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If God Had Meant Celebs to Drive, He Wouldn't Have Made David Klein's Limos

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When Kiss or either Queen Liz needs wheels, they call Dav-El.

Each member of Kiss rode in one of his own, stocked with deli sandwiches and flowers—yellow roses, for example, for Gene Simmons. Designer Calvin Klein chose to breakfast in his, downing bagels, cream cheese and lox, en route to a morning speech in New Jersey. When Queen Elizabeth came to town and visited Bloomingdale’s five years ago, traffic in Manhattan was redirected so that Her Majesty could step out of hers on the right-hand side—as dictated by protocol.

As owner of Dav-EI, one of the largest luxury limousine fleets in the U.S., David Klein, 35, is accustomed to accommodating such idiosyncratic requests. As a result, he not only has a client list as long and shiny as his fleet of stretch Lincolns and Caddies (passengers have included Leonard Bernstein, Mick Jagger, Tony Orlando and the Bee Gees), but he is also called upon to provide wheels for all manner of great occasions. Last January Klein supplied 60 limos for use by nongovernment VIPs who attended Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, and another 12 for the Iranian hostages’ ticker-tape parade up Broadway. Many of the nominees at both this year’s Grammy and Oscar ceremonies arrived in stretch Lincolns bearing the distinctive DAV-EL license plates.

Dav-EI started as a one-car operation back in 1971. Now it has a flotilla of about 150 cars, more than 200 uniformed chauffeurs, and offices in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, Houston and L.A. Though celebrities and executives still account for most of Klein’s business, suburban couples now rent limos for nights on the town. Prices range from $24 an hour for a sedan to $32 for a stretch limo (a car that has been cut in half and lengthened as much as 40 inches by inserts in the center). Last year the company grossed nearly $10 million, and Klein expects an increase in 1981.

Discretion is imperative in Klein’s business, especially since luminaries grew edgy after John Lennon’s murder. Some bring their own bodyguards, and chauffeur-client fraternization is generally discouraged, though many stars request a particular driver. Orlando, for instance, raves about his regular L.A. chauffeur, Elmo King: “He’s almost become family to me.” Though drivers are often as curious about celebrities as the rest of the public, they grow blasé on longer acquaintance. “At first you see everything going on and you want to tell the other drivers,” admits one. “Then you find out their passengers are doing the same, so it’s no big deal.”

The son of a Wall Street lawyer, Klein grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y. and as a teenager ran the summer valet parking concessions at five exclusive Westchester tennis and golf clubs. “I made a lot of connections there,” he says. He also made enough money to put himself through New York University. By the time he graduated in 1967, David had parlayed his summer job into Dav-EI Parking Facilities, a lucrative partnership with high school friend Elliot Lazarus. Then, in the midst of a 1970 New York taxi strike, Klein and another friend began chauffeuring people around in an old Volkswagen. A few months later he expanded with a $3,000 used Cadillac. Business was soon rolling, and Klein was designing his own cars in a variety of colors—cocoa, fire engine red and silver. The look for the ’80s, however, is conservative. “Flash is out,” says Klein. “No more two-tone cars that attract attention. Simple, elegant style and tinted windows are in.”

Staggering maintenance costs and overhead kept Dav-EI in the red until 1976. Few limos are kept more than two years, and a 1981 custom stretch costs as much as $50,000. To keep pricey repairs to a minimum, Klein, who hung up his own chauffeur’s cap five years ago, requires all his drivers to attend his five-day training school—without pay. Though their base salary is only $3.35 an hour, chauffeurs usually earn $500 a week with tips, and one of Klein’s drivers received a $1,000 tip for only three days’ work.

A bachelor, Klein shares a spacious 11-room penthouse triplex on Manhattan’s West Side with Dav-EI vice-president Marshall Garbett and Garbett’s 11-year-old son, Spencer. An admitted workaholic, he frequently goes to the Dav-EI garage around midnight just to hang around the dispatching room and talk to his drivers. His dream: to have an office in every city—”just like Hertz.” But he’s not letting anyone put him in the driver’s seat. “I’ve become a terrible driver,” he admits. “I used to park on a dime. Now I don’t even have a car of my own.”