Budget Ballin'

To hell with the economy! South Florida's lawless exotic rental car industry keeps rolling.

The local high-end car rental market can be traced back to the Fifties, when the Rat Pack tooled through Mid-Beach in Caddy convertibles. It gestated in earnest during the Cocaine Cowboys-ruled late Eighties. "The dealers liked to change cars every few days," American's Elera wistfully remembers. "You'd get a hundred-dollar tip just getting them their car."

Renters' motivations range from test-driving before a purchase, to "being a ho on South Beach," as Medina puts it, to that distinctively South Floridian pastime: trying to acquire money by appearing to already have it. Most commonly, though, customers — the overwhelming majority are male — want these attention-grabbing vehicles for the same reason male parrots sprout glowing plumage. Carefree's Fouhy estimates that 75 percent of his clients are looking to pick up women.

That number presumably includes those who rent to avoid detection when cavorting with mistresses: the infidelity demographic is so large that some managers profess to be specialists. "Some of our customers already have a Bentley in their garage," says Moses Zamudio, a manager at Image Rental Car, a stand inside a Fort Lauderdale Rodeway Inn. "But they rent from me because I know them and I'm discreet. They don't want to come to the counter where everybody can see them. I'll leave it with a valet or at a hotel, so they'll be sure they're not being tracked."

Noah Lehman-Haupt is the MIT-educated wünderkind CEO of Gotham Dream Cars.
Laura Massa
Noah Lehman-Haupt is the MIT-educated wünderkind CEO of Gotham Dream Cars.
Melisa Conzé tries out a Lamborghini before the Dream Car Tour.
Laura Massa
Melisa Conzé tries out a Lamborghini before the Dream Car Tour.

Cheaters — and all the other renters — pay exorbitantly for this service. Prices range from $195 per day for a Hummer H2 to $1,600 and up for a "true exotic" such as a Lamborghini or Ferrari. One company, Gotham Dream Cars in Dania Beach, offers a Saleen S7, a $400,000 supercar, to elite clients. Until a recent price cut, a weekend rental cost $7,740.

In these dire financial times, the industry faces a potentially mortal foe: sensible spending. After all, a renter can have a Japanese compact for one-20th the price of an Italian exotic. Follow a display of exotic cars into an airport-area storefront such as Tolsy Luxury Cars — a bright yellow cube of a building on NW 25th Street — and you're likely to find some long faces. "How about you tell us how we're going to make some money?" a manager rebuffs New Times when asked for an interview, a nearly empty dollar counter whirring behind him.

It's difficult to track down statistics on the niche industry, but several owners say business has recently plummeted 30 percent or more. Most ominously, it seems South Floridians are beginning to resign themselves to their class realities. "The local business has all died off," Medina says. "Before, it was 80 percent locals, 20 percent tourists from the airport. Now it's the opposite."

Rental shop owners have responded by slashing prices, sometimes by more than $500 a day. A Maserati Quattroporte that used to go for more than $1,000 daily can now be had for $695. And that Saleen supercar? Gotham is offering it up for a song: $6,450 a weekend.

Max Shelikhov, a 25-year-old frequent customer of Prestige Luxury Auto Rental in South Beach, is taking advantage of the new reality. A self-made entrepreneur in the "import/export" business, he rents a red Ferrari 430 for his twice-monthly weekend jaunts to Miami, where he has an apartment on Ocean Drive. "I like to spoil myself from time to time," he says. "I earned it myself, so I get to spend it myself."

For a long weekend to celebrate the New Year, he has reserved eight vehicles that constitute a Master P-music-video-quality motorcade for his fiancée, parents, and extended family. "I'm getting a couple of Escalades, an S-Class Mercedes, a Bentley, a [Rolls Royce] Phantom ...," he casually recounts. "They all have to be larger vehicles, since it's for family."

He's not sure what it will cost. "I'm assuming they'll have a special," he speculates. But if current prices hold up, such a fleet will run near $20,000 for a few days.

You might say Shelikhov is an ideal customer. "With the recession, yeah, I'm worse off," he explains. "I could probably go to Enterprise and rent a station wagon or something, but I think once you go Ferrari, it's hard to go below that again. Sometimes when I'm not in the mood to splurge, I'm perfectly fine with settling for a Mercedes or a Cadillac Escalade."

On a warm Monday afternoon in November, a man who calls himself Mosabe is tidily dressed in a blue faux-cowboy shirt, jeans, leather loafers, and large Dior sunglasses. His 2006 yellow Lamborghini Murciélago howls through steady traffic traveling north on I-95, out of downtown Miami. His face is delicate, with wide, effeminate almond-shaped eyes under neatly tweezed brows.

And he drives like he just learned his house is on fire. Going 60 mph, which feels something like an idle in the 640-horsepower Murciélago, he aims at a gap, floors the gas pedal, and zooms through with the engine roaring like it's coal-powered. The air conditioning is broken — it might cost $15,000 to replace — and the hot air blasting through open windows mixes with the heat from the engine to turn this vehicle into a $280,000 convection oven.

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