Drop a mad engine into a big car and you get a supersaloon that can move four people very, very quickly. We drive five of the best back to back.
What happens if we take the engine out of our racing car and drop it in our executive saloon? What if we haul the motor out of a limo and shoehorn it into a smaller shell? Or take our fastest, biggest-engined saloon, make the motor even bigger, and add a couple of turbos for good measure? These are the kind of questions engineers ask themselves in drawing board breaks, and usually a few quick calculations or perhaps even a lashed-up prototype demonstrate the folly of the idea. But just occasionally that idle thought becomes a serious project, and then a fully-fledged production car, and it’s that rare and remarkable process that produced these five epic saloons gathered in a menacing gang before me. Between them they represent every decade of engineering madness from the Sixties to the 2000s. The earliest is the Jaguar 3.8 Mk2, which wrote the rule book of the performance saloon when it started to burn up race tracks and Britain’s new motorway system in 1960. Never before had so much performance been available in a four-door, four-seat package, and at such a remarkably low price. It was soon dominating saloon car racing, and became the bank robbers’ favourite getaway car.
Pull the curvaceous chrome handle to open the driver’s door and you’re greeted by a trad wood and leather interior that fixes the Jag firmly in the middle of the 20th century. A cabin upgrade distanced the Mk2 from the original compact Jaguar saloons of 1955, so the instruments that sat in the centre of the dashboard on the earlier car have moved to a binnacle in front of the driver, behind an American-style two-spoke plastic steering wheel with a chromed horn ring filling the lower half. The interior is much brighter than a Mk1’s thanks to slimmer pillars (the Mk2 has 18 per cent more glass area) and the view out over the curves of the bonnet is as evocative as they come.
The electric fuel pump ticks away for a few seconds after I turn the ignition key, then I can punch the starter button on the dash and the 3.8-litre XK engine of this superbly restored example bursts immediately into life. At the time this was Jaguar’s largest engine. Developed for the D-type and then productionised for the XK150 and Mark IX in 1958, it was a big bore version of the 3.4-litre unit. A deep bass boom fills the cabin when you tickle the throttle, and even if Jaguar’s contemporary claim of 220bhp was a mite optimistic it has serious urge thanks to the wide spread of torque.
Road tests recorded a 125mph maximum and 0-60mph times in the mid-8s, in spite of the slow, ponderous change of the fourspeed Moss gearbox. Unless you’re familiar with the ’box it’s all too easy to get reverse when you’re aiming for first, and the dainty little gearlever with its tiny black knob operates in a gate which is claustrophobically narrow sideways, yet so expansive fore and aft that engaging first or third gear has your fist almost punching the radio speaker at the front of the centre console. The optional Laycock de Normanville overdrive, operated by a stalk on the right
‘Never before had so much performance been available in a four-door, four-seat package’
of the steering column, is a boon. But this car lacks another option – power steering – so parking is a chore and even on the move the wheel needs a fair amount of effort despite gearing which gives more than four turns from lock to lock. Swinging the wheel through a big arc has the body rolling like a galleon in a swell, but the Jaguar hangs on to its line as long as the road is smooth enough not to upset the live-axle rear end. Stick to sweeping A-roads and the 3.8 Mk2 is a great entertainer.
They’re strong cars, but the monocoque bodies are prone to rust with the sills, floor, wings and door bottoms the most vulnerable areas. The 3.8 engines tend to burn oil but can achieve high mileages if well maintained. Rattling timing chains and leaks from the rear crankshaft oil seal suggest an expensive rebuild is looming. Spares and specialist support is excellent, though Mk2s are not cheap cars to restore and inevitably the 3.8s are the most expensive to buy. A concours car like this one, with matching numbers and overdrive, could fetch £40,000 though half that will buy a worthwhile car with room for improvement. Just over 30,000 3.8s were built, but probably only a few hundred remain.
Like Jaguar, Mercedes-benz had been successful at Le Mans in the Fifties with production-based six-cylinder engines, but when more power was needed for its vast new 600 limousine in 1963 Mercedes went a different route, developing its first V8. The 6.3-litre M100 was a huge and heavy ironblock unit, but that didn’t stop Merc engineers led by the maverick head of the testing department, Erich Waxenberger, from trying to squeeze it into engine bays never designed for it. A V8-engined ‘Pagoda roof’ SL proved unsatisfactory, but engineering boss Rudolf Uhlenhaut drove a prototype M100-engined W109 S-class and backed it for production as the Mercedes-benz 300SEL 6.3. Launched at the Geneva show in 1968, 6526 were made before the W116 S-class took over in 1972.
Like all the W108/109 family the 6.3 is a handsome, imposing beast. Next to the curvaceous Jaguar, the rectilinear Mercedes, penned by Paul Bracq, is a massive contrast. Yet it’s not as severe a shape as you might imagine, relieved by subtle curves and concave surfacing. There’s little to demonstrate that this is the 6.3 rather than one of the lower-echelon S-classes which, for many buyers, was part of the car’s appeal. At the front there are auxiliary driving lights that didn’t feature on lesser models, above the heavyweight chrome bumpers and between the big chrome grille with its classic three-pointed star gunsight and the lichtenheit headlamp/turn indicator units. At the back there’s a 6.3 badge on the bootlid, and sharp eyes will spot wider radial tyres on the optional light-alloy wheels that are half an inch wider. That wasn’t a lot to show for your outlay, which came to £8483 when this car was built in 1972 – nearly £2000 more than a 300SEL 3.5. It was still £1400 cheaper than a Rolls-royce Silver Shadow, however.
Slim pillars and a low waistline give the W109 a bright, airy interior. Inside this car there’s thick German leather swathing the wide seats, a polished timber dash and a flamboyant white steering wheel – the preference of the first owner, Sixties singersongwriter Donovan. He wasn’t much of a driver, so usually employed his brother-in-law Stewart as a chauffeur and sat in the back, often alongside musician friends like Beatle George Harrison and Bobby Whitlock from Derek and the Dominos, while the Merc hustled them into town at 110mph. How they whiled away the time in the back seat is not recorded, though owner Steve Barratt says the original headlining was heavily stained from cigarette smoke. They probably weren’t just ordinary cigarettes…
The fuel-injected V8 is virtually silent at idle and never intrusive on the road, but it delivers effortless performance. Though the Mercedes is considerably heavier than the Jaguar it’s noticeably swifter, hitting 60mph from rest in about 6.5 seconds. Wriggle the selector for the four-speed automatic through its serpentine gate into the drive position – actually labelled ‘4’ – and the ’box selects second at a standstill to protect the driveshafts against the abundant torque of the V8 (first gear is reserved for steep hills). Swift kickdown and sharp throttle response from the big motor make overtaking easy, and there’s plenty of accelerative urge even at high speeds thanks to surprisingly short overall gearing.
‘The fuel-injected V8 is virtually silent at idle and never intrusive on the road, but it delivers effortless performance’
Power assistance for the big white wheel makes the Mercedes easy to handle at any speed, but it’s not a car that’s at its happiest on a winding lane. Instead its preferred habitat is fast, straight roads where its stability and the composed ride of the air suspension add up to impressive cruising ability. Even now this is a car that could eat up autobahn kilometres with ease.
All W108/109s are tough but expensive to restore and maintain, even more so in the case of the 6.3. Rust attacks the sills, front crossmember, A-pillars, spare wheel well and the chassis rails where they curve over the rear axle. Repairs to heating and air conditioning are expensive and time-consuming, as is work on the air suspension. Anything involving the engine is difficult because there is so little space around it in which to work. Few of the 650 or so right-hand drive 6.3s remain, and the better ones go for £45,000-£85,000. Left-hand drive project cars can be sourced in Europe or the US for £15,000 – but consider the cost and complexity of restoration before you get too committed.
The BMW M5 looked almost as anonymous on its debut in 1984 as the Mercedes had 16 years earlier. The Claus Luthe shape had been around since 1981 when it replaced the first-generation E12 5 Series. While the M5 added wider wheels and tyres, a slightly different front valance, lower and stiffer suspension and discreet badges, it didn’t look much different from a 518 – unless you specified the optional Motorsport bodykit, but many buyers preferred their M5s to be understated. Sit inside one today and you can spot a few more clues to its character, among the generic Eighties BMW features like the centre console angled towards the driver, and the preponderance of houndstooth-patterned cloth. The driving position is upright but there are heavily bolstered sports seats and a lovely leatherwrapped three-spoke steering wheel to hint at the M5’s purpose, while the 170mph speedo and the rev-counter red paint starting at 6500rpm underline its potential.
Under the bonnet is the ultimate roadgoing version of BMW’S ‘Big Six’ engine, introduced in 1968 for the E3 2500 and 2800 saloons. It was bored out to 3.0 litres for the E9 CS and CSL coupés in 1971, stroked for the 3.2-litre CSL in 1973, and formed the basis of the M49 race engine for the European Touring Car Championship CSLS, developing over 460bhp in four-valve, 3.5-litre form. A roadgoing version of the M49 was developed for the 1978 BMW M1, swapping from gear drive to a single-row chain for the double overhead camshafts and fitting Kugelfischer mechanical fuel injection. A wet-sump form of this engine, known as M88, went into the M635CSI five years later and the M5 the year after that. BMW had replaced the troublesome mechanical injection with the latest computer-controlled electronic injection system from Bosch, and the compression ratio had been increased to 10.5:1. With these changes the engine produced 286bhp (later catalyst cars had slightly less) and delivered more torque lower down the rev range than before to make it easier to live with and better suited to powering bigger, heavier cars.
Fire up the big six and the urgent bark through the exhaust lets you know that this is an engine that means business. The mushroom-shaped, M-badged gearknob slots left and away from you into first – none of the M5s had the dogleg gearbox fitted to some M535is – and while the clutch is long in travel and not very distinct in its bite, it’s not as heavy as you might fear. The engine is as docile as you could wish for at low revs, despite its racing
‘The M5 flies, with no sign of the force tailing off as the rev-counter needle sweeps past 6000rpm’
parentage, but keep the throttle pinned in the indirect gears and you’re left in no doubt about the power the multi-valve six produces. The M5 flies, with no sign of the force tailing off as the rev-counter needle sweeps past 6000rpm with a glorious howl emerging from the tailpipes.
With stiffer springs and dampers than a regular 5 Series the M5 has a well-controlled ride, but it’s by no means uncomfortable even on a bumpy road. With uprated anti-roll bars compared to lesser Fives it corners without excessive roll, but at speed it needs a firm hand to keep it on line and despite power assistance the steering needs enough effort to mark this out as a car for drivers rather than chauffeurs. All the controls need meaty inputs, in fact, from the chunky gearchange to the weighty column stalks. But it’s worth it. The M5 is hugely rewarding, whether you’re reeling in the horizon on a straight road or winding down a country lane. In the dry, at least – when it rains the camber changes imparted by the semi-trailing arm rear suspension mean you need to handle the M88’s 251lb ft with care.
M5s are well-built cars, but susceptible to rust in sills, wings, jacking points and suspension mountings. The hand-made M88 engines are durable, though the single-row cam chain can cause trouble at high mileages and is expensive to replace. Prices are on the rise now buyers have woken up to the sheer rarity of the E28-series M5 – just 2191 were built and a mere 187 of those were right-hand drive. When new it cost over £30,000, which was bordering on Ferrari money. Today a decent one will fetch the best part of £50,000 and low-mileage cars are heading for six figures.
The Mk2 3.8 created the blueprint for the supersaloon with its cool curves, 125mph potential and amazingly low price
The 3.8 was Jaguar’s largest capacity engine at the time
Generous helpings of wood, leather and guages...
...curves and chrome made this the archetypal classic car
A waft through the English countryside is just a starter for the big Merc. It would be quite content to carry on with a full banquet of inter-continental cruising
The 250bhp V8 was intended for the vast 600 limousine
White wheel was chosen by original owner, Donovan
Power steering means easy low-speed wheel-twiddling
Rare, hugely rewarding to drive and little more than 2000 built. No wonder E28 M5 values are rising rapidly
M88 six was developed from the M49 Touring Car race engine
Signals of the BMW’S potential are subtly stated
Dash focus and weighty controls mean driver’s car