Never mind the quality, feel the length: Could you be a back-seat jiver? Monique Roffey hits the road and feels like a mobile phoney

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I was expecting to feel self-conscious or at least unhappy and uncomfortable to trawl the streets of London in this vulgar toy - plaything of the rich and famous. I was wrong. Half way down the King's Road, when about the 70th head had swivelled, the power trip began to sink in. The world wanted to know just who was inside this monstrous car. And it was merely little old me - and friend.

Ah yes, the car. A massive American super-stretch Lincoln limousine that measured no less than 33 feet from bumper to bumper; not much shorter than a London bus.

It had smoked glass windows, a little shark fin spoiler on the back bonnet and a chauffer, Vince, at the wheel. Vince, with peach fuzz, a pasty complexion and a grey quasi-Nazi hat and uniform, bore an uncanny resemblance to Riff Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. We were a sight.

Actually, behind the smoked glass windows, we were completely out of sight - and being asphyxiated by the smell of Hawaiian Tropic. Had the last customer hired the car as a mobile solarium? Had there been a coconut oil party in here? No. It was simply a small plastic bucket-shaped air freshener fastened to the back dashboard. Tasteful.

Like two children in a toy shop, we looked around for something to play with and destroy. Thirty cut-glass tumblers sexily displayed by mini spotlights lined the top of a teak (or was it mahogany?) wall unit. The unit held two televisions - with remote controls mounted next to them on velcro - and a video. Another unit held decanters (empty), more glasses and a mini bar (also empty). The black carpeted ceiling winked a snowflake pattern of teeny flashing lights. Crazy, man. The seats were a wild cowboyish black leather with white buttons and piping. This was Reno. On wheels.

For the occasion I'd donned my trusty kebab stained purple suede coat and shades: rock chick chic. My friend was sporting thigh boots and a mini. We did our best to behave like arrogant stars. We flicked Tin Tin on one of the televisions, then stuffed on a video - Three Men and a Baby. We ordered Vince around on the intercom, listened to Maxi Priest on volume 10 and played, twiddled and tinkered with every button. Pressing 'Dome' sent the sliding sun roof back. 'Mood' altered the glare of the disco lights in the ceiling. 'Partition' sent up a mirrored wall between us and Vince.

The smoked glass windows brought a classicly kinky voyuerism into play. We could see the world, but the world could not see us. We hunkered down and watched as children gawped and pointed, and adults stopped and stared.

We ordered the car towards Buckingham Palace. As the car swung lazily around Victoria's memorial a minor frenzy erupted. Thinking we were no less than royalty, a bank of blank tourist faces reached for their cameras and clicked away furiously. Even after I popped my head up through the sun roof - just like Di - and waved, the cameras kept blazing. High on celebrity, we did a second circuit, which proved one lap too many for the nearby motorcyle cops. We suddenly found three of them flanking us and motioning to Vince to push off. Our style badly cramped, we did.

By way of compensation, Vince told us stories that made us blush. In gravelly tones he spoke of the many nights spent with the mirrored partition up while small champagne orgies had taken place in the spangled lounge behind. It was part of a chauffeur's job, he explained, to know where to get women for the night and know where to drop them off at the end of it.

Then we talked stardom. Celebrities he had driven included Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, Brigitte Nielson, Hulk Holgan, Jerry Lee Lewis and the lovely Bananarama. No juicy stories could be prised from Vince's lips; it's also part of a chauffeur's job to know when to keep his mouth shut.

In lieu of scandal we settled for facts. The car did 16 miles to the gallon and had been specially stretched in a factory in America (a smaller Lincoln is sawn in half and a middle piece is added). It is also a spare-parts nightmare. Wing mirrors and all the fancy trimmings usually means mail order from America. Ordering an entire automobile takes even longer but they can be a bit of a bargain, costing somewhere between dollars 17,000 and dollars 30,000 in the United States. The pounds 45 an hour hire charge (for four hours minimum) almost began to seem reasonable.

Vince's bosses, The Wonder Years, have one of the largest collections of 'stretches in town (only the ill-informed call them 'limos). They also own the largest car in England; yes, even bigger than our current mode of transport. It's a 35 feet 'double cut super stretch white Lincoln. It boasts a deep burgundy velour J seat lounge, colour television/video, cellular phone, stereo, ice box and champagne bar, complete with crystal glasses. There's enough room in the back to seat ten. A snip at pounds 50 an hour.

To tell the truth, after about an hour, the novelty began to wear off - about the same time we began to spot people not just pointing but laughing. Being laughed at must be the least desired effect any rich or famous person hiring out a stretch limo has in mind. Then again, this is London. A place where flashing the cash is considered tacky and a 33-foot car is considered ridiculous. It says that whoever's inside is rich, fat and wide. But there's a kind of vulgar honesty in this for the Meatloafs, Ru Pauls and Madonnas who are happy with transmitting this message to the world. The stretch limo is for them - indeed, in a sense, they are the stretch limo.

The Wonder Years, 264 Merton Rd SW18 (Tel: 081-871 2777) Mon-Sun 24 hours

LIMO SCENE

Advanced Automobiles, 12 Cambridge Court, Sussex Gardens, W2 (071-706 0176) Mon-Sun, 24 hours

Advanced Automobiles once owned the grey stretch limo used as the Joker's car in the first Batman movie. 'Grey used to be very popular after that, but a white limo is now the in colour,' says owner Brian Lomas. His 24ft stretch white Cadillac holds seven comfortably in a face to face seating arrangement, has a small colour television and video cassette player, a bar with a bottle of complimentary champagne and has been hired by the likes of Ru Paul, Meatloaf, La Toyah Jackson and Seal. 'It's a fun car,' explains Brian, and for pounds 25 an hour (for a minimum of 4 hours) one can only hope it is.

The company also hire out a black Daimler with a television for pounds 22.50 an hour (for a minimum of two hours) to people going to posh garden parties at The Palace and Glyndebourne. They have a number of 18ft four- and six-door stretch Mercs (no fancy extras, just air con) for pounds 20 an hour, as well some rather special 1930s Rolls-Royce Phantoms (prices negotiable). Uniformed chauffers are included in all prices.

American Automobile Hire Company, 12 Calthorpe St, WC1 (071-837 0793) Mon-Sun, 24 hours

This company's biggest and most lavish item is a 35ft white Lincoln which seats ten comfortably. Inside you can recline on plush red leather and switch on the colour television or video, or help yourself to the small cocktail bar. All this for pounds 45 an hour. They also have a smaller seven-seater (pounds 35 an hour) with similar interior playthings - both have a sunroof for babes to do a bit of flesh flashing.

Past customers have included Madonna and (yes]) La Toyah Jackson. Available in two months time is a 45ft Lincoln with a Jacuzzi and waterbed, and double television/video system. Really.

'It's a gimmick,' says owner Frank Davis. 'But it'll make money.'

Chauffeurs are included in the price.

Goldwing Limousines, 1 Walmer Close, Collier Row, Romford, Essex RM7 (0708 731 379) Mon-Sun, 24 hours

Choose from a selection of white, metallic silver and blue Cadillacs.

All are 25ft long American stretch Cadillacs with wood and blue or black leather interiors. Gadgets include a colour television, video, stereo, air conditioning and a bar. Smoked windows ensure superstar status. 'We have a variety of people who use us,' says owner Philip Paffey. 'Mainly rock bands, footballers and page three models.'

Prices are pounds 30 an hour for the first four hours and pounds 25 after that. A full uniformed chauffeur is included in the price.

Limco, 6 Broom Close, Cheshunt, Herts, EN7 (0992-626118) Mon-Sun, 24hours

Limco have the largest collection of stretch limos in the country, including one super stretch at 28ft. This is a 10-seater Cadillac with a twin television unit, a bar which holds some complimentary 'bubbly' (read sparkling wine), a stereo and 'mood lighting': small lights in the floor and ceiling which dim.

There is a smoked glass partition so the driver can't see what's happening (so useful in those No Way Out situations). And dig the delightful white leather upholstery with burgundy piping. This baby costs pounds 45 an hour, with no minimum time charges specified by the company.

Limco are well known and used by the music and celebrity world. Boy George, Madonna and Paul Gascoigne are past, if not regular, customers.

(Photographs omitted)

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