The mission: to transport crates of gold across London in a Sport Turismo... hiding in plain sight
My jaw is aching. This is a new one on me. I’ve had sore ribs from karting, back ache from Lambo seats, ruined neck muscles after a day in a Dakar Mini, and ruined internal organs that time I did the Baja 1000. But an aching jaw after a few miles of driving across London? That’s a new low.
What’s caused it is tension. The knowledge that in the back of this Porsche Panamera Sport Turismo sits almost £3 million worth of gold bullion. Between it and the outside world there’s no armour plating, not even darkened glass. Anyone who manages to get in amongst the three-car convoy and glances down through the hatchback will see the words ‘Baird & Co, Bullion Merchants’ stamped proudly on two wooden crates. Naturally they’ll think it’s a joke, but each crate really does contain four 12.7kg 24-carat gold bars. The kind that could easily be melted down.
The street value of each bar, based on a current gold commodity rate of £28.23 per gram, is £358,521. That focuses the mind and, it turns out, cramps the jaw.
Words: Ollie Marriage
A couple of weeks earlier I’d had a phone call from Porsche that contained almost precisely no information, other than that, if I was game for a mystery, I’d be required to drive a Panamera in London. I spent the intervening 14 days trying to guess which celebrity I’d be chauffeuring.
I was still none the wiser when I was shown to a room in a hotel close to the Excel Centre in east London. There I met some other people who had been roped in – two guys from Germany and another pair from America, while I was partnered with a fellow Brit. Some policemen came in, the door was closed, our phones were confiscated, our photo IDs were checked and only then was the word ‘gold’ mentioned.
So, it turns out that not all bullion is moved around in armoured trucks. Quite often unmarked vans are used, sometimes hiding in plain sight is the answer. Very plain sight on this occasion, since the three Panamera Sport Turismos Porsche has provided are painted red, white and blue. But the rest of the plot doesn’t follow the film (come on, you know this one) – this time we’re running with the police, and if we do have any plans to give them the slip, each car contains an extra man. I’m not allowed to tell you his name or describe him, but I’m sure words such as ‘big’ and ‘broad’ are permitted. He’s filling the rear bench, while alongside me a national newspaper journalist is in charge of radio communication (and citing every Italian Job reference he can think of).
Apparently Tom Cruise was filming on Blackfriars Bridge, so we were diverted across Tower Bridge
The mission is simple enough. With the aid of police outriders (and a helicopter overhead and doubtless vehicle tracking as well), we are going to move gold from Baird & Co’s east London smelting works (the biggest in the UK, apparently) to their new safe depository at, er, Hatton Gardens. Yep, know that name, and not for the right reasons.
Naturally this is a publicity stunt, a twist on The Italian Job, designed to showcase the talents of the new Panamera Sport Turismo, while performing an actual service. God knows what insurance is costing for this, but whoever managed to convince the powers that be that three brightly coloured Panameras - driven by car hacks - is the correct method for shifting gold across London deserves a significant cut of the consignment.
I can’t tell you where we started – some unmarked and anonymous industrial unit you’d never be able to tell was actually a smelting works. We weren’t allowed inside. But we were told a fascinating fact. The bars have to be fractionally shaved to get them to the exact right weight. This is done by hand. The people that do it have to wash their hands before they go to the loo, and filters in the drains collect the dust. Each year all their clothing and so on is collected together and incinerated so the only thing left amongst the ash is gold. Last year the accumulated value of dust from clothing and hand washing amounted to £15,000.
It’s not sensible to stand around and shoot the breeze for too long when you have several million quids-worth of gold in the boot of your car, so off we went. I can’t say I noticed the weight in the boot as we pulled away. But let’s face it, a little over 100kg when the Panamera Sport Turismo Turbo weighs 2,110kg and contains three other people as well (one of whom is ‘big’) isn’t going to be much of an issue. And it wasn’t like we were driving like Charlie Croker.
Far from it in fact. As gold isn’t a head of state, it has to obey the highway code. The only exception to this was traffic lights, where, if the lead car had already gone through, the others had to follow. And so off we went, the route taking us west past London City Airport and through the Blackwall tunnel in light Sunday morning traffic. I don’t know who had chosen the route, nor why we had to swing south of the river, but our primary route had been changed. Apparently Tom Cruise was filming on Blackfriars Bridge, so we were diverted across Tower Bridge.
I think this was where sore jaw began. The knowledge of how much value we had on board subconsciously began to play on my mind. And we were now in central London, moving slower not only than cyclists, but the massed ranks of tourists around Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. And we attracted attention because we were three shiny Porsches surrounded by four bike cops. I was later informed by our police chaperones that this is where they were most nervous. With so many people around and the bridge’s narrowness slowing vehicles to a crawl, it would be relatively easy to block it at either end and stage an assault on our unarmoured convoy.
But it didn’t happen. In fact very little happened for the rest of journey. Which is just what Baird & Co, Porsche and the police wanted. At Top Gear we always like a hint of jeopardy, but on this occasion the consequences of jeopardy didn’t really bear thinking about: break out of the convoy and do a runner? Hope someone was planning a spot of light Panamera robbery? Attempt to recreate the teetering bus scene on Westminster Bridge? Best not think about it really. We had been told what to do in the event of an attack, mind you. Nothing. Let them get on with it because, “that’s what insurance is for”.
So it came to pass that we arrived safe and sound at Hatton Gardens, where other men who struggle to find suits to fit lifted the two crates out of the back of the Sport Turismo, carried them inside and down to an outer vault. Where someone handed me a crowbar and told me to crack a crate open. Gold is strange. You’ve seen it so often in films you can’t believe you’ve never handled a bar before. But that sensation vanishes in a pop of sinew when you try to lift one. All of which means that at the end of the day I’m able to add bicep strain to aching jaw. It’s pathetic really. With gold involved the least I was hoping for was an equally exotic set of injuries.