Not long ago, I was standing at the Budget rental-car counter at Denver's Stapleton Airport. As I waited my turn, I expected to see the people ahead of me renting the usual assortment of compact and midsize cars.

I was wrong. One by one, they signed rental agreements to drive Corvettes, BMWs and Audis.

A week later, I saw the same thing happen at Washington's National Airport. In Los Angeles, National Car Rental offers "Pacific Coolers" -- 1988 Chevrolet Corvettes. And in San Francisco, National has introduced mint-condition vintage English roadsters from the 1930s through the 1960s.

In the rental-car business, these cars are called "exotics." And a survey of rental-car companies throughout the United States seems to indicate that it's not as difficult as it once was to rent something a little different next time you need a car.

Budget's midweek (Monday through Friday) rate for many of these cars is $59.99 per day. (Porsches and Mercedeses are higher, depending on the day of the week.) This Budget luxury line of cars is available in Miami, West Palm Beach, Baltimore, Washington and Los Angeles. They line includes the BMW 325, the Nissan 300ZX, the Toyota Supra, Mercedes Benz 190, Porsche 944. In Beverly Hills, Budget's "Drive a Dream" program includes Ferraris, a complete line of Mercedeses and Rolls-Royces.

"We're trying to let the public know that renting a car doesn't have to be boring," says Ernest Johnson, National Rental Car's Pacific regional manager. Late last year National introduced its "California Classics," American classic cars from the 1950s and 1960s, at its L.A. airport location.

National hired a special car buyer, who traveled throughout the country for months. "He attended car auctions, spoke with dealers and even put notes on windshields of cars he spotted on the road," Johnson says.

As a result, National has now assembled what must be the largest collection of 1950s convertibles in the world, valued at more than $3.1 million.

The rates for these cars are surprisingly reasonable: $49 a day and 30 cents a mile. (There is a small catch: You can only rent one if you're a member of National's "Emerald Club," the company's frequent-renter program. But it's not hard to join -- a one-year membership costs $50 and includes lots of discount and upgrade certificates for future rentals.)

In the last few weeks, National has also added a number of the classic cars to its rental fleet in Palm Springs and Las Vegas. And the company has added 35 classic English cars -- including a 1947 black Morgan, a 1961 yellow Daimler Dart, a 1954 alpine green Hillman Minx, as well as MGs, Jaguars and Triumphs -- to its fleet at the San Francisco airport. The English roadsters rent for $59.95 per day plus 30 cents per mile.

National spent an average of $2,000 on each car to bring it up to current safety standards and now employs "specialist" mechanics whose only job is to maintain the autos.

National rents the cars with the same collision damage waivers and liability insurance provisions as its other cars. "These cars were so well built," Johnson says, "that we've had few accidents where the old cars sustained damage. And most people treat these cars with kid gloves. We had one guy who rented a '57 Chevy to take to a wedding, and he polished it for three hours himself."

(One note for car enthusiasts: National's Johnson has already received many offers from car renters to buy the cars. As with any rental fleet, National does plan to sell some of them soon to make room for more vintage cars.)

Not every car-rental company is jumping on the exotic bandwagon. Alamo, the fourth-largest rental-car company in the country, has stayed away from renting unusual cars. "Due to increased costs of liability insurance," says Alamo's Liz Clark, "we cannot nor do we plan to offer the exotic car line."

But a number of independent companies do offer the cars.

If you want to rent an Alfa Romeo Spider ($74.95 a day), check with Showcase in both L.A. and San Francisco. Showcase also rents the Saab 900S. For all Showcase cars, the first 100 miles are free and every mile after that costs customers 30 cents.

"We are catering to a market that hasn't been well looked after in the past," says Angela Bowling, a Showcase spokesperson.

Then there's Dreamboats, another Los Angeles-based company that specializes in renting classic American convertibles dating from 1959 to 1969. The showpiece of its 24-car fleet is a pink 1959 Cadillac. (Rental on this car is $99 per day with 50 miles free and 25 cents per mile thereafter.)

If you don't like pink Cadillacs, then try one of the Thunderbirds. And if that's too racy, Dreamboats even has a 1961 Ford Galaxy on hand.

One caution: As you might suspect, there can be hefty mileage and insurance charges for some of these cars. For Budget's luxury fleet, you get only 50 miles free per day. It's then 50 cents per mile thereafter.

And instead of the normal collision damage waiver, Budget offers a "Limited Damage Waiver," which limits the liability of the renter but doesn't eliminate it. For the Mercedes 300E and the Porsche 944, the driver is responsible for the first $2,000 in damage. On the Mercedes 420SEL it jumps to the first $3,000.

Dreamboats is one of the few companies to offer a total collision damage waiver. The cost is just $15.95 per day for all cars and covers all damage that might be incurred. It also offers a standard CDW for $8.95 per day, which covers all but the first $500 of damage.

In Hawaii, luxury rental cars can be a very tricky business. "Getting parts can be very tough," reports Rob Solomon, senior vice president of Dollar Rent-a-Car in Honolulu. "And maintaining the cars here on the island is sometimes next to impossible."

But that hasn't stopped Solomon and others from trying. Dollar has just shipped in a small fleet of expensive BMW convertibles. The company is not planning to advertise the BMWs, but they're available. It will rent them for $149 a day (although if you're under 25, you're out of luck).

Of all the luxury rental-car outfits in Hawaii, Dollar offers one of the best deals. In Honolulu and on Maui, it's not unusual to see small companies advertising Porsches and Ferraris, but the rental fees and insurance bonds are so outrageous that you'd be better off using the money for a down payment on a car you can own.

And, speaking of expensive, a number of companies overseas are also offering upscale rentals, if you're willing to pay the price.

Hertz and Avis can get you a Mercedes or Jaguar at a number of locations in Great Britain, France or Italy.

Then there's Auto Europe, a Camden, Maine-based rental-car brokerage company. Auto Europe offers rentals of a host of foreign cars throughout the continent, including a number of different Mercedes models and even a line of Porsche 911 Carrera convertibles in Germany. (The cost? $779 per week plus $15 per day for total CDW and $2 per day for medical coverage.)

Auto Europe brokers cars in 18 West European countries and is now working on getting rights to rent luxury cars in Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

In Italy, you can rent a Lancia Thema for $997 per week, or in France you can have a Jaguar XJ6 for $1,170 per week. But if this is not extravagant enough, try a Rolls-Royce in Britain: The cost is $4,599 per week. Sorry, but the price doesn't include the chauffeur.

1988, Los Angeles Times Syndicate