Why size isn't everything

DRIVING AMBITIONS 4: THE LIMOUSINE DRIVER Our series, putting professional drivers in their dream cars, sees Stephen Sanders in a Cinquecento . Matthew Gwyther reports stretch limo chauffeur Stephen Sanders in the tiny Cinquecento
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The Independent Culture
STEPHEN SANDERS is a phlegmatic type, not easily ruffled while in the driving seat. He's done a few miles in his time, first as a motor- cycle despatch rider and then humping plasterboard and cement around when he drove a Transit in the building trade. He owns an old-shape BMW 325i, can look after himself, and is doing up a little house in Putney. But if you want to get him into a gibbering, cold sweat, then ask him to come and collect you up in London's Soho.

Sanders is a stretch-limousine driver and when your vehicle is 32ft long, Soho is a burning, sulphurous hell from which exit can be very awkward. "It's the worst place there is," he groans. "I'll do anything to avoid it because the streets are so narrow and there are so many parked cars. I got stuck on Soho Square a while back with a full load of customers. We just got jammed and I couldn't go forwards or backwards. The blokes in the back had to get out and bump the parked cars over for me."

Sanders was lucky his fares were sufficiently sober to help him out, but most of the time few are capable of even standing up without heaving Bucks Fizz all over the purple-shag-pile and burgundy-leather interior. The stretch limo may be the transport of choice for those attention-seeking second-division celebs like Linda Lusardi, Chris Tarrant and Vinny Jones when popping down to Planet Hollywood, but the bread-and-butter work comes from Joe and Joanna Public out for a good time.

Mobile stag and hen nights are particular favourites. On an average Saturday night the 12 stretches belonging to South West Limos of Earlsfield, can be observed swaying and lurching around the streets of the capital, emitting shrieks and cackles like a flotilla of late 20th century Ships of Fools. Fifty pounds an hour gets you a 10-seater and you can stay out for as long as you like. Sander's personal record was getting behind the wheel at nine o'clock one evening and not finally off-loading his exhausted charges until one the following afternoon.

"People do change when they've had a drink. They get out of hand all the time," says Sanders. "They break the videos, the TVs, the glasses - we've had to put plastic cups in because the crystal stuff got smashed so often - they sick up on the carpets. They deliberately rock the car from side to side. They abuse passers-by." There was even a "rumble" recently when a party started verballing some passers-by and a pitched battle ensued during which one of the car's doors was kicked in.

"But the worst one we ever had," continues Sanders, "was this bloke who got out of the rear sun-roof, crawled along the top of the vehicle and got back in down the front sun-roof. It wouldn't have been so bad except the car was doing 70 on the M3 at the time. It's against the law even to stand up out of the sun-roof but it's the driver who gets it from the Old Bill, not the passengers."

With his non-committal "Yes, m'lady," and "No, m'lady," Parker from Thunderbirds clearly wouldn't have been able to take the pace for half a shift in a stretch. Because then there's the on-board bonking to contend with. "It's the in thing to do in a limo these days - have sex in the back," says Sanders. Does he get embarrassed or maybe, like Chance the gardener, does he like to watch? "No, not really. I don't know if they do it on the floor or the seat because the partition is up. I find it quite funny especially when the car starts to rock. As long as it's tame it's all right." Tame? "Yeah. Nothing out of the ordinary."

The cars which take this nightly punishment are nearly all Ford Lincoln Town cars which have been quite literally hack-sawn in half and welded back together with a new section in the middle. Reinforcing girders prevent them splitting in two when fully loaded with party-loving passengers. The boss of South West Limos, the enterprising 23-year-old Angelina Harris, goes over to the US to visit her granny in Vegas and add to her fleet. "They vary in price from about pounds 15,000 for a small one second hand to nearly pounds 100,000 for a brand-new 10-seater. We get ours from Ohio and Florida - but you have to watch out for those because the sea air can rust them."

What is she looking for in her drivers? It seems you need to be a cross between a bouncer, a social worker and a cross-channel ferry captain to keep order. "A lot of businessmen's chauffeurs couldn't cope with it - the types who drive Scorpios, Granadas and Mercs. You need a sense of humour. You need to be friendly but know where the line is." South West's policy for repeated bad behaviour is three warnings, then out on the pavement to walk home.

You also need to be a calm driver as they are probably among the worst- handling vehicles on the road. You'd get more response from a steam roller, a better turning circle from a Greyhound bus, and a supertanker stops faster when you slam on the brakes. "There's a lot of trial and error driving them at the beginning," admits Sanders. "But personally I didn't find it that difficult. You learn where the nose is and use your side mirrors a lot." He's had a few scrapes and bumps in his 15-month career, but nothing too serious.

Up-front is an appalling large and thirsty five-litre V8 engine that drags the following two-and-a-half tons along behind it. "On a good run out of town you might get around 15 miles to the gallon out of it," says Sanders. Struggling around Soho it's a good deal worse than this.

Compare this with the 60 miles per gallon Sanders' chosen Driving Ambition can do at a steady 56 miles per hour. Cars don't come much shorter than the Fiat Cinquecento which measures 127 inches in length. It is one of those rare machines where you find yourself breaking out into a spontaneous grin when you're out driving it. "It's a real fun car and you couldn't get anything more totally different from my limo," says Sanders. "It's so easy to handle, to park, to manoeuvre and to reverse round corners." It is so small that you can sometimes park it nose on to the kerb where others are side on. "It's so light that it seems to go around pretty fast," adds Sanders, "And there's plenty of room in the front - you could almost call it spacious." Spacious, yes, but not large enough to party in. And you'd need to be a contortionist to procreate back there, even with the seats folded down. !