Choosing which toppings to have on a pizza is always hard, and arguably nowhere more so than at Duke of London’s temptingly aromatic in-house pizzeria, Santa Maria.
Do you keep it simple with a margherita? Maybe indulge your inner Neapolitan with a handful of anchovies and olives? It can be an excruciating ordeal, and no matter how much you end up enjoying every single slice of wood-fired goodness, there will always be the niggling doubt that you should have been bolder, less obvious; maybe even thrown caution to the wind and taken a risk with some artichokes.
Whatever you eventually decide, it’s important not to rush the decision process because that’s good practice, as it turns out, for what comes next.
Tear yourself away, when you can, from the heat of the oven and the waft of nduja and consider the restaurant’s setting. Strangely enough, Santa Maria occupies a corner of the first floor of a long-decommissioned 1930s soap factory, but there’s little here in the way of flaking paintwork, leaking pipes and smashed windows.
Negotiate your way around the immaculate Renault Clio Williams 2 (one of just 482 right-hand-drive examples) and try not to bump into the tastefully lowered 997.2 Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet (with 639bhp from its tuned flat six) and you will see that the choice you must make is rather more burdensome than constructing your perfect lunch: how could you possibly pick a favourite car from this collection?
This is a car dealership like no other. In fact, it would be reductive to bestow on it such a single-track title. Factor in the Italian restaurant, on-site pub, restoration workshop, detailing studio, gym, bike repair shop and cobbler (that’s right), and Duke of London must really be considered as nothing short of a mecca for the modern petrolhead.
The capital’s automotive equivalent, if you like, of an all-inclusive resort in Barbados. It’s no surprise, then, to hear that the (surprisingly young) duke himself, Merlin McCormack, has been familiar with the motoring enthusiast world from a young age. He recalls: “In 2010, I left school and started helping my mechanic dad out around the workshop, and a lot of his customers were coming to him and asking for advice on what to buy. That’s not really his passion, so I stepped up and picked up the slack.”
Just four years later, he was running the first Duke of London dealership alongside his dad’s workshop in Kew Bridge, before relocating barely a mile down the road to what was once Brentford’s thriving dockland area. Today, his headquarters sits slap-bang in the middle of an expansive urban redevelopment project, which on the plus side provides just the right sort of gentrified brutalist background that appeals to Duke of London’s deservedly substantial Instagram following but, on the other hand, means it doesn’t have long to get too comfortable before the wrecking ball starts a-swinging.
Despite the inevitable knock-on effect on the second-hand sector in the years to come, he says: “I’m so okay with it because it isn’t applicable to me. I’m not out there buying a new car on PCP every two years.” It will come as no small reassurance to Duke’s target market that, while the distant thunder of the M4 motorway will eventually fade as ICE cars become the norm, this small corner of London will stand for some time as a preserve of petrol-burners of all ages.
There’s a good chance that in 10 years’ time, the XK120 might make way for an I-Pace and the 911 could be swapped for a Taycan, but that such a venue can be established and expanded in these testing times suggests the enthusiast of the future will be well catered for, irrespective of their tastes and political leanings.
If the promise of engagement, character and covetability doesn’t tempt you into a used or classic car, perhaps the joys of joining a like-minded community will.
More motoring meeting places
Caffeine and Machine: With some of the UK’s best-loved driving roads on its doorstep, an equally enticing lunch menu and pleasingly uncontrived car-themed decor, this Warwickshire venue is already well-established as one of the best pit stops in the country. Even car makers now get in on the action, hosting launches and get-togethers in its festival-style garden wigwam.
Classic motoring hub: Claimed to be “the ultimate destination for classic motorists”, this former RAF base in the Cotswolds is a haven for fans and collectors. Its stock list contains much more eye-wateringly expensive metal than Duke of London’s but is no less diverse. Don’t fancy a 1938 Bugatti Type 57 Atalante Coupé? Perhaps you will be tempted by the 1965 TVR Trident prototype or a 1974 BMW 2002 Turbo.
Bicester Heritage: This is another ex-RAF base, but it’s one that serves as much as a symbol of British motoring’s future as one of its past. An enormous redevelopment will create Bicester Motion: a publicly accessible hub and showcase for British automotive development. However, the Heritage division will continue celebrating older cars with its casual Sunday Scramble events.