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A photographer displays a picture of Lindsay Lohan while waiting for Paris Hilton outside a salon on Melrose Place. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)
A photographer displays a picture of Lindsay Lohan while waiting for Paris Hilton outside a salon on Melrose Place. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

Shooting Stars

What the paparazzi drive Add to ...

Car guys love choosing a vehicle for someone else. It’s the male equivalent of the makeover – instead of transforming a friend with an attractive new hairstyle and slimming clothes, we get them into the ideal ride.

As with matchmaking, the vehicle-fitting process involves both product knowledge and psychiatry. For example: a friend may have convinced himself that a Ferrari 599 GTO is an ideal car for someone with three kids and a cottage, but as their designated automotive counsel, I must gently probe their psyche and steer them toward a minivan.

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Felix Filhop of the X-17 Photo agency staked out with his AMG Mercedes on Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles, near the homes of actress Mischa Barton and pop star Britney Spears.

Some unusual requirements can arise. I once met a guy who distributed drugs in Toronto night clubs. Now he was looking for a new ride. He wanted to impress people when he rolled up next to the velvet rope, and he’d been shot at twice. I suggested an AMG Mercedes sedan with bulletproof windows and 500 kilos of armour plating. The weight would take its toll on braking, handling and acceleration, but in this case deflecting a nine-millimetre round trumped other requirements.

It was one more case study in my lifelong analysis of the way we choose cars. In theory, selecting a vehicle is simple – identify your mission, then pick the appropriate machine. But vanity often overrides logic. That’s why you see bald-headed businessmen inching their way through downtown traffic in Turbo Porsches designed for the Nurburgring – or the governor of California in a military assault truck.

In theory, the car market is Darwinian, eliminating unsuitable designs in favour of ones that are better adapted to their environment. But humans complicate the process. In small-town Tennessee, I watched a man load his wife, three kids and a dog into an exact replica of the black Chev sedan driven by NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt (a.k.a. The Intimidator.) This was not a casual imitation – as per The Intimidator’s actual race car, there was only one seat, the interior was filled with roll cage tubing, and the doors were welded shut, forcing the family to squirm in through the windows.

But for most of us, form follows function, and our vehicles are shaped by our mission. As a car guy, I’m obsessed with missions. So when I decided to spend a week with the L.A. paparazzi, I wondered what car kind of cars they’d chosen. What’s the perfect ride for chasing Lindsay Lohan?

At first glance, I thought a sports car would be ideal. Speed had to be good. But there were luggage requirements too – a paparazzi typically carries several large camera cases, and some of them spend half their lives in their cars, so they’d need space for personal gear.

So what vehicle would work best? I met up with Frank Griffin, an agency owner who got started in the paparazzi business back when Paris Hilton was in diapers. After trying a variety of vehicles over the years, Griffin had settled on a fully-optioned Land Rover. I don’t like SUVs, but this one seemed to be working for Griffin: his equipment fit in easily, and it was ideal for stakeouts – flip down the back seats, throw in some pillows, and wait in comfort for your celebrity prey.

“It’s perfect,” Griffin told me. We parked outside the home of a drug-addicted actress to see if she might emerge. She didn’t, but the Land Rover’s leather seats made the wait comfortable.

Up in the Hollywood Hills, I found a bottom-feeder paparazzi army that had to make do with more modest wheels. One was a 25-year-old who still lived with his parents. He was parked near Britney Spears’s estate in a 10-year-old Toyota Corolla with ripped upholstery and bald tires.

The young paparazzo was what some in the trade refer to as a “chaser.” Unlike Griffin, he didn’t have a network of tipsters who could tell him where the stars were going. Instead, he simply waited in his car, then gave chase when they came out. But he was clearly outgunned in his worn-out Corolla – Britney’s fleet of vehicles included a limited-edition Mercedes with 600-horsepower and custom suspension.

The more successful paparazzi could afford speed. And many considered it a worthwhile investment. Felix Filho, a top shooter for the X-17 agency, had just picked up a new AMG Mercedes sedan. “I have to get places quick,” he said. One of his colleagues, Max Garcia, had a Nissan G37S with an engine tweaked for extra power, and a racing-style suspension. I followed Garcia on a high-speed pursuit of a troubled star who was in the news that week – we hit nearly 200 km/h down Mulholland Drive, a twisting mountain road with plenty of hairpin curves and few guard rails.

The G37 was built for this. But it still didn’t land Garcia the shot that day – the star disappeared into a gated community where he couldn’t follow. And there were even faster cars out there. A black Lotus Elise zipped by, flicking effortlessly through the Mulholland curves like a mechanized cheetah. I asked Garcia whether the tiny Lotus (which resembled a Formula car with headlights and mirrors) would make a good paparazzi vehicle. Garcia valued speed, and the Lotus had even more of it than his Nissan. But it wasn’t the right car for him: “Where are you going to put the cameras?” Garcia asked. “And who wants to do a stakeout in that?”

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As I was learning, the paparazzi mission was a complex one. Garcia’s G37 was good in some respects. But it had some serious limitations, too. For one thing, it wasn’t the ideal car to stand on – a drawback that popped up later that week when I found myself staked out with a crowd of paparazzi next to a building where Britney had gone for a dance class. The view was blocked by a cinder-block wall, but several paparazzi had overcome that problem by pulling their vehicles up next to the wall and using them as camera platforms. But Garcia’s G37 was too perfect for that – and its roof was small. Another shooter had pulled up in a well-thrashed GMC Yukon that had a roof the size of an apartment balcony. Now he was charging rent to others who wanted to stand on it.

Not far away was Andrew Deetz, a paparazzo who had chosen a Toyota Prius, reasoning that the fuel savings would give him extra funds for camera equipment. The Prius was too slow for the chases, but Deetz was fine with that – he tracked the other paparazzi with his iPhone, and caught up when he could. His previous car, a Japanese hot rod straight out of The Fast and the Furious, had been quicker to the scene, but went through fuel like a jet in full afterburner – and it had netted him plenty of speeding tickets. He had come to appreciate the Prius.

“Works for me,” he said. But one of his friends had gone the other way, investing in a souped-up Civic with gumball tires and a booming exhaust system – the tailpipe looked like a tank barrel. The noise level was attracting attention from the law. Deetz shook his head and predicted a bumper crop of tickets: “He’ll see,” said Deetz.

So which of the paparazzi had chosen best? Griffin’s Land Rover worked well, but it cost too much, and burned too much gas. The AMG Mercedes was fast and had adequate storage, but it was too valuable to abuse on a paparazzi mission. Garcia’s G37 provided speed at a lower cost, but it didn’t have enough room in it. A used SUV had storage room, and worked well as a camera platform, but it was hard to park and cost too much to run. A beater Corolla made a lot of sense in some respects, but it was too slow.

In the end, I voted for Deetz’s Prius. It had room for all his gear, and its fuel economy meant he could spend more time on the road scouting locations. Plus, it had kept him out of jail. The Prius wasn’t perfect, but no car choice can be. Instead, it’s about coming as close to the mark as you possible – and figuring out what the mark is in the first place. Like life itself, but this time in metal.

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