Audi's VIP fleet: A free ride for kings, politicians and economic leaders

Ingolstadt. It happened nearly 20 years ago and is still an embarrassing memory for BMW. But for rival German automaker Audi it was a coup.

In 1986 at an economic summit in Davos, Switzerland, Franz Josef Strauss, president of Bavaria, Germany, was supposed to be chauffeured in a BMW.

But the car got stuck due to the wintry road conditions.

Strauss had to get out of the BMW and climb into an Audi four-wheel drive.

This is still one of the favorite anecdotes of Audi executives at Ingolstadt.

They say it was the time that Audi "first set foot in politics."

Since then Audi has increased its share in the market for government vehicles. This used to be Mercedes-Benz and BMW's domain. BMW and Mercedes-Benz have been providing prominent figures with 7 series and the S class vehicles for decades.

Audi's luxury cars only started to be present at international large-scale events in 1994 when the A8 was first launched.

Now increasing numbers of politicians, economic leaders, princes and sheiks use an A8. The car is regularly shown on television news reports, which makes great advertising for Audi.

Audi's forthcoming schedule for providing A8s for official functions is tight.

The Audi VIP fleet was due to chauffeur the leaders of the new EU member countries in Budapest on February 3-4. Then there is a conference of EU governments' air transport ministers in Brussels from February 22-24.

On top of that Audi has been providing vehicles for the Irish EU presidency since January 1. This is the seventh EU presidency for Audi.

"Nearly all European royalty has sat in an Audi," said Peter Hagemeister, who is responsible for Audi's VIP fleet, which includes 120 long wheelbase A8s (ten of which are armored).

The Phaeton, produced by Audi's parent company Volkswagen, also has been part of the fleet for two years now. Several VW Caravelles are also part of the Audi pool.

VIPs are driven to EU summits, the World Economic Forum in Davos, NATO conferences and other important state events in models from the Audi pool.

Sports stars and film and stage celebrities are chauffeured to events such as the Salzburg festival or the film festival in Cannes.

Hagemeister said around 50 percent of A8's are used for political and economic events.

The free ride for politicians and celebrities can often translate into sales.

"Top people have no time to watch advertising. But this way they can experience our products," Hagemeister said.

He added: "When heads of states can be seen being chauffeured in an A8 in a live broadcast it is more credible and convincing than any advert."

The VIP fleet also costs less than advertising.

Audi marketing people counted the number of seconds the A8 was clearly visible on TV during six months of a recent EU presidency.

They counted a total of 1,550 seconds. That amount of advertising time would have cost 1.2 million euros.

The costs for the VIP fleet are just fuel and transport and chauffeurs.

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