Status for rent

You can always spot a tourist in Beverly Hills. They're the ones staring at a Rolls-Royce as if it were something unusual ("Gee, honey, a Rolls"), trying to catch a glimpse of the bound-to-be-famous personality sitting behind the wheel. Silly tourist. That's not Zsa Zsa Gabor. That's her maid. Everybodym in Beverly Hills drives a Rolls. People who can't sleep go down to Rodeo Drive and count the Rolls-Royces.

A Diamante, however, is a different story. Breeze through town in one of these and traffic parts; even the most hardened Gucci disciple will at least raise an eyebrow. Gas station attendants fall over themselves to offer up a few gallons in homage, even when the car pulls into the self-service island.

What's a Diamante? It is like something out of "The GReat GAtsby?: running boards detailed with mahogany; spare tires on either side, just forward of the doors; a real trunk for a trunk, fastened shut with leather straps; and a hood so long it seems to travel in two different time zones.

How can you get one of these attention-grabbers? Ifm you could find one for sale (only a handful were made), you mightm pry it loose from the owner for, oh, 100 grand. So more to the point: What is someone on a reporter's salary supporting a family of four doing behind the wheel? A good question, and the same one my wife asked when I drove it home.

Enter Margaux Mirkin, a young woman who is to the family station wagon what the fairy godmother was to Cinderella's pumpkin. She is the answer to those people whose passion for exotic automobiles exceeds their paychecks. Without even the bother of a magic wand she can comfortably seat the most ordinary Joe into the likes of a Diamante, a Clenet, a 1935 Auburn boattail, a Mercedes GAzelle SSK, a Jaguar SS100, or a Porsche Speedster. Margaux not only owns these and dozens of cars like them, she also rents them through perhaps the most exotic car rental agency anywhere.

For a relative pittance, she supplies a slightly forged passport into the company of people wealthy enough to pay outrageous sums for superfluous automobiles: cars that only seat two people yet cost well over $50,000 and take up more parking space than a Cadillac. She offers instant, but temporary, membership into the if-you-have-to-ask-you-can't-afford-it crowd. At 23, Margaux Mirkin has nailed down that most elusive of saleable products -- image -- and turned it into a nice profit.

Her car rental lot of Santa Monica and Wilshire Boulevards in the heart of Beverly Hills is, ironically, a division of Budget Rent A Car. But out of it stream the most elegant of cars -- neo-classics, "traveling sculptures," as Margaux calls them.

True to form, rented status does not travel in real classics "replicars." The Auburn, Mercedes, Jaguar, and Porsche are not real classics but modern duplicates. (The Mercedes Gazelle replica is mounted to a Ford Pinto chassis). The Diamante and the clenet never were 1920s classics, but are '70s fabrications (though expensive ones) mounted to Cadillac and Mercury Cougar frames, respectively. Beauty's only skin deep, but no matter. It's only the looks that count.

The irony of Margaux Mirkin's exotic Budget car rentals becomes less potent when one realizes that Morris Mirkin, her father, founded Budget in 1958 and is still its corporate chief.

"We are business partners," Margaux states emphatically, wary of being sorted into what she terms the "Daddy's little rich girl" slot.

A self-confessed car nut ("It's in the blood," she says; "Dad would do anything to own a red convertible"), she has owned her own classic car restoration company since she was 16. She had earned some money one summer parking cars and filing forms at one of her father's agencies and put the earnings into a 1954 Porsche Speedster. She restored it and sold it at a profit. "It occurred to me that I could own and drive the cars I loved and make money at the same time," she says.

Her holdings grew to 25 cars, ranging from a supercharged 1936 Cord to a 1938 Fiat Mille Miglia Racing Coupe, owned by Mussolini's son and perhaps the only one of its kind left in the world. She employs two mechanics full time to work on the restorations, and probably knows more about automobile construction and mechanics than both of them combined. Yet, owning the cars and driving them turned out to be two different matters. "These are not the sort of cars you can just hop in and drive. You certainly can't park them anywhere, and driving in L.A. traffic would not be a wise thing to do." From this dilemma sprang the idea for renting exotic cars.

She initially shunned the notion of slipping into something as inauthentic as a replica, but a few turns around the block in an Auburn replica convinced her that collecting the real thing and driving the imitation posed no conflict of interest. "It seemed logical that other people would find driving one of these cars as much fun as I did." Another turn around the block with her father in the passenger seat convinced him, and Budget, to put up the money. The rest in Beverly Hills history.

The doors opened in June and business rolls along nicely. Tourists beat a path to her driveway. "They figure 'when in rome . . .' and in Los Angeles that translates into driving a car with lots of status," she says, and 175 cars with status, ragtops every one, ar all she keeps on the lot. Oh sure, a customer can rent a realm Rolls or a realm Mercedes if they really want to, but why drive a car no one will look at when you can drive one that prompts most everyone to gawk and makes the other tourists wonder if they should be asking for an autograph?

Tourists are by no means her only customers. Actors and actresses clean out the lot on the night of a big movie premiere or the Academy Awards, when arriving with flash is derigeur.m Rock star Elton John rents one of the Auburn replicas whenever he arrives in town. One particular Arab prince rents 10 cars for a month at a time when h visits, and pays cash ($15,000) in advance. "That gets a little heady," comments Margaux about seeing $15,000 on the counter. It is not unusual to see several of Margaux's cars at a time pull up to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel to pick up an Arab oil sheikh and his entourage. Ordinary rich people rent cars by the fleet to add some glittery panache to wedding parties and the like.

Now for the bad news, car lovers: Whatever elevation one of these cars might and to your status, is subtracts from your bank balance. At the top of the rate scale, the Diamante runs $350 a day (it used to go for $500 a day, "but it is so popular that we have been able to drop the rates, "but it is os popular that we have been able to drop the rates," Margaux says). Moving down the list, a Clenet costs $200 a day; the Auburn replica, $125; the Jaguar SS100 look-alike, a day. And the mileage rate is such that for those to whom the car represents a splurge, some advice is in order: Park it in front of a very chic sidewalk cafe on Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, put on some dark glasses, casually stand next to the car, glance at your watch repeatedly and mumble -- just loud enough -- "I wonder where Farrah could be?"

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