Our 10 Favourite Classic Saloons
In every walk of life there are the things the majority of us want - like world peace - and then there are the things far less of us want, like another picture of Kim Kardashian. In the world of classic cars, classic saloon cars fall firmly into the Kim category. They're the four door Vauxhalls and Fords and Jaguars that make up the numbers at classic car shows.
Classic saloons are the frumpy cousins of the two door coupes and convertibles that so many people gravitate to. Not so much unloved as overlooked.
For the follower of the path less travelled, this has an upside. Classic saloons are generally much cheaper than their more popular cousins. And, I cautiously suggest, often much better. They're practical, rare and cocooned in soft fluffy clouds of nostalgia that get people misty eyed and talking. And in these difficult times, I'm all for that.
in no particular order here are our 10 favourite classic saloons. Your list may vary so let us know in the comments.
1. Lancia Gamma
It may be hard to believe looking at the Lancia Ypsilon, but Lancia was once one of motoring's true pioneers. It introduced monocoque construction, independent rear suspension, five speed gearboxes and the first V6 engine to production cars.
The Lancia Gamma, introduced in 1976, was one of the first fruits of Fiat ownership and intended to stake a claim to the executive market with a model that would play to Lancia's strengths of innovation and engineering.
And it sort of did. It was stylish - the aerodynamic fastback style was one of the first to break the 'three box' executive car mould - and it was advanced, with a boxer engine, front wheel drive and a clever rear window design that eradicated the blind spot created by the elongated boot.
The problem - because of course there was one - lay in some of those engineering details. Lancia's engineers, perhaps giddy on Fiat money and a sense of engineering heritage, opted to run the power steering pump off the left timing belt. This meant that on full lock - and particularly when the car was cold - it could snap the belt and lunch the engine.
Then there was how it was built. Which was less precise than you might expect. Or hope. The Gamma was catastrophically unreliable. It was, after all, a complicated car built badly. Then there was the rust, which seemed to accumulate faster than the warranty claims.
There is every reason not to want a Gamma. But you do want one. Because it's a Lancia. It has a boxer engine. It drives like an executive car should and it is rarer than any Ferrari. The big problem will be finding one. Apparently there are just 17 left in the UK, including the more popular coupe.
2. Rover SD1
The Rover SD1 wasn't a great car. It was technically pretty humdrum - its live rear axle was a step back compared to its predecessors - and, like the Lancia Gamma, it was very, very badly built.
But you want one. I did buy one and you can read my less than complimentary words about it here. You want one - and I'd buy another one - because it looks great. It oozes 80s wood-capped luxury. It does louche and dishevelled nearly as well as a Jag. And that V8 is a cracker.
The SD1 is the saloon car that looks like a Ferrari. It's a car many people have nostalgic memories of. It was the last 'proper' Rover, fully designed and built in Solihull.
The safe money heads for the appreciating Rover Vitesse, but the clever money goes for a V8 Vanden Plas - this kit-dripping executive express is truer to the Rover ethos and fully delivers on the word 'sumptuous.'
3. Alfa Romeo 164
During the 1980s, under Fiat tutelage, Alfa Romeo earnestly tried to push itself upmarket. This should have been straightforward, since the brand was considered aspirational in the 1950s and 60s. The trouble was that, starved of cash, Alfa tried to deliver executive expressness by reheating and stretching its existing models. Say hello to the Alfa 90 - a titivated Alfetta - and the Alfa 6, a - you guessed it - titivated Alfetta.
Thankfully, when it came to replacing these creaky old models there was a new game in town: platform sharing. In the mid 80s Fiat, Alfa, Lancia and Saab got together to create the 'Type 4' platform that would spawn a range of four different executive cars, one for each marque. The result was the Croma, 164, Thema and 9000.
The Alfa version of the Type 4 was arguably the most successful. Clever Pininfarina styling managed to disguise the similarities with its sister cars while Alfa's superlative two litre and three litre engines combined with Alfa engineering delivered genuine executive thrills.
Many 164s have now rusted away or their engines have been removed for use in more desirable Alfas. Buy one now and you get a car that is still very good value, is one of the best driving and riding executives of the 90s and, frankly, looks superb.
4. Ford Granada Mk2
In the late 70s and early 80s it wasn't Audis and BMWs or Mercedes that Britain's army of Filofax-flicking executives wanted: it was Granadas. The three-box Mk2 Granny delivered an understated style mixed with clever trim hierarchy that seemingly beguiled suburbia.
At the top of the tree sat the Ghia X, a symphony of ruched leather, wooden door cappings and massive, plump front and rear headrests. It was more luxurious than most living rooms. Matched to the lusty 2.8 litre V6 Cologne and you got Capri-bating performance too. As Ford cleverly underlined with the car's starring roles in The Sweeney and The Professionals.
In the world of saloons, no car before or since has quite matched the Granny's level of decadence. Forget bumpy, ear-jangling classic convertibles and be more Granada.
5. Saab 900
Think cavernous, capacious, practical Swede and you'll likely be forming the letter 'V' in your mind. But back in the day, Saab too was primarily a purveyor of practical, spacious saloons, like the 900 hatchback and notchback. The three door 900 Aero might nowadays fill the listings on Car & Classic but Saab's bread and butter in the 80s were the more humble versions of the 900.
The reason you want a 900 with extra doors is because, for much less than the price of the equivalent two and three door versions, you get a car that is just as capable. For less money you get the same full pressure turbo, pumping out 175 bhp, and you'll pay much less for it.
Alternatively, forget all the forced induction hoopla and just enjoy a really, really good saloon car with the most comfy seats this side of anything made in France and space for five plus a grand piano.
While prices for equivalent 80s Volvo saloons have gone through the roof, five and four door Saab 900s remain a bargain. And that's mainly because so many of them are still in daily use. Which is another reason why you want one: they're bomb proof.
6. Jaguar Mk2
The gorgeous Jaguar Mk2 is the saloon car that proves the exception to the rule: it's becoming almost as valuable as its sports car equivalent, the E Type. But top Mk2 money will only buy you a baggy E Type, so for now we're still on safe ground.
The Mk2 is the absolute mack daddy of classic saloon cars. It's a design refresh - of the 1950s Mk1 - that looks even better than the gorgeous original. There have, of course, been beautiful saloon cars before and since, but what makes the Mk2 so special is that it delivers under the skin too. The 3.4 and 3.8 Mk2s were sports-car fast, delivering sub 10 second 0-60 sprints at a time when a humble Cortina would struggle to top 100 mph.
The later S Type may be better to drive - thanks to its E Type-derived independent rear suspension - but the Mk2 set the ball rolling. It's fast, it looks good and then there's the interior: many, many walnut trees were sacrificed in its making. It's not PC but it is very lovely.
If the £25k you need to get a decent Mk2 is a little over budget, then thankfully Jaguar has gifted you many variations on the Mk2 theme. These cars are significantly cheaper, although they compromise the looks to varying degrees. There's a lovely Daimler-badged V8, those S Types, the later 420 and 340 to name but a few.
7. BMW 5 Series E28
In the mid 1980s cut and thrust British executives started to tire of the ruched leather and wooden door cappings of their Ford Granadas and Rover SD1s. They began to look further afield, to a place called The Continent where companies like Mercedes and Audi and BMW were making solid, well built cars with bulletproof engines and panel gaps measured in millimetres rather than centimetres.
As a general rule, the equivalent BMW was rather less well equipped than its Ford, Vauxhall or Rover equivalent. Quite often radios were optional. And at the bottom of the Germanic motoring gene pool the engines were pretty lacklustre.
None of that mattered. Because whatever the spec a BMW badge was sure to trump a Rover one. And since all 5 Series versions looked exactly the same to the untrained eye, you could always banish away your 518 poverty spec by ticking the 'badge delete' option.
The BMW 5 Series was the best amongst this bridgehead of interlopers, a sober-suited three box saloon that looked the part in the company car park, but put a smile on your face on the way home.
Top of the E28 tree was the superlative M535i, a barnstormer of a car that was as quick as a Porsche and almost as agile. But you don't need this firebreathing monster to enjoy a E28: any model delivers a heady mix of sober suited quality and driver engagement. There have been better BMWs since, but it was the E28 that put the firm on the map in Britain.
8. Triumph 2500
Before the Germans came to town there was the Triumph 2500 and Rover P6, a duo of brilliant executive saloons that proved we could mix it with the best Europe could offer. Well, we could, we just couldn't build the things very well.
As good and advanced as the P6 is, it's the delicate 2500 that gets my vote. Exquisitely styled by Michelotti, the 2500 was light, airy and spacious, with that deftness of touch inside and out that Triumph saloon and sports cars excelled at. Then there was the engine, a lovely, smooth straight six with new fangled fuel injection that actually worked.
The 2500 was understated yet practical and good to drive. It was quick yet relaxed and smooth in the way a proper British executive car should be. There was also an estate version, which was even more attractive than the saloon.
The 2500 may be all these things but it's also cheap: the best are a fraction of the price of a Mk2 Jaguar. They're rare too - less than 300 survive.
9. Mercedes W124
The earlier W123 saloon from the 1980s may feel like the obvious choice for this list, but it's the later W124 that makes it. That's because the later car took its boxy predecessor's template - over-engineering and sober styling - and perfected it. There's nothing that the W123 does that the W124 doesn't do better.
You don't need to drive a W124 to sense that this is the last Mercedes that really stuck to the firm's engineering-led ethos without compromise. The panel gaps are invariably perfect, the trim quality is impeccable and it wears mega mileages without a ruffle. After the W124 Mercedes began to realise that selling the idea of a Mercedes was far easier - and cheaper - than selling the reality of one. Namely a car that had high quality engineering at its very core.
The joy of the W124 is that there is pretty much one for anyone: they came with a huge array of engine and trim variations. Now is the time to get one too - prices are still low and interest is only just beginning to pick up. Jump in and you'll discover a car from an era when making things to last was the purpose of making things.
10. Jaguar XJ
I've waxed lyrical about the Jaguar XJ before and I'm not ashamed to kick off about it again. As an executive saloon car it is almost perfect: smooth, stylish, relaxing and possessed of a louche sort of charm that surely any cigar-chomping captain of industry would envy.
The original XJ is possibly one of the best-riding saloon cars ever made, with a handling and ride balance that shames a Rolls Royce. Then there's the V12 engine, surely one of Britain's greatest engineering triumphs, an ultra-smooth unit that also gave the XJ supercar-bating performance. On the inside you get typical Jaguar attention to detail - lots of wood, nicely laid out instruments and twin petrol tanks. I'll say that again: twin petrol tanks. Surely worth the price of admission alone.
You sit low in a XJ - William Lyons had a thing about the car's seats sitting below the window line - and that is a big part of the car's appeal. The design started life as a four door E Type and the XJ shares that car's laid back, debonaire style. Perfect for sitting back, firing up a woodbine, draping a single finger over the skinny wheel, smacking it into Drive and heading for the pub.
As a buying prospect the XJ requires careful research. A lot were made and there are a lot about, but unlike the Mercedes quality was never a Jaguar priority. So sifting the rot boxes from the pearls is a task in itself. Buy wisely though - I recommend an early short wheelbase 4.2 or V12 - and you'll get one of the best saloon cars of all time. If not the best.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days. 01527 893733. Great Driving Days runs a fleet of classics including classic saloons from the 1960s to 1990s. Find out more at www.greatdrivingdays.co.uk