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That's Luxury in the County Driver's Seat

February 23, 1989|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Candice Pratt, 15, has her future all mapped out. "On my 26th birthday, I'm going to get a red Ferrari Testarossa convertible," says Pratt, who lives in Laguna Niguel. And after that, she plans to become a U.S. senator and eventually president.

Richard Mairena, 32, wasn't interested in the presidency when he was 15. He just wanted a Ferrari. And 3 years ago--that's right, before he was 30--he wrote a check for roughly $72,000 and drove away in a black Ferrari Mondial 400.

Welcome to Orange County, the land where status car dreams come true. Statistics are hard to come by; the Department of Motor Vehicles doesn't keep track of how many such vehicles are registered here, either by make or by price tag. But when was the last time you looked around--on the freeway, on Pacific Coast Highway, in just about any parking lot--and didn't see a Mercedes-Benz, a Porsche or a Jaguar?

Sales of dream cars are booming here, according to the people who sell them. Although Ferrari sales can't go higher because production is limited, the county does have the world's largest Ferrari dealership: Newport Imports, which also handles Jaguar, Aston Martin, Lotus and Range Rover. Jaguar sales have quadrupled since 1982, according to Newport Imports manager Don Moothart.

Mercedes-Benz dealer Jim Slemons says his sales went up 15% in 1988, and this year's sales so far are ahead of last year's.

"There's nowhere in the United States where you see as many luxury cars as you will in Newport Beach," Moothart says. "Nowhere."

Newport Beach may have a high concentration, but the rest of the county has its share of status cars too. The other day at a north county K mart, the blue-light special announcements were interrupted by a notice that "there's a royal-blue Jaguar in the parking lot with its lights on."

"People do kind of stare at you when you drive into the lot at Fedco or the Price Club," Rolls-Royce owner Linda Weaver says. "It's like, 'What are you doing here?' "

But of course people look, whether you pull up in front of a discount store or an exclusive restaurant. Isn't being seen the whole point of driving a status car?

Not necessarily, according to some owners. Although status is a factor, it isn't always the most important one.

"You can't really draw conclusions about someone's motivations by simply noting that they possess this object," says psychiatrist Martin Brenner, medical director of CPC Santa Ana Hospital and the owner of a 1986 Jaguar Vanden Plas, which cost him "about $40,000."

"I always dreamed of having a Jag," Brenner says. "I loved the old XKE, it's an awesomely beautiful car. And when I got my car, I just felt good with myself that I was driving a car that I liked and that I felt proud of."

In Orange County, having a nice car is simply "conforming to the prevailing custom," Brenner says. "You fit better. It's like going into a very nice restaurant where everybody's dressed nice."

Brenner concedes that although he bought the car primarily for himself and not to impress others, "I do enjoy the fact that I get positive feedback about my automobile."

But Richard Engel, owner of a blue 1986 Ferrari Testarossa, says status is the primary reason he bought his car. "A lot of my friends have status cars too--Ferraris, Lamborghinis, whatever--and I would say that status is probably the controlling aspect of why we buy them.

"This is the most powerful, fastest car made, ever. It looks great, and it makes me feel great. I like to be looked at. It's a conversation piece.

"I'm not a snob about it. If a boatload of kids start honking, I'll roll down the window and talk to them about it. That's part of the fun."

Engel, who lives in Newport Beach, had to wait 18 months to get his car 3 years ago. Now the wait is 2 1/2 years, according to Ed Woodburn of Newport Imports. "A couple of people have gotten tired of waiting and taken their names off the list," Woodburn says. "But not many."

The Testarossa sells for $141,780, Woodburn says.

Weaver says she wishes that her 1979 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith had dark-tinted windows because "I prefer not to get looked at." But she's well aware that not everyone feels that way. Weaver, co-owner with Mairena of Pegasus, a courier and limousine service, sometimes rents out her own car through the company to customers who definitely want to be seen in a Rolls. Unlike a stretch limo, she says, "it's easier for them to make people think it's their car."

Weaver, who lives in Irvine, owned a Mercedes-Benz and had been shopping for a new one when she came across the used Rolls about 5 years ago. "A new (Rolls) was extremely out of all reason," she says. But she was able to get the older model for "in the neighborhood of $50,000," about $15,000 less than the she would have paid for the new Mercedes she had in mind.

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