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PLEASURES OF THE ROAD : RECORD ALBUM : A portfolio of uniqueness: the oldest, the most beautiful, the most unusual and other Southern California automobiles of distinction

March 13, 1988|PAUL DEAN | Dean is a Times staff writer.

The car that lead this year's Tournament of Roses Parade was a 1931 Bugatti Royale Berline de Voyage with a street value close to $10 million. It may well have been worth more than its esteemed passenger: Grand Marshal Gregory Peck.

Yet nobody seemed that impressed by the wheels.

The menacing, louvered and scooped Vector--a Venice-built sports car-cum-wingless Top Gun that its designer claims can turn 200 m.p.h., but which hasn't done much except drive into Chevron gasoline commercials--huffs and snorts and grumbles and spits in Christmas traffic along Rodeo Drive.

Shoppers' first glances are for Ryan O'Neal walking his son.

Second glances go back to Gucci.

The obvious point: Cars that would stop the town clock and entire population of Hudson, Ohio, are at every other parking meter and most stoplights in Southern California.

Here are more exciting vehicles, more Ferraris, Duesenbergs, Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, Bugattis and Packards, all the flyers and speedsters, tourers, runabouts and raceabouts, coupes and cabriolets, than in any other corner of the world.

Here are the best motor cars. Here are the worst automobiles. Here are all ranking gear heads who drive, restore, collect, race, create, buy, sell and duplicate most things automotive from Bonneville bullets through the Batmobile to the Great American Pedal Car Co.

One man has refined his Palm Springs collection to include a matched set of classic cars. Another has Indianapolis racers in his living room. On a Beverly Hills side street, a handsome, creamy, topless 1936 Auburn Speedster rubs fenders with a 1980 Auburn Speedster replica made by Pasadena's California Custom Coach. And that Bible black Ferrari (FASTV12 is the brag of owner Andy Cohen's vanity plates) leaving the lot behind Beverly Hills Motoring Accessories really is the very first Ferrari Daytona ever built.

It follows that California cars fill several automotive categories in the current issue of the Guinness Book of World Records.

Yet it's really a freak show, a roster of novelties with some assembled for no other purpose than the brief and debatable fame of being included in the book.

The Guinness list includes a solar-powered vehicle that barely got up to bicycle speeds on California roads, a 22-ton tractor built in Sacramento for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and a limousine long enough to command four parking meters. Also a 12,000-horsepower car (since dismantled) built in Los Angeles around four fighter-plane engines and a world land speed record of 739-miles-per-hour (since disputed) by a rocket-propelled car at Edwards Air Force Base.

Nothing romantic, glamorous or particularly touchable here.

Hence this review. Of the finest, fastest and most beautiful cars in Southern California. Of the most useless. Of the oldest and most expensive and oddest and most mysterious. Of superlative cars that make grown men sigh and maybe even . . . well, reach for a Guinness.

AN AURA OF FASCINATION

The most mysterious car in Southern California exists as a replica that has become a specter. The original--Porsche Spyder 550-0055, silver with red competition stripes atop its rear fenders--was wrecked at 5:46 p.m., Sept. 30, 1955, in an accident on Old Route 466 near Paso Robles. The driver, actor James Dean, was killed. At that moment, they say, myths and mechanical hauntings began.

Another sports-car racer salvaged pieces of the Porsche's suspension system--and was killed when the car crashed at Pomona. Rolf Wutherich, a mechanic who was Dean's passenger on the fatal drive, survived severe injuries--but not the emotional scars of the accident--and was killed when his car skidded off a German road in 1981.

George Barris of North Hollywood, King of the Kar Kustomizers who painted a name (Little Bastard) and racing numbers (130) on the Porsche only days before the accident, obtained the twisted carcass, and it was sent on a nationwide tour intended to remind young motorists that speed kills. In 1960, while returning to California by flatcar, the Porsche disappeared. Cut up for macabre souvenirs? Held by a private collector? Dumped in fright?

Nobody knows the truth. But as long as the search continues, a fascinating aura will surround the replica currently held in the Boses Collection, a movie-rental business owned by Scott Boses of Los Angeles.

The replica was built in 1967 around a 140-horsepower, four-cylinder Volkswagen engine. Says Boses: "Being a James Dean fan, I just wanted to have his car." Boses often fires up the little screamer and heads north to tool Mulholland Drive. As Dean did. Sometimes Boses wears a leather jacket and scrunches his head down when he drives. Just like Dean. And sometimes, when imaginations are ripe and the silver Porsche squirts around a corner at a certain angle and the light is just right . . . .

BEAUTY IS IN THE EYE OF THE . . .

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