WILD WHEELS - Southern California's car culture

by Louis Bignami

I adore long drives and old cars, new cars, hot cars or cool cars, for you can take the kid out of California, but you can’t take California out of this overage, overweight kid, Like most California natives, my love of automobiles runs me past museums, racetracks and anywhere else there’s a smog producing vehicle.

California, especially Southern California has a car culture. Chicanos with their low riders, old car buffs with anything at least 20 years old and, for the young of all ages, rag tops that testify to the virtues of open air and improving smog conditions in the LA Basin. Practically speaking the average Southern Californian commutes between an hour and two hours each way. Note: the time you hear is the speaker’s best time ever and not to be believed

Driving on LA freeways, especially if you live in a happy place where "traffic jams" mean you miss two light changes, can be brutal during what locals call "commute" hours. Near as I can tell these run from six in the morning until eleven, and from three to seven. In between you’ve the lunch rush and, in the evening until about three in the morning, the charge of the chemically enhanced. So, much as I like to drive, I stay off the freeways.

One good way to do this is the alpine drive out of San Bernadino on the 101 miles of Rim of the World Drive that runs up Highway 30 to Big Bear Lake at elevations between 5000 and 7200 foot elevation. Side roads to spots like Big Pine Flats and the Holcomb Valley put you into little known gold mining country and run you through some of the nicest cedar, pinon pine, ponderosa and jeffrey pine anywhere.

The area looks more like Lake Tahoe and offers a wonderful break from summer smog. The old town of Belleville and the unique assistencia, or branch mission, at San Antonio de Pala deserve a look. The last is a branch of Mission San Luis Ray over in Oceanside and is still an active parish church for the local Pauma Indians.

Closer to LA try the 50 miles of the Mullholland Scenic Corridor that runs through the Santa Monica Mountains to Leo Carrillo, About half of all low budget "drive until you die" and tacky monster movies ere filmed here and the views are superb for a day or two after a rain. Spring’s the best season for green hills.

Rather more upscale is the short 15 mile Palos Verdes Scenic Drive. The last connects with a bike trail -- See BIKING BLADING AND BUMMING THE BEACH. Richard Dana, whose TWO YEARS BEFORE THE MAST offers the best look at early sailing days in Hispanic California once scaled hides down the bluffs. These days the Palos Verdes runs to the good life.

Urban drives work to, Sunset or Supulveda end to end offer an interesting cross section of LA. However, the best urban drive in the south is the 25 mile San Diego Scenic Drive that ranks with San Francisco’s 49 Mile Drive if you run it on a weekend to avoid traffic. Expect to take an hour, then allow the rest of the weekend to go back and see everything -- See SAN DIEGO ZOO CHAPTER etc.

Another dandy, and much more bucolic drive is the 21 miles of Erosion Road near Anza Borrego Desert State Park, out of San Diego in the dry and dusty desert that’s best visited after spring rains.

Roads with bends, two way traffic, scenic turnouts, historical stops, old-time local malt shops and a sense of California’s pre-freeway past repay time spent with indelible memories.

All of these are delicious on a nice day when the traffic’s good, the air’s clear and the music, and your companion suit your taste. All are better if you drive something other than the boring "econobox" most of us rent.

One way to do this is with something from Budget’s "Beverly Hills Car Collection" in those two centers of economic excess Marina del Rey and Beverly Hills. The Rolls Royce is busted as I write this, but you can find BMW’s, Mercedes, Ferraris and other hot iron at prices in the "if you have to ask, you can’t afford it class." Well, figure $250 to $400 a day and half a buck a mile. Of course, there’s a complementary pickup at LAX through Marina del Rey

AutoExotica adds Lamborghinis, Maseratis, Excaliburs and even has a one-way rental LA to San Francisco. Stops at the Madona Inn in San Luis Obispo are optional. If you’d prefer to leave the driving to someone else, LA has more limos, exotic motorcoaches and other exotic iron available than anywhere else I know. Just don’t try for a rental on Oscar night!

AutoExotica 213-652-2834

Budgets’ Beverly Hills Car Collection 800-227-2117