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"Why Everyone in L.A. Should have a Ferrari"

11 July 2002
Orange County, CA
Why Everyone in Los Angeles Should Have a Ferrari

By Dan Neil, Dan Neil is automobile critic and columnist for The L.A. Times.

It's about 9:15 a.m. on the southbound 405 Freeway, today or tomorrow or sometime next week, I've lost track. It's a parking lot out here. A woman in a BMW 540i behind me has her foot on the steering wheel and is painting her toenails. A ladder-draped Toyota pickup ahead is blasting out tejano loud enough to disorient dolphins in the bay. As far as the eye can see, commuters are nattering into their cellular headsets, like a vast motorized artillery unit of Time-Life operators.

I, too, am standing by.

My car is a molest-me red Ferrari 360 Spider on loan from Ferrari North America. I have one week in a $185,000 Italian sports car so sexy that it appears to have been forged from melted bra clasps and garter-belt snaps; so fast it can blow the foam off lattes outside of any Starbucks it passes; so unspeakably deck as to leave the most jaded Hollywood tyro and P. Diddy wannabe cringing with envy. In short, it's the ultimate L.A. car.

Or is it?

There are a lot of things Angelenos need: martini-flavored Valtrex, for instance; tinfoil hats to block Hollywood's mind-probing stupid rays.

But I think it's safe to say that nobody in this town needs a red Ferrari convertible. This car will go 0 to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds, which would be great if I could ever get to 60 mph. Instead, I've spent most of the past three days cooling my heels. And while it's certainly true that my heels are consummately cooler than everyone else's, there is something slapstick about a guy in a fast and glammy car, trapped in traffic, some hint of class revenge. Write all the zeros you want on that check to Ferrari Beverly Hills, or Bentley, or Lamborghini. That clapped-out '89 Toyota Corolla—the one with the old lady's worldly possessions wadded into it like gun cotton—is just as fast as you are between Sunset and Melrose. My Ferrari, with its 400 mid-engine cavalli and paddle shifters behind the steering wheel is stuck, attached head and tail to traffic, just one more segment in an endless tapeworm wound through the bowels of Los Angeles.

Metaphor police. The town needs metaphor police.

Southern California is the world's monster garage. Hot rodding, bike chopping, low-riding, cruising, slamming, biker boyz, power princesses and drive-by shootings . . . they all started here. Most of the world's car makers have design studios in the region, from whence to observe the innate behaviors of SoCal's automotive fauna, like biologists' blinds above the Serengeti. The country's most prestigious and prolific automotive design program belongs to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

And yet L.A. is a perversely unpleasant place to drive. Every morning untenable multitudes boil out of the suburbs like cockroaches, funneling onto the freeways, scrambling over one another's clear-coated backs, as if in response to some frantic, purblind instinct. City streets are gridlocked. People are existentially ticked off. Yesterday I saw a middle-aged woman scream astonishing obscenities into the face of another commuter and give him the finger with both hands in a kind of rapid-fire machine-gun flip-off (you know the technique). She had a "Jesus is Lord" sticker in her window.

Simply on the basis of mechanical function, the perfect car for this asphalt purgatory is something small and expendable, like a BMW Mini Cooper or maybe a Ford Focus SVT coupe—screaming meemy subcompacts with point-and-shoot power to seize the initiative in traffic, tight turning radiuses for easy parking, excellent gas mileage and safe-sex interiors. These cars are like sawed-off point guards running circles around NBA giants.

So how is it so many people drive Hummers, Cadillac Escalades, Mercedes Gelandewagens, Range Rovers? The rolling stock of Los Angeles has more off-road capability than Rommel's Afrika Korps. This is acutely puzzling owing to the region's superabundance of road.

Here's a little thought experiment: A Cadillac Escalade is 16.5 feet long. A Ford Focus coupe is about 14 feet long. Let's say you have 10,000 vehicles idled on the freeway, which is about 9.5 miles worth of four-lane, bumper-to-bumper, head-exploding traffic. Now assume 1,000 of these vehicles are 'Slades (or their less bling-afied cousins, Chevy Tahoes, or like-sized Ford Expeditions). If you replace those vehicles with Foci, you have an extra 2.5 feet multiplied by 1,000. That's an extra 625 feet of free four-lane freeway. Now apply the formula to the 4.5 million daily commuters in the L.A. area. That's more than 70 miles of suddenly vacant asphalt. Pretty soon L.A. starts looking emptier than London in the opening scene of "28 Days Later."

Commuters roiling the freeways every morning aren't giving up their huge, gas-bonging SUV's though, are they? And the fact that Vipers and Ferraris and Lambos, oh my, can't get out of second gear hasn't slowed sales down any. Mechanical function? Civic responsibility? Please.

It's all about representing.

Many a tall tree has been felled for dissertations describing, and decrying, Cali car culture. Los Angeles, they all note, lies at the end of Route 66, America's highway of personal transmigration. The city seems the material exaltation of the meaning of automobile: self and propelled.

It's fair to say that Angelenos are self-centered—or, if you prefer a word with more psychological buckshot, egocentric. The hundreds of tiny cities that make up the pointillistic urban landscape of Los Angeles seem merely a map maker's illusion. In a town where the sidewalks are empty and the swimming pools are in fenced-in backyards, every home is a city-state.

This sense of separateness extends to our cars, and it's why car customization is so huge here. Cars are a canvas of material ambition. The slammed Celica with 20-inch chrome blades, neon kit, smoked-out glass, aftermarket grille and sound that rattles your rearview mirror with its 100 dB kickers is a vision of status and affluence seen through the eyes of a kid who has neither. The sound system is banging the world in the back of the head: Notice me. In the ingenious diction of hip-hop, such showy displays are flamboasting.

This is, after all, a town of ungodly wealth and vulgar excess—why pinch pennies when at any moment you could slip on a seismic banana peel? We venerate celebrity and wealth; we regard narcissism with an unbegrudging heart, because Los Angeles is a city of possibilities, and—this is key—we believe it could be us. Opportunistic and ever optimistic, Angelenos thrive on a kind of certainty of upward mobility, that they will one day become rich, famous, beautiful, or at least notorious. We are karmic wildcatters.

Flashy cars give this city of American idolaters reason to hope, to hang on. I think it's why nobody seems to resent the Ferrari, which is among the most brazen status codpieces one could ever strap on. The design has a kind of heated animism about it, like a flaming arrowhead caught in high-speed photography. The car imposes itself on your consciousness. You cannot not look.

Were I to wheel the rouge-red Ferrari through the streets of, say, Cambridge, Mass.—blipping the throttle every now and then, chirping the meats—I could pretty much count on being loathed. I'd get reproving stares, disgusted smirks.

But in L.A., everybody loves the Ferrari. On 7th Street, a fetidly homeless man totters off the curb to congratulate me: "Yo, man, that's kickin!"

In Santa Monica, a guy smiling through a long white beard hails me: "Hey, buddy, does it come with a blond?" he asks through the window of a beat-up blue Astrovan.

Same day: I'm sitting outside a Starbucks in Santa Monica, the car parked in the back, quietly giving off its glam gamma rays. A local real estate developer, James Rucker, drags his metal chair up to my table. "I just wanted to tell you how beautiful your car was," Rucker says.

We talk Ferrari for a while. James is an aficionado. I ask him about local real estate. "You want to see some places up the coast?" he says. "I'll go anywhere with you in that Ferrari."

So my new friend and I get into the Ferrari. We drive for about a mile before I ask him if he wants to take the wheel. "Oh, man, oh, man . . . . " James is overcome. I pull over on Montana Avenue and give him a quick lesson, then off we go, north on PCH. Traffic is light and the weather cool. The car snarls in arpeggios of feral aggression as James works through the gears, the Ferrari lunging at the first stretch of open road it has seen in days, bouncing our heads off the headrests. "Whoooo! Oh man! Oh MAN!" James laughs like Colin Clive in "Frankenstein," unhinged with a wild joy.

"You know, I'm working on a movie deal this week," he shouts over the wind. "If it goes through, I could be driving one of these by Christmas."

Another dreamer.

We drive way past Cher's house, then back. I drop James off at his apartment in Santa Monica. A week later I get a phone message from him. "Dude, I just want to tell you how great it was that you let me drive the Ferrari. I've told all my friends. And if there is ever anything you need from me, you need help finding a house or a good restaurant, you just call me. I won't forget it."

Los Angeles is one of the few places in America where driving a screaming hot sports car can have a salutary affect on your social life. This radical proposition is a holdover from 1960s swingers mythology, the Hef effect. It has become such a radioactive cliché that the very last thing you will ever see in an ad for the Chevrolet Corvette—an awesome sports car unfairly lampooned as a totem of the gold-chain set—is a beautiful girl. There have been times, too, when Ferraris were regarded as sexually reactionary. I can't help but think the boys in Maranello, Ferrari's hometown, wilted a little when they saw Magnum P.I. step out of the 308 GTSi with his chest hair fountaining out of a shirt opened to his solar plexus.

Elsewhere in the U.S., sensible males understand that a ripping sports car holds out very little advantage in the pursuit of the opposite sex. Women see cars through a very different prism. A well-kept vintage Chevy pickup is more likely to catch a woman's eye than, say, a BMW Z4.

In Los Angeles, however, there seems to be a kind of free-fire zone with regard to dating and automobiles. I have been mercilessly flirted with by both women and men all week. I park by a restaurant in Marina del Rey, and before I can get out, two teenage girls come over to bat their eyes and quiz me about the car. They ask me if it is a Lamborghini. They ask me if I am in the movie business.

In other parts of the country, eye contact between drivers is an aggressive behavior. Here people freely scan the faces in the cars around them, perhaps bored or merely curious, and not infrequently lonely. There are places and nights in this city where cruising retains its strangely sweet, awkward aura of courtship. Here's a marketing ploy straight off the Left Coast: The BMW Mini, a car I regard as one of the great designs of the last 20 years, offers its new buyers flirty flashcards that say things like "Hi sexy" and "You're cute."

One night the Ferrari and I take a tour of Sunset Boulevard, beginning where it intersects with PCH and going all the way down its palm-ribbed corridors to Union Station. While cruising in L.A. is a mere shadow of the mass migrations of decades past, there are still thousands of local kids on the street, just riding around in their Stangs (Mustangs), Lipz (Eclipses), Birds (Firebirds) C-cars (Celicas), Z-cars (350Z's), a restless, rubbernecking cotillion. They spin their wheels now and then—opportunities for fast-and-furious bravado are few—but mostly the kids just talk, car to car.

Here I encounter the only hostility in a week with the Ferrari. From behind the wheels of slammed Explorers and ka-ching Corvettes, young men strafe the Ferrari with sullen, envious glares. I have definitively reshuffled the pecking order. On any given night, the boulevard belongs to the most fly BMW M3 or Acura NSX, their huge polished wheels twirling in the dark like flaming batons. Not tonight, amigos.

I don't discount the fact that when women shopping on Rodeo Drive smile and wave at me they are hoping that I might actually be somebody, a nascent celebrity who has just made a splash at Cannes and who will, in due course, turn up on the cover of Vanity Fair. I should point out, in the interests of rigorous journalistic honestly, that I'm no Ashton Kutcher.

This is a place where the protocol of celebrity is well understood. And the power of driving an exotic car is precisely the same as the power of celebrity. Bruce Willis doesn't wait for a table; neither is the Ferrari consigned to the back row of a restaurant's valet parking.

In my view, it is entirely sensible to exploit L.A.'ers fawning deference to celebrity per se by driving an exotic car. In fact, it seems like an excellent urban survival tactic.

As part of my research, I go to see the Los Angeles Department of Transportation's Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control operations center, bunkered four floors below street level in City Hall. Anyone who has seen this room portrayed in "The Italian Job"—a darkened, Mission Control-style arena with banks of computers and a semicircle of flat-screen displays hovering above —would be amazed how similar it looks to the Hollywood version. The movie is likewise faithful to the center's method. Street sensors and closed-circuit video monitor traffic conditions; the center's operators adjust signal-timing strategies at the 3,000 or so intersections under their computer control to better expedite traffic. The latest upgrade to the software is something called the Adaptive Traffic Control System, which uses real-time data to react to changes in traffic conditions, for instance, rerouting traffic around an accident or stalled vehicle by manipulating signals in the immediate area.

Glenn Ogura is the principal transportation engineer for the center and an articulate theorist of traffic. For him I have formulated a very high-falutin' question—I've had plenty of time to think about it, what with sitting idly in traffic for hours on end. Gridlock, it seems to me, is essentially stalemate in a zero-sum game, where players compete directly against one another for a scarce commodity, asphalt, which also translates to time. If ever there was a scenario in which to apply John Nash's equilibrium game theory it would be the adaptive traffic control. Namely, could not the system be attuned, and commuters educated, to the notion that cooperation, not competition, could help traffic flow?

Ogura looks at me as if I've got a lemur on my head. "I don't know who John Nash is," he says genially, "but the mentality of people in Los Angeles is not 'everybody wins,' but who is going to lose. The mentality is 'I win, you lose.' "

Except, perhaps, when you are driving a Ferrari. It turns out that there is a caste system in traffic. In a situation where two cars are competing for the same real estate, the more expensive car has the right of way. This despicably undemocratic etiquette is widely understood, though no one seems to know how it got to be so.

Never mind being comfortable during long commutes. To drive a very expensive car in L.A. is to be granted—by peculiar common consent—supernumerary rights and privileges, a vehicular droit du seigneur. Merging onto the 101, a BMW 7 series—a spectacular $80,000 sedan—comes to a stop to let me into traffic. Drivers anxiously clear the left lane when they see the laser-blue headlights of the 360 Spider bear down on them. I could get used to this.

The 360 Spider is not simply expensive. It's rare. Only 600 or so have been sold in the U.S. Insofar as it rises above the quotidian with a kind of unobtainable glamour, it too is a celebrity, with all the rights and privileges thereto. Walking through crosswalks, pedestrians stop in their tracks to wave the Ferrari through, giving a shout-out or a thumbs-up when I pass. Were I to try that in a Honda Accord they would use another finger.

What cars might receive the star treatment? Ferraris, Lambos, Maseratis (the older ones, a Ghibli SS, maybe, or an ax-head-shaped Bora), McLaren F1, DeTomasos, Shelby Cobras (L.A.'ers are astute enough, I think, to tell the real ones from the kit cars), Panoz Esperante, '59 Cadillac Eldorado, Dodge Viper (maybe), 550 and 959 Porsches, Gullwing Mercedes, famed movie cars such as the DeLorean of "Back to the Future" or the white '71 Challenger from the drug cult flick "Vanishing Point" or "Thelma and Louise's" blue T-bird. There's always the pleasure of recognition, the guess-who-I-saw excitement.

But it's a ruthless business, stardom, always in the sway of the Next Big Thing. The guy who spent $150,000 on a used Lamborghini Diablo will feel awfully sheepish if a brand-new Lambo Murcielago sidles up to him. There's no confusion about who has the right of way. And even the 360 Spider must defer to Ferrari's own Enzo, a $675,000 hypercar of which there are only 399 copies in the world, a car that is to driving what eating pineal glands is to substance abuse.

But for now, no Enzos are in sight. I am still master of all I survey. A Camry full of little kids has pulled up beside me. They are singing along with Barney. Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah, someone's in the kitchen I kno-ooo-ooo-ooh . . . . I begin to sing along with them, which, I can tell, disconcerts the parents a little. But they soon warm to me, to the only-in-L.A. incongruity of a guy in an open-top Ferrari, singing children's songs at the top of his lungs on a hot and fuming freeway, in front of God and everybody.

I've got to get me one of these.