When they were new

The se­crets of the su­per­sa­loon phe­nom­e­non, as re­vealed by those who ex­pe­ri­enced them straight off the fac­tory floor – in­clud­ing Rauno Aal­to­nen, Jasper Car­rott and Larry from Ronin

Classic Cars (UK) - - The Big Test -

The E28 BMW M5 was an un­der­state­ment,’ says

race and rally driver Rauno Aal­to­nen. ‘It looked a nor­mal mid-size four-door saloon. When you got in­side and sat in the driver’s seat it felt right. The so-called ‘cock­pit-de­sign’ in­stru­ments were easy to read. Af­ter start­ing the engine both the in­let noise and the ex­haust re­vealed it was not in­tended just for go­ing shop­ping. The six-cylin­der Motronic-fed engine gave around 280bhp with nice torque curve. A de­light to drive. The en­gine­speed-vari­able power steer­ing was good – easy for park­ing but with good feed­back at higher speeds. It un­der­steered at speeds be­low 50mph, which is right and safe for a nor­mal driver. With in­creas­ing speed it got well bal­anced. Of course with­out slip con­trol it was easy to pro­voke over­steer, which would be a hor­ror for to­day’s driv­ers groomed with elec­tron­ics. It is dif­fi­cult to find a car for any price with the qual­i­ties and feel­ing of the orig­i­nal M5 be­cause I think the ac­cel­er­a­tion and straight-line per­for­mance of to­day’s su­per­sa­loons don’t com­pen­sate for the han­dling of the more com­pact, lighter E28. The smaller and lighter M3 was hand­ier on twisty roads but at higher speeds the M5 was di­rec­tion­ally more sta­ble and more com­fort­able be­cause of the longer wheel­base.’

Aal­to­nen’s in-pe­riod ex­pe­ri­ence of su­per­sa­loons didn’t end there. ‘I like big en­gines and the Mercedes 300SEL 6.3 was an im­pres­sive ve­hi­cle, I had the hon­our to be in­vited to race it 1969 in the 24 hour race in Spa-fran­chor­champs to­gether with Di­eter Glemser. The V8 was bored to nearly 6.9 litres and made close to 500bhp. And it was quick! I be­lieve we reached about 260kph [161mph] at Spa but it was so sen­si­tive I could not take my eyes off the road to look in the rear-view mir­ror – the car would start drift­ing. We tested the car in Hock­en­heim and did some quick laps. I think I was the fastest in night prac­tice. But we had a prob­lem – the wheel rims were too nar­row and the wider ones were not ho­molo­gated. The tyres would only last three laps at rac­ing speed so the whole team had to be with­drawn. In those cir­cum­stances it was per­haps the most ex­cit­ing car I’ve ever driven.’

Jour­nal­ist and au­thor Peter Dron road-tested the Lo­tus Carl­ton in pe­riod. With a 140mph limit im­posed on him at Mill­brook be­cause bank­ing of the test track’s bowl con­fused the self-lev­el­ling sus­pen­sion, he headed to the A92 au­to­bahn for the V-max. It runs north-east from Mu­nich to Deggen­dorf and is com­pletely level and straight for 25 miles – the ma­jor­ity of which is un­re­stricted. ‘Af­ter con­sid­er­able frus­tra­tion, we achieved a mean of runs in op­po­site di­rec­tions of pre­cisely 170mph,’ Dron re­calls in his book The Good, The Mad and the Ugly… Not to Men­tion Jeremy Clark­son. ‘I am sure that the car had peaked and was not go­ing to go any faster, but I wanted to do a run or two more in each di­rec­tion to be cer­tain. But it was not to be. I had just shed 100mph or so for a speck which be­came two blobs which then meta­mor­phosed into a dirty trailer-truck from Hun­gary pass­ing a dirt­ier trailer-truck from Ro­ma­nia. I de­pressed the clutch to change down a cou­ple of ra­tios but there was a noise like a wash­ing ma­chine mi­nus its bal­ance weight. I strug­gled 70 miles back to Mu­nich in fifth gear, ac­com­pa­nied for some dis­tance by a low-fly­ing po­lice he­li­copter.

‘A bolt had dropped out from some­where. When the Vaux­hall de­liv­ery driver came to col­lect the car he said, “I hear you had a spot of bother with the trans­mis­sion. You’re not the only one!”’

Co­me­dian Jasper Car­rott also en­coun­tered Lo­tus Carl­ton bother, al­beit of a dif­fer­ent na­ture. ‘In the early Nineties I was strolling round the Mo­tor Show at Birm­ing­ham’s NEC and, in a spur-of-the­mo­ment mad­ness, I bought a Lo­tus Carl­ton,’ he said in his Sun­day Mer­cury col­umn in 2013. ‘I drove it for about ten months and then it had to go. Not only was it bro­ken into three times but on the mo­tor­way I had every neutered rally wannabe chal­leng­ing me to a race with their Ex­change and Mart bar­gain banger.’

Car col­lec­tor and Amer­i­can TV host Jay Leno worked in a Mercedes-benz deal­er­ship in Bos­ton at the age of 22. ‘They didn’t bring the car to the deal­er­ship on a transporter,’ he re­called of a Mercedes 300SEL 6.3 in an episode of Jay Leno’s Garage. ‘We had to fly down to Port El­iz­a­beth, New Jer­sey and pick them up as they came off the boat and drive them back to Mas­sachusetts. Try­ing to get back to Bos­ton in un­der two hours, that was my favourite part of the job. I spent a night in jail in Roanoke, Vir­ginia. I got flagged at 128mph at about one o’clock in the morn­ing. I got taken to the judge’s house, just like in that movie. The judge came out in his py­ja­mas, sat down at his desk, banged his gavel and fined me – I could spend a week in jail or pay the fine. I had cash in my sock so I paid the fine and kept go­ing. There were cars that were faster, and cars that han­dled bet­ter, but there weren’t cars that, when you put the com­bi­na­tion to­gether, were bet­ter than this.’

Ac­tor Skip Sud­duth played Audi S8 driver Larry in Ronin and did much of his own stunt driv­ing. ‘John Franken­heimer was pretty direct,’ Skip said in a be­hind-the-scenes Ronin doc­u­men­tary. ‘He said, “You don’t get any points for smash­ing it into a wall. And I don’t want to see those brake lights.” There was a replica built from scratch to look like the ac­tual car. That had a stunt driver sit­ting in the trunk who’s driv­ing the car. They put a box over the ped­als so my feet can’t go to the brake or gas if I panic.’

Wil­liam Boddy, for­mer edi­tor of Mo­tor Sport, heaped praise on the Jaguar Mk2 when he tested it as a new car for the mag­a­zine’s Septem­ber 1960 is­sue. ‘The big-en­gined Jaguar is a fas­ci­nat­ing car be­cause it has such enor­mous pow­ers of ef­fort­less ac­cel­er­a­tion that there is lit­tle need to wear one­self out hurl­ing it at cor­ners or play­ing an­gry bears in traf­fic. It hunches it­self up and streaks away from cor­ners and con­ges­tion and, with re­tar­da­tion to match, can af­ford to be­have with dig­nity in ad­ver­sity.

‘For this rea­son alone the 3.8 Jaguar is an ef­fort­less mo­tor car in which to cover many miles. If its road-hold­ing is bet­tered in some sports cars or in Con­ti­nen­tal GT ve­hi­cles cost­ing fab­u­lous sums, this is scarcely rel­e­vant if the driver is in sym­pa­thy with the style of driv­ing this Jaguar en­cour­ages.

For­mer CAR mag­a­zine edi­tor Gavin Green tested the E28 M5 as deputy edi­tor in the mag­a­zine’s May 1987 is­sue. ‘As with all BMWS, the engine is eas­ily the high­light. It’s the mo­tor that’s re­spon­si­ble for the £34,000 tag. You could call it a £21,000 op­tion for the 520i. You’d ex­pect a gold cam cover for that sort of money. There’s no gold in sight when you open the bon­net, though, but what is on show is still lovely. The engine looks like a me­chan­i­cal work of art; it be­haves like one, too. It is so re­fined, so smooth, so pleas­ant in note, and so pow­er­ful, that it soon es­tab­lishes it­self on a dif­fer­ent plane from all but the most ex­otic of six and 12-cylin­der en­gines.’

Suc­ces­sive generations of M5 kept BMW in the su­per­sa­loon mar­ket, but in 1990 they had a new and un­ex­pected ri­val: the Vaux­hall Lo­tus

Carl­ton. The Lu­ton-based man­u­fac­turer, then a Bri­tish off­shoot of US gi­ant Gen­eral Mo­tors, was far bet­ter known for hum­ble fam­ily cars than for su­per­car-chas­ing ma­chin­ery. But it had built fine sport­ing cars early in its his­tory and there was a re­vival in the Seven­ties, first with Gerry Mar­shall’s track ex­ploits and then with the im­pres­sive Chevette HS/HSR rally cars. The Eight­ies brought the aero­dy­namic As­tra GTE with a fine Cos­worth-de­vel­oped 16-valve engine and a high-per­for­mance ver­sion of the big Carl­ton saloon, the GSI 3000.

Ev­i­dence of a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Vaux­hall-opel and Lo­tus to pro­duce a su­per-carl­ton sur­faced in 1989, when a Lo­tus Carl­ton con­cept was dis­played at the Geneva Mo­tor Show. The ru­mour was that at one stage Lo­tus – at the time an­other GM sub­sidiary – had con­sid­ered re­plac­ing the Carl­ton’s six-cylin­der engine with the V8 it had de­vel­oped for the Corvette ZR-1, and it in­ves­ti­gated four-wheel drive and ac­tive aero­dy­nam­ics. But the pro­duc­tion Lo­tus Carl­ton which ap­peared in 1990 stuck with rear-wheel drive and a huge, fixed rear wing. Its 24-valve straight-six gained its ex­tra power through a com­bi­na­tion of a longer stroke, to take the ca­pac­ity out to 3.6 litres, and the ad­di­tion of twin tur­bocharg­ers. The re­sult was an ex­tra­or­di­nary saloon car that hit 176mph at the Nardo track in Italy, when most com­peti­tors were ar­ti­fi­cially lim­ited to a ‘re­spon­si­ble’ 155. It had the tabloid press in a tizz, and ques­tions were asked in the House of Com­mons. TV comic Jasper Car­rott won­dered which fam­ily needed a car that could go that fast – the Fit­ti­paldis? (Iron­i­cally, Car­rott later bought one.) Joyrid­ers and bank rob­bers loved them, but the po­lice weren’t so keen, be­cause they had noth­ing that could keep up.

This Lo­tus Carl­ton is Vaux­hall’s own car, lov­ingly pre­served in its Her­itage fleet at Lu­ton, and from the driver’s seat it’s hard to see why any­one got so ex­cited about it. The ruched leather is at­trac­tive, if a bit fussy, and the sim­ple four-spoke wheel looks busi­nesslike, but the quality of the trim and switchgear lags be­hind con­tem­po­rary Fords, never mind Nineties BMWS and Audis with their hewn-from-solid cab­ins. Start the engine and there’s none of the mu­si­cal­ity of the Jaguar or BMW sixes, and at idle it doesn’t sound spe­cial at all. First im­pres­sions aren’t im­proved by a clutch that needs plenty of mus­cle, and the heavy, baulky and vague shift quality of the Corvette-sourced gear­box.

The Lo­tus Carl­ton will al­most reach 60mph in first gear, and such long gear­ing takes the edge off its ini­tial ac­cel­er­a­tion. All the more remarkable, then, that it will dis­patch the bench­mark 0-60mph sprint in a lit­tle un­der five sec­onds. Even at low engine speeds there’s plenty of torque but the im­pe­tus just keeps build­ing as the revs rise, while the engine note de­vel­ops into a deep bel­low and the Lo­tus Carl­ton punches for­ward with un­remit­ting pace. With per­for­mance like that it needed se­ri­ous brakes, and it got them – enor­mous ven­ti­lated discs, clamped by Group C-spec AP calipers, which haul the speed down im­pres­sively.

‘‘Four-seat su­per­car’ sells it rather short. The Lo­tus Carl­ton is as im­pres­sive for its all-round abil­ity as for its out­right speed’

For such a big ma­chine it’s also amaz­ingly ag­ile, and the sus­pen­sion is sup­ple enough that the Carl­ton is undis­turbed by road im­per­fec­tions, and able to put its power down cleanly. Trans­for­ma­tive de­tail sus­pen­sion work by Lo­tus’s Tony Shute de­liv­ered a chas­sis that makes the Carl­ton a supremely con­fi­dence-in­spir­ing car to drive quickly. Yes, it has the per­for­mance to hum­ble some Fer­raris, but to think of it as a fourseat su­per­car is to sell it rather short. The Lo­tus Carl­ton is as im­pres­sive for its all-round abil­ity as for its out­right speed.

If you’re look­ing to buy, check for rust where the add-on pan­els meet the body. Whee­larches, the spare wheel well and the edges of the front and rear screens and sun­roof are also prob­lem ar­eas. Me­chan­i­cally there are is­sues with the clutch pivot pin, which can fail leav­ing the clutch pedal on the floor, and tim­ing chains can rat­tle and ul­ti­mately break. Parts shared with other Vaux­halls are eas­ily ob­tain­able but any­thing Lo­tus Carl­ton-spe­cific is ei­ther rare, ex­pen­sive or both. A low-mile car can cost up­wards of £50k.

‘The first thing that strikes you is the ex­tra­or­di­nary quality of the in­te­rior’

You don’t need any­thing like such deep pock­ets to buy a first-gen­er­a­tion Audi S8, de­spite it be­ing al­most as fast and in many ways a much more ad­vanced de­sign. Audi had started to de­velop an in­no­va­tive alu­minium body struc­ture in 1982, us­ing ex­truded alu­minium beams joined to­gether at diecast nodes, with the ex­te­rior pan­els adding rigid­ity. Called Audi Space Frame, the new sys­tem was demon­strated at the 1993 Frank­furt mo­tor show on the mir­ror-pol­ished ASF con­cept car, fore­run­ner of the pro­duc­tion A8 saloon of 1994. Re­mark­ably, the com­plete un­painted body weighed just 249kg. The high-per­for­mance S8 ar­rived two years later. Set­tle into its soft leather driver’s seat and the first thing that strikes you is the ex­tra­or­di­nary quality of the in­te­rior. Every switch clicks into po­si­tion with smooth pre­ci­sion, every trim panel aligns ex­actly with its neigh­bours, ev­ery­thing on show is pleas­ing to the eye and the touch. It’s as good as, and pos­si­bly bet­ter than, any­thing BMW or Mercedes-benz were pro­duc­ing around the turn of the cen­tury. It’s packed full of equip­ment, too, from elec­tric sun blinds to satellite nav­i­ga­tion and dou­ble glaz­ing for the side win­dows.

But it was the S8’s com­bi­na­tion of speed and space, not its equip­ment list, which made it a movie star. John Franken­heimer’s ac­tion thriller Ronin, star­ring Robert De Niro, is fa­mous for its car chases, and an S8 is one of the main au­to­mo­tive pro­tag­o­nists in the early part of the film. The Audi chases a Citroën XM around Nice, and it’s not giv­ing away too much of the plot to re­veal that it comes out on top. It’s even ref­er­enced in the di­a­logue, when wheel­man Larry says the car he needs is, ‘Some­thing very fast. Audi S8. Some­thing that can shove a lit­tle bit.’

Shove the S8 cer­tainly can. The early A8s used the VW Group’s V6s and V8s with up to 295bhp and the S8 adopted the big­ger 4.2-litre V8, which was re­worked for more power. The all-al­loy engine had a forged steel crank and con­rods, and dou­ble over­head camshafts on each cylin­der bank. A toothed belt op­er­ated both ex­haust cams, which in turn drove the in­take cams by a short chain, and there were four valves per cylin­der with sodium-filled ex­haust valves to aid cool­ing. A two-stage vari­able-length in­take sys­tem helped to fill out the torque curve at low revs while still al­low­ing the engine to breathe at high revs and de­liver 335bhp. This late S8 has even more power, be­cause Audi fit­ted a new five­valve ver­sion of the V8 when the S8 was given a mid-life up­date in 1999. The three in­take valves and two ex­hausts were op­er­ated by roller rock­ers to min­imise fric­tion, and there was a more so­phis­ti­cated engine man­age­ment sys­tem to help lib­er­ate 355bhp.

A six-speed man­ual trans­mis­sion was avail­able in some mar­kets, but the UK only ever got S8s fit­ted with a five-speed ZF au­to­matic. The gear se­lec­tor can be pulled to the right to se­lect a man­ual mode, and there are gearchange but­tons on the steer­ing wheel, which sound like a good idea but in prac­tice are rather fid­dly to op­er­ate. Left in Drive the trans­mis­sion does a pretty good job of se­lect­ing the right gear for any sit­u­a­tion, though it’s flat­tered by the V8’s su­perbly lin­ear de­liv­ery. You can barely hear the engine at all un­til you’re re­ally press­ing on, and then there’s just a sub­dued bur­ble to sig­nify that the V8 is work­ing hard. This one still has its stan­dard ex­haust sys­tem, but many own­ers fit straight-through ex­hausts to lib­er­ate a lit­tle more of the V8’s mu­sic. The Qu­at­tro four-wheel drive sys­tem puts the power down with­out drama, and the S8 scythes through cor­ners with barely a hint of roll. Numb steer­ing and the sheer size of the S8 count against it when the road is twisty, but on open roads its un­flap­pable char­ac­ter makes high­speed cruis­ing a breeze.

The S8’s Achilles heel is its auto ’box, which needs reg­u­lar ser­vic­ing. If it clunks or slips dur­ing changes it needs a £3000 -plus re­furb. You can get wa­ter ingress into the in­te­rior if the sun­roof drains block up, and there’s a hole in the bulk­head sealed with a pa­per sticker which de­te­ri­o­rates and lets wa­ter into the fuse box, so you get wet floors and elec­tri­cal is­sues. Be­ing alu­minium it’s not cheap to fix dings and scrapes on ex­te­rior pan­els, and look for rust on the sun­roof and filler cap, be­cause both are steel. A full ser­vice his­tory is es­sen­tial, and a car with one won’t break the bank – even the best S8s struggle to reach five fig­ures.

‘Given the Audi S8’s ex­tra­or­di­nary abil­ity, it’s supris­ing that you can still buy a great ex­am­ple for un­der £10,000’

There can be lit­tle ar­gu­ment about which of th­ese cars of­fers the best value for money. Given the Audi S8’s ex­tra­or­di­nary abil­ity both as a cruiser and a per­for­mance car, not to men­tion its film star prove­nance, it’s sur­pris­ing that you can still buy a great ex­am­ple for un­der £10,000. If the Audi’s just too mod­ern then the clos­est in char­ac­ter is the Mercedes-benz 300SEL 6.3, which of­fers crush­ing per­for­mance, ef­fort­less cruis­ing and plenty of space – though it’s much more ex­pen­sive, both to buy and to run.

Clas­sic style is the strong suit of the Jaguar 3.8 Mk2. It’s a us­able, char­ac­ter­ful car with iconic looks and plenty of driver ap­peal, and for such a well-loved clas­sic prices are re­mark­ably rea­son­able. The BMW M5 of­fers a more mod­ern take on a sim­i­lar theme, yet it still dates from an era when cars were rel­a­tively sim­ple, Diy-friendly and fix­able with­out a de­gree in com­puter sci­ence or racks of di­ag­nos­tic kit. It of­fers a de­cep­tively swift com­bi­na­tion of clas­sic and mod­ern.

The one that’s hard­est to pi­geon­hole is the Vaux­hall Lo­tus Carl­ton. In this com­pany it’s a mon­grel amongst thor­ough­breds, and in some ways it’s the most flawed of the five. But it’s the fastest of this group, too, and backs up its epic straight-line pace with sur­pris­ingly deft and for­giv­ing han­dling, and bags of char­ac­ter. Own­ing one wouldn’t be cheap and it prob­a­bly wouldn’t be trou­ble-free. But it would be a whole lot of fun.

Clock­wise from top: Jaguar Mk2 came with ef­fort­less ac­cel­er­a­tion as stan­dard; Audi S8 had low-key cre­dence ga­lore; Lo­tus Carl­ton was a Par­lia­ment de­bate sub­ject; Mercedes 300SEL 6.3 was most ex­cit­ing car Aal­to­nen drove; E28 M5 had tail-happy ten­den­cies

The Lo­tus Carl­ton was fast enough to cause tabloid out­rage in its day and it’s still shock­ingly quick and amaz­ingly ag­ile

Mun­dane in­te­rior be­lies the bonkers per­for­mance

Twin tur­bocharged 3.6 took the car to 176mph at Nardo

Han­dling is well up to the stan­dards the badge im­plies

A big 4.2-litre V8 and light­weight alu­minium struc­ture adds up to no short­age of shove

Torque is shared among all four wheels

In­te­rior is all about pre­ci­sion and ef­fi­ciency

All-al­loy V8 has forged steel crank­shaft and con­rods

Five decades, one mis­sion – to move a great hunk of four-door metal with huge pace

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