Driver's Seat: Driving the dream - for a few minutes and a lot of bucks


Occasionally, auto reviewers get to live the dream, driving cars that only the "1 percent" can even afford to take for a test drive.

Though we usually focus on more egalitarian brands, I have spent a short time in a McLaren MP4-12C, a Cadillac Escalade, and Mercedes M-Class. People think they want my job - until I tell them about some of the e-mails and phone calls I get.

Then they might remark how nice it would be to try out something exotic, even if just for an hour or so. And that's just the kind of adventure that Bill O'Donnell had.

This year, the Churchville resident, 70, received what he called "the best Father's Day gift anyone could ever give me" - a chance to drive exotic cars July 28 at Citizens Bank Park.

The Dream Car Sprint, which cost $99, is the brainchild of Gotham Dream Cars, with headquarters in Englewood, N.J., which also leases exotic cars and provides them for movies and TV shoots.

Gotham founder and CEO Noah Lehmann-Haupt said the company saw a niche open up at the low end of the spectrum.

"We like to consider it a taste," Lehmann-Haupt said. "It's not hours and hours behind the wheel. It's sort of like a roller-coaster ride."

The guest-driving program generally costs $249.

A day for $1K: Either way, it's a comparative bargain. Simply renting the likes of a Ferrari F430 or Lamborghini Gallardo in the Philadelphia region can start at $1,250 a day plus a damage deposit.

And you can't just walk into an exotic-car dealer's showroom asking to take a quarter-million-dollar car out for a quick spin. Chad Sierer, sales and finance manager for McLaren Philadelphia in Newtown Square, confirms that someone who is not known as a well-heeled collector or who doesn't have a prior relationship with the dealership will be asked for a $10,000 deposit. Or so.

"When it comes to exotic vehicles and test-driving $250- to $300,000 cars," Sierer said, "we need to have some kind of commitment."

So it's a bargain for the Dream Car Sprint entry fee, like the one O'Donnell enjoyed. Participants get three laps around a closed course accompanied by a professional instructor.

O'Donnell was given the choice of a yellow Lamborghini or a red Ferrari F430 Spyder. He jumped at the Ferrari.

O'Donnell had only one complaint about his time in the Ferrari.

"It was a fun time - but too short."


Spend more: Upgrades are possible at the events, Lehmann-Haupt said.

"Depending on the days," he said, "if we have extra capacity, we always offer the ability to purchase additional laps for a small additional fee."

The company offers its services in the region around New York City and in South Florida. Most of the events in our neck of the woods take place in Bridgewater, N.J., which is still not too far for Philadelphians.

For real enthusiasts who maybe want to blow a summer vacation's worth of savings on a longer experience, the Dream Car Tour offers more time behind the wheel.

For $895 a driver, the company offers participants the chance to drive about a half-hour behind the wheel of each of six exotic cars.

A fatal crash in May in East Rutherford, N.J., that involved two Gotham-owned Ferraris claimed the life of a motorcyclist. But that was not part of either the Dream Car Sprint or the Dream Car Tour, according to a company statement. The vehicles were being driven by employees at the time to get refueled, Lehmann-Haupt said.


A niche business:

Gotham Dream Cars seems to be alone in what it offers on the East Coast. McLaren Philadelphia's Sierer and a Gotham spokesman said the business was more common on the West Coast.

And it's definitely a niche audience - spending the price of a fancy dinner for three laps in a nice vehicle.

O'Donnell fondly recalls three Austin-Healey sports cars he has had over the years. This was a chance for him to drive something even more exciting, and without any of the headaches that owning an exotic car - or especially a British roadster - can provide.

"You have to be a car nut," he said, "to do all this kind of stuff."


Contact Scott Sturgis at or 215-854-2558.