Image: Beverly Hills Car Rental, L.A.
Rolls-Royce Motor Cars LTD
Beverly Hills Rent-a-Car's fleet includes Porsche, Aston Martin and Ferrari—among others—and a dozen American classics from the 50s, 60s and 70s. The super-grand Rolls-Royce Drophead goes for $7,500 a day, or $45,000 for the week, but forget about that run to Tijuana: no driving outside the U.S. with these beauties.
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updated 3/5/2008 6:08:06 PM ET 2008-03-05T23:08:06

America might have invented “car culture,” but there’s a strong case to be made for lusting after European luxury. And while possession may seem the obvious goal, the duration of that possession is always relative. So ask yourself which is better: owning a Maserati you can never drive? Or driving a Maserati you could never own?

More and more car aficionados are exercising the latter option, through rental agencies that specialize in luxury auto and high-end driving clubs. Across the country and abroad, fleets of the newest, sweetest rides—Ferraris, Aston Martins, Audis, Lamborghinis—are available for all, at a price—without the hassles of garaging, maintenance and repair. Exotic car rentals are often the first step, followed by car clubs. In these automotive versions of the members-only country club, well-heeled car enthusiasts pony up initial membership payment, and then annual dues—in exchange for the keys to a cadre of top-end vehicles.

“Luxury car clubs and rentals started really taking off in American from 2001 to 2003, and have seen a big growth surge,” says Milton Pedraza, CEO of the Luxury Institute, a research group that focuses on the top 10 percent of America’s wealthy. “Why does a person want to own a luxury car? With club membership, I can get latest model, I don’t take the big depreciation hit and don’t have to fuss with insurance.”

Two American companies, Chicago Elite Rental and Classic Car Manhattan, embody two aspects of this recent revolution in vehicular lifestyling.

Chicago Elite Rental started almost three years ago with five cars, and has since grown its fleet to 30, including a 2006 Bentley Flying Spur and a Porsche 911 C4S Coupe. “We have a very versatile clientele,” says Vivia Redwood, a Chicago Elite service manager. “We rent to out-of-towners who want to make the Lake Shore drive in style, to celebrities, and to people who don’t have the means to own but love the cars.”

Classic Car Manhattan is an American extension of the original, London-based Classic Car Club. Though the doors opened recently, in 2005, they’re already close to capping certain levels of membership. “The last thing we want is club members who cannot get a hold of cars,” says John Eisenberg, director of sales. “We’re very cognizant of the cars-to-members ratio.” Most car clubs function by having an incoming member purchase a level of membership (the higher the level, the better access to top cars), giving the member a certain number of points to use on any car in the fleet; driving the most luxe or exotic cars over summertime weekends requires the most points.

Then there’s the rise of “bespoke” services, labeled as such by Greg Furman, CEO of the Luxury Marketing Council. “Numerous companies are getting more innovative about bespoke products and services,” Furman says. Mid-range “aspirational” consumers “are looking for a point of entry” to this luxe-car scene, which can be found in rentals. Consumers “want a one-stop service tailored to their own requirements.”

The Écurie25 Club of London and the P1 Supercar Club of Australia function much the same way. Imagine tearing up Australia’s Gold Coast with a surfboard in the back of your convertible Aston Martin DB9 Volante. P1 describes its top-tier cars as “over-powered, loud, and useless to go shopping with—wonderful.”

For these clubs, driving is really just half the action—socializing before, after and between drives is the members’ way of creating mini societies. Écurie25 holds meet-and-greet functions for would-be members who daydream about hustling along the M11 highway in the Aston Martin Vantage Roadster; they also unveil new cars at events at their Old Street headquarters.

“We chat with our members often, or take their e-mails, about which cars they’d like to see in the fleet,” says Flora Heathcote, Écurie25 marketing manager. “We pride ourselves on being the first club to get a new model when it is released.” According to its Web site, Écurie25 saved members roughly $4.29 million in depreciation over the past two years.

Luxury renting in Europe is made easy by the widespread rental service Elite, which maintains one of the biggest fleets of luxury cars at its offices in France, Switzerland, Italy and Germany. It may be the best way to experience an Audi R8 on the A8 Autobahn, from Munich to Salzburg, Austria.

Image: DFW Elite Auto Rental, Dallas
Bentley Motors
Zipping around Dallas and Fort Worth, look like you come from new-oil money in your Bentley Continental GTC convertible ($1,650 per day, weekends). In addition to the Aston Martins, Dodge Vipers and Corvettes, Elite Auto Rental also has one of the most unique, smarty-exotic cars around: a 1959 BMW Isetta. With this gem, you'll look like a rich kook, with or without the oil money.
If nothing turns you on like perfect Italian bodywork, then Luxe of Italy has the right rental for your date with Monica Bellucci in Milan. Just one year old, Luxe of Italy has a handpicked fleet of new Ferraris, Maseratis and Lamborghinis, including the Ferrari 430 Scuderia.

“Many of our clients like the Ferrari 599 GTB Fionaro for longer drives,” says Roberta Pozzi, Elite’s sales manager, “but we’re so excited to get the Scuderia.” These “longer drives” might include a drive to Lugano and a lap back to Milan on the other side of Lake Como. Or maybe the demanding Milla Miglia, a 1000-mile route that began as a road race in 1927. But, says Pozzi, “maybe the best is driving Tuscany [where] you’ve got open road, endless curves and sweet hills.”

As for prices, a lower-end luxury rental might be $475 per day for a 2006 Porsche 911 S Cabriolet, or 2005 Lotus Elise for $300 a day over a weekend, in the U.S. If you must have a Lamborghini Gallardo Spider to tear up South Beach, that’ll be about $5,000 for a weekend. (In Europe, a top-tier rental is about $13,650 for three days.) Club memberships usually have a minimal application cost of $1,000 or more, with annual memberships varying from $15,000 to $30,000 depending on the kind of driving you want to do.

Even if you’re not ready to get behind the wheel, keep an eye on your favorite club or rental agency. According to Greg Furman, “These kinds of services keep coming up with newer ways for parsing experience so that more people can get a piece of the action.”

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