Of the myriad thrills for the taking in New York, few offer the edge-of-your-bucket-seat excitement of muscling a car through traffic. And yet, though you’d never know it from the clogged streets, few New Yorkers ever experience it.
New York is the American city with the most zero-car households, and non-ownership is steepest in Manhattan, where 77 percent of households go car-less compared to 8 percent nationally, according to the most recent US Census figures. Even Mayor Bloomberg takes the subway to work.
Perhaps nowhere is car ownership less of a necessity than within Gotham’s loftiest realms, where corporate chieftains, society figures, celebrities, and the otherwise elite readily plant themselves in town cars to be chauffeured about. Yet plenty of boldface names own cars in the city. Diddy celebrated two birthdays of his son, Justin, with the gift of a Maybach—one before the teenager had even earned his driver’s license. Earlier this year Jay-Z scooped up Beyoncé and baby Blue Ivy from Lenox Hill Hospital in a Mercedes-Benz van, reportedly complete with hand-stitched Italian leather seats and a shower. Jerry Seinfeld keeps his Porsche collection in a private Manhattan garage. And Barry Diller famously plowed his white Maserati GranCabrio into Central Park snow in January 2011, inspiring a photo-op push from Katie Couric. Sigh. Leave it to a boardroom chief to drive something unfashionably pale in the dead of winter.
But, really, why would anyone who could afford a car and driver choose to keep an auto in New York? “Because I love to drive,” says Cornelia Guest of her passion for taking the wheel in the city. “I’ve never been a hired town car sort of person. And if I ever do get someone to drive me, it’s going to be in my own car!”
Raised as one of the fortunate progeny of society bright lights C.Z. and Winston Guest, Cornelia makes her home in Westbury, Long Island, her base for a wide range of activities, including a burgeoning catering business, animal activism, and cruelty-free fashion accessories. Whatever the address, she has always been a driver. “My first car was a hand-me-down VW Rabbit with a stick shift. I took it to horse shows and drove it for years. Then I got a Rabbit convertible. Then a BMW convertible.”
These days Guest drives an Audi A8, black inside and out but for the horse blanket draped across the backseat for her Great Pyrenees, Bear (as if a dog that woolly needs extra padding). “It’s a great car: fast, light, and it hugs the road. Last winter while headed out to Long Island, everyone was pulled over in a snowstorm, and I was just barreling along.”
“I’m fearless,” she concludes, flashing authentic New York attitude. “The only way to drive is to charge—you’ve gotta get where you’ve gotta go.”
Though Guest’s bravura might win applause from hardened New York drivers, not all in her social strata are so gung-ho. “Sounds fun, but I’m fortunate enuf 2 have a driver,” e-mailed advertising exec Donny Deutsch when we inquired of his driving style.
“We walk everywhere. We are gay and green,” typed Simon Doonan, creative ambassador-at-large of Barneys New York, whose husband, designer Jonathan Adler, doesn’t drive either. Socialite and jewelry designer Ann Dexter-Jones says she “charged around the city for years” but no longer, having switched to subways and car services “when it got too difficult to find parking.” And Jamee Gregory, another society fixture and most recently the author of New York Parties: Private Views (Rizzoli; 2010), only uses her red convertible Mini Cooper in Southampton: “I’m scared to drive in town!”
Perhaps no driver has a better perspective on the dread that New York traffic can inspire than Amy Fine Collins, a special correspondent covering fashion and culture for Vanity Fair, an International Best-Dressed List Hall of Famer, and author of The God of Driving: How I Overcame Fear and Put Myself in the Driver’s Seat (with the Help of a Good and Mysterious Man) (Simon & Schuster; 2004). The book, currently in development by Curious Pictures, recounts Collins’ struggles learning to drive in Manhattan and her eventual success thanks to a handsome Turkish instructor.
Asked about her driving style, Collins pulls no punches. “At worst I’m totally phobic, at best hypervigilant.” Why? “Because everyone is driving around in a state of denial that they’re actually behind the wheel of a bomb. They might be drunk, stoned, stressed out with music blaring, and their mind on something else,” she says. “No one drives stick in America, and they should because that gives a better impression of what they’re controlling.”
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Though Collins acknowledges it’s tough to make generalizations, she believes driving style is always revealing. “It shows your character, your personality,” she says, adding, “Often very powerful women in the city end up absolutely powerless and dependent in this one area of life.”
One thing Collins cannot tolerate: “Aggression is for losers.”
Wait—did Collins just call New Yorkers losers? Perhaps not all of them, but certainly an unhealthy percentage. Anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of area drivers could be termed “aggressive” or “very aggressive,” notes Robert Sinclair Jr., manager of media relations for AAA New York, who is quick to point out that there are plenty of reasons for the city’s trademark driving style.
Beyond hordes of taxi and limo drivers rushing to squeeze as many fares as possible into a day, many of the city’s leading industries—finance, media, fashion— are populated with type A personalities who focus on their own needs behind the wheel. Advanced technologies like smartphones and onboard GPS create contemporary distractions light-years beyond dashboard radios. Vehicle repairs and maintenance resulting from poor roads frustrate NYC-area drivers to the tune of $640 a year on average, compared to a national average of $402 for urban motorists. And the New York region is prime selling ground for luxury carmakers such as Lamborghini, Lotus, Ferrari, and Porsche that design cars specifically to be driven very, very fast.
As for New York’s most powerful, who are seemingly well in control of their lives—how do they wrangle uncontrollable New York traffic? Like the cars they keep, their driving styles are all over the road. “Most people achieve success doing one thing or a set of things really well, but what does that say about other things?” ponders Philip Muskin, MD, head of Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center. “You may be master of the universe in the boardroom, but you get in a car and there are crazies out there who don’t care about red lights or going 100 miles per hour. I could see a CEO saying, ‘I don’t like driving in the city because I’m not in control of this world.’ It’s not a sign of not being confident, but a recognition of what they’re good at and not good at.”
“I feel very comfortable with Jonathan driving,” says society doyenne Somers Farkas of tooling around the city behind tinted windows in a Lincoln MKT with her husband, Jonathan, heir to the Alexander’s department store fortune and a former racecar driver himself. The couple employ a driver, but Jonathan drives in the city and both do elsewhere. “When we go to Long Island, Jonathan drives out and I drive back. But when we hit the city, I become very timid.” One fender bender can cause injuries, she explains, adding that overall she’d prefer to walk. “I always love the opportunity to exercise.”
While plenty of couples share driving like the Farkases do, others on the New York social scene decidedly do not split them down the middle. “My wife can’t drive at all,” admits Euan Rellie in good humor about life with fashion fixture Lucy Sykes Rellie. “There are times when I’d love to have a few drinks and have her drive home, but I can’t. So driving is one way to assert myself. Lucy can be quite assertive in many respects, so at least I have the wheel.”
Though as senior managing director of Business Development Asia, Rellie could doubtless meet payments on stylish wheels, he makes due with monthly rentals from Hertz—a style statement in itself. “I just returned my very glamorous Ford Escape, and now I have a Nissan Rogue,” he says with a laugh, content that he never fears parking on the street because Hertz, he says, doesn’t fuss over scratches. “Whatever the car, there aren’t many people who enjoy driving around the city as much as I do. There’s a certain sort of odd masculine pride in figuring out the most efficient way through traffic. I’m happy to ferry people anywhere.”
Driving pays pluses beyond friendship for shoe designer Frank Zambrelli, whose Banfi Zambrelli outfit recently developed lines for Hunter Boots and Dana Davis. Zambrelli’s driving style is all about family routine, starting each morning when he and husband George fetch their dark charcoal Mercedes-Benz 550 from a downtown garage to drive their five-year-old daughter, Gia, to kindergarten on the Upper West Side. “We’re Ozzie and Ozzie on the road, led by an almost suburban mentality,” says Zambrelli. “Frankly, the car is a way to treat the city as the place we live in spite of itself.”
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Family driving in the city doesn’t have to be so vanilla, of course. With a baby on the way, Rachelle Hruska, the socially connected founder of Guest of a Guest, spent six months figuring out how to keep her city dignity with a family-style ride. “We knew we wanted an SUV, but it had to be environmentally sound because we didn’t want to be ‘those assholes’ driving an SUV.” Eventually Hruska and her husband, hotelier Sean MacPherson, settled on a hybrid Toyota Highlander. Then they had it murdered out.
“The real way to murder out a car is to paint it black and not add the primer. We didn’t want to ruin our brand-new car, so we didn’t strip the paint, just wrapped it in the sticker condom,” explains Hruska, who has seen plenty of murder out how-to videos on YouTube. “It’s really funny, because people usually only do it to really screwed-up cars. Lindsay Lohan did it to hers.” Hruska and MacPherson keep the SUV in their private garage on Jane Street—“that garage is why we’re never moving”—and also have a specially murdered out Bugaboo for their now two-month-old, Maxwell. Now that’s style.
So how does a Nebraska transplant with a new baby handle herself in city traffic? “Driving here is definitely a gnarly adventure,” she says. “I get the whole congestion thing and the aggression thing. When I’m a passenger, I’m a lot less polite—‘Can you believe that guy cut you off?!’—but when I’m driving, my style is pretty Zen.”
Whatever else goes into fashioning a New York driving style, the car itself cannot be discounted. Her fear aside, Amy Fine Collins delights in the warm reception she gets motoring around in fabulous loaners lined up by friends in the auto industry for review. “I was test-driving Bentleys for a while, which you’d expect would incite status envy. But bus drivers would be hanging out the window giving the thumbs-up, and construction workers would want high-fives,” she recalls. “It’s a lovely experience seeing how people react to a nice car.”
Veronique Gabai-Pinsky and Joel Pinsky—she’s the global brand president of Estée Lauder’s Aramis and designer fragrances; he founded Violight, a company that produces a toothbrush sanitizer— notice similar enthusiasm every time they head out in their vintage Rolls-Royce Silver Spur. Other motorists tend to slow down and give the cream-colored car a wide berth. “People give us thumbs-up even when they see us putting groceries in the trunk,” says Joel. But Veronique points out that she drives her own Audi convertible out of fear she’ll scratch her husband’s “mistress.” Both agree that the anonymous “road love” for their Rolls has gone a long way toward softening their city driving styles. “The experience becomes one of those moments of pure pleasure, whatever the traffic,” says Veronique.
Now, isn’t that what city driving should be?