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Driving the dictator

  1. I like it because I can see my face in it. It’s like a mirror!” says Bunny Amber. 

    “I like it because I can lie in the back so comfortably!” says Bunny Dagmara.

    “I like it because it’s a statement. But I’m more a fan of the aesthetic than the ergonomic,” says Bunny Sara. Don’t judge a rabbit by her tail. 

    Tuesday night, and we’re parked up in front of the Playboy Club in London’s Mayfair district with a gold-and-platinum-plated, four-tonne armoured limo. But not just any gold-and-platinum-plated armoured limo: this is the official ‘Aladeen’ Prombron, created by quirky Latvian firm Dartz for Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film, The Dictator.

    TopGear gets on well with Dartz boss Leo Yankelovich, a man with a creative approach to (a) English and (b) self-publicity (Leo’s recent marketing strategies have included offering a £750,000 bottle of vodka with free Prombron thrown in, and threatening to upholster a car in whale-penis leather – “I heard it is most expensive and best” – before backing down when Pamela Anderson complained). So when he mentioned he was driving the Aladeen Prombron 1,500 miles from Latvia to London for the film’s world premiere, we generously offered to pilot the last 75 miles from Folkestone. Delivering the Dictator’s car.  We liked that idea. We didn’t know how weird it’d get.

    Pictures: Rowan Horncastle

    This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of Top Gear magazine  

  2. It began smoothly enough. We met Leo and the Prombron off the Chunnel (10 hours behind schedule – Leo forgot his satnav and ended up doing a few impromptu laps of Holland) and took him on a quick London tour before heading for the Playboy Club: requisite behaviour in a car built for a fictional despot.

    And now, after some bunny-chat and glitzy photos, our Dartz time seems done: tomorrow, the movie’s official promoters are planning some ‘stunts’ around London with Sacha and the Prombron, but they have informed us in no uncertain terms that TopGear is banned from this. No journalists, no photos: the car will be driven by a Russian guard. We bribed, we begged, we offered Playboy bunnies; the movie bigwigs didn’t budge. Almost like we’ve got a reputation for messing these things up. At 2am, we bid farewell to Leo, and wished him luck for tomorrow.

    At 6.30am the next morning, my phone rings. “Get your f***ing arse to hotel!” It is Leo, hissing in the clenched-teeth fashion only ever seen in movies. “Quick, now!”

  3. Twenty minutes later, I’m outside Leo’s hotel in Paddington. Leo meets me by the front door. He leans in and whispers, “I tell them Russian guards are too bad to drive car in London. You are not TopGear. I tell you are friend from cricket in Riga.” Before I have a chance to process this information, a bearded man in trendy jeans grabs me by the hand.

    “You must be Sam, Leo’s cricket friend?” I nod, trying to figure out what the hell is happening and whether I should pretend to be Eastern European. Last night, I mentioned to Leo I’d visited Riga once, to play cricket against Latvia’s national team (this is true). Leo must have transformed this into a stonking lie. Smile. Nod.

    “I’m Derren,” says Derren. “I’m running the stunt today. Get dressed.” I’m handed a black shirt, black combat trousers, an army beret and a huge pair of black leather boots. 

  4. A few minutes after, I’m dressed in full Russian guard costume behind the wheel of the Prombron as we head out into drizzly early morning London. Derren – an official ‘fixer’ for the film’s promoters – is in the passenger seat. “What do you do for a living, Sam?” he asks. Clearly ‘Write bad jokes for TopGear
    is not a permitted answer.

    “I’m a…” I search haplessly for a cunning lie. “I do… search engine optimisation.” Where did that come from? I have no idea what search engine optimisation is. Is it a real job?

    “Ah, my wife does a lot of that stuff,” says Derren. Brilliant. Great lie to pick. Quick, ask a question before he can.

    “Where are we heading?”

    “The North Korean embassy. We’ll meet Sacha there.”

  5. This could be interesting. At the Oscars this year, Baron Cohen arrived in full dictator garb, clutching an urn purportedly containing Kim Jong-il’s ashes. I pull out my mobile to get a TG photographer to meet us there, but remember I am an IT expert and that calling in a pro snapper might just blow my cover. I put the phone away and concentrate on not flattening anything.

    Driving the Prombron in London without flattening anything requires much attention. From the driver’s seat, the outside world seems several continents away. 

  6. The Prombron has the rough dimensions of a shipping container, its steering wheel is on the wrong side and all-round visibility is, I’m guessing, similar to that afforded by a too-small burkha. The windows are a couple of inches thick and made of bulletproof glass, while the doors are
    a solid eight inches across and bomb-resistant. If we run over a scooterist, taxi or bus, I fear we wouldn’t notice.

    Keeping up with traffic is not an issue. Sure, it weighs four tonnes, but the Prombron packs a 6.6-litre V8 GM diesel with approximately four million torques. Dartz is planning to fit
    future Prombrons with AMG’s 6.3-litre V8 petrol. Could be a good year for Arabian oil barons…

  7. Halfway to the embassy, Derren gets a call. The Korean stunt is off: Sacha’s plane has been delayed. We’re told to head to his Piccadilly hotel and await instructions. We make a U-turn – no mean feat in a car measuring 20 feet from nose to tail – and head back to the centre of town, straight into London’s worst traffic of the year. Her Maj is opening Parliament today, so the whole of Westminster has been shut down, reducing the rest of the city to a crawl. As we inch down Park Lane, scooters and cyclists buzz around the Prombron and I keep expecting to hear a dull thud followed by a deal of screaming.

  8. At Hyde Park Corner, a cop strides out in front of us, halting traffic. The Queen’s cavalry regiment trots across the road, inches in front of us, hundreds of horses and soldiers in military finery. Old-school royal transport meets modern dictator transport.

    The Prombron isn’t a bad place to be trapped. Its cabin is upholstered in thick tan leather (ostrich, not whale-schlong, thankfully), its rear seat a giant, cushioned Davenport. Admiral General Aladeen’s official crest adorns the headrests. OK, its dials and satnav come straight from a GMC pickup, but Leo only had a couple of months to make this car. He promises customer versions – Dartz will build seven official Aladeen Prombrons, each costing £750,000 – will be yet more luxurious.

    Some hours, much deflecting of Derren’s career-related questions and several width-restrictor-related detours later, we reach Sacha’s hotel. As we draw to a halt by the lobby, a bodyguard ushers us away. “What are you doing here? You will draw attention. Get out! Stay anonymous!” Anonymous? In a gold-plated armoured truck? Tricky. We squeeze into a bunker beneath Hyde Park, and wait. And wait. 

  9. At 3pm, Derren gets a text telling us to get to The Sun’s HQ. Two minutes later, he gets another telling us to sit tight. We wait some more. This gives ample opportunity for small-talk. Small-talk is a problem: I am pretending to be an IT worker who is pretending to be a Russian soldier. I am also the worst liar in the world. My primary-school acting talents do not stretch to this. I have no idea what search engine optimisers discuss, but I assume it is not panel-gap consistency and ladder-frame chassis.

  10. I opt instead for vague single-syllable answers and silence. After four hours of single-syllable answers and silence, Derren seems to have me pegged as a sufferer of some unspecific social illness. I have given up on chauffeuring Mr Baron Cohen. Derren admits that, at least half of the time, these ‘stunts’ simply don’t materialise. I have spent a day impersonating a mentally challenged computer technician with a USSR fetish for nothing.

  11. And then we get the call. We must be at Sacha’s hotel in 10 minutes, to ferry him to a telly interview on the South Bank. Quick-sharp. Pedal to bombproof metal. Driving a blacked-out truck on Estonian plates in London affords the creative driver plenty of freedom. Bus lane cameras? Box junctions? Yeah, just try and track down this numberplate. Recalcitrant van driver? Breathe down his neck until he wimps out the way. The Prombron is the only car I’ve ever driven to which London cabbies actually yield.

    At the hotel, we are confronted by a great melee of entourage: bodyguards, PR types, stylists, fixers, all pointing in different directions and bellowing instructions. Derren is unceremoniously bundled from the car and a Russian security agent who looks like Jean-Claude Van Damme and, I’d wager, hasn’t cracked a smile since 1994, ghosts into the passenger seat beside me. “When you pull out, a silver Mercedes will arrive in front of you. Follow this car. Stop for nothing,” he instructs.

  12. The rear door opens, and in climb two very tall ladies in severe Soviet uniform, followed by the Dictator: Admiral General Aladeen of Wadiya. And it is the Dictator, not Sacha Baron Cohen. He is in full costume, in character, he speaks solely in a gabbling foreign tongue: Russian, perhaps? Arabic? One of the girls – who turns out to hail from the Midlands, not Minsk – asks him to “do the voices”. The Dictator barks something to the bodyguard up front. “No talking now!” the bodyguard admonishes the girl.

    I swing out into the road behind a silver Mercedes S-Class with black windows. Another S-Class pulls tight on my tail. A convoy. We weave across London on a route I never knew existed, bullying taxis aside, barging across junctions. My feet shake, my heart thumps like a happy hardcore bassline.

    I tell myself this is imaginary, just a stunt, but it doesn’t feel anything like it. I am chauffeuring a notorious dictator through London with armed guards fore and aft, and this feels extremely real.

    “Driver,” the Dictator addresses me, crunching on an apple. “Where are you from?”

    Bugger. I have no idea where I am supposed to be from. Presumably Russia, but the Dictator seems to speak Russian. I don’t. I opt for a respectful tilt of the head.

    “Do you know this series, 24?” he asks, accent thick.

    I nod, mutely.“Is it popular, this 24?”

  13. I wiggle a hand in what I hope is a non-committal, Russian fashion. Thankfully, one of the girls starts babbling about Jack Bauer, saving me from any more Russian sign language. Bless you, blabby Brummie. We glide down Horse Guards Parade. Cars and bikes veer respectfully towards the kerb as we pass. Over the Thames, Houses of Parliament and London Eye to the left, S-Classes at close quarters, and this is the oddest thing I’ve ever done. Drive smoothly, don’t kill one of Hollywood’s top stars.

    And then a fat bloke on a Boris bike swerves in front the Prombron. This is bad news. Braking the Dartz requires several months’ planning and a couple of hundred yards of stopping space. I am faced with a stark choice: (a) flattening an obese tourist, or (b) slamming on the brakes and sending the Dictator flying into my lap – the Prombron has no rear belts – before flattening an obese tourist. I wince and heave right and skim the fattie. The Dictator chunters. I have avoided the strangest collision of the decade. Jean-Claude doesn’t flinch.

    Finally, finally, we are at the television studio, and there is a great crowd waiting, alongside dozens of paparazzi. As we reach the entrance, they swarm around the car, pressing cameras against the windows, flashbulbs popping. “Keep driving!” snaps the bodyguard. Is it illegal to run down a paparazzo?

    We pull up beside the studio’s revolving door. “Stop,” commands the bodyguard. “Now get out, open door.”

    I jump from the car, heave open the heavy rear door and am confronted by four very long legs. The Soviet Brummies unfold themselves, and then Admiral General Aladeen emerges, babbling and waving to the crowds. I catch sight of Leo in the scrum. He gives me a thumbs-up and waves a pot of caviar triumphantly. Mission accomplished, clearly.

    The Dictator is hustled into the studio with his harem of ladies. The paparazzi and crowds and security melt away. I am left alone, a journalist pretending to be an IT worker pretending to be a Russian guard in a £750,000 gold-and-platinum-plated bombproof truck. I place my TG business card on the driver’s seat, hop out and head off to find a tube home. Odd day.

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