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Super-rich, super-frugal: how some of the world's wealthiest choose low-cost cars

The bangers parked on Billionaire’s Row


Billionaires, politicians and celebrities who drive cheap cars

As the rich and powerful left Davos at the weekend you might have imagined them in Lamborghinis and limos, but the elite are increasingly choosing far less desirable metal

 

YOU MIGHT never possess a beachfront mansion in Malibu or a yacht with a helicopter pad, but you probably already own a nicer car than some of the richest and most powerful people in the world. As the 1% of the 1% clustered in Davos last week, many had driven to private airports in beat-up bangers that wouldn’t look out of place on Scrapheap Challenge.


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Angela Merkel is as frugal with her car purchases as she would like Greece to be with its economy. The last car the German chancellor sold, a 1990 VW Golf, earned less than £8,000 on eBay. Warren Buffett, the American investor worth £48bn and the third richest man in the world, recently traded in his 2006 mid-range Cadillac for a new version. As if that were not enough, he once owned numberplate THRIFTY.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, owns a couple of Ladas, including a bargain-basement Niva off-roader that he drove around the Winter Olympics site in Sochi. It is worth just a few thousand pounds — although he did replace the standard power plant with an upgraded German-made Opel engine.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg splashed out a mere £20,000 or so of his £22bn wealth on an Acura TSX — the American name until 2014 for a Honda Accord — that he calls “safe and not ostentatious”

While some of the super-rich maintain a stable of the latest and greatest supercars, a growing number of multimillionaires and billionaires are realising that their cars say as much about them as any television interview.

The Google boss Eric Schmidt, who is worth more than £5bn, has a Toyota Prius, the price of which starts at less than £22,000. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg splashed out a mere £20,000 or so of his £22bn wealth on an Acura TSX — the American name until 2014 for a Honda Accord — that he calls “safe and not ostentatious”. In times of austerity it appears to pay to at least look like you are reining in the spending.

In Britain, Dale Vince, the founder of Ecotricity, the green electricity supplier, whose wealth has been put as high as £100m, may live in a £3m mansion but he drives a £20,000 Nissan Leaf. Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the founder of easyJet and 33rd in The Sunday Times Rich List with a fortune of £2.78bn, ditched his Porsche in favour of a Smart car worth £11,000, which he prefers for parking and driving round town.

Super rich people and their fruagl cars - Warren Buffet, Mark Zuckerberg, Stelio Haji-Ioannou

Research by Experian Automotive, a credit rating company, found that more than 60% of people earning over £170,000 a year opted for mainstream rather than luxury brands. The findings referred to wealthy Americans, but could apply to Europe too: some people just don’t care what they drive, no matter how much they have in the bank.

The most extreme example of that may be the Ikea founder, Ingvar Kamprad, 88, whose £27bn fortune makes him the eighth richest person in the world. For more than a decade he drove a Volvo 240 GL, until he was finally persuaded to give it up. He was once refused entry to an industry awards dinner in Sweden because he arrived by bus.

Driving a cheap car doesn’t just mean more money for caviar and Fabergé eggs, it provides a low profile that allows the super-rich to leave their homes without a security entourage. However, no one knows how often celebrities take the wheel themselves. Most employ drivers so they can work while they travel — and because nothing is more embarrassing than hunting for a parking spot while your private jet is warming up.

Of course, even the richest people have to upgrade their ride occasionally. The former Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer recently realised his 1998 Lincoln Continental lacked the green credentials he wanted, so he picked out a £17,000 Ford Fusion hybrid as his runaround.

Pope Francis potters about Rome in a 1984 Renault 4 hatchback with about 200,000 miles on the clock

No matter how hard they try to be regular people, however, billionaires are not really like the rest of us. They can drive a decades-old classic in the knowledge that if it breaks down in the rain miles from home, a helicopter (or possibly a mechanic in a jet-pack) is just a phone call away. For them a car, no matter how cheap or expensive, is a lifestyle choice that can be swapped at a moment’s notice for a limousine.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is someone who, while officially owning virtually nothing, is nonetheless one of the most powerful people in the world. Pope Francis potters about Rome in a 1984 Renault 4 hatchback with about 200,000 miles on the clock, rather than the chauffeur-driven bulletproof Popemobiles of his predecessors.

His choice might just be an image, but it is image that matters. Yet even the Pope needs a touch of luxury now and again — he turned up to an event last year in a bottom-of-the-range 2008 Ford Focus worth about £4,000.

 


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