The gutted front end of a 1955 black Mercedes hangs on the wall four feet above cross-hatched aluminum flooring in the Crucial Gallery. When the hood is raised, a spotless, mirrored cavity fitted with glasses and liquor bottles reveals an idiosyncratic bar. The wheels and side mirrors are in place and the lights are on. It recently sold to an English banker for

2,400, almost $4,000.

"We have a definite style in our gallery. We go for very strong images," says Kitty Bowler, who, with her husband Joshua, owns the gallery, one of the eight buoyant members of the new Portobello Road contemporary art scene. There will be 15 of them operating by the end of the year. This enterprise, begun just two years ago, has now become an alternative to the elitism of London's traditional West End art market.

More than 100 years ago, Portobello Road was a marketplace for gypsy horse traders. After World War II, antique dealers moved in (closely followed by bargain-hunters), setting up their silver and jewelry, furniture and glassware in shops, spilling over on Saturdays into the famous, pedestrian-only street. The integration of contemporary art galleries into the neighborhood is a natural, harmonious progression. The area has long been one of London's creative melting pots: West Indians and Portuguese, Spaniards and Yugoslavs mingle easily with British yuppies, poets, musicians and artists. More recently, Canadians and Stateside arrivals have bought into the more gentrified, grander, southern end of Portobello Road, boosting property prices.

The focus of the galleries varies enormously, from photographs to ceramic art to the work of young, unknown artists. Most of the premises have enticing picture windows on the street, clean white walls, track lighting and gray carpeting, a natural ambiance for straightforward viewing.

Once occupied by a butcher, the spacious Anderson O'Day gallery is next door to the throbbing record shop of "Danny the King." "Everybody feels they can come in: the stall holders, the kids. It's open and really very un-English in a way, very cosmopolitan. They talk about what they see and discuss it," says Pru O'Day. In this unfashionable area, there's no subtle pressure for proper dress code or for tiptoeing through sanctified space to inspect a Work of Art.

"The reason we're here is totally back to front," O'Day says. "No market research, just a spontaneous decision. I woke up one night and thought, 'No, I'm not mad. Everyone knows the address, knows where Portobello Road is. A person coming here to look for antiques is already ... committed to something visual, something esthetic."

Unlike New York's SoHo, with which the area is prematurely being compared, every one of Portobello Road's gallery owners lives in this mixed neighborhood, creating a nostalgic, "living-over-the-shop" atmosphere.

Anatol Orient, who claims to have the only art ceramic gallery in Britain, has lived here ever since his move from Chicago 16 years ago. Relocating the gallery from Covent Garden last June has given Orient more affordable space and has enhanced his clientele. "People come in and say, 'What's that? How can it be pottery if it has holes in it and won't hold water?' One of the responsibilities of a gallery is showing work and that means educating the public as well as exhibiting to its more knowledgeable members. For my 15 artists, it's exciting to be seen by a diverse audience."

Just half a block down the road, just off Portobello on Goldborne Road, Gayle Markusson and Jayne Diggory have set up their photography gallery, Portfolio. They started in a renovated dairy on Portobello Road, where they still carry on their publishing business. "I want the art to speak, not the price," says Markusson. The two-story premises offer framing, post cards, posters and books on photography on the top (street) floor, with the gray-carpeted downstairs acting as a gallery for one-person or theme-oriented shows.

Commitment, enthusiasm for art and sense of community is a philosophy shared by all the gallery owners. Catherine Turner and Chris Kewbank act as agents for specialist photographers. They wanted a location where they could take their time making a case for buying fine photography without needing an enormous turnover. Their Special Photographers Co., housed in a pristine, stunning building on Kensington Park Road (which runs parallel to Portobello, just one block south), opened last September. "This street {Portobello}," muses Chris, "just this 200 yards of it, we actually gave 19 points out of 20. It's better than Covent Garden, partly because this is where we live and it's a focal point for the whole area. The restaurant 192 just over the road there is really a media place; people in design, journalists and film people who live in this area use all the local restaurants and pubs. We wouldn't go anywhere else. There's so much excitement with the Friday and Saturday market, so much happening, so much variety with the buyers and sellers here."

The other original Portobello galleries are the Creaser Gallery on Portobello Road, next door to Anatol Orient; Themes and Variations on Westbourne Grove; and the Vanessa Devereux Gallery on Blenheim Crescent, just off Portobello.

Variety is not limited to the new gallery world on Portobello Road. The Bizarre Bazaar sells Chinese incense, Indian fans, Balinese masks and silk fans from Thailand. Close by are the Mecca Bookmaker and Halal butcher, and all of them front the weekend fruit and vegetable street stalls. The red-bricked, blue-doored Salvation Army building is near the Saints Tattoo Studio (ear piercing available) and the aroma of the Makan Take-Away's Malaysian Cuisine (there is a long Saturday queue) is pervasive and irresistible. On weekends writer Ian Henshall adds pungently to the corner of Portobello and Talbot roads with his stand selling roasted coffee beans and aromatic teas.

Two marvelous specialist bookshops are here, on Blenheim Crescent: the Travel Bookshop, with thousands of old and new books, maps and travel-based fiction; and Books for Cooks, a comprehensive -- 4,500 titles -- shop with a clever, inexpensive restaurant in the rear.

Kitty Bowler -- at the Crucial Gallery, where the Mercedes bar was shining -- says, "We didn't fall on this area, we chose it. We felt it had a very good art background -- there have always been artists here, poets, actors, writers, a lot of young, a lot of struggling, a lot of wealth, a great cross-section and an interesting community. But art has always been so inaccessible in London, behind closed doors. It was all so precious. We want to make art like going to a grocery store."

Claire Frankel is a free-lance writer and broadcaster in London.