green Jaguar:

He: "There are all these beautiful cars here, and you're looking at a video."

She: Silence.

The least expensive among the more than 1,000 cars at the L.A. Convention Center is a Kia Rio, according to Barry Toepke, an auto show spokesman. The sticker price is $9,745, which includes freight and handling. And, according to a sign at the exhibit, every Kia is sold with a full tank of gas.

The most expensive car is an Enzo Ferrari, which Toepke says costs $660,000. "They built 300 of them," he explains, "and all of them are presold."

Overheard at the auto show in the ladies' room:

She: "I told you, there'd be guys here."

Even though research shows that women determine the majority of car purchases, the place is crawling with guys. There are men everywhere: fathers and sons, husbands, grandpas, brothers, buddies, teenagers, toddlers and even baby boys.

On the floor, holding mikes, gorgeous men do today what was once a woman's job. They hold court in front of gorgeous cars, once the purview of enticing "car girls," those Miss America look-alikes, seductively inviting guys to take a peek.

Overheard at the Lexus exhibit, where the carpet changes from institutional to plush.

She:" I know we can't afford this car when you look at the carpet."

He: Silence.

At the Lexus exhibit, Herb Earl, 40, purrs in front of an "absolutely red" hardtop convertible SC 430. Drawing a growing crowd of men and women, he describes the gorgeous ecru seats, luxurious maple trim, the magnificent sound system. This, he oozes, is "the cure for the common convertible."

This is his fifth season on the auto show circuit. An aspiring actor from Chicago, he auditioned, got the call back, trained on the particulars and spent a week in Palm Springs driving all of Lexus' new models. The car babes of yesteryear have been transformed into knowledgeable car ladies, he says. The gowns are gone; most wear pants as they speak authoritatively into the mike, describing cars and trucks, and answering questions about torque, suspension and mileage. They aren't car ornaments any more, but they still get hit on.

So do the guys.

Earl is asked, "So do you come with the car? If I buy a car, do I get you? Are you one of the options?"

Among the Toyotas, a young couple shares a tender moment. He kisses her sweetly once, twice, three times. Why?

"I have a Tundra. He said it was ugly. I said, 'Don't say that about my truck,' " explains Liliana Tapia, 23, a teacher's aide from Tustin.

Why are they kissing?

"We're newlyweds," she says, as her husband, Victor, 28 and a loan officer, hugs her.

Overheard near a baby-blue Thunderbird:

She: "My feet are killing me."

He: Silence.

What would a car show be without a couple of guys in car shirts? Rick Nakasone 54, an Orange County optometrist, got his in Hawaii. It's emblazoned with '57 Chevys.

His first car? A deep burgundy '57 Chevy with black Naugahyde seats that cost him $600 when he was 16 and a student at L.A. High. On his radio, the Beach Boys and Smokey Robinson.

Overheard at the car show:

She: " Why do you want a TV in your car?"

He: "Because it looks good."

In the after-products area, the "spinners" -- oversized wheels with spokes that spin -- attract a large crowd.

Michelle McFalls of Hawthorne admires shiny 24-inch spinners. "They're unusual.... They're big. They keep going when the car stops."

Technically, "they are wheels," for big vehicles such as SUVs and trucks, according to Michael Kim, 31, general manager of Lexani Wheel Corp., the company that makes them.

These wheels have a name, he says: the Bling Image. Popular with the hip-hop crowd and just for show, a set of four with the works can set you back about $10,000.

Back at the "Porsche Experience," Jim Cooper, 58, an L.A. County employee, tells his son about the time he rented a Porsche when he was stationed in Guam. It was a gray convertible, like that one right over there.

Cooper got his first car in 1961. He combined a 1942 Chevy Stylemaster with a stick on the column with parts from a 1949 Buick Roadmaster. He paid $25 for the Chevy and $5 for the Buick. That $30 investment produced one solid car.

He son, Kevin, 14, craves a Nissan 350Z sports car for his 16th birthday. No way, says his father. "He'll have to do like I did."

Overheard everywhere at the auto show:

She: "Can we go now?"

He: "No."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Friday January 17, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 6 inches; 234 words Type of Material: Correction Auto show -- In a Jan. 7 Calendar story on the 2003 Greater Los Angeles Auto Show, Barry Toepke, an auto show spokesman, was quoted as saying that 300 Enzo Ferraris have been built. In fact, Ferrari plans to make 399 of the cars but cannot yet provide a figure on how many have been built.
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