Hitch a ride with a Hollywood mogul in his BMW 760Li, affectionately known in show biz as the “Jew Canoe,” and the first thing you notice is the noise level. He’s talking on one cell phone, three others are ringing, the control panel is dinging, and the radar detector is spitting. Exactly how anyone in his or her right mind can find this to be luxury living is beyond comprehension. For all he’s noticing, the car could be a beat-up Ford Probe with fabric and no air conditioning. Under normal circumstances, studio bigwigs would go to work in limos, leaving them free to negotiate instead of drive. But this is a town where the biggest bigwigs drive themselves, as a point of pride, and the stretches are left for out-of-towners and prom night. (Unless you’re Barbra Streisand, who used to ride around in a 45-foot-long, $700,000 luxury motor coach equipped with everything from Jacuzzi to bathroom.)

Cars are more than transportation; they’re a show-biz obsession that’s easily explained. Not only is it the most visible expression that you’ve arrived in a competitive business, but it’s a lot more affordable than Pickfair or that Gulfstream V. Put it in perspective: Peons have to save up to score decent wheels, but Ray Romano earns enough to pay for a new $35,000 Ford Excursion for each of the 22 minutes of his sitcom.

That explains why Hollywood buys cars by the dozens; they dream cars that don’t exist by customizing them; they race cars in celebrity-pro contests; and they garage cars in places too large to be palaces. Jerry Seinfeld had to renovate an entire building just to house his army of Porsches, which includes a 1959 straight-16 GT speedster, a 1955 Spyder 550 (the same model and pearl-gray color that James Dean drove to his fiery end), and his most valuable, the 959, worth $700,000 because only 200 were ever built. Ironic, isn’t it, that Jerry can’t drive it, because Porsche won’t let U.S. government crash-standard testers destroy four of them? Jerry loves Porsches so much that he gave his wife a 1958 Porsche 1600 Speedster as a wedding present.

Jay Leno recently bought an entire Burbank airport hangar for his 100-plus new and vintage vehicles, such as his super-rare Bugattis and Duesenbergs, his million-dollar muscle-car McLaren F-1, and a ’32 Ford. Former Sony Pictures topper, now producer, John Calley collects Mercedes gull-wing coupes, built from 1954 to 1963. Also a vintage fan is Harrison Ford, whose 1966 Austin Healy is his ride of choice, next to the airplane he pilots himself. So many boys. So many toys.

Or, if you’re Hugh Grant, one new, shiny and very expensive one on an impulse buy. Grant was on the set of About a Boy when he saw a magazine article for Aston Martin’s 460-horsepower Vanquish sports car (base price $228,000). One phone call later, Grant was awaiting delivery. No doubt, that’s the reason why, around L.A., every car dealership warns its sales reps to be nice to everyone, even if they don’t look like they could afford a Beetle, much less a Bentley: That guy in the unadorned white T-shirt, faded jeans and dirty sneakers could be David Geffen.

The pecking order of Hollywood status cars is really quite rigid for non-talent. True moguls like studio and network heads, wildly successful producers, and Big Five agency heads wouldn’t be seen in anything less than the biggest, blackest, costliest Mercedes. Their wives drive Range Rovers. Female agents and execs drive Jaguars. The yes men steer BMWs. (Ovitz’s hand servant, Jay Moloney, once ordered a souped-up Ford Explorer, only to return it 24 hours later, saying, “It’s just not me.” He then got the stereotypical Beamer, albeit a convertible.)

Of course, there are exceptions. For years, agent Tom Strickler stuck to his Volvo. Jeffrey Katzenberg bizarrely drives a non-vintage Mustang convertible. And ex–CAA partner Bill Haber cared less about cars: His was so beat-up and crap-colored, who cared what model it was? For others, you are what you drive. When Michael Ovitz started repping Paul Newman, the agent purchased a Ferrari to make him look sporty, but it rarely left the CAA garage. Jeremy Zimmer’s partners at United Talent skewered him for being a big wuss and buying a white Merc. Like that matters. But it does, like that time a TV producer-writer who, after his lucrative series was canceled unexpectedly, seriously considered taking his kids out of private school rather than give up the Bentley.

Cars in Hollywood are also the ultimate thank-you present and party favor. In 2002, at Christmas, manager Brad Grey gifted his longtime mentor Bernie Brillstein with a new Mercedes S500 (Price tag: $80,000). And, after lunch, Steve Martin once surprised his agent, the late Marty Klein, with a Rolls-Royce. (On the other hand, when screenwriter Joe Eszterhas was about to be paid for a script polish with a car, his 10-percenter, Jim Wiatt, joked, “What do we get? A tire?”)

For all those Spider-Man profits she brought them, Sony Pictures’ Amy Pascal received a gift basket in the form of a Mercedes two-seater from her bosses. Studio topper Dawn Steel once got sick of having to look at a screenwriter’s beater in the Columbia parking lot day after day while he was on the payroll, so she bought him a new car. Steven Spielberg famously handed out four Mazda Miatas, to Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, John Goodman and Brad Johnson, at the wrap party for their movie Always. (And he graciously didn’t even take them back when the movie near-bombed.)

We all know Kelsey Grammer flipped his brand-new Dodge Viper, a gift from NBC, in what police politely referred to as a single-car accident that landed him in the Betty Ford Center. Speaking of crashes, Matthew Perry’s Beamer collided with another car not long after the Friends star completed a stint in rehab. This time, it wasn’t Perry’s fault, even though a year earlier he pressed a Porsche’s pedal to the metal and landed on the porch of a Hollywood Hills home — again, shortly after being hospitalized for medical problems relating to his alcohol and drug abuse.

David Letterman, a devotee of Porsches and Ferraris, has made himself the butt of scores of jokes because of his lead foot and speeding tickets. It’s not surprising that he soon was bankrolling a racing team at the Indianapolis 500. Real-life race-car drivers include Paul Newman, Tom Cruise and Jason Priestley (who’s so nuts about it he’s going to race again even after it almost killed him). Smarter celebs, such as Cameron Diaz, exercise their need for speed by signing up for the annual Long Beach Grand Prix Pro-Celebrity race every April, and the required training ahead of time at the Willow Springs racetrack, north of L.A. In real life, Cammy famously drives that putt-putt car powered by hamsters known as the Toyota Prius.

No, this won’t be the 800th article listing all the big Hollywood names who’ve gone green, like Woody Harrelson and his electric Zenn or Leo DiCaprio and his Think. (Leo also reportedly owns four Priuses). By now, you’re sick of hearing about Hollywood’s pledge to switch to eco-friendly cars, know by heart the names of those stars who waved off the limo and opted for a hybrid ride to the Oscars (like Charlize Theron). But, trust us, this Prius fad will be short-lived with celebs because the autos are too pedestrian. Stars need that leather and lit cosmetic mirror and luxury, so they’ll hunger for next fall’s hot car: the full-frills Lexus hybrid based on the RX platform.

Celebs can drive anything they want (though, if you’re in rap or hip-hop, there’s only the Cadillac Escalade), but mostly they’ll drive any car that’s free. Arnold Schwarzenegger now owns eight GM-made Hummers, but, back in 1992, he persuaded then-manufacturer AM General to convert one of the original Humvee military vehicles that saw action in the Gulf War into a civilian model, and Ah-nuld got one free. And if you’re J-Lo, you’re handed a $350,000 Bentley convertible just for being “her” by then-boyfriend Ben Affleck.

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