I'm sitting in a coffee shop in Knightsbridge, London. To my left is the famous Harrods department store, which would be a potent symbol of Britishness, were it not owned by an Egyptian. A DKNY store is across the street, less than half a block from the country's biggest Emporio Armani. Everyone here carries ridiculous handbags-even the guys-and they dress like they've been ripped out of Vogue. The lunching ladies to my left have just been discussing the merits of a passer-by's skirt with the same intensity that Churchill and Roosevelt discussed Stalin. Sod the gulags, take a look at that hemline. Only in LA, or possibly Moscow, have I experienced such ridiculous displays of ostentation. Wealth here is not so much celebrated as demanded. If you buy your underwear from Wal-Mart, then you're simply not welcome, darling. There's a penthouse apartment about 400 yards from here, on the market for $200 million. I didn't make that up.
Then there are the cars. If you live in an apartment worth more than the GDP of a small African nation, then you'll need a serious motor or 10. I've been here for about 20 minutes and, thus far, have seen a Maybach 62, a Murcilago, an SLR and a Ferrari 599. There are so many F430s, 911 Turbos, DB9s and Bentley Continentals in this part of London that they can be dismissed as horribly common-the sort of thing you'd lose in an underground garage. "I'm sure I had one of those Ferrari things... red, wasn't it? Oh bollocks, never mind, where's Tarquin and what time does the chopper arrive?"
Here I am, sipping coffee and idly spotting some of the world's most exotic motors. It's car porn, but it's hugely unappetizing. Watching these cars cough and splutter their way through the West End's congested streets is rather like discovering your dream date has secretly married the school bully. Everything follows a familiar pattern. A car crawls into view and stops at the light. The orange-skinned driver jabs at the throttle. The lights change and the car screams to 20 mph. Then it stops again. Everything here is about 0-20. The last time anyone did 30 mph in Knightsbridge, Queen Victoria was in diapers. It's all so horribly pretentious. The cars are not something to be savored, they're automotive medallions that say: "I'm richer and better than you." It's vulgar, dreadful and nouveau. And it's hugely damaging to the brands. The F430 is one of the finest sports cars ever built, but I'd worry about buying one because everyone would think I was a perma-tanned prat. They'd assume I don't know how to drive, know nothing about its heritage and that I only bought it to inflate my fragile ego. In other words, they'd think I had a very small member.
Porsche has the same problem. The 911 has become so ubiquitous over here that it's no longer considered a novelty. It's the default choice of cash-rich, time-poor bankers who drive it two miles to work each day. For many of them, the seminal Porker is no more than an accessory to be placed alongside the Blackberry and Rolex. I once had dinner with a chief executive who'd had a 911 for four years, driven it every day and had done less than 11,000 miles. For manufacturers such as Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche, Aston and Bentley, it has to be a concern. There's little point spending $600 million each year winning various motorpsort titles if all that hard work is undone by a chino-wearing daddy's boy. They will be damned by brand association.
I propose a solution. Just as fraternities or private clubs have strict membership policies, so Ferrari et al should introduce stringent criteria for owning their cars. You can't adopt a dog unless you meet certain requirements, why should a prancing horse be any different? Each manufacturer could compose a list of key questions and subject the potential customer to a rigorous interview. If they can't name the color of ink Enzo Ferrari used to use, their request for an F430 would be politely but firmly denied. But if they can recall Stefan Bellof's lap record at the old Nrburgring, then they can jump the queue for a new 911 GT3. Certificates of acceptance would be issued, to be carried at all times. And there's one rule that could be applied by all manufacturers. If the applicant happened to live in Knightsbridge, they'd be shown the door.
Alistair's first book, A Drive on the Wild Side, is out now and features 20 extreme drives from across the world.