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  1. Luxury
April 25, 2018

Why I made a U-turn on luxury cars

By Sam Leith

Is owning a high-end car really worth all the social pitfalls, asks Sam Leith

I’ve bought a new car. Very excited I am, too. My previous cars have not been the sort to trouble Spear’s target readership: a half-share in a second-hand Suzuki Swift; an ancient BMW acquired for £500 whose main feature was spontaneously catching fire on the autoroute; a Skoda Octavia estate which was soon scratched on the outside and fragranced on the inside (courtesy of my three young children) with a piquant blend of well-fermented mashed banana and crumbled rice cakes. Nothing to cause the faintest flash of envy in the whispering-Lexus set.

Thanks to the aforementioned nippers and their jam-faced little friends, a seven-seater was the next step. So we’ve sold our grannies off for spare parts and bought a Land Rover Discovery Sport – still no Lexus, but a step up from the Skoda.

It is, in short, an automative step – at least by East Finchley standards – into Conspicuous Consumption. And what a strange, windy and pitfall-pocked path it is. Already the friends who are poorer than us – suffused with the moral certainty of the North London liberal – are tut-tutting and sneering about yummy mummies and Chelsea tractors, fretting about the environmental impact and sarcastically asking whether the four-wheel-drive will be adequate for the journey to Muswell Hill. While, I suspect, the owners of Audi Q7s and weapons-grade Range Rovers will be smirking for the opposite reason.

Anyway, the problem is not so much adult to adult as child to child. You can practise a level of modest discretion among adults. But the kids are going to nail you every time. When they heard we were getting a new car, my six- and four-year-old boys were especially excited. It seemed impossible not to milk it a bit, by feeding their excitement.

‘Is it going to have heated seats, Daddy? Is it really? Oh WOOOOOW! A “panromic” roof – a what? SEE-THROUGH!?? HOW many brake horsepower, Daddy? What’s a brake horsepower, Daddy?’ And so on. It didn’t occur to me until later that all this in-family boasting might have wider consequences.

The first hint of a dropping penny came with the follow-up questions. ‘How much does it cost, Daddy? Is it more than £10? More than £20? REALLY? How MUCH more?’ Inside my mind there spooled forward an imaginary highlights video of conversations between Max and his friends, in which figures would be bandied about and see-through roofs innocently offered for admiration. This video in my head fast-forwarded to the friends wondering aloud to their parents why they drove a Skoda, and said parents then taking to the WhatsApp group through which all the gossip about local show-offs is conveyed, and our becoming the subject of cold looks in the playground.

‘Christ,’ I found myself thinking, ‘am I going to have to park the damn car three streets from the school? Am I going to have to change my entire lifestyle in order to live up to my slightly aspirational set of wheels?’

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My kids have now become really interested in cars. School runs involve questions such as: ‘What’s the most expensive car in the world? Is it a Lamborghini? How much is a Lamborghini? Can we get one?’

I have had, in other words, my first taste of what it must be to have a car that people judge you on. It is not comfortable. I know there’s a subcategory of HNWs for whom the gold-plated Lambo is exactly what you want to crawl down the Brompton Road in. But I understand, too, for the first time why the unmarked Lexus, the discreetly styled Bentley or even the high-spec but normal-looking Range Rover is the motor of choice. Me, I’m going back to a Skoda as soon as the chance presents itself.

Sam Leith is the literary editor of The Spectator

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