Steve Kantor admits that he likes to travel in style. He is an affable investment banker, concerned about flaunting his wealth, but he drives around Manhattan in what looks like a simple black delivery van.
Of course, most vans do not have chauffeurs, as Kantor's has. Or a built-in office, custom installed.
"I have two big-screen televisions. I have a couch in the back that goes into a bed," Kantor said. "I have four chairs that go back and massage you. It has a desk, a table and an intercom so you have can have meetings in there if you want to."
As the economy limps along and more attention is paid to the so-called 1 per cent, some of the richest New Yorkers have taken to driving around in vehicles that ooze neither wealth nor privilege. But on the inside, the vans may be as lavishly decorated as the private railroad cars owned by turn-of-the-century industrialists.
Some owners use them as mobile offices, outfitted with fine leather chairs and Persian rugs; vans may also double as a child's playroom on wheels, complete with a built-in vacuum to clean what the children dirty.
And while some owners say they are drawn to the vehicles' vanilla exteriors, their outsize profiles cannot help but draw attention: at more than 22 feet long and nearly 9 feet tall, they look like cargo vans on steroids, their high roof lines dwarfing nearly all that surrounds them on the streets of New York. And that's before the satellite dishes are raised.
They are a striking and sometimes unwelcome counterpoint to other trends seen on city streets, where tiny Smart cars dart around hybrid taxis and traffic lanes once reserved for gas-guzzlers are now for bicycles or pedestrians.
"Using your vehicle as a luxury lounge is just usurping public space for your own private use," said Michael Murphy, a spokesman for Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group that encourages New Yorkers to travel around the city more responsibly. "Streets are shared space and belong to the community."
Nonetheless, during morning spin classes at Soul Cycle, the Upper East Side studio, the parking spaces cannot accommodate the Sprinter vans, Range Rovers and Lexus GX470s that are sometimes double-parked. A modified black Mercedes van owned by Philip A. Falcone, the chief of Harbinger Capital Partners, has become a fixture on the Upper East Side, idling by the Michael Kors shop on Madison Avenue.
Jill Kargman, a writer and mother of three who lives on the Upper East Side, said that play dates adhered to a certain pecking order: those that start in one of these ultra-luxury vans are preferable because they can "just bop into a souped-up bulletproof living room on wheels," she said.
The most popular model is made by Mercedes: A stripped-down, basic version of the van, the Sprinter, starts at $US41,315; Kantor's version, which Mercedes-Benz Manhattan arranged to have customised, is fitted with satellite television, a Wi-Fi network and flat-screen monitors, and sells for $US189,000.
Even that is not quite enough for some New Yorkers, who employ designers to install even pricier custom details that easily drive up the total cost to $US500,000.
Daniel Barile, a Mercedes-Benz spokesman, said that because many buyers were going to after-market shops to decorate their van interiors, Mercedes started releasing its own version in early 2010, and sold 8,000 the first year. Mercedes has already sold 13,000 this year.
And although the modified Mercedes van is popular in several large cities, Howard Becker, president of Becker Automotive Design in California, said New York, with its executives in hedge funds and finance, had become his best market.
Hyde Ryan, a designer who worked with a wealthy New York family on decorating the interior of their Mercedes Sprinter van, said that the family wanted gold-plated fittings for every button that would be pushed. The owner installed a vacuum cleaner so the chauffeur could remove every crumb and grain of sand each time the children stepped out of the van.
The vacuum option could be seen on a recent morning on Park Avenue, when Carmelo Umpierre, a 44-year-old chauffeur, idled the $US425,000 van he drives for an executive based in Connecticut. It is nearly impossible to find a parking space for such a large vehicle, so Umpierre often waits for his boss in illegal spots, and moves when the police come by.
The car's owner declined to be interviewed, saying he did not want to draw attention to himself. But he allowed Umpierre to display the van's interior: The seats were upholstered with heavily scented leather and a stocked bar had individual lighting for each wine glass and Champagne flute.
Umpierre said he vacuumed the interior every night and covered the custom-designed gray wool rugs with towels when it rained. He said he tried to navigate the van through side streets so gawkers could not peek in when he dropped off his boss.
"He likes to be private," Umpierre said of his employer. "He doesn't like to be dropped off in the front."
New York Times