She stepped elegantly in and out of Daimlers and Bentleys on to a thousand red carpets, and those with long memories will recall the trusty Metro from her days as Prince Charles’s demure fiancé. But just one car remains synonymous with the Sloane Rangers’ poster girl, and this is it.
Princess Diana only drove an Audi Cabriolet for five months from March to July 1994. In that short, balmy period it seems, moreover, she just couldn’t leave it alone, dropping the hood for any excuse of an errand beyond the long drive and wrought iron gates of Kensington Palace.
In some toe-curling recent auction hyperbole about the car, it was described as “possibly the most photographed car of the summer of 1994”. And I suppose that could be true. Because, even though the Rover 400 Touring, Renault Laguna, Mazda 323 and Ford Probe were considerably newer than the Audi, there would have been no interest in them from the picture desk at the Daily Express or Hello! magazine. But a scarpering OJ Simpson in a white Ford Bronco in June 1994 probably was a more significant global car totem, in truth.
Still, this was London, the 1990s and the heart of Sloane-land. Diana was sporting around in her dark green Audi, often with her two boys in the back experiencing the wind-in-the-hair experience, and clearly loving it. The paps went mad – Fuji couldn’t manufacture their high-speed film fast enough as the Cabriolet was snapped zipping round Kensington’s streets.
I’m not intending to come over as overtly republican, but Diana didn’t, as is often the way with aristos, need to pay for her privilege. The Audi in its stylish livery with a cream leather interior was provided for free by London dealer Dovercourt, and Princess Di managed to wind 4000 miles on to its clock before handing it back to the cap-doffing showroom in ritzy St John’s Wood. Despite the royal connection, the car would later fail to sell at a Cheffins auction, in 2017.
What a genius move it had been to loan it to her, though. The publicity was priceless. The Cabriolet, based on the Audi 90, had been around since 1991, and it’s fair to say that it had heretofore made a minor impact on the UK market. Initially launched with a 2.3-litre, five-cylinder engine, it did not come with the turbos and four-wheel drive found on other Audis. That gave it quite a modest 133bhp – and Diana’s car was the even more leisurely auto’ version – but the technical fireworks were reserved for the electrically-operated roof, which folded away beautifully to leave an elegantly gorgeous-looking profile worlds away from the stacked pram hood of a soft-top Golf.
Indeed, this Audi was very much the spiritual successor to the BMW E30 3-Series cabriolet of the late 1980s, another open four-seater Sloane favourite that mixed convertible exhilaration with restrained good looks, and build quality that was second to none. The later BMW E36, by contrast, was getting a little bit too Essex for the well-bred set, admirable machine though it was. If you wanted a Gucci loafer in car form, then the Audi was it.
In 1994, its temporary keeper was photographed regularly driving to the gym in the car, the slight smile betraying the fact that she didn’t at all mind the attention as the mother of the future king reinvigorated her image after that messy and protracted separation from the dastardly Chas. In fact, it became impossible to glimpse aerobics gear or a Donnay tennis racket cover without picturing an Audi Cabrio as well. Well, for a bit, anyway. The internet didn’t exist in any meaningful form at the time; certainly you couldn’t post caustic comments under Mail Online stories in those days. Which is why the supposed grumbles that Princess Diana was driving a German convertible and not a British one are now impossible to verify. Anyway, what else could it have been instead? An XJ-S? Morgan 4/4? Surely not a Rolls Corniche?
You had to be of considerable means – rich, or with a rich husband or wife, or a very rich dad – to afford the £23,200 Audi Cabriolet back in 1992. Moreover, with insurance ratings in the 15-18 group band and Audi’s premium service rates, running costs were never low. The fact that a marginally cheaper 2-litre, four-cylinder edition was added in 1993 didn’t help any of that much, but Audi was chasing the elite end of the customer spectrum anyway, and so the 2.3 gave way to a 2.6 for 1994. That hints at Diana’s car being a left-over demonstrator that Dovercourt could well afford to loan out on a complimentary basis. Nevertheless, Audi was reported to have seen Cabriolet sales double after its connection to the so-called most famous woman in the world.
Later on, engine choices were altered again to a 1.8 four and a 2.8 V6. A standard driver’s airbag was added in place of the previous Procon-10 crash protection system in 1994. With another round of upgrades in 1997 the Cabriolet outlived the Audi 90 it was based on by an incredible six years (although exterior styling tweaks aligned it closely to the range replacement) and lasted until 2000. Tragically, that was three years longer than its most famous ‘owner’.
These early Cabriolets, the youngest now 22 years old with their power roof systems, near-certainty of damaging water-incursion, and ageing 1990s electronics are in the dread zone for classic status – too daunting to renovate and, so, not worth a great deal unless they’ve been absolutely cosseted. As long as you can find one that fully functions, you could have the classic 1990s Sloane look for not very much.
You’d think that the example with the fractured House of Windsor provenance would be the exception (it was also owned at one time by TV and radio political pundit Iain Dale). The auction room, however, has been curiously resistant to its royal charms. It got a big “so what?” as an automotive icon.
In 2017 the car, with an estimate of £60-80,000, failed to tease out any bidders. It was the same in 2018, when the reserve of £62,000 remained unmet. Finally, in March 2020 with a new dose of reality, the expectation was for £35-40,000 at the Classic Car Auctions sale at the NEC Practical Classics Show. And this time it did sell, just scraping into the we’ll-take-that zone at £35,357. A regal pile for an old Audi but less than half of what had once been expected.