No one cares more about cars than people who live in Los Angeles. In this city of endless freeways and jaw-dropping traffic, a vehicle isn’t just a way to get around, it’s a de facto second home—especially for those who, after driving hither and thither all week, take off for the mountains, deserts, and beaches on weekends. Meet four local families and the hot wheels that help them go, go, go.
Catherine Ledner LA Rollers
| Credit: Catherine Ledner

The Clan with the Not-So-Mini Van

When Ingrid Otteson and Pascal Demilly bought their 2004 Dodge Sprinter for their family of six—their kids are Nadia, 10, Nicolai, 7, Milla Mae, 5, and Sascha, 3—they knew it would be highly visible: at six feet tall, the commercial vehicle is roomy enough to stand up in and seats 10 passengers on three benches. It’s used in Europe as a police van and ambulance, but Ingrid, who had seen one in Laguna and then tracked down a Long Beach dealer who had some in stock, knew it would be perfect for her rowdy gang. To make Big Blue, as the family calls it, both spill-proof and festive, Ingrid, a stay-at-home mom, had a furniture upholsterer stitch washable neoprene slipcovers. A seamstress whipped up the striped curtains, and Ingrid and Pascal, a software developer, added shelves and under-the-seat baskets and coolers to store toys and snacks. The kids play dominoes and tic-tac-toe on personal lap tables. "Big Blue," says Ingrid, who spends more time in it than anyone else, "is really more like an airplane than a car."

Rumpus Room "Our house is small, so it’s nice having space in the car: the kids use it as a play area, like a fort, even when it’s parked in the driveway."

Do You Read Me in the Back? "We make quite a racket. We blast Putumayo world music CD’s, and the kids play along using the drum, harmonica, tambourines, castanets, and recorder we keep in one of the storage baskets. The car itself is also noisy—it’s a diesel—and Nadia has such a little voice we can hardly hear her. So we all use walkie-talkies. Nadia’s handle is Leaping Lizard."

Nibbles and Bits "We eat healthy things that don’t spoil—dried blueberries and pineapple, almonds, fruit leather, and turkey jerky. We keep two gingham-lined baskets of food in the way back, and when we swing open the doors it’s like the ice cream truck has arrived."

Favorite Places to Go "We camp at Hume Lake in Sequoia National Forest in spring and summer, and go skiing at June Mountain near Yosemite in winter. We’ll get on the road by five a.m.—while the kids are sleeping, we carry them into the car in their pajamas. Around eight or nine we stop for pancakes at a diner or truck stop—the funkier the better—then we change in the van, because we can."

Making a Statement "The reason we wanted to get Big Blue was to show that it’s good to be individual. It’s definitely the only van of its kind around. Wherever we go, people always notice us because we have four children. So we thought, ’Let’s act the part and look like a circus!’"

Proud to Be Loud

In Los Angeles, dubs—20-inch decorative chrome rims for tires—are a very big deal. Myles and Cynthia Kovacs, who put out Dub magazine, run a car-customizing business, and make rims that cost up to $150,000 a set. So it should come as no surprise that they have nine cars parked in their driveway, each shinier than the next. The family’s newest, and current favorite, is their 2007 Cadillac Escalade EXT, painted baby blue and souped-up to the tune of $60,000 with rims, a grille, and a matching suede-and-leather interior. Even the truck bed, which houses a Suzuki Hayabusa, the world’s fastest motorcycle, is covered in baby-blue suede ("to keep the bike warm") and boasts an eardrum-splitting sound system for parking-lot parties. And just so none of the family—they have two kids, Andy, 9, and Michaela, 8 12;gets bored, they’ve included an Alpine DVD/LCD in-dash unit, seat-back TV’s, PlayStation, DirectTV, WiFi and XM Radio. "This is not a necessity car!" Myles laughs.

In a Word, Why? "Our Escalade is like a concept car for us. We take it to car shows all over the world. But it’s also functional: It’s what we drive every day right now. It’s our command center—we have everything at our fingertips."

Road Tripping "We go to San Diego for the day to see SeaWorld or the zoo. We’ve done trips to Laguna, where we stay at the Ritz-Carlton and hit the beach. We just rented a cabin in Big Bear for four days and went fishing. We didn’t catch anything. I guess that’s why they call it fishing, not catching."

Backseat Button Mashers "The kids’ favorite movie is Tokyo Drift, and Andy loves to play basketball and Midnight Club 3 on the PlayStation. With all those video games, they’ll probably be much better drivers than we are!"

Order in the Car! "’No eating, No drinking’ are the rules we try to enforce, but it’s really hard to get people to respect that. Drinks are the worst, because they spill. It’s almost like trying to keep the floors in your house clean."

Dreaming of a Geo Metro "There are actually a lot of downsides to a car like this. Just finding a parking place where you’re not going to get your doors dinged is hard. It draws a lot of attention, and someone might try to steal it: the grille alone is worth $6,000. We admit, it’s over the top!"

The Veggie Mobile

Daniel Strebin became a convert three years ago: paging through LA Weekly, he came across an article on the biodiesel movement. Since then, the vintage-poster dealer and his wife, Alexandra, who also works in retail, have owned no fewer than 20 cars, all diesel models from the 70’s and 80’s that Strebin has inexpensively adapted to run on biodiesel fuel. Strebin sells the cars to friends, barely breaking even in the process, as a way of promoting this less-polluting gas alternative manufactured from such things as soybean oil, walnuts, and vegetable wastes. But the family’s 1987 Mercedes 300TD biodiesel-converted wagon is a permanent fixture in their driveway. Bought from a Boston-area dealer on eBay for $2,250, it’s still chugging along with over 335,000 miles on it. Six-year-old Vanessa likes sitting in the kid’s seat in the way back, where she often catches the friendly looks from other drivers who’ve glanced at the vehicle’s many bumper stickers—one of which reads: this car is a vegetarian.

Gassing Up "For two years we drove to Ventura—130 miles round-trip—because it had the closest biodiesel station. We would bring back 50 gallons in buckets, and they would last six weeks. Then we helped form the first biodiesel co-op here in L.A., in Culver City. Now there are two commercial stations as well, selling biodiesel at the pump for about $3.25 a gallon(you get the same mileage as you do with regular fuel)."

They Can Smell You Coming "We don’t use recycled restaurant oil. We attempted that with one car, but it’s a lot of work, plus it’s stinky and dirty, and, technically, it’s illegal. Biodiesel is viably mainstream—when you research all the current and future alternatives to fossil fuels, it’s clear this is the only one that has practically no downside. Admittedly, it smells like french fries—you can smell it as soon as you start the car."

Family Field Trips "We go to Desert Hot Springs to sit by the pool at Two Bunch Palms, a rustic spa resort that was once a famous, kinda-secret movie-star hideout. Last winter we went skiing at Mammoth. Biodiesels are really good for climbing hills—they don’t have low-end power, but they have torque."

Spread the Word "A lot of people ask about the car, so we printed brochures about biodiesel and have a card that says, ’We can help you find a biodiesel car.’ We’re not in this to make money. We don’t want a car lot. We just want to convert people."

Bicycle Built for a Crowd

The Nelson family’s favorite set of wheels is almost as big as a small sedan—and it comes with disc brakes, seat belts, individual gearshifts, a driver’s seat, and a whole lot of natural air-conditioning. It’s a Zem, or Zero Emission Machine, an eccentric four-seater bicycle that’s the talk of their South Central block. The contraption may not be suited for distance travel, but for this athletic and environmentally minded troupe—Nicolas, a writing instructor, homemaker Kathryn, and their children, Nathaniel, 12, Armando, 9, and Joy Marie, 4—the Zem is not just a novelty. Says Nicolas, "It’s a rational family decision."

Ahem, What’s a Zem? "We saw it in a Hammacher Schlemmer catalog in the 1990’s and loved it until we saw the price: $12,000! But when the Swiss manufacturer went out of business, someone bought the inventory and began selling the bikes online for around $4,800. We thought that was a better deal. We wanted a family bike, and the Zem is the best one we’ve ever seen."

Faster than Your Average Jogger "Everyone pedals at their own pace, and you can rest when you need to. Unlike other tandem bikes, the Zem doesn’t require that you pedal in sync. These bikes typically get up to 10 miles per hour, but the more people on the bike, the faster it goes. Once, we had four big guys pedaling and hit 30 miles an hour! Seat belts are really important—they keep you in your chair when the driver hits the brakes."

Favorite Destinations "We bike to chapel every Friday, and we like taking the Zem to the beach. We pack a picnic—it fits on the back shelf—and we’ll stop at a park on the way. But we can also load the Zem into our Ford pickup and take it on excursions. We love going to Playa del Ray and hitting the coastal bike path."

Doing Our Bit "We are unabashed advocates for pedal transportation; it’s just better for the environment. People always ask us where we got the Zem—especially with the price of gas, we get serious questions from people who want to buy one. When we’re out riding, people always shout, ’Can I get a lift?’ But mostly, people drive by slowly and stare, or they just get a silly grin on their faces. You can’t get more fun than this."