Rock stars drive Ferraris. So do investment bankers, high-priced litigators, and the idle rich. The rest of us are stuck with rusty Geo Metros, emasculating Chevy Malibus, or our parents’ 1990 Subaru station wagon. But is there really that much difference between a guy in a Bentley and a guy in a Pinto? When you drive by a luxury dealership you can’t help but wonder — couldn’t I just pretend I could afford a 6 figure car, be a rock star for a day, and test drive one?
Last Tuesday I drove to Greenwich to find out. I decided I would be a spoiled Yale kid whose parents were buying him a sports car for graduation: I would dress preppy, tuck my shirt into my jeans, furrow my eyebrows a lot, borrow my friend’s BMW, and bring along a pretend girlfriend (my friend Gillian), whom I would constantly call “hon’.”
Around 4 o’clock last Tuesday afternoon Gillian and I rolled into Greenwich, which looks as if it were a rural New England town bought and run by Disney World. The town is full of brightly colored Colonial houses and cheery storefronts that line whimsically narrow and windy streets. The shut-down mills and vacant factories that loom over much of New England are pleasantly missing, and, many of the trees magically already have leaves.
West Putnam Avenue is lined with luxury car dealerships. This includes Bentley, Ferrari, and Aston Martin, and also more common luxury cars like BMW, Mercedes, Lexus, and Acura. I decided to make appointments at two of these dealerships (Aston Martin, to look at the V12 Vanquish, and Mercedes for the SL55), and simply show up to some of the others, and see what I could drive.
The first stop of the day was Ferrari. Ferrari’s dealership in Greenwich does not look anything like a normal car dealership — it looks more like Mory’s or one of the reading rooms in Sterling. The front door is a large, solid wooden door painted green, and when you walk in, the first thing you encounter is a long carpeted staircase. At the top of the stairs you enter a large open room with dark hardwood floors and mahogany wood paneling. Portraits are hung on the wall.
At the front of the room was a woman sitting at a small desk with an appointment book. Behind her were about 15 Ferraris (I have no idea how they got them to the second floor of this house. This feat alone intimidated me immediately). This was too much for me. “Um, could you tell me where the Aston Martin dealership is?” I asked the woman. It was time to get the hell out of there.
Aston Martin is a much more conventional-looking car dealership, with big glass windows looking into the showroom, and cramped offices and desks for the salespeople. I had an appointment there to look at the V12 Vanquish, the James Bond car. I recovered the pride I had lost at Ferrari, puffed up my chest, and Gillian and I strode into the showroom. A saleswoman walked over to the two of us.
“Hello.” I said. “Are you Cynthia? I believe we spoke on the phone. I’m Burton Helm.”
“Yes,” she said. “Pleased to meet you. You’re interested in the Vanquish?”
“Yes, I believe I am.” I said (rich people use the word “believe” a lot more than normal people, I think).
She told me she would get the keys, and to meet her in the lot outside. I stood by a car which I thought was the Vanquish. She came outside.
“The car is over here,” she said, pointing at an entirely different model.
“Right, of course.” I said. She opened up the driver’s side door of the car, and I had a look inside. The interior looked like a fighter-plane cockpit, all dials and buttons. I could recognize the speedometer, the odometer, a CD player, and the steering wheel. I then realized that I knew absolutely nothing about cars.
“So, um, how many CDs fit in this changer, here?”
“Huh. Nice.” I then remembered the one thing my friend Spencer had told me to ask them. “Does this car have the Tiptronic system?”
“No. It’s Formula One transmission.”
“Does it come in standard?”
“No. Like I said, it’s just Formula One transmission.” I had no idea what she was talking about. “It shifts by wire,” she continued.
Apparently Aston Martin had installed some alien shifting system to keep shmoes like me from test driving it. I had an entirely new respect for James Bond. I moved to sit in the car, so I could at least grab the steering wheel and make driving noises.
“Please don’t put your feet in the car. We just cleaned it.” she said.
“Perhaps it would be better if you looked at the Vantage. It comes in automatic.”
“That’s what I suggested.” Gillian piped in. “I’m always telling him he should be more practical.”
“You’re right, hon’.” I said.
The saleswoman passed us over to another representative, an old German man in charge of showing the DB7 Vantage, a $120,000 12-cylinder convertible.Ê I again grappled to ask somewhat relevant questions, but again found myself asking about the CD player. Gillian did her best to break up the awkwardness with repeated story-asserting exclamations, like “I can’t believe your parents are buying you a car for graduation!”
Finally I gave up. “Sir, I’m sorry, I don’t know very much about this. This is my first time shopping for a car.” He sighed, and then nodded solemnly, empathetically.
“Come into my office,” he said. “We must have a talk.” He sat us down. “First, I want to say to you, that I do want you as a customer.” He seemed to be doing everything he could to keep from rolling his eyes. “But right now, I am not sure you are old enough, truly, for Aston Martin. But this is what I can offer you,” he went on to describe the powertrain warranty and a lot of other minutiae. “Right now, I would recommend for you a 2001 Vantage. Not a 2003. Right now, I think you are much too young to experience things like — depreciation. You understand?” He looked at me gravely. I nodded back. “You can have your parents call me about financing it.”
“But when do you think would be the right time for a test drive?” I asked.
“Come back,” he said, “only when you feel that the only thing — the only thing — keeping you from buying an Aston Martin is the driving experience.” I nodded again. Feeling thoroughly disciplined and somewhat confused, Gillian and I left and headed to BMW.
Visiting a BMW or Mercedes-Benz dealership is a completely different experience from the upper-upper-echelon dealerships. The salesmen seem like normal guys, and they are more than happy to let you test drive their cars. They even let me put my mix CD in the sound system.
They do, however, try to massage young people away from driving the more expensive models, and towards the more inexpensive, more reasonable models. At BMW they didn’t have the Z8 convertible, but they offered me the Z4. The BMW salesman was a portly man, and, riding in the passenger side of the car, seemed to make the car slant. We dropped the top on the car, popped in Clipse’s “When the Last Time,” and pretty soon I was tearing through the back-roads of Greenwich.
Probably the best part about test driving a sports car, is that in addition to driving it, the salesman in the passenger seat has to listen to your music and laugh at all your jokes. (Try it out. They will laugh at anything.) I tried to explain why the Clipse song was particularly appropriate to play while driving a convertible, despite all its swear words. The salesman nodded demurely. The Z4 handled well, but after the drive I told him I thought it lacked the “oomph” that I craved. I needed some excuse for why I wasn’t buying it. Gillian agreed. “We need oomph,” she said.
After BMW, we headed over to Mercedes. Again they didn’t have the SL55 available for test-drive, but the man was happy to let me drive a less expensive CLK55 AMG, a four-seater V6 convertible (it’s $69,000 rather than $114,000). Gillian and I hopped in, and the salesman climbed in the back.
how spacious it is?” he said. “I’m 5’10”, and there’s plenty of room for me in the back seat.”
“Wow,” I said. His knees were by his chin. I floored it as we went through the woods. That’s the other great part about test-driving — you can excuse your reckless driving as testing for “mobility” and “pick-up.” We listened to the Clipse song again. At the end of the drive we exchanged information, and he said he would call me (which he and the other salesmen did later, repeatedly). I told him I liked the car, but was a little upset the CD-changer was in the back.
“Doesn’t the BMW 300 series you’re driving now have the changer in the back?” (I had made up that I owned this car, so it would sound like I was stepping up.)
“Huh.” I said, “I don’t know. Well, goodbye.” And then we headed home. When you’re pretending to be rich, you have to make a fast getaway.