ONE OF MY INDELIBLE Los Angeles car experiences happened years ago at what was then the tragically hip Katsuya on La Cienega. I was test-driving a $325,000 citron-hued Lamborghini Huracán for a magazine review. I pulled up to the valet station, flipped open the groovy scissor doors, and tried to step out of the insanely squat Italian bull without pulling a Hollywood slip in front of a throng of gawkers. Mission accomplished.
And then, it happened.
“Oh, gaw, what a waste!” said the stupefyingly handsome actor, I mean valet, who, with a hollow stare, held out his hand to take the keys. “Excuse me?” I asked, hoping he was referring to something having nothing to do with me. But no. He actually was commenting, to no one in particular, that I, the person exiting his fantasy car, didn’t at all match his notion of who owns such a car. Sadly for him, I was not Gigi Hadid, who in this scenario would likely exit the car bikini clad. I was poking a giant hole in his arrested teenage supercar phantasm, not to mention having the nerve to do so while fully dressed.
In that moment, I understood an immutable fact of L.A. car culture: In this town, you really are what you drive. But also, not. The funny thing is, the fine-young-actor-I-mean-valet was spot on. I didn’t own that sunshine-yellow Lambo, and I’m likely not the kind of person the typical Angeleno expects to see alighting from one. Instead, many of us would conjure an aging tech billionaire-lothario trolling Rodeo Drive for a delectable sugar baby. Or maybe his 21-year-old scion who just picked up his rosso mars Lambo at the O’Gara Coach company in Beverly Hills as a birthday gift from dad. But if we’re talking about the superficial act of judging one by the car he or she drives, well, then, where better than in extroverted, bling-flexing, auto-entrenched Los Angeles? Here, more than anywhere else on Earth, what you drive tells us all a lot about you. At least until it doesn’t.
“The thing about car culture in L.A. is, there’s no real way to opt out,” says Dan Neil, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former Los Angeles Times automotive critic, now a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. “For all the bitching and moaning about traffic, everyone is in 100 percent. It’s just like fashion. You have to pick something out of your closet each day to cover your naked ass. And when you buy a car, you have to choose something, and it’s likely going to say at least something about you.”
In a town whose chief industry is the creation of illusion, and where the truth, as the comedy legend Larry Gelbart once noted, is “as stretchable as a limo,” what a vehicle says about you can be a sincere expression of your taste or several miles distant from who you actually are and what station you occupy. L.A. has led the democratization of the luxury-car segment partly because the pressure to keep up appearances here is such that leasing a car you can’t possibly afford to buy confers upon an aspirant the sheen of legitimacy—you can fake it pretty much forever even if your chances of making at are essentially nil.
“I was in a Mercedes dealership once, and I was speaking with one of the sales guys,” says Angus MacKenzie, the former longtime editor of MotorTrend. “He told me a lady had come in that afternoon and wanted to lease a Mercedes, any Mercedes. Didn’t matter which one. She told him, ‘I’ve got exactly $370 left every month after I pay my rent and other expenses. What can I get?’ The guy said he worked the numbers 15 different ways and got her into a brand-new Mercedes for $369 a month. That’s a very L.A. transaction—she was broke but had to spend every cent she had left to look like she had it all together and could play in the big kids’ pool.”
Just how pervasive is L.A.’s car-as-status-signifier obsession?
Several years ago, a 12-year-old wrote Jay Leno a letter explaining he had told his classmates that Jay was his uncle and regularly drove the kid around town in Leno’s green Lamborghini Countach. “So I called the kid,” Leno told me. “ ‘First off,’ ” I said, “ ‘You are a liar. I’m not your uncle. And, second, put your parents on the phone.’ I asked if it was OK if I took the kid to school in the Lamborghini. They said, ‘Sure.’ So we pull up to the school, all the kids gather around, and the kid is in heaven. Then he gets out of the car and waves, ‘Bye, Uncle Jay!’ That kid is probably in prison now.”
Stewart Reed, chairman of the Transportation Design department at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena—alumni include some of the top automotive designers in the world—says he’s endlessly amazed by the lengths Angelenos will go to retrofit status gimcrackery onto their rides even when it renders them nearly unroadworthy. Recently, Stewart saw a Hummer H2 SUV tricked out with super-low-profile tires meant for a high-performance Mercedes sedan. “This guy hit a pothole and blew out his tire,” Reed says. “I had to laugh.”
Like the Angelenos who drive them, cars represent a spectrum of personality types that often are extensions of those of their owners. “If it was just about transportation, we’d all be driving the same gray box on wheels, and we aren’t,” MacKenzie says. “Whether consciously or not, we are attracted to the cars that say something about us. Something sparks and says, ‘That’s me!’”
Volvo, the Swedish automaker of aggressively practical and practically bulletproof vehicles, attracts a demographic in L.A. for which the make’s anti-status virtue signaling perversely creates a status all its own. “It’s so anti-stylish that it has become stylish,” acknowledges Jill Sandin, an L.A.-based PR executive in the hospitality industry and a lifetime Volvo owner who currently owns three. There was an aberrational blip between Volvos when Sandin got herself a Mercedes-Benz SUV. When the lease was up, she gave it back. “I felt like such an impostor in that thing,” Sandin laments. “So what does the Volvo say about me? I think of it as a left-wing smarty-pants car. It speaks to who I am.”
The Toyota Prius, the first mass-marketed hybrid, was, upon its debut in 1997, the “It” car of progressive Hollywood until Tesla debuted its Model S—everyone from Steven Spielberg to Kirsten Dunst drove one. Beyond its green bona fides, though, there didn’t seem too much to recommend the Prius from a style or performance standpoint—one auto expert who begged not to be identified told me, “the Prius is a car for people who don’t really like cars.” But a decade ago, you would, in the course of daily driving, encounter multiple Priuses across L.A., each of which seemed to sport an Obama bumper sticker with the word “hope” in all caps. (I used to joke that Toyota should have sold an Obama Package alongside its optional Cold Weather Package.) Thus did the Prius become a rolling campaign proxy not only for Obama but for lefty politics and policies, to the chagrin of those who drove the make and were now assumed to be woke progressives, whether they were or not.
So what would be today’s Prius counterpoint? Something American-made certainly, perhaps General Motors’s Corvette, which has been in continuous production since 1953 and whose adherents include our 77-year-old president, who in October pitted his personal ’67 Corvette against a 2015 Stingray owned by Michael Powell, son of the late U.S. secretary of state, on an episode of Jay Leno’s Garage. (Despite hitting 116 miles per hour, Biden’s ’Vette never stood a chance.)
The Corvette’s aging male demographic suggests to many females a case of . . . overcompensation. This is not really fair. The all-new 2023 C8 Corvette Z06 is a beautifully balanced mid-engine beast that presents an astounding 0-to-60 mph time of 2.6 seconds. Still, who is the likely L.A. buyer of this most superlative ’Vette? “He’s got on Bermuda shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, he’s balding, has a paunch, and a set of golf clubs in the trunk, and he’s trying to recapture his youth,” says Karl Brauer, executive analyst at ISeeCars.com. “I say to GM, ‘Stop catering to this guy!’ I really want one of these. But once I sprouted some gray hair, I couldn’t do it; I didn’t want to be seen as ‘that guy.’ ” Not helping matters is that the Corvettes’ status bona fides have been in decline since the late ’70s, when L.A.’s professional class turned to BMW and Mercedes sports cars. (Dirk Diggler, Mark Wahlberg’s character in Boogie Nights, toasts his ascension to porn star by scoring an orange ’77 Stingray coupe.) Starting in the ’80s, Angelyne hijacked the ‘Vette’s testosterone messaging by famously driving a succession of hot-pink models. And it’s hard to say what motivated Joan Didion to drive a yellow 1969 Stingray at the height of her fame; it speaks, well, volumes that she traded in her ’Vette for a Volvo when she and John Dunne moved from Malibu to Brentwood.
Rolls-Royce’s wild ride—from chariot of Old Hollywood swells like Frank Sinatra and Zsa Zsa Gabor to mustard-advert punch line in the ’80s to the make’s recent, near-miraculous embrace by L.A.’s youngish actors, athletes, musicians, and influencers—is a case study in how to reboot a brand in an era when perception and reality are increasingly blurred.
By 2010, “the average age of our customer was 60,” says Rolls-Royce U.S. marketing exec Gerry Spahn, who had a hand in reimagining the brand. “There was still a lot of Grey Poupon in the company.” The fix: go after the demographic Rolls once spurned. Taking a page from another dying brand, Rolls, like Gucci, pursued arrivistes—high-profile rappers, athletes, and influencers—with aggressively updated and entirely new models whose styling read as near parody of the classic Rolls. The sixtysomething faithful were aghast—Wayne Newton professed to hate the new look—but that was largely the point. Rolls 2.0 was a smash with newly minted nouveau riches, and sales soared. (Kylie Jenner’s 15-vehicle motor pool comprises no fewer than five Rollers, including a $300,000 Wraith with a custom pink interior.) L.A. is now Rolls-Royce’s No. 1 market.
“We’ve gone from tweed and leather elbow patches to people in their thirties and forties who are now almost exclusively new money—the musicians and sports and tech stars,” says Spahn. “These people are not ashamed of their success—they want to celebrate it and show it off.”
Such status churn was rare in the days when television revolved around three networks and L.A. had five daily newspapers. In 1950s Los Angeles, if you had a Cadillac parked in your garage, you had arrived. Not only did the city’s white population covet the make, but so did Blacks. It was one of the few things owned by L.A’.s affluent that was enjoyed equally, regardless of race. Then, the 1960s brought sleek European and Japanese imports, commencing a white flight from American cars that, by the 1970s, had decimated Cadillac and left it teetering on insolvency.
But throughout, Blacks remained loyal to the brand and were there when its first SUV, the Escalade, rolled off the assembly line in 1998 not a minute too soon. With its aggressive styling and eye-catching stature, the Escalade became the darling of L.A. sports stars and West Coast rappers. It seemed nearly every player on the Lakers had one, or wanted one. Rappers, not known for subtlety, bought the Escalade and blinged it further with imposing chromed wheels and in-your-face colors. Cadillac shot to the top of the “It” list. For 2023, building on the Escalade’s success, the brand is betting this demographic will embrace its gorgeous new electric SUV, the Lyriq. “[Blacks] have been Cadillac’s salvation for years,” says Neil.
And then there is Tesla, which currently fields the No. 1, No. 2, and No. 10 best-selling vehicles in California, gas or electric (the Models Y, 3, and S, respectively). Teslas are so ubiquitous on Westside thoroughfares that they comprise a virtual brand armada—and this from a company that never markets itself beyond its website and the increasingly disordered public commentary of CEO Elon Musk.
Tesla’s market share and L.A. ubiquity—an acquaintance counted 30 Teslas, parked or in motion, on a recent two-mile drive through West Hollywood—would seem unassailable. But Tesla now has the oldest lineup among electric automakers, and the styling of its models are variations on the same (also dated) silhouette. Meanwhile, an army of electric Tesla killers is marching across L.A., eager to steal the market share and cutting-edge status Tesla has owned unchallenged for a decade: Porche’s übersexy Taycan; Mercedes-Benz’s EQS, a billion-dollar reboot of its S-Class flagship, Hollywood’s once and now maybe future status vehicle before Tesla ate its luxury lunch; and sleek offerings from electro-newbies Lucid, Rivian, and the revamped Fisker.
“Tesla is old hat now to early adopters,” an auto industry insider told me. “Angelenos are starting to look around for the next big thing, and it could be something like the Rivian. Some big, fuck-off electric vehicle. Elon Musk needs to come up with something very different to keep the interest of his current customers. A lot of people in L.A. now have a 10-year-old Tesla Model S. What are they going to buy? Another Model S? No, they’re bored.”
That describes Phil Rosenthal, creator of Everybody Loves Raymond and star of the Netflix series Somebody Feed Phil. Rosenthal was one of the first 300-some buyers to nab a Tesla Model S ten years ago. “I was that early adopter,” says Rosenthal. “But I want to try something new.” Musk’s extremist politics and fraught Twitter takeover may be giving the faithful pause, but defectors for now seem the exception. Lew Schneider drives his Tesla 3 to the set of The Goldbergs, where he is a director. “For the longest time, I didn’t want to be ‘that guy’ in the Tesla, just another L.A. copycat. Now that I have one, I’m that cool guy in a Tesla. I love my car.”
I used to have a Ferrari, and people were really hostile to me, thinking I was a jerk because I had this racy, loud Italian sports car. But since I got my Aston Martin, I keep getting the thumbs-up from other drivers. I like that. I don’t want to be thought of as a jerk.
There is evidence that L.A.’s car-as-status-marker could be waning, though not necessarily for reasons of egalitarianism. Precedence informs us that before he switched to the Model S that he credited with saving his life after the car was totaled in a 2015 wreck, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s daily driver was a black Mustang (he was said to have downgraded from a stick-shift Porsche so he could field cell calls more easily.) Lately, stupendously wealthy stars have been spotted puttering around town in prole rides like the $13,000 Scion XB (Tom Hanks); $26,000 Toyota Tacoma (Christian Bale); and $19,000 VW Jetta (Justin Timberlake). Outside the Golden Triangle, Mark Zuckerberg has turned up in a Honda Fit and Jeff Bezos in an Accord. What gives?
A study by Experian Automotive found that 61 percent of individuals with incomes of more than $250,000 seek out prole iron like Fords and Hondas. Another study found the Ford F-150 was the most popular vehicle in the U.S. for those earning $200,000 or more. Has Hollywood actually parked its love of flexy rides? Maybe. But it is equally plausible that L.A.’s stars aren’t, in fact, just like us and are simply acknowledging a depressing new reality: with the rise in follow-home robberies and assaults in L.A. and Beverly Hills, piloting a selfless Ford instead of a look-at-me Lambo reduces the likelihood of trouble and foils standard-issue rubberneckers to boot.
Meanwhile, only in L.A. is the valet the ultimate arbiter of whether one’s vehicle makes the cut as a status wagon or a flat tire. The judgment is swift and brutal, the gallery packed with a watchful captive audience waiting for their own wheels. Will yours be granted a spot in the handful of conspicuous parking spots off the porte cochere when you arrive, thus averting a 10-minute wait clutching a fiver while it is hauled from the garage? On a recent Saturday night, my husband and I hopped in the back seat of our friend James’s new Aston Martin DBX 707. James has coveted Aston Martins ever since he saw James Bond drive a DB5 in Goldfinger when he was 15. “I used to have a Ferrari, and people were really hostile to me, thinking I was a jerk because I had this racy, loud Italian sports car,” he says. “But ever since I got my first Aston Martin, I keep getting the thumbs-up from other drivers. It’s a totally different reaction, and I like that. I don’t want to be thought of as a jerk.”
We arrived at swanky Capo just as Michael Keaton was exiting his new paper-plated Tesla. James’s Aston Martin would have to tap its A game if it was to garner any attention at this gathering of automotive beauties: a spanking new white Land Rover Defender and a smattering of Porsche Cayennes, an Escalade, and the requisite Mercedeses of various flavors. The question was, with only three spots out front, would the Aston be waiting there for us when we finished dinner? Also, would I relive, by proxy, my mortifying Lamborghini valet censure all those years ago at Katsuya?
After dinner, we strolled out of Capo and beheld the verdict: James’s new baby was parked directly in front of the valet stand, precisely where we left it, having never been moved.
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This article appears in the December 2022 issue of Los Angeles magazine