Rover P3500.

IT was a cold autumn morning in 1997 and somehow by twist of fate, I found myself standing along the Mall, Buckingham Palace to my left. I was standing among a crowd crammed at least five-deep along this majestic avenue.

Despite the thousands of people lining up the streets, it was eerily quiet. No one was jostling or pushing, even though every single one of us there that day wanted to see what was passing in front of us.

It was so quiet that I could hear a small transistor radio crackling on the grass behind us. It played commentator to the event passing before our eyes, carrying some solemn voice from the BBC.

As we stood still, frosty breath hanging in the air, the clippety-clop of hooves approached us from the left and we could see six of the best bay horses from the King’s Troop pulling an immaculate gun carriage.


Mercedes-Benz-S-Class.

Walking aside the gun carriage were eight or 10 of those red-coated palace guards and their tall furry hats.

Immediately behind that gun carriage were men in dark suits walking slowly, their eyes firmly fixed to the ground just ahead of their next step. Among them were two young boys.

By now you could probably have guessed that on top of the gun carriage was a flag-draped coffin topped with an extravagant bouquet of white flowers and in that coffin lay probably the most famous woman of that time, Princess of Wales, Lady Diana Spencer.

The quiet that rang so loud along the Mall that day was the second most sincere show of adoration and respect that I have ever felt at an official funeral. I cannot tell you which funeral was more moving, because it cuts too close to home.

A few days later, we were in Paris and a visit to the memorial near the crash site was also quite moving.


Rover P3500.

Just a week earlier photographs of the mangled Mercedes Benz W140 S-Class started cropping up in the New Straits Times newsroom on Merdeka Day as the crash took place just after midnight Paris time.

This was in the early days of the Internet so the photographs did not spread too quickly and many of us were nailed to the tiny newsroom TV, which was tuned in to CNN and began showing blurry images of what looked like a mangled car.

Celebrity crashes gain a lot of publicity and they are not necessarily bad for brands because they are accidents and unless something was inherently wrong with the car and caused the accident, then maybe the brand would suffer.

For example, when Princess Grace of Monaco died in an accident on Sept 13, 1982 after her Rover P6 3500 tumbled over a cliff, some people wondered if the brakes had failed as the car careened downhill from the royal family’s farm.

The car was a low mileage example and was probably very well maintained by the palace but it was 11 years old.

The 3500 was the top of the range version and had a lot of performance and the princess had insisted on driving herself despite the best efforts of her driver to allow him to drive. Being a celebrity and royalty, she did not have a lot of hours behind the steering.

James Dean had a lot of hours behind the steering wheel and he met with an unfortunate end when his Porsche 550 Spyder crashed into a car that had gotten into his path. Some stories indicate that the other driver failed to see the movie star’s car due to the setting sun reflecting the same colour from the road as from the car.


Porsche 550 Spyder.

Dean was a driving enthusiast and even took part in competitive racing but his fate was sealed by a set of circumstances that was beyond anyone’s control. At least he died doing exactly what he loved doing, driving his favourite car.

The other celebrity accident that I remember was French philosopher Albert Camus’s publisher and friend Michel Gallimard driving his Facel Vega HK500 into a tree , killing them both instantly on January 4, 1960.

The crash photos showed a car that was completely wrecked, the entire structure bent out of shape as the tree ploughed its way through almost to the rear axle.


The Camus crash.

I wasn’t even born yet but the Facel Vega was touted by some as one of the most beautiful cars of the time, which I never really understood. I thought it was distinguished but never really beautiful. A bit like Prince Charles rather than the late artiste formerly known as Prince.

These are not the best ways for a car to enter one’s memory but there you have it.

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