Tuesday, June 28, 2005
  Caged Heat: The D Type
Several Saturday afternoons ago, a red light held me at bay just across Sunset Blvd. from the gates of Bel Air. Nestled between Beverly Hills and Westwood, Bel Air is home to an exclusive collection of mansions and movie stars. As I faced its imposing limestone entrance, a river of cars flowed past en route to the beach, the freeway, the movies, the mall.

I was looking forward to flowing past those gates myself. As anybody who lives in this city will tell you at the merest hint of provocation, L.A. traffic has become almost unbearable. In fact, talking about traffic has become almost unbearable, as conventional a conversational leveler as weather or sports. I was looking forward to flowing onto the freeway and back to my own ungated neighborhood and an air-conditioned couch; to drink, perchance to pass out.

As I waited, gaze drifting restlessly from car to tree to driver to light, a long-nosed, low-slung convertible glided out through the gates and came to rest in the right-turn lane just across Sunset. Suddenly, I was awake. In fact, I was riveted. That was no run-of-the-mill Maserati or Aston Martin. Its lines were familiar yet maddeningly unrecognizable, and the throaty engine roar floated easily across four lanes of traffic.

Let me, as they say on TV, set this up. Whenever I see a car I don't recognize, I speed up to get a better look. In this way have I gazed upon such elusive vehicles as the Facel-Vega, the Qvale Mangusta, and more recently, a very early Chrysler Crossfire. One bored afternoon years back I even tracked a new Hyundai Tiburon to a remote Laurel Canyon cul de sac. I'm no snob. This Angeleno take on trainspotting may be a juvenile pastime, but it's one of my few hobbies. (In New York I used to do the same with elderly bicycles, inspecting frames and front gears to separate the Rudges from the Humbers, the Raleighs from the Chinese knockoffs.) I've never kept a record of such sightings; it's just something I do once in a while to break up the day.

I've seen hundreds of Jaguar XKEs, but I still gape and turn green whenever I see one. That legendary machine has topped my dream car list since I was a lad, way back when it was still in production. I can't even explain why I like the car so much. I'm well aware of its miserable service record, having suffered through a few costly years with a lesser Jaguar of more recent vintage. A car enthusiast magazine once described the XKE as "the most thorough-going phallic symbol on the road." That Freudian tribute cooled my jets a little, but not for long. Who cares what those magazines say, anyway?

My friend Sam cares. He runs a small but well-respected shop several miles from Bel Air, where well-heeled patrons pay dearly for mid-century esoterica. Unlike the character in the old song, Sam knows a lot about a lot of things, because when he takes an interest in something, he learns everything he can. He and his brother inherited a shared passion for performance cars from their father, a Long Island podiatrist. (Who knew podiatrists drove Ferraris and Gullwings? There's gold in them thar bunions!) Over the course of his reckless life, Sam has crashed more Porsches than I've sat in. A few years ago he succumbed to his own XKE lust and then, a few months later, nearly succeeded in selling that same car to me. I screeched to my senses just in time when a mechanic noted that it would cost $3,000 every 18 months just to keep the carburetors working. To say nothing of the infamous Lucas electrical system. I accepted then that even on my dot-com salary I was not to own an XKE.

But let us return to Sunset Blvd., where the mystery car sat idling at the light. Unable to identify the make, I eyeballed the occupants. Behind the wheel sat what I judged to be just another rich guy out for a posturing weekend drive. On his head: sunglasses and a sporting cap; on his right: a latter-day Kim Novak two decades his junior. She was young and icy perfect, eyes behind shades and hair upswept in a scarf. There they sat, three perfectly matched cliches newly descended from the green, green Bel Air hills, and they, like the rest of us, were stuck in traffic.

But what the hell was that car? It looked a lot like an XKE, yet the front fenders flared preposterously, and below each diminutive door gleamed an enormous chrome muffler. As I pondered, the light changed and the enigma swept regally into traffic. Enormous mufflers notwithstanding, it was louder than bombs. And it was going my way, toward the 405. The light changed and I followed that car.

Within moments, I'd drawn close enough to peer at the insignias. Nothing! I called Sam for backup. He was at his store, watching dust sparkle and settle on the inventory.

"I have a car question for you," I blurted, swerving through the four-wheeled rank and file for a better look.

"Is it about your wagon? If you had listened to me and not bought that overpriced German --"

"No, no -- it's not about my car this time. I'm behind something I've never seen before." I described it.

"Wow. That's either a rare car or a very rare car," he declared. "It's an XKSS or a D-type. Performance cousins of the XKE. What do the insignias say?"

"If it had any insignias I wouldn't be calling you."

"OK, then tell me more. Better yet, see if you can get closer. If I hear the engine sound I'll recognize it."

"Stop showing off. Okay, there's a white coat of arms with an 'X' and --"

"A-ha! That's the shield of Ecurie Ecosse, a Scottish racing team that fielded the D-Type at Le Mans in 1957. Only ten of those cars were ever imported to the United States. Steve McQueen had one. I wonder if that's his. If I'm correct, the car you're looking at sells for about a million dollars . . . when it sells, which it rarely does."

By now we were on the freeway, the car and I, and Sam asked me again to open my window and hold the phone up so he could hear the engine. I complied. Yes, he determined, it was almost certainly a D-type. I was driving with a measure of paparazzo-like abandon, trying to keep my prey within view. Sam and I were giddy with the chase and yet a little embarrassed. He'd been bored in his shop and I in my car, and within moments, thanks to a whim of traffic and a shared interest, we'd found ourselves smack in the middle of a weird L.A. confection, equal parts Bel Air bucks, car fetishism, freeway stalking, and frenzied cell phone chatter.

It was about to get better.

"Ask him if that's Steve McQueen's car," Sam cried.

That seemed like a good idea, but nearly impossible to execute. Traffic on the 405 was grinding to a standstill, and in a matter of moments I'd fallen far behind. Just then, the car's lane slowed to a crawl and mine opened up. I slid forward until the cars were abreast, then drew my brakes to pace the D-type. Its racket was deafening. I tossed the phone onto the passenger seat and shouted my question.

"Is that Steve McQueen's car?!"

The blonde looked over first, slightly annoyed. I shouted it again, pointing at the car. Blank look. She tapped the driver on the arm and pointed at me. He looked over. It was Nicolas Cage.

I tried again, suddenly aware that I was pestering a celebrity. On the upside, I was pestering him about a better celebrity. "Is that Steve McQueen's D-type?" I shouted.

He shook his head and mouthed "I can't hear you." He didn't seem to want to hear me. I didn't blame him, but I didn't care. I repeated my question, really yelling and enunciating. He heard me.

When I tell this story in person, I drop my voice about three octaves and let my face hang slack as I repeat his reply.

"Noooo," he fog-horned. "Steve had one like this, but this wasn't his car."

"Thanks," I chirped. I waved, we all smiled, and I rolled off down the hill, leaving the movie star and the blonde stuck in traffic in a million-dollar car.

I called Sam back for the recap. He was satisfied, and so was I. Do I love L.A.? Let's just say I could love that car.

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