The Ghosts On Mulholland Drive

Robert Kerian

We've all been here. It might go by other names -- Hansen Dam, Ogden and Kostner, Telegraph Road, even the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway -- but in one way or another, we've all done our street racing on Mulholland Drive.

When you look at this stretch of broken pavement that clings to the side of a ridge just a handful of miles from downtown Los Angeles, the glory days of Mulholland Drive seem like a very long time ago. This nine-mile section of road between Cahuenga Boulevard and Beverly Glen Boulevard is now part of a city park, and you're supposed to admire the view to the north over the San Fernando Valley.

This little bit of Mulholland is famous simply because so many car people -- many of them more than a little famous themselves -- learned to drive here. It's like a scene from a movie that no one watches anymore. But when you hear the story, it reminds you of that moment when learning to drive fast was the most important thing in the world.

Mulholland Drive might be the only thing in Los Angeles that didn't start as a real-estate scam. When the road officially opened on December 27, 1924, it was a gesture of civic improvement, a highway meant to link the city with its pastoral outskirts. Naturally, people began to race around in cars up here soon after. And, of course, many of them were movie people, since Hollywood is just on the other side of the ridge. Before World War II, actors John Carradine and Gary Cooper came here together in their Duesenbergs.

Once Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood became an epicenter of sports car enthusiasm in the 1950s, Mulholland Drive became a destination for everyone with a snappy new car from Europe. Future Formula 1 champion Phil Hill was a college dropout who turned wrenches at International Motors, and sometimes a car needed testing. Anyone who went to the Grand Prix Restaurant on Beverly Boulevard ended up on Mulholland at least once, including racing drivers Dick Guldstrand, Dan Gurney, and Ken Miles. Actor James Dean bought a Porsche 356 Speedster from Competition Motors, then drove it back and forth on Mulholland between his home in the San Fernando Valley and his studio in Hollywood. He entered the car in an SCCA race at the airport in Palm Springs and won his class the first time out. It all came from driving on Mulholland, he said.

Tim Considine was just a kid actor with a powder blue Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider when he first came to Mulholland in the 1950s. At age sixteen, he had a brand-new driver's license and way too much curiosity about speed thanks to lots of hours listening to racer Ernie McAfee at his speed shop on Sunset Boulevard. "I would go up there to Mulholland when it was raining because I wanted to learn how to slide the car," Considine remembers. "I'd set my alarm for the middle of the night, sneak past my mom's bedroom, and then roll the car to the bottom of the hill before I started it."

In the 1960s, everyone who had a fast car knew about Mulholland Drive, including actor Steve McQueen, who had a Jaguar XKSS. But it wasn't just about buying the fastest car, as Charley Woit ("Mulholland Charley") was famous for his homebuilt, full-race 1951 GMC pickup truck (and subsequent monstrosities). There wasn't anyone able to stay with him, even though he generally drove with one hand on the wheel and the other wrapped around a can of beer.

By the late 1960s, the Mulholland scene had become a little more formalized. The short section between Laurel Canyon and Coldwater Canyon Boulevards became the place to run, since there weren't many houses nearby. Everything happened late at night. Two cars would race nose-to-tail with headlights blazing and then they'd turn around, swap places, and make another run back. The winner would break away in front or close up from behind, and occasionally there would be a pass. Onlookers parked their cars in the dirt turnouts and would swap lies in the dark. Later, the police would come and chase everyone away.

People came and went on Mulholland, although occasionally they would form clubs, since in those days no one made fun of you for having friends. In the early 1960s, Mike's Group was superseded by the Second Group, and in the late 1960s there was the MRA (Mulholland Racing Association). As the 1970s arrived so did CRE (Clandestine Racing Enterprises), which spawned the TVL (Turkeys Very Limited), and then in the mid-1970s came the ACR (Associated Canyon Racers). The corners and straightaways also acquired names: Deadman's, Carl's, Carl's Jr., Sweeper, Grandstands, European Straight, Sideways, the Esses, the Identicals, and Fire Station 99.

Maybe the most serious Mulholland car of all came from Chris Banning, who had grown up in a house right off Mulholland Drive. After a stab at college in the early 1970s, he found himself building engines for Porsche 911s in 1974. But once he saw the Porsche 911 RSR prepared for Roger Penske's IROC (International Race of Champions) events, it came to him that he would build an RSR clone for Mulholland. He went to Germany, talked his way into the Porsche racing department, and came away with factory drawings in hand. Back in California, he chopped the roof of a Porsche 911, dipped the body shell in acid to reduce its weight, had an aluminum roll cage fabricated, and then bolted up the best speed parts he could find. Banning still has the car today, a silver tribute to the Mulholland spirit.

When Mark Mitchell and John Norris came to Mulholland in the early 1970s, they were just high-school kids. Mitchell used to sneak out at night in his mother's '72 Ford Gran Torino station wagon, while Norris took his first drives in a Volkswagen Beetle before moving up to a Ford Capri. Mitchell remembers doing some wild things -- "Chariot rides, where we'd stand up on the tailgate of the wagon and hold on to the roof rack while the driver went as fast as he could!" -- yet both he and Norris arrived at a time when professional road racing had become the goal of every sports car enthusiast, and Mulholland represented the first step along the way.

"All I wanted to do was race," Mitchell recalls. "And from Mulholland, I learned that you have to be not just fast with your driving but also consistent, because if you crash, you'll be busted by the cops and your girlfriend will have to bail you out of jail." Norris says, "I learned that you have to be in the right car, and a Pinto wagon is not going to get it done. Also, you learn that driving talent doesn't come with the car, no matter what some people might think."

As the Mulholland scene acquired greater notoriety, police crackdowns followed, especially as residential housing crept closer. The biggest came in April 1977, when thirty-two people were caught in the net. Headlines in the newspapers followed, yet the scene was still going strong a year later when David Barry's "Thunder Road" appeared in the July 1978 issue of New West, a literary magazine. As the first recognition of car enthusiasm in mainstream culture since the oil crisis of 1973, the article created a sensation, and Barry was commissioned to write the first draft of a screenplay that eventually became a bad movie, King of the Mountain. ("Very bad," Barry adds.)

Police enforcement became more determined, yet the Mulholland scene continued into the early 1980s. But the encroachment of housing is really what made Mulholland Drive a thing of the past. And the truth is, the cars outgrew it. What seemed like fun in a Datsun 510 or a Mini Cooper is pretty much like flying a helicopter around your living room when you're in a brand-new Porsche 911 Carrera S. When street racing with Japanese-label cars boomed in the late 1980s, the kids went to industrial parks near Covina or headed up to Glendora Mountain Road. These days, Mulholland Highway on the other side of the Sepulveda Pass sees lots of fast cars, but no one comes to Mulholland Drive anymore.

Everybody we know made it through the Mulholland experience. Mark Mitchell and John Norris became winning road racers with big reputations in local circles. ("Some guys went to the Bondurant or Jim Russell driving schools; we went to the Mulholland school," Mitchell says.) Chris Banning published The Mulholland Experience in 2006, an informal mix of Mulholland lore and war stories that you can buy at themulhollandexperience.com. For all that, Tim Considine still remembers his first organized road race in the 1950s after learning to drive on Mulholland. "On a racetrack for the first time, I suddenly felt free," he says. "No worries about being chased by the police, no real worries about crashing. I was free. Street racing seemed kind of silly, a game that kids play. I never went back to Mulholland."

As you do Mulholland Drive at night in a modern Porsche 911 Carrera S, you can see that street racing is something that happens when it's dark, the road ahead is uncertain, and we're not sure if we're good enough to get to the end. When the headlights are blazing, you can't see far, but what's directly in front of you burns with supernatural intensity. You're chasing the headlights, and then sometimes the headlights are chasing you. Finally the sun comes up, and then you're either good enough or you're not.

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