MEET THE HIRE CLASS OF DRIVER

Motoring: If you need a hire car forget the Escorts and Cavaliers and go for a real motor. Michael Booth spends a blissful day driving a head-turning Ferrari and behaving like the ultimate boy racer

I'd felt like this only once before, when I was eight. Christmas 1979 was on my mind and the promise of presents, chocolate and bulging stockings hijacked my every thought, the excitement working its way up from the pit of my stomach to constrict my throat. My breathing had become faster and shallower and the more I thought: "Hello, I don't seem to be breathing properly," the worse it was, until I was taken to the doctor and he diagnosed a common seasonal disorder: Acute Christmas. This, I realised, was what I'd been suffering from for the last three days, since I had been told that I would be driving a Ferrari.

Everyone knows how to hire mundane metal like a Cavalier or an Escort. They cost about pounds 40 a day, you leave a deposit, flash your licence, and thrash it like a bastard. But there are companies which offer exclusive rentals, cars that most of us only see in lottery-induced think-bubbles.

Marque One in Milton Keynes is one such company. If you are over 25 and have a better driving record than, say, Jim Davidson, it will lend you a Lamborghini, Aston Martin or the Ferrari 348tb orgasm-wagon I borrowed. It charges pounds 595 a day; could even Marenello's finest, be worth over a week's wages for one day behind the wheel?

It was due at 10am, by quarter past I was pacing outside the house like an expectant father. I heard it first, a distant, ripe rumble laden with promise. Then I saw it, startlingly scarlet, incongruous against dowdy Victorian south London. As it burbled up alongside me it stood no higher than my hip but spread wide across the Tarmac, as though it had melted a little in the sun.

In the flesh the Ferrari terrified me. Not only was it worth pounds 60,000 (pounds 80,000 when new), capable of up to 170mph and more beautiful than Helen of Troy, but surely people like me oughtn't to be allowed near a car like this. I own no chunky gold jewellery, I have never taken cocaine and I wouldn't know a golf course from a hole in the ground. Worse, since childhood all I have ever wanted from life is to drive a Ferrari. I realise how tragic this sounds, but when you've been brought up on Classic and Sportscar magazine instead of the Beano, the name Ferrari becomes a one-word childhood mantra. To drive this... this spaceship could well denude my life of purpose.

I decided to risk it, I signed a form filled with clauses ("Crash this car and we are entitled to shave your head and brand you"), pushed the button which serves as a door handle and climbed in. I defy Joanna Lumley to enter a Ferrari and retain a shred of dignity. The only way in is backside first, legs flailing over the wide sills, and flop down into the groping leather seat where you slump, knees splayed, as if in birthing stirrups. Inside, the black and off-white interior betrayed the usual hire-car wear. The leather was tiring at the seams and one electric window refused to operate. The 348 has few frills, only an average stereo and an air-conditioning system so complex I was afraid to turn it on in case it interfered with the space programme.

At least starting it is simple; I turned the key and the engine caught instantly. The cacophony of screams, whirs and wails as the 3.4 litre V8 fired into life could well have caused structural damage to nearby buildings, but had I stuck my fingers in an electric socket while standing in the bath I couldn't have been more stimulated, as muscles, many dormant for years, clenched anxiously.

Finally, photographer Richard and I achieved a kind of tentative lift off. The Ferrari's steering is heavy; clutch likewise; brake travel non- existent, and each gear change demands force and commitment. But, when you floor the pedal in first, the thrust forward is as instant as squirty cream.

Naturally, it was vital that as many people as possible see me, but driving a Ferrari in London is like binding Michael Johnson's legs together for the village fair's three-legged race. Although the 348 is absurdly easy to drive, its 295 horses are not happiest trotting. Luckily, there are other pleasures to be had in town.

If, like me, your ego is surpassed only by French presidents, the constant attention you attract in a Ferrari is almost health-threatening. To you, and those you pass, 348s are an osteopath's dream; we cricked enough necks too keep them in work for a decade. No matter how hard some people tried, they just could not help but stare: a gaggle of Italian teenagers applauded, passers-by beamed their approval, while children practically cartwheeled with joy, you could see them, too, mouthing that unmistakable chant: "Furr- Rarr-Ree". Other drivers refused to let us out of side streets of course, but to hell with them.

At the top of Brick Lane, East London, we stopped by a used-car lot. The mechanics came out to gawp. "If you don't abuse this car you're mad," said one, when I admitted it wasn't mine. "If it's a hire car, I'd thrash it, mate." As we drove off he offered further encouragement: "You don't even need a big dick in a car like that!"

We stopped for bagels and were surrounded by Gavin, Leon and Gavin, three 14-year-olds from Bethnal Green who thrust their heads through the side window. "Is it yours?" "Are you a drug dealer?" "What does it cost then, pounds 20,000?" Times that by four. "Shurrup, nah way!"

They were fascinated by the immobiliser key. I explained that, if I removed it, it would be impossible to start the car. Gavin number two disagreed and insisted I prove it. I took it out and turned the ignition. The car started instantly. Suitably humbled, I thought we should head west, but at Holborn the car stalled. Richard sniggered at my asinine driving skills as I feverishly re-started the car. The third time it happened, at the top of Shaftesbury Avenue, neither swear words or sincere prayer could coax the V8 back into life.

I had craved attention and now had a whole heap of it. With great comic timing, one of the second-hand-car dealers from Brick Lane drove past; had he laughed any more I think we might have had to summon an ambulance. Thankfully, some kindly builders push-started us. We later found out the car had an electrical fault which flattened the battery when the stereo was played with the engine off. In effect, my own monstrous vanity, which demanded that I play the stereo raucously at all times, had been my downfall.

A couple more stops and at last I was on my own and heading for the M23. A strange thing happens as you gather momentum. Not only are you aware that you are in the fastest, reddest, most expensive damn car on the road, but you begin to believe yourself to be the most important person on it as well, you are simply better than other people, a god, a hero and a millionaire rolled into one. Yes, actually, I do own the road.

At 120 miles an hour the 348 is just stretching its legs; unless you catch sight of the speedo, it could be 40. Floor the pedal in any gear and the car out accelerates your brain, it's hard not to panic as the scenery blurs. Only a durr-brain would push on up to 140mph on British roads, yet you do. The steering knows what to do before you have even made up your mind and turns the car without roll at any speed. The hefty gear change, a pain in traffic, is now relished as a live link to the operatic heart of the animal. I found myself dropping back from traffic so I could blast back to join them.

I came to realise that, in the 348, Ferrari sold not just a cunning combination of metal, leather and glass, but a kind of near-spiritual high greater than that promised by any drug, a rush unsurpassable at ground level. An F-14 may travel many times faster, but how many of us will ever take one of those down Piccadilly on a summer's afternoon with our right elbow hanging out of the window and Bowie blaring from the speakers?

If I haven't convinced you, firstly, you must be some kind of nerdy scaredy- cat. Secondly, if it's the pounds 595 a day that's bothering you, there is someone else you could talk to...

The Classic Car Club, in King's Cross, London, was the idea of David Cavanagh and his brother Phillip. For a pounds 500 joining fee, and pounds 1,500 annual membership, the club gives you 750 points to exchange for the hire of one of 25 classic cars. The number of points used depends on the car (they range from a Spitfire to an Aston V8), the day of the week you want to use it and the season. Its E-Type (a band four car) taken out on a summer Saturday will use up 96 points, the equivalent of pounds 192. The Ferrari 308 GT4 (grandfather of the 348), borrowed on a winter Wednesday, costs four points, or pounds 8. You'll be able to have about 55 days driving a year, which works out at pounds 27 a day - the daily hire charge for a Fiesta.

"Our customers are interested in classic cars but don't want to go the whole hog and buy one." says David. "Many live in London, and a few don't own a car but use us as and when they need one. Some are trying out the cars before deciding which model to buy." I've scratched my head long and hard to find a catch, there isn't one.

From the cars left that Saturday I chose a champagne-gold 1969 Mercedes 280SL convertible. A bit of a hairdresser's express, I grant you, but it was a dreamy day and time to relax. The funny thing was, it attracted as much attention as the 348. It is such a beautiful creation, so immaculately proportioned; it drew appreciative nods, instead of the Ferrari's open-mouthed "Whatthehellisthat?"

The greatest pleasure, though, of driving the club's cars is that the little black clouds of anxiety that hang over every classic car owner - the mysterious rattles, plunging oil pressure and the constant fear of rust - are replaced by care-free, blue sky. I swanned my way to Castle Combe race track in Wiltshire where a classic-car meet was in progress. The 280 is the supreme waft-mobile, its creamy luxury is more than adequate compensation for slothful acceleration. In the past I have turned up to these events in heinous old jalopies. Today though, even among the Lamborghinis and historic racers, my glittery Merc stood out a mile.

Sauntering around, condescending to peruse lesser vehicles, I had the car in sight constantly, so that whenever I saw anyone approaching it I could nip back and find an excuse to check on something, just so everyone knew it was mine. They'd gaze in admiration, and I loved every second.

Back at King's Cross, Kevin Sheil, a stockbroker whose company car allowance pays for membership, was waiting to pick up a Karmann Ghia. He explained the club's attraction: "You know those miserable wet weekday afternoons in the middle of November? I can come here and take the Ferrari, or one of the Alfas, and it'll only use a couple of points, but it will really cheer me up."

I know what he means. These cars made me feel more contented, more balanced than any therapy might. Indeed, they made me feel better than even Cindy Crawford could, unless of course she lost a bit of weight and really tried.

Marque One, 01525 261886; The Classic Car Club, 0171 713 7313/7316.

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