There is a nip in the air on this Monday morning in West Hollywood, and Melrose Avenue is still enveloped in a blanket of mist – so the top is going to be staying up for now. Thomas Nickel hops out of the silver Mercedes-Benz S 560 Cabriolet and strides into Urth Caffé, taking the three steps to the entrance in one. He comes here for breakfast a few times a week, and, as he tells us, so do a number of Oscar-winning actors. It’s not unusual to see top international models here too, though they tend to come later in the day. The laminated menu features exclusively organic dishes. It’s a place to be seen.
After two delicious Spanish lattes, the California morning has brightened considerably: it’s time to start the tour. The plan is to take a relaxed summer’s day jaunt from the Hollywood Hills to Deer Canyon Road. Thomas Nickel leans back in his 469 PS ride. “This is going to be my sun terrace for today,” he says, his mouth widening into a big grin. He turns onto Crescent Drive, touching a button as he does so: almost silently, the car’s immense fabric hood begins to open up and retract.
Starting out: as the fog starts to lift, Thomas Nickel is about to embark on a day of automotive adventure.
Hollywood Hills Airstream | Nickel rents out his Airstream Land Yacht on Airbnb for $260 a day. L.A. Weekly makes it one of the city’s top tips!
The journey north to Nickel’s house takes just a couple of minutes, heading into the hills above the city. Six years ago he bought a plot of land with a run-down bungalow, which he has since transformed into an architectural gem. As the sun strengthens through the morning, the glass walls of his home offer a stunning 270-degree view of the Hollywood Hills, Burbank and downtown Los Angeles. One level below the panoramic terrace, an Airstream trailer from 1969 glints in the sun. This was home to Nickel while he was renovating the bungalow. Today he rents the camper out on Airbnb. Guests staying in the Airstream can enjoy unrestricted views of the famed Hollywood sign and neighbouring Laurel Canyon, much of which was once bought up by the Doors so that the band could enjoy some peace and quiet – and the house at the end of Nickel’s street was once home to Jimi Hendrix.
Nickel puts on his hiking gear and hugs his girlfriend: all set. He gets into the car, nestles into its dark-red leather upholstery and starts the eight-cylinder engine, looking up at the dazzling blue sky as he does so. A satisfying purr resonates. The drive up to the nature reserve close to legendary Mulholland Drive only takes a few minutes. On the agenda: a 30-minute power-hike. By now the sun is higher in the sky and has burned off the last of the clouds. Thomas Nickel takes a long drink from his water bottle.
He used to live in the German city of Recklinghausen, where, in the 1980s, he started a career as a police officer after leaving school. He later worked for the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation, then in embassy security, before deciding to throw it all in. “My friends all urged me not to. They told me I was crazy to give up my coveted civil servant status. But it just wasn’t enough for me.”
After completing a computer science degree, Thomas Nickel was introduced to Munich’s film industry through a job with Arnold & Richter (Arri). Once there, he advanced through the ranks to become a producer, heading up various German film projects before eventually moving to the city of dreams, Los Angeles (after a brief interlude in India). 53-year-old Nickel’s dream certainly came true. He is now a US citizen, having been naturalised back in the early 2000s.
After a quick shower at home, Nickel sets off towards Malibu, where he wants to run a few errands. On his shopping list: sunglasses, a shirt, shoes – things he’s needed for a long time but hasn’t got around to buying. With no work to do for his production company, and no appointments until the evening, the 45-minute drive to Malibu today is a very pleasant means to an end.
The Walk of Fame: Hollywood Boulevard and its star-studded sidewalk are always worth a stop.
Nickel sets off on Highway 101. He then takes the 405 heading northeast before hitting Las Virgenes Road and snaking down to the Pacific Coast Highway, where the Malibu Country Mart is located. With the sun beating down now, a little refreshment at SunLife Organics is in order before starting on the shopping. While waiting for his “vital shake” (with kale, of course – currently the “in” vegetable), he chats to the service personnel, who he knows well. The four people behind the counter are clearly impressed by the S 560 parked outside on the street. The other guests will just have to wait a moment for their drinks, while the team admires the vehicle through the window.
Thomas Nickel owns several cars, among them a 1967 Chevrolet Impala and his most recent acquisition, a 1990 Nissan 300 ZX. But his favourite for this month is the Mercedes-Benz S 560 Cabriolet, a car that suits these surroundings like no other. Luxury, poise, nonchalance and an elegant dynamism – the open-top S-Class is the four-wheeled embodiment of Californian living. In fact, Thomas Nickel has been a Mercedes fan since he was a small child. Once, when he was in hospital with a torn ligament, he talked the man he was sharing a room with into selling him his 280 S model W 116. In the 1980s and 1990s, he tended to drive 123 models. “My favourite was the 280 CE,” he explains, flashing that big grin again.
He heads into the vintage clothes shop across the road. The place isn’t very busy on this Monday afternoon. But Nickel can’t settle on anything here, so he moves on to the neighbouring surf shop, then down to Zuma Beach. Although the beach is extremely popular with locals, it isn’t very busy at this time of day. In fact, it’s even emptier than the farmers’ market. There are no signs of the families that spent the last day of the weekend here together yesterday, or of the besotted couples gazing into each other’s eyes at sunset. The sea is relatively calm today, and Nickel is irresistibly drawn to the water with his surfboard. Having caught a few waves, he sits back down on the beach and stares out to sea. The beeping of a cleaning truck awakes him from his daydream.
Pure indulgence: after a quick snack at Urth Caffé, it’s time to get the sunglasses on and hit the road – though there’s no rush.
He breathes in deeply. The days are still short on the American Pacific coast, and the late afternoon sun is already drawing in on the horizon. Before heading home to work at his desk, Thomas Nickel indulges in a quick spin up the Pacific Coast Highway and through the many deserted canyons along its path. One of his favourite stretches is a few miles north and runs through the canyon at Deer Creek. Just before the Point Mugu navy base, where traffic checks are rare, you could be forgiven for yielding to the temptation to put pedal to the metal. But there’s none of that today. Not in this dream of a car.
With the draught-stop down, Nickel just lets the eight-cylinder S-Class breathe. There is no better way to end the day than with a dusk cruise through the illuminated Malibu Hills.