The Sunset Strip is a road, not a track. It’s almost always congested. There are no daring curves, and the pavement is only so-so. It’s a 1.7-mile chunk of Sunset Boulevard in what is now the city of West Hollywood. And for nearly a century, it’s been an ongoing, moving nightly party.
This story originally appeared in Volume 10 of Road & Track.
“I always thought it was funny when someone pulled up with a really cool Chevelle next to someone who blew all their money on a Countach,” recalls Riki Rachtman, whose rock ’n’ roll adventures include owning large clubs through the Eighties and Nineties and hosting MTV’s Headbangers Ball. “People would still say, ‘Wow, cool Chevelle.’” There were Chevelles cruising down in blue-collar Van Nuys and Countachs trawling Beverly Hills, but the Strip had—and still has—both.
Sunset Boulevard starts in downtown Los Angeles and goes about 22 miles west to the Pacific Ocean. The Strip was the stretch on unincorporated land between the city of Los Angeles and Beverly Hills. Since it was beyond the jurisdiction of both the L.A. and Beverly Hills police, it was patrolled (lightly) by the Los Angeles County Sher- iff’s Department and known as the County Strip.
The County Strip wasn’t wholly lawless, but it was, well, tolerant. In the Twenties, Prohibition was enforced in L.A., and Beverly Hills was mansions and movie stars. Meanwhile, the Strip was on the pre-freeway commute to the studios. Land there was cheap, a good spot to establish surreptitious drinking joints. And clandestine casinos. And bordellos. And houses where alternate lifestyles were indulged.
As Prohibition ended, night clubs along the Strip attracted major acts and an audience of stars like James Cagney and a hundred others whose names have faded. Ciro’s opened in 1940 with big-name entertainers, an audience of movie stars, and a parking drive filled with Cadillacs, Lincolns, and exotic imports. The Sunset Strip has never been about cruising; it’s about arriving.
The Strip roared into the Fifties, but the entertainers were being drawn to Las Vegas and television. The heyday of the nightclub faded, even if Clark Gable would arrive in his 300SL to catch a show, Lana Turner was in her usual booth at Ciro’s, and Bobby Darin had a house above the street.
Then came rock ’n’ roll. The clubs that had been jacket-and-tie were reborn during the Sixties upon a wave of rock. The Whisky a Go Go opened in 1964, and the Doors established themselves as the house band for a while. Legendarily, in 1969, Jim Morrison drove his ’67 Shelby GT500 into a telephone pole on Sunset, then stumbled over to the Whisky. The car hasn’t been seen since.
Cars have never been the point of the Sunset Strip. They’re the atmosphere. Singer Sam Cooke’s 1963 Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta Lusso was idling at the Motel Hacienda when he was shot to death in December 1964. Then the Ferrari became the property of Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. “As soon as the rock stars made money,” Rachtman recalls,
“the first thing they bought was a nice car. It was funny to watch Nikki Sixx from Mötley Crüe go from a Corvette to eventually getting a Testarossa.”
Through new wave and hair bands and grunge and a dozen other genres, the Sunset Strip is still where careers and culture are born. Today, matte-pink Teslas load up in the parking lot between the Roxy Theatre and the Rainbow Bar & Grill as Lamborghinis and muscle machines rumble past. Maybe there’s a comedian living in his car outside the Comedy Store—which used to be Ciro’s—like Jay Leno allegedly did in his 1955 Buick. The cars are all different, and all the places have changed, but the Sunset Strip is still the same.