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First Person

Instant Fame in Red-Hot Car of the Moment

August 30, 2000|DONALD BULL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To surprise my wife, Robin, for her birthday, I rented a Chrysler PT Cruiser for the weekend--and in 48 hours we experienced all the thrills and horrors of instant fame.

She drives a fragile '87 Jaguar and wants a new car, so when she saw the Cruiser at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show back in January, she thought she had found a car with as much style as her British baby. But when she began calling dealerships, she discovered that none of them offers test drives--because they don't need to.

Then I found Advantage Car Rental in Van Nuys, where I rented an "Inferno Red" PT Cruiser for $90 a day. With full insurance, unlimited mileage and a prepaid tank of gas, the tab came to $239 for two days. That seemed steep, but it was the same as renting a hot sports car for the weekend--and right now the Cruiser is the cooler car.

*

I was briefly disappointed when I first caught sight of the star of my birthday production. The PT was smaller in real life than I'd expected from the pictures. But that feeling quickly passed as our first fan appeared before I had even driven away.

It was the start of a weekend of fan bombardment--but that's what you get when you hang out in public with a celebrity. Our admirers fell into three categories: polite fans who pretend they aren't looking but sneak glances at you; loud fans who insist on being your friend; and brazen stalkers.

The first guy, a bearded man in his 50s, turned out to be a stalker. He slowly circled me as I transferred dry-cleaning, bags and cassette tapes from my car to the Cruiser. He peered over my shoulder as I lowered the seats in back, then examined the side mirrors as I got behind the wheel. He finally stood right in front of the car and wouldn't move--even after I'd started the engine. I was afraid to honk.

When I finally tooted the horn, he looked me in the eye and just stared. Finally, he stepped back on the curb and I made my getaway. My first celebrity lesson: Don't upset the stalkers.

Robin was thrilled with her birthday gift, once I convinced her I hadn't bought it. She grabbed the keys and slid behind the wheel. We hit the town in style.

She likes the car because the design reminds her of a London cab or a classic DeSoto. I like it because it reminds me of those same cars souped up into Rat Fink hot rods from the '70s.

When you're with a star, errands take longer. It was midday by now, and everyone was slowing down to look at us in our hot-red car in the bright July sun.

As we walked out of a coffee shop, one woman insisted on taking our picture. She took one as we posed by the car, another as we pulled out of the parking space, still another as we waved at her with the windows down.

Then drivers behind us started honking and we had an excuse to drive away.

You can't talk to everybody, no matter how nice they are, so soon we were acting like celebrities ourselves. We donned dark sunglasses, just smiled and nodded. Parking lots were tough, but the crowds eventually parted if we moved slowly enough. Robin did mention, however, that it would be nice if the car-rental company provided bodyguards along with the Cruiser.

*

We needed a break from all the attention, so on Sunday we headed north to Santa Barbara to visit friends. A guy in a Mustang convertible pulled alongside and honked, and he and his blond girlfriend flashed us a thumbs-up. We waved, all smiles, suddenly accepted by the beautiful people.

But soon it was impossible to change lanes because there was always a car full of rubberneckers alongside checking us out. If we accelerated, so would they. If we slowed, they'd do the same. We missed three exits because we were boxed in by fans cheering us on.

The Cruiser was fun to drive, but it doesn't have a lot of power--it gets passed going uphill no matter how cool it looks. It was the most fun at the beach with all the windows down. The hatchback makes it easy to throw junk in the back, and the car is small enough to get in and out of any parking space.

The weekend was a blast, but after 48 hours we were glad to abandon our celebrity status and slip back into the anonymity of our comfortable used cars.

Someday, when there are thousands of PT Cruisers on the road and the flush of excitement wears off, Robin will go back and try the relationship again.

*

Donald Bull is an editor, director and writer for TV and film. He currently works on "The Real World" and "Road Rules" for MTV and just completed a short film, "Dodgeball." He can be reached at highway1@latimes.com.

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