Anyone who knows me knows I’m an enthusiastic Anglophile. Or perhaps “Londonophile” (if there is such a word) is more accurate? I attended graduate school in London and have visited more times than I can now count. It’s the best city in the world: great history, great architecture, great beer, and great food (despite the old and false myths about British food).
And great cars.
Unless you live in Beverly Hills or South Beach, most of us don’t get close to Lamborghinis or Aston Martins very often without paying to attend a car show.
My parking garage at work is a monotonous parade of dull, sensible gray and brown Hondas and Toyotas, with a meager handful of Mercedes-Benzs to prove there are still a few people who see cars as more than appliances on wheels.
London, by contrast, is something of a car lovers Nirvana. A short walk around Mayfair, Kensington or Holland Park always stuns me with an orgy of exotic metal. On a recent visit to London, I was once again treated to the sublime and somewhat bizarre spectacle of seeing Audi R8s idling in traffic next to cabs and delivery trucks. Aston Martin Vanquishes zooming to catch the light, near the Ritz (of course).
A BMW i8 taking its City banker owner to work or perhaps a meet-up with one of many girlfriends. A gorgeous Bentley Mulsanne toting the kids to Starbucks. More garish Rolls-Royces than you will see in a lifetime elsewhere and a Lamborghini Aventador casually parked on the street, near a posh Mayfair restaurant.
This was all just on my latest visit. While living in London back in 2005-2006, a year-plus of time treated me with sightings of outrageous hyper-exotics, like Bugatti Veyrons, a Porsche Carrera GT, and a Ford GT40 puttering down the streets of Hampstead.
And I am sad to admit, as a Porsche lover and owner, Porsches are almost the poor man’s exotic in London. Porsches in London are as common as pickup trucks at Wal-Mart. Whenever I see a Cayman or even a 911 GT3 on the streets of London, I find myself thinking, “poor lad, guess he had a bad year at his hedge fund.”
I can only assume the Londoner driving a Porsche more than 10 years old must surely be on the welfare rolls.
Once you get over the initial “gee whiz” excitement of seeing these exotic cars in three dimensions, what strikes you most is the shear audacity of how casually their owners treat them.
That Aventador I saw parked in Mayfair had some water bottles and candy wrappers in the passenger seat – proof it’s likely a daily driver, not just a showboat. The multi-hundred thousand dollar Bentley at the Starbucks seems to be someone’s beater to drive the kids around town. Many years ago, I was even astonished at the spectacle of seeing a classic Lamborghini Miura trolling down Baker Street, its owner hopping out to make a call at a payphone as my jaw dropped.
The owners of these amazing rides are invariably minor Saudi princelings, the spawn of crooked Russian oligarchs, or increasingly (so I am told), new Chinese money – don’t think Tim Cook is the only one getting rich selling you that new iPhone 6.
I don’t know if I admire the audacity of these owners or want to beat them with my Mitt Romney bobble head for considering their quarter-million dollar cars almost disposable, while the rest of us fret over college costs and a tenth of a point on mortgage rates.
It’s both liberating and disgusting, like a fat man on a nude beach.
Part of the fun of London car watching is not just spotting exotics, but the shear variety of the models to behold. Gone are the days, such as when I was a kid, that European cars were a totally different species from American market cars.
A slippery Audi 5000 in the 1980’s looked as alien as Marty McFly’s DeLorean did in Old Man Peabody’s barn, but global platform sharing now means that Fiesta or Mini you drive in the States is essentially the same as the Fiesta or Mini on the streets of London.
But there are still models out there we don’t get at home that are a treat to behold.
I love the quirky Citroen and Peugeot models that I wish were sold on our shores. Or the even more bizarre examples of plug-ins, like the golf cart style Renault Twizzy, or the awkward REVAi/G-Wiz micro car that looks like something only an East German could love.
And of course, the true car aficionados appreciate comparing the relative merit of Seats or Skodas to their kissing cousins at our local VW dealers. Even better are the wonderful old European models still to be found on the streets, like the pristine 1970’s Citroen DS I saw near Parliament. Bizarre as they may be, the old Citroens, with their rear wheel skirts and boxy proportions and temperamental air suspensions, might be some of the coolest cars ever built.
And I’d be remiss, of course, if I didn’t give a shout-out to the ubiquitous London Black Cab, that paragon of British car design. If I had the money, I’d import these cars and resell them as family vans, since their spaciousness, fuel economy, and ridiculously tight turning circle (pardon the pun) run circles around most of the junk sold as family cars in the United States.
Perhaps what I like best about car-watching in London is the ability to simply revel in the diversity of what’s on the streets. We live in a present where globalization means most cars have become completely homogenized, and face a future where Uber and Google robot pods threaten to make cars as exciting as a plain, brown wrapper.
While most of us are trapped in the car hell of tedious mini vans and cute-utes on a day-to-day basis, it’s nice to be able to go to a place where every street and every stoplight reveals a vast range of automotive design, tastes and vintages.
Some are good, some bad.
Some are driven by those who likely don’t appreciate what they have. But I am glad to know one such place exists.
So before we are all forced by the UN (or more likely Apple or Google) to wear a silver jump suit as our daily uniform and workout in front of the telescreen in the morning, skip that pumpkin spice latte for a year or so, save the money, and buy a ticket to London to enjoy one of the great car Nirvanas. And maybe learn some Russian or Cantonese – you might just convince someone there to give you a ride in their hyper-exotic.
*Jonathan Orr is a writer, car aficionado, PR pro, Afghanistan veteran, and proud father. He considers his beloved Porsche 911 a member of the family. Follow him on Twitter: @jonathanjorr