A 24-valve, V6 purple two-seater is enough to turn a conservative 68-year-old into a street demon.

THE MIND RACES

November 28, 1997|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

Eastbound on the inner loop of the Beltway, just past the Loch Raven Boulevard exit where the road seems to rise into the sun, a voice inside Mayer Handelman's head whispers: "It's time! Let's see what this baby can do!"

He stomps on the accelerator of his gleaming new 1998 Plymouth Prowler and the car leaps forward with the kind of jolt that usually leaves you cruising the neck brace aisle of a drug store. We shoot past a groaning 18-wheeler and then another big rig and then a minivan filled with either parishioners or prisoners -- there's no telling which, we're going too fast.

Even at this speed, though, you can see we're drawing stares.

People are staring because it's not every day you see a shimmering purple hot rod patterned after a 1930s roadster hurtling past your side-view mirror.

Or maybe they're staring because we have the top down and it's about 35 degrees with the wind-chill factor.

As we rocket past the Perring Parkway exit, Mayer Handelman tries to tell me something. Except with the wind screaming through the car, it's like trying to have a conversation in a hurricane.

Pinned by G-force to my leather-trimmed, multi-position bucket seat, I yell: "ARE YOU SPEAKING? YOUR LIPS APPEAR TO BE MOVING, BUT -- "

"I SAID: IT'S TIGHT AS A DRUM!" he yells back. Then he glances at the tachometer needle, inching steadily toward the red line, and chuckles with delight.

On this crisp autumn morning, here is what you need to know about Mayer Handelman: He is 68 years old. He has just laid down 45 grand for one of the hottest cars on the market. There are only eight of these "concept vehicles" available in the Baltimore-Washington area, and Plymouth has shipped only 90 throughout the entire country.

And right now, in his very first giddy moments behind the wheel, he is having a blast.

"BIG TOY, BIG KID!" he yells, and the words trail off into the howling wind as we follow the Beltway into a blazing yellow sun, the rest of the traffic now far, far behind.

Here is searing heat on blinding white salt flats, slick, smokin' quarter miles and small town Saturday night cruises. Only Plymouth could summon the swagger to produce a two-seat suntanner with scoot that snaps off a sincere salute to hot-rodding.

-- From the Prowler brochure

At first glance, Mayer Handelman does not strike you as a blinding-white-salt-flats, slick-smokin'-quarter-miles kind of guy.

He certainly does not strike you as the kind of guy who walks into a car dealership, pulls out a wad of bills that would choke a horse and announces: "Boys, I'm lookin' to get me a little %J two-seat suntanner with some scoot."

Here at Doug Griffith Chrysler-Plymouth in Parkville, where his Prowler gleams behind velvet ropes in the middle of the showroom floor, Mayer Handelman is dressed in a tweed sport coat, dark slacks and conservative tie.

He has a kindly face, thinning hair and intelligent eyes. What he reminds you of, if he reminds you of anything, is a pharmacist.

Which is fine with Handelman because, as it turns out, he is a pharmacist. Has been one for 44 years.

He owns and still works at Woodhaven Pharmacy up the road and once owned two other pharmacies as well. He's been married for 43 years and has three adult children. Apparently, he made some dough in the pharmacy biz, too, because he drives a late-model Mercedes E-420, and he mentions a coming safari in Kenya he's going on, as well as previous vacation trips to China and Australia.

Out of character

Still, when it's pointed out that you don't find too many 68-year-old pharmacists snapping up purple hot rods with 20-inch Goodyear rear radials and 3.5-liter, 24-valve, V-6 engines throbbing under the hood, Handelman nods in agreement.

"This is completely out of character for me," he says softly. Then: "I'm very conservative. I don't buy stocks, I buy bonds."

This is how flashy Mayer Handelman is: When he bought his first Mercedes, back in 1989, he parked it behind the pharmacy, so as not to attract attention.

His business card says simply: "Mayer Handelman, pharmacist"

and contains a small illustration of a druggist's mortar and pestle.

Spend five minutes in his presence and you walk away thinking: "What a nice man." But here's something the down-to-earth ways and genial personality don't tell you: Mayer Handelman is a car guy.

He's one of those men whose heart does a flutter at the sight of hot cars, fast cars, muscle cars -- cars that once rumbled in pairs to a chalk starting line on some rural highway at 2 in the morning, where a skinny kid in a white T-shirt with a pack of Viceroys rolled in one sleeve would drop his arms and the cars would explode in a cloud of exhaust, rubber squealing and gravel spraying and a look of pure rapture crossing the faces of everyone gathered in the inky darkness.

This, apparently, is a pre-existing condition, too. Handelman grew up in northwest Baltimore, tinkering with a souped-up '34 Chevy and '34 Plymouth in his teens and later working on a '51 Henry J.

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