I was standing at the counter at Budget Rent-A-Car in Denver, waiting in line behind six people. I had reserved a standard, normal, regular car at $43.95.
I naturally assumed that the folks in front of me had done the same.
I was wrong. One by one they signed rental agreements to drive Corvettes, BMWs and Audis.
The cars rented at rates from just $49.95 to $79.95 a day. When it was my turn at the counter, I couldn't resist. I rented a Corvette, and then, for the next three days, I did my best to avoid a speeding ticket.
A few days later I was in Seattle, and had reserved a regular, normal car with Hertz. But when I got to the counter, they explained that they were all out of normal, regular, standard cars, but they had one they could still rent me for the same price, "although it might not be what you had in mind."
I drove out of the airport behind the wheel of a mammoth stretch Lincoln limousine. When I arrived at my hotel, the staff rushed to the car and opened the doors, only to find that the chauffeur--me--was also the only passenger.
If you're willing to pay the extra tariff, the business of renting a car is getting to be a little more fun. All across the country, rental fleets are being changed, and the choices improved. Luxury cars and exotic sports cars are being offered at more and more rental locations.
With National Rent-A-Car's "Cheap Thrills" program, if you call 24 hours in advance, specify that you want a sports car and the special rate, you will pay only $29.95 a day on weekends and $32.95 on weekdays (with unlimited mileage).
About 10% of the National fleet, which includes 95,000 automobiles, are now sports cars.
"The 'Cheap Thrills' program is aimed at the business traveler, so it's popular in the big cities," says National spokeswoman Sue Haberle. Most renters "are people who wanted to drive this kind of car for a long time but thought it was too expensive."
If you want a more upscale vehicle, you can rent a Buick Park Avenue, Oldsmobile 98 Regency or Cadillac Sedan de Ville for as little as $42.95 a day.
But if you're not in a big city, you may be surprised to find that you can rent a Chevy Camaro, Pontiac Firebird or Pontiac Grand Am if you need one in Omaha, Neb., or Burlington, Vt.
At most Hertz locations, about the most exotic cars you can rent are a Chrysler Le Baron or Ford Thunderbird for $35.90 on weekdays. On weekends the rate is a mere $22.90. Among the selection of sports cars are the Datsun 200 SX, Plymouth Laser, Pontiac Firebird, Chevy Camaro and Dodge Daytona.
"We don't really go in much for exotic cars," Hertz spokesperson John Britton says. "You wouldn't find all of our selections at one location, and at some, you wouldn't find any of these cars."
Except in Los Angeles. Hertz has Mercedeses available at its L.A. International Airport location. Hertz will rent you either a Mercedes 380SL convertible or a four-door model.
When I called the toll-free number to inquire about this, I was told that yes, Hertz did have Mercedeses available, and that the "affordable daily rate" (the clerk tried to stop from laughing as she said this) was a mere $164.99 a day, and no, the rates don't get better on a weekly or weekend rental basis.
However, as a magnanimous gesture, Hertz will throw in free mileage. (At these rates, be sure to take a change of clothes, because you'll probably have to justify the expense as having stayed at a very small German hotel.)
Elsewhere in America, Hertz has between 6,000 and 8,000 American-made luxury cars as part of its fleet: Lincoln Towne Cars and Mark 7s, Cadillac Sevilles and Sedan de Villes.
Added conveniences of a rented luxury Lincoln, for example, include cruise control, four-speaker stereo and a digital instrument panel that indicate speed, fuel consumption, how many miles traveled and time elapsed since travel started--handy for getting the car back without paying exorbitant extra-hours penalties.
At Avis you can rent a Cadillac Coupe de Ville, El Dorado, Sedan de Ville, Lincoln Continental, Chrysler Le Baron convertible, Riviera and a Volvo DL.
But that doesn't mean the car you want is necessarily available. If you really want to rent one of the special cars from Avis, call their toll-free number and ask for the special services desk.
If the company has a special vehicle available at another location, they will transport the car, or a similar model, to the requested rental location. Of course, you should expect to pay whatever the company had to pay to transport the car there.
Ferrari or Rolls
That's definitely not a problem in Southern California. Luxury and exotic cars are existing fixtures. If money is no object, you can easily rent anything from an amphibious landing craft to a Ferrari or Rolls-Royce.
In Beverly Hills, Budget's "Drive A Dream" is operated by Margaux Mirkin, whose father started Budget Rent-A-Car more than 30 years ago.