Life in the Fast Lane

The Coachella Valley boasts a long history as a mecca for car aficionados

DONALD OSBORNE History, Watch & Listen - History 0 Comments

Local architect and carbuff Guy Dreier enjoys racing his high-performance vehicles on the track at The Thermal Club, where he is a member.


Since the first movie stars arrived from New York to the orange groves of Hollywood nearly a century ago, Southern California has arguably been a center of car culture.

Film idols regularly photographed with high-end luxury and sports cars — an image 20th-century America grew up with — firmly rooted in the nation’s psyche the connection between sunny, clear skies, palm trees, and luxurious motoring.

Not much has changed today in the Coachella Valley, where stars come to play and relax, leaving an indelible mark on our desert community. While great weather, golf, tennis, and architecture help define the good life, elegant, fast, and beautiful cars further define the Palm Springs scene.

Indeed, any resident or visitor can, in just a few minutes of car spotting, be treated to a veritable concours d’elegance of the world’s best and most interesting classic, luxury, and exotic sports cars. Whether it’s a ’50s American classic cruising Palm Canyon Drive, a luxury sedan gliding along Highway 111, a hot sports car climbing the twisting turns of Highway 74, or some other artfully formed metal at rest in the parking lot of a club, restaurant, shop, or hotel, it’s clear that the Coachella Valley takes its relationship with cars seriously.

Collectors’ Delight

On the roads, the affluence of the valley is certainly visible, with Jaguars, Mercedes-Benzes, Rolls-Royces, and Bentleys almost as common a sight as Subarus in Boulder, Colo. — a fact not lost on Marvin Sholl, the owner of Exotic Motor Cars in Palm Springs.

This former GM dealer from Chicago came to the desert in 1972, as many have, to escape the big-city stress (“to play golf and recharge my batteries,” he says). Sholl notes that when he discovered there were more Rolls-Royce cars registered in Greater Palm Springs than any single city in the United States, it was his clue to open a niche business in Cathedral City specializing in pre-owned Bentleys and Rolls-Royces.

After 13 years, he outgrew that location and moved to Palm Springs, expanding his offerings to include other vintage cars, such as the Ford Model A and two-seat Thunderbirds. In 35 years in business here, not only have sales grown dramatically but also has his customer base. Once 90 percent locals, approximately 75 percent of his sales now come from the Internet, sold to customers around the state, across the country, and in Canada.

In addition to classics, Exotic Motor Cars sells a mix of late-model luxury convertibles and sedans, such as Mercedes-Benz SLs and Jaguar XJ four-doors, as well as luxury SUVs, which are perfect for valley living. “They’re great for picking up all the friends at the airport who suddenly want to visit you now that you’ve moved out here,” Sholl says.

Hailing from the U.K., Keith McCormick was also a successful new car dealer with franchises selling Volkswagens, Audis, and Mazdas. He often holidayed with his family in Palm Springs and decided in the late 1970s that he wanted to make his home here. He started with the purchase of the Union 76 gas station on North Palm Canyon Drive and Tramway Road, the landmark Albert Frey/Robson Chambers–designed structure that is now the Palm Springs Visitors Center. His son, Jason, who was 12 years old when he came to live in California, remembers servicing customers at the pump as a teen.

With a keen love of vintage cars, McCormick started the popular Palm Springs Exotic Car Auctions company in 1985 and has conducted two sales a year since then. The McCormick sales are combination car show for the casual enthusiast and tourist and serious marketplace for thousands of residents, visitors, and dealers who come from across the U.S. and Europe to find interesting automobiles.

Racing Around

McCormick was also one of the principal forces behind the Palm Springs Vintage Grand Prix, which began in 1985. This was a revival of racing that had taken place from 1951 to 1958 on the runways and streets near the airport. Racing on airport circuits was popular in the decade after World War II, and Southern California hosted quite a few. The annual race was a major one and attracted the top racing talent of the day, including James Dean, who ran his Porsches here.

The revival was successful for many years, but finally the growth of the city and complaints about the noise spelled the end of the action on the streets in 1996. However, the spirit of racing lives on in the valley and has resulted in the creation of The Thermal Club. Initiated by owner Tim Rogers and developed with Mike Meldman, Discovery Land Co. Chairman and CEO, the club is located in the western region of the Coachella Valley, 30 minutes from Palm Springs.

Here, a purpose-built racetrack is the heart of a private club designed to cater to those who want to exercise their high-performance sports cars in the manner in which their manufacturers intended.

The Thermal Club’s president, Tony Renaud, describes it this way: “The Thermal Club is a private high-end country club for car owners like a golf club, but with a real community feel.”

Members purchase a lot and build a “garage villa” with space for cars on a lower level, and kitchens, dens, and terraces above. They have exclusive access to a 4.7-mile race circuit, on which they can drive their cars and take racing lessons to hone their skills. A membership is $85,000, in addition to the cost of the garage villa lot and construction, with the number of members limited to 500.

Opened in June of last year, the club was the result of more than four years of planning and effort. The site was chosen for its proximity to Palm Springs, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, and Las Vegas all major markets for owners and their upscale vehicles.

The presence in the Coachella Valley of so many high-end sports cars made it a natural choice for Renaud and the club’s other founders.

Local architect Guy Dreier, a Thermal Club member whose passion for performance cars started when he was a child, says he appreciates not only the sophistication of the track but the convenience.

“There is nothing more exciting to me than getting up and sleeping in my own bed, driving on a track, and coming home to my own house without long–distance travel to experience a track situation,” says Dreier, who has also designed some of the garages at the club. “I am totally committed to this project, as are some of my friends. Everybody talks about doing such a project as The Thermal Club, but nobody can seem to execute it given all the challenges. I, in my profession, understand how difficult creating a project as this one can be, and it’s very exciting to see this one coming to fruition.”

Renaud sees another key market for membership: experienced amateur racers who may already be competing in manufacturer-supported series, such as the Ferrari Challenge North America or Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup. For these drivers, The Thermal Club is a place to sharpen their skills and rack up track time as practice for their racing events.

Clubbing It

Those in the valley looking for a venue where they can show off their pristine classic car on a manicured golf course are also in luck, because there’s no lack of top-notch events here.

Paul Merrigan, a collector and vintage auto racer who has been a valley resident for 15 years, gets the credit for one of these shows. After participating in some of the most prominent classic car events in the country, he created the Desert Classic Concours in 2008. Since then, the Desert Classic has established itself with collectors and spectators as a fixture on the calendar of the desert “season,” attracting entrants from the Coachella Valley and beyond.

Merrigan notes there’s quite a bit of international interest for the show. “We’ve had folks here from the German magazine Der Spiegel, video crews from Vietnam and Moscow,” he says. “Everyone around the world knows and loves Palm Springs and all it stands for.”

The pull of Greater Palm Springs also drew Seattle native Tom McDowell, the president of one of the leading car shows in the country — Concorso Italiano — which is among the largest gatherings of Italian cars and their admirers in the world. Concorso Italiano is held every August in Monterey, Calif., during the famed Pebble Beach week of classic car events.

For the first Concorso-branded show to be produced outside of Monterey, McDowell chose Shadow Mountain Resort in Palm Desert as the site of the inaugural Desert Concorso, which was held this past March. One major point of differentiation between the valley show and the one held in Monterey is that more than just Italian cars are featured here in the desert.

Visitors at the March event saw more than 150 rare and unusual classics and exotic new cars, including a number from the legendary Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles and the Riverside International Automotive Museum.

The 100th anniversary of the Maserati brand was celebrated with vehicles ranging from a 1951 Maserati A6G 2000 Coupe to a 2014 Maserati Ghibli from event sponsor Maserati of Rancho Mirage. Also on the field was a historic 1957 Maserati 450S car that was raced in Southern California by the famous Carroll Shelby, who went on to create the Cobra. Another driver of this very car was Indian Wells resident Billy Krause, who was reunited at the show with the powerful and beautiful machine.

This March saw another impressive car show, held on the lawn of the exclusive Vintage Club golf and tennis community in Indian Wells. Closed to club members and their invited guests, the event featured an enviable display of rare Bugatti classics as well as fully restored vintage Mustangs and everything in between brought in from the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles and the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard. Organized by club member Garry Peters, the event has previously been held every few years with the approximate regularity of the winter Olympics. Peters (and Vintage Club members) hope to make the car show an annual event in the coming years.

For those looking to purchase a high-end sports car in the valley, Desert European Motorcars of Rancho Mirage might be the ticket. The factory-authorized dealer sells Audi, Land Rover, Jaguar, Porsche, Maserati, Aston Martin, Bentley, and Rolls-Royce cars. IndiGO Auto Group Chairman and CEO Todd Blue acquired the Desert European group of dealerships in Rancho Mirage in August of last year. The IndiGO Auto Group also has franchised dealerships for Porsche and Lamborghini in Houston. Blue says he was drawn to the valley due to its unique combination of location, weather, population, and history.

“To have the opportunity to represent this many luxury and performance brands in one location, and in a place with this car culture, is a very special situation that we treat with the highest amount of passion,” Blue says.

Under the IndiGO Auto Group’s leadership, Rolls-Royce Motorcars Rancho Mirage and Porsche of Rancho Mirage have recently become two of the fastest growing Rolls-Royce and Porsche dealerships in the United States. Blue says the best part of doing business here has been the people he has met.

“This community is fascinating and eclectic, and so many of our clients have such captivating life stories that have brought them to this point in their lives and to this special place,” he says.

Blue, who started his own car collection in 2004, is an avid collector. “I am always on the hunt for something unique and authentic,” he says. “I am currently looking for a car that will qualify for the Mille Miglia or The Colorado Grand.”

But the car culture here isn’t just for those with pricey European sports cars or rare classics. There are a number of cruise-in events, such as those hosted by the Palm Springs Cruisin’ Association at which valley residents can share their automotive pride. The PSCA has more than 300 members, but the events are also open to nonmembers to display their vehicle for a $5 entry fee.

At a typical PSCA cruise-in, you will see classics, muscle cars, hot rods, custom cars, sports cars, big sedans, and convertibles from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, as well as stock and custom motorcycles. The venue also holds an annual fundraising car show to benefit the Desert Cancer Foundation.

Whether turning laps at the racetrack, polishing your car for a show, taking long scenic drives, or cruising under the stars on a balmy desert night, the Coachella Valley is a perfect venue for communing with your automotive spirit, no matter which form it may take.

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