Why you should care
With an hour’s notice, a West London parking lot turns into a secret souped-up car meet.
It’s a slow burn, trawling through the traffic of the short span of the highway linking two nondescript parking lots in West London’s UB1 neighborhoods. The spark of excitement from receiving the first secret location is waning. When we arrive, the parking lot is empty. But then we’re alerted to another location, which means we have to shift gears, change direction and navigate to the new spot.
The adrenaline kicks in again as a bright red car zips past us to our right and a yellow Audi, weaving between lanes of traffic, plows ahead on our left. Then we swerve into the grocery store lot, tailed by sirens — the police have caught wind of our meetup and have set up blockades. But it doesn’t matter. We’re in — the cops resolve to only bar new arrivals — and so are the other 400 or so petrolheads who’ve traveled the country to this semiregular, semisecret gathering of car enthusiasts.
This is the West London Meet (WLM), a spontaneous event where car buffs gather to show off their vehicle enhancements and admire others’ handiwork. There’s also a bit of drama, like firing off exhaust or demonstrating burnouts — spinning the wheels at high speeds while remaining stationary, which produces a lot of smoke. Very often there’s racing as well. The secret events bring together people with a deep love of souped-up rides and also keeps young adults out of bars and clubs. But there’s a catch: They’re technically illegal.
Which might be part of the thrill. West London meets only happen when that particular evening’s locations drop — you have to follow an Instagram account to find out the location, date and time. There’s plenty of buzz on Instagram leading up to it, with teasers of past events and videos showing demonstrations of flashy cars, often to the soundtrack of contemporary bhangra, high-energy Punjabi music that’s grown popular in the U.K.
The meets have become an intergenerational pastime — several family members may have worked on the same car.
“It’s a resurgence of an old scene that used to happen in West London but just stopped,” says Gary (not his real name), who organizes the meetups. About 10 years ago, the meets were legal and especially popular with the local diverse communities, particularly the South Asian diaspora, a longtime prominent cohort in the area. (That evening we run into a film crew documenting the night to show how the community has moved on since the Southall anti-racism riots in 1979.)
The atmosphere is electric as we walk around admiring the pimped-out rides. A Hulk green BMW with quad exhausts catches my eye. The driver has prayer beads and a Quran hanging on the rearview mirror. Many of the local lads from the Pakistani community don’t always go in for the clubbing scene or drink alcohol — car meets are another way of expressing themselves in a slightly rebellious but not religiously blasphemous way. Hovering by another BMW E30, the owner excitedly explains the car’s modifications, his family standing proudly nearby. The meets have become an intergenerational pastime — several family members may have worked on the same car.
With hundreds of cars in the lot this evening, did Gary think the West London Meet would get this big? “No, not at all,” he says. For an event that was once primarily a local gathering, there are now people traveling from Cardiff, Milton Keynes and beyond. “It’s easily the biggest meet in the country.” Local car meets happen regularly up and down the U.K.. A quick glance at Carmeets.app shows six meets scheduled between the end of August and October in cities like Northampton, Brockenhurst and Hertford.
But the meetup scene has not been welcomed by everyone. The events are held on public land, the stunts and racing can be dangerous, and there’s often a lot of noise. This has prompted some local governments to enact Public Spaces Protection Orders, which make the meets illegal — and meet participants, organizers and promoters can be fined. In 2017, the inaugural year of the West London Meet, things got out of hand when police turned up over reports of a firearm. Some participants were arrested for police assault and drug possession, reports say. Since that event, the authorities have kept a close eye on the chapter’s subsequent meets — they’re technically still illegal. These days the events are more relaxed and relatively trouble-free. This is not the case at other meets such as in Dagenham, where dangerous street racing is an issue. Meet organizers at WLM now strongly encourage attendees to keep the events safe and respectful to stay on the right side of the law.
Gary says there won’t be any racing tonight because the police are already there. However they also won’t break up the meet if there’s no trouble — and as long as they leave soon. With that, he excuses himself and says it’s time to drop the new location. It’s the third in one night (typically there are only two locations, designed to keep the local forces on their toes). With that, we scramble to beat the cops to the next spot.