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
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 The tyres would only last three laps at racing speed so the whole team had to be withdrawn.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