TRAFFIC in London often grinds to a standstill and, as a result, the English capital isn’t considered the best city to explore on four wheels – until now that is.
A couple of years ago three mates, Mini Cooper enthusiasts, established a boutique tour company that takes visitors around London’s busy streets in little cars perfect to zip along lanes and around stalled traffic.
Small Car Big City opened for business on August 26, 2009, the 50th anniversary of the day the first classic Mini rolled off the production line, and now the vintage vehicles are attracting attention all over again with people stopping to snap photos when the cars are sitting at the lights.
My Mini tour started in Conduit St in the smart suburb of Mayfair – I had lunch in The Parlour at Sketch, a quirky restaurant with a bathroom that’s one of the most interesting in Britain – and my driver Robert Welch, who is also the company’s managing director, put the car in gear and we shot off towards Regent St.
It was one of those perfect summer days, with a flawless dome of blue covering the city that straddles the River Thames, and we wound the Mini’s windows down to let the breezes cool the car as ’60s hits floated from the speakers.
We dashed along Regent St, before diving back into the lanes of Mayfair to pass some of the famous shopping addresses on Savile Row, and buzzed down St James’s St.
When we came across some congestion, Rob flicked the blinker and dashed down an alley, explaining the tours were flexible so routes could be changed to avoid busy areas.
“It’s just like shooting around on a bike,” Rob explained as we bolted for another quiet thoroughfare.
“We know all the back roads and how to can get where we want to go by using them. We try to make the tours as bespoke as possible, and guests will be serenaded by retro beats and hear some of the more quirky stories about London as we go.”
I was on the Small Car Big City’s A Bridge Too Far excursion, a two-hour jaunt around London that takes visitors past all the famous tourist attractions, and we zoomed across five of the capital’s most scenic bridges while following the curves of the Thames.
We saw Downing St, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, The Mall and Admiralty Arch, Nelson’s Column and Trafalgar Square, Fleet St, St Paul’s Cathedral, and each attraction came with a story from our knowledgeable guide.
When we were crossing Westminster Bridge we saw smoke rising from a building somewhere between The Strand and Victoria Embankment, and could see flames dancing from the top floors, so Rob changed his plan for the rest of the journey knowing the traffic moving around the Thames would halt when the fire trucks arrived.
We darted away from the river, headed north, and explored the neighbourhood known as Little Venice before roaring up Abbey Rd to see the crossing made famous by The Beatles, past Paul McCartney’s house, and then through the leafy streets of St John’s Wood.
Rob was going to drop me back at my hotel beside St Pancras Station, but when I said I was planning to spend the afternoon shopping in Oxford St he took a quick detour and let me out across from the Marks & Spencer store on the corner of Orchard Rd.
And, in just 120 minutes, I felt like I had seen more of London from the passenger seat of that zippy little Mini Cooper than during all my previous visits combined.
Small Cars Big City offers retro tours around the English capital in classic Mini Coopers. They include a 30-minute spin through the city on the Royal London tour; The Italian Job, which takes 90 minutes; and The Great Escape itinerary, which is planned to occupy three hours.
See Visit London for more information on planning a stay in the English capital.
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE DAILY TELEGRAPH ON THURSDAY, JANUARY 5, 2012