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The Limo Limbo : Once the Chariots of the Rich, Sleek Autos Let Middle Class Put on the Ritz

December 31, 1987|MARK LANDSBAUM | Times Staff Writer

These are banner days for limousines--the chariots of the rich and famous and anyone else who can scrape together 40 bucks.

It seems that you can't even visit the neighborhood shopping center anymore without one of those eye-popping, block-long limos sweeping through the parking lot, dropping off all imaginable types of people at the dress-for-less stores.

In Orange County, where there are now more limousines than ambulances, the limo clientele encompasses high school sweethearts, housewives out for a night on the town, your basic "party animals" and average, everyday Joes who may even live on your very own street.

The limos will be out in force tonight. New Year's Eve is one of the busiest dates on the limousine calendar, a time when even the humblest of folks let down their hair, put on the ritz and leave the driving to someone else--a decision that seldom has more appeal than it does tonight.

County companies transport their share of celebrities and dignitaries to events such as the Emmys and Grammys and private parties. Drivers for A Gold Key Limousine of Costa Mesa have delivered such notables as actors Anthony Quinn and Harry Hamlin and pro football great O. J. Simpson. Cameo Limousine of Anaheim has carted around the likes of TV personality Dick Clark, comedian Steve Allen and Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully.

But these days, you are just as likely to find the neighbor's kid concealed behind a limousine's tinted glass as you are the wealthy or well-known.

"Seven years ago when a person saw a limousine on the highway, he thought there must be a movie star in that car," says Harbour Limousine Service owner Dennis Mahle, who operates six cars. "Today, that is totally different. Not just the rich and famous use limousines. It's definitely middle class."

In some cases, the clientele has changed in other ways.

"This one night a driver picks up these people at a shopping mall. This girl was carrying $15,000 in cash on her, just tons of it," recalls Angela Addison, manager of A Gold Key Limousine.

"They are driving around, and she is spending here and spending there. So she wants to pull into this Circle K convenience store to buy a hairbrush. The driver sees this guy who has been following her. The girl comes walking out of the store. The guy jumps on her and says she stole the money last night. He called the police . . . and they took her away."

It's not just the clientele that has changed.

"I'm tired of seeing the drivers out there dressed in sweaters and blue jeans and jackets and sneakers," grouses Jim Michalsky, who drives for his family's JSM Carriage Co. of Anaheim. "There are a number of drivers out there who say: 'Hey dude, let's party.'

"You shouldn't be out there doing that. You're not there to party with them," says Michalsky, who holds to a more traditional view. "You're there to take them where they want to go."

At a concert one night, Michalsky recalls, he spotted the epitome of the New Wave limo driver:

"He had on engineer's boots, regular work coveralls, orange T-shirt with a Harley Davidson logo on it and a baseball cap. He drove by, and I darn near passed out."

Limousine fleets multiplied overnight in anticipation of monster profits during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, and business has not been the same since. Before the Olympics, scores of would-be operators bought limos. However, the public didn't respond as expected.

In the aftermath, however, the glut of limo owners sought a wider market, and competition among providers resulted in appeals to people who never before considered such extravagances. According to operators, demand has reached an all-time high.

Estimates range from 200 to 300 limousine companies serving Orange County, a great many of them unlicensed, one-car operations. Others have 15 cars or more on call.

Much of the limousine business can be accounted for by corporations, hotels and others who want to transport and impress clients or take guests to and from John Wayne and Los Angeles International airports.

Moreover, with the advent of the cellular phone, limousines have become portable offices for a lot of corporations, according to Dick Januzzi, director of sales and marketing for Ultra Limousines Corp. of La Palma, which bills itself as the world's largest manufacturer of extra-long limousines.

"A limo is no longer a luxury," says Januzzi, whose business is up 50% this year over last.

Private individuals increasingly are using the big cars to celebrate anniversaries, weddings, birthdays or simply to have a safe place to relax and imbibe while on the road. Limousines were booked a month in advance for the most recent surge of school-age business--homecoming celebrations.

The sales pitches that jump off the Yellow Pages are indicative of the new appeal.

For example, one slogan attempts to bridge the sophisticate-hip gap: "Comment allez-vous, dude?"

Another boasts "12-passenger super ultra-stretch limousines . . . two bars, two TVs, two moon roofs and sofa-bed in each limo."

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