Motoring: Car Showrooms - King of the road

The only performer to compete with Elvis in customising his costumes and cars was Liberace. Michael Booth visits their automobile shrines to pay homage

Before I had even caught my first glimpse of Graceland, it had already become clear to me how its owner ended his life in the physical condition that finally rendered even a bowel movement an impossible strain. Graceland is a 15-minute drive from downtown Memphis (on Elvis Presley Boulevard, naturally) along a route lined almost exclusively by fast food outlets - Taco Bell here, Burger King there, with Baskin Robbins and, of course, McDonald's filling in the gaps. This is Heart Attack Highway - Elvis could probably smell the boiling fat through his bedroom window when he awoke each morning.

The degree of southern hospitality when you arrive at the house itself is probably a clue to the second reason for the King's final, grand obesity: you park your car on the opposite side of the freeway from the house, and it is then a short walk from the ticket booth to those famous musical gates. That is, it would be a short walk, but for a fleet of minibuses whose sole purpose is to ferry visitors those gruelling 200 yards to the front door of Graceland. It is a miracle that anyone in Tennessee is under 17 stone.

For many, a tour of the house, followed by a splurge on some of the finest tacky goods money can buy in one of several gift shops, concludes their visit to Chez Elvis. But for car fans, a further treat awaits in a large warehouse lurking behind one of Graceland's five (count 'em) irony-free restaurants: the Elvis Presley Automobile Museum.

"The first car I ever bought was the most beautiful I've ever seen," Elvis once said. "It was second-hand, but I parked it outside my hotel the day I got it and stayed up all night just looking at it. The next day, it caught fire and blew up on the road."

As Elvis's wealth snowballed, he began buying new cars, each of which he would "personalise" with the same good taste that judged shag-pile on the living room ceiling to be classy. The first new car he bought, soon after his first string of hits on the Sun label had rocketed him to fame, was a 1956 Cadillac. According to legend, Elvis went into the showroom clutching a pound of grapes and squeezed the fruit on to the bonnet of the demonstrator. "That's the colour I want my car, thangyervrrymurch," he said (or words to that effect). The only known instance of Elvis wasting food.

That dark purple Caddy is the first car you see as your eyes adjust to the light inside the museum. The rest of the collection (by no means complete, his legendary gold Cadillac is on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame, for instance) is arranged in a horseshoe around a re-creation of a drive-in movie with authentic 1957 Chevrolet seats, screening car moments from Elvis movies on a continuous loop.

Cadillacs, Jeeps and Harley Davidson motorbikes abound here, each with either a spangly silver or a bilious pink paint job to mark them out as the property of the King. Occasionally, Elvis inadvertently allowed good taste to obscure his better judgment and purchased a European-made machine. But even then, he rarely bought the pick of the crop (his black Ferrari 308 GT4 is about as desirable in Ferrari circles as leprosy), or ruined everything with an ill-advised piece of customising (as with the vile blue leather in his otherwise impeccable Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud).

Elvis didn't reach his sartorial zenith until the Seventies, and the same can be said of his cars. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry (actually, I laughed for a five minutes until the staff were close to calling security) when I reached the half-way stage of the tour, and the centre-piece of the exhibition, the Stutz Blackhawks.

Even in standard trim, Stutz Blackhawks are to the automobile world what the Franklin Mint is to classical art. Elvis's first Stutz was the first ever made. Originally ordered for Frank Sinatra in 1971, Elvis charmed it from the dealer for $26,500. Frustratingly, an assistant wrecked that model shortly after Elvis took delivery. Undeterred, Presley bought another of the Pontiac- powered machines, and had its interior plated with 18-carat gold. Both are displayed in the museum.

As if Elvis's cars hadn't suffered enough, he even tried to murder one of them. As is the custom with highly strung, mid-engined Italian supercars, his rare and beautiful De Tomaso Pantera refused to start one morning, Elvis did not call a breakdown service. Instead, he pulled his gun and shot it.

But by the standards of what one Wladziu Valentino Liberace used to do to his cars, Elvis's Pantera got off lightly. Tropicana Avenue, Las Vegas, is home to the Liberace Car Gallery, possibly the only car museum that could rival Elvis's for chintz and chutzpah. In it are numerous abused classics formerly owned by the one-time highest-paid musician in the world, including a priceless Rolls Phantom V Landau with its bodywork converted by renowned English coach builder James Young, and smothered in tiny mirror tiles etched with a design of galloping horses. Beside it in the museum sits a matching Baldwin grand piano.

Liberace didn't own a car until he bought an Oldsmobile 88 convertible 1949 (he was born in 1919), chosen because a piano has 88 keys and he liked the synergy. But once he bought that he was hooked, and even his more mundane cars would be covered in a piano-key motif or bedecked with his trademark candelabra.

Possibly the only car in the world that could turn heads from Elvis's Stutz is Liberace's Excalibur. A British-made confection, very loosely (and I mean loosely) based on the shape of the legendary Mercedes SSK, Liberace's Excalibur is covered from head to fender in Australian rhinestones. As you wander round the museum you can also cast your eyes over the likes of a Rolls Silver Cloud, similar to the one at Graceland but with a striking red, white and blue colour scheme (which the Danny La Rue of the ivories had made to celebrate the bicentennial of the USA); a bastardised Volks- Royce (part Roller part Beetle); a customised London cab; a '64 Cadillac with studded diamond candelabra, TV, stereo and a bar with silver cups depicting winners of the Kentucky Derby; and dozens of other motoring atrocities that lurk in "Nevada's third-most popular tourist attraction".

One man whose name crops up in both museums is George Barris, fabled car customiser and creator of the original Batmobile. Barris painted Elvis's gold Cadillac and also plastered Liberace's 1954 Eldorado with a chrome piano key design and used Liberace's trademark candelabra as a bonnet ornament.

A visit to either Elvis's or Liberace's museum is loaded with irony. Elvis's because his cars, in depriving him of any exercise, contributed almost as much to his downfall as the deep-fried peanut butter sandwiches he consumed. Liberace's because, despite an obvious if misguided love of motor cars as objets, and despite spending a fortune on needless, tasteless customising by master craftsmen, the man rarely drove his motoring monstrosities. Perhaps Liberace's greatest automotive crime is that the only mileage his cars accrued was in carrying their owner on- and off-stage

Graceland, Elvis Presley Blvd, Memphis (001 901 332 3322); The Liberace Car Gallery, 1775, East Tropicana, Las Vegas, Nevada 89119 (702 798 5595)

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