High-style 1960s saloons

1960sSaloons1

by Russ Smith |

They made an impression without making a fuss. But which one would we choose? Before his death in 2017, designer Tom Tjaarda gave us guidance...

Prices mentioned correct as of the August 2014 issue, in which this article was first published

Not everyone wants to go fast or make a lot of noise. Arriving in style can be just as fulfilling and is a novelty that rarely wears thin. Also, few classic enthusiasts can afford Sixties Ferraris or Astons. But for a Minor Traveller or MGB budget you can buy a lot of style and quality; cars for the confident man or woman about town.

The four late-Sixties/early-Seventies classics we’ve gathered under Bristol’s city lights reflect that purpose: Bentley T1, Mercedes 280 SE (W108 series), Jaguar 420 and Citroën DS23. They’re not performance cars – only one can do 0-60mph in less than ten seconds – they are cool cars against any backdrop, in any company.

It is also fitting that we have an equal mix of British cars and those from mainland Europe: with a growing cosmopolitan outlook and fast-expanding motorway network, 1968 was the first year that more than 100,000 imported cars were sold in the UK, and overall sales hit a 1.4m peak. This reassuringly expensive end of the market was growing, and the choice had never been better.

JAGUAR 420

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©Richard Pardon

Back then the cheapest – yet most powerful – of our quartet would have been the Jaguar 420. Only sold for two years and often forgotten today, this has become Jaguar’s missing link between its old-school curvy compact saloons and the XJ6. It was little more than an S-type with the big-boy 420G’s front end grafted on and a detuned version of the E-type’s 4.2-litre straight-six. Demonstrating a lack of confidence in this combination, Jaguar continued to sell the S-type alongside the 420, but the public loved the new look – S-type sales were decimated, and 420Gs took a hit too, but at least Jaguar was moving plenty of metal. When I look at the three cars today it is clear that the 420 was a more successful, complete design than the slightly awkward S-type and the overblown 420G. It has the balance of line and poise you expect from a Jaguar. Also, being such a parts-bin conglomeration makes it easy to run because, despite the rarity of the cars, all those shared parts are easy to find.

Yes, rarity: today it can be hard to find a 420 – especially in really top condition. Only 10,236 were built and they’ve never achieved a level of value that would make restoration anything other than a financially suicidal, emotionally driven personal rescue mission. They are out there, along with a few well-kept low-milers, but expect a long search, and be aware that 420 prices are at last rising.

A fair chunk of the restoration cost of a 420 can come from the interior. Jaguar didn’t skimp on the wood and leather, and the only nod to modernity is a heavily padded safety roll of black vinyl that tops off the dashboard and houses a rectangular clock that’s markedly at odds with its thin-rimmed, flick-switch surroundings. It’s like spotting a Caribbean pirate wearing a digital watch.

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©Richard Pardon

Having made the point that these cars aren’t about performance, it still comes as a disappointment to find that the Jag doesn’t turn its allegedly significant horsepower advantage into something more meaningful. Yes, in the midrange it feels quite muscular, but the timing gear doesn’t lie. The majority of Jaguar 420s were sold with a Borg Warner auto. Perhaps fittingly, even that was a ten-year-old design – the Model 8. So with that to sap power from the engine, and a bluff cliff-face of a front end, the 420 turns in the equal lowest top speed of the four along with the Bentley, though a manual-boxed 420s could record an 8mph higher top speed.

The overall driving experience doesn’t disappoint, though: the 420 is every bit as Jag-ish as you’d expect it to be. Which means a mixed bag of greatness and flaws that aren’t really flaws. Criticise it all you like, but I want a Sixties Jag saloon to roll a little too much and have over-light steering. It’s an essential part of their bad-boy getaway car character, and more than compensated for by the cossetting ride and predictable handling. It’s an engaging place to be – this is also one of those cars that contrives to feel smaller from the driving seat than it looks from outside, inspiring confidence and encouraging spirited driving.

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©Richard Pardon

Tjaarda on the Jaguar

The 420 looks sophisticated and expensive. The narrow chromed bumpers are pieces of art, and the thin roof line and pillars are an elegant touch.

The front grille is chromed to perfection. The small deflector windows are delicate, yet at the same time robust enough to withstand years of use. The interior was perhaps less elegant than the exterior and had a lot of padding on top and under the dash, perhaps for safety reasons.

It was the curvature of the rear side window line that gave the car its identity. But the bodywork has just the right form and radius to give an image of refined solidity. The headlights are in a complicated series of metal stampings, giving a sense of exclusivity. It had all the possibilities to become a classic, elegant saloon car, but there was something lacking in the end result.

Perhaps it was a bit too compact and stubby looking, and if it were a bit longer it may have achieved that certain look of elegance. Even though it possessed all the ingredients of classic beauty, the overall proportions were just enough off the mark to negate this level of design.

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©Richard Pardon

MERCEDES 280 SE

Feeling small is not a trick the Merc can pull off – it sits a full six inches wider than the Jag and feels every bit of it. Instead, the commanding view through what looks like about three times as much windscreen glass is more like that from the bridge of a cruise ship. In fact the extensive glasshouse could also probably serve well for growing cucumbers, so it’s a great testament to Paul Bracq’s design skills that it all integrates so well with the rest of the body and doesn’t make the car look top-heavy.

It also has to be said that time has been kind to the W108. In period this was viewed as quite a brutal piece of industrial design that made the kind of impression that appealed to no-nonsense business types; not beautiful but reeking of expense and solidity. It has acquired a certain slim-pillared elegance, doubtless aided by so many modern cars supporting their roofs with thinly disguised RSJs. From most angles it could lie about its age – it’s 50 next year – but not from the front. That imposing Mercedes grille had yet to be flattened and widened, as would steadily happen from the Seventies. What’s here is a bit of a Fifties throwback, at odds with the rest of the styling, but it does the W108’s road presence no harm. Its iconic ‘fishbowl’ headlamps are among the best ever committed to car frontage – it’s almost worth buying one just to see those peering out of your garage.

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©Richard Pardon

From 1968, Stephen Dimbylow’s 280 SE was king of the short-wheelbase six-cylinder S-class Mercs, sharing its E-for-Einspritzung (injection) engine with the 280 SL. This gave it an extra 20bhp over the carburettor-fed 280 S – enough to make the Merc a handy mile-muncher. Its power deficit against the Jag is at least partially offset by successful dieting; despite being larger in every dimension the 280 SE manages to be 100kg lighter. That also benefits the car’s handling, which feels quite taut for such a big car, less prone to roll and quicker to change direction. You are also more keenly aware of what’s going on at the front end as Mercedes’ engineers left a little feel in the system. Not a lot, but enough to be appreciated.

For a luxury car the interior is remarkably stark, containing what you need and no fripperies. But what’s there looks and feels reassuringly over-engineered – nothing’s in danger of coming off in your hand. The seating, too, is different from the other three. Comfortable, yes, but in the manner of a private doctor’s waiting room, whereas the others offer the kind of slump factor that anywhere else but in a car would call for a glass of Merlot and a good book.

The best news about the 280 SE is that having started out as prime real estate, second only to the Bentley in cost, it is now the cheapest of these four cars to buy. Even the best rarely top £9000 – and you do want to buy the best as tired, cheaper examples can quickly devour more than their purchase price in repair costs. The parts supply is excellent, but you pay the price for that in pounds sterling.

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©Richard Pardon

Tjaarda on the Mercedes

This four-door saloon never had much design appeal back in 1970, nor does it in today’s classic market. Just compare prices of the saloon – which hovers below £10,000 – and the coupé, which can be £60,000 in V8 form. That’s a huge difference and it is all in the styling because the saloon is rather dull-looking and tends to be on the heavy side. The coupé has elegant proportions, with a beautiful roof line, which determines its overall appeal.

These were well-built cars and huge numbers were sold for rather high prices. The design of the 280 SE appealed to a certain type of client whose intent was to have a reliable car with a prestige name. The interior was rich in appointments and design, and was perhaps its strongest selling point. Compared to American cars the W108 series had an exceptional advantage in quality that made US car firms rethink their design strategies.

The design seems to have worn well with time, more so than I might have anticipated in the Seventies. However, today this car must be restored to perfection to obtain any kind of fascination because a used 280 SE saloon looks rather shoddy.

BENTLEY T1

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©Richard Pardon

Yes, in reality the Bentley T1 is very little more than Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow with a different grille. But it also provides a fascinating study into the changing fortunes of brand image, because today that softer grille says style not snoot, and a majority of buyers today would rather be seen in the Bentley. That’s a level of reversal that politicians are infamous for, because back in the Sixties and Seventies there was only one Bentley T1 sold for every ten Silver Shadows. In pure numbers that adds up to just 1721 Bentley T1s built in an 11-year production run, so we can add a degree of exclusivity to the mix.

There’s also always been something about the Bentley that suggests its owner would be more likely to take the wheel than sit in the back, which is where you would have expected to see many Rolls-Royce owners in period.

Like the Mercedes, the T1 has aged well and now looks imposingly stylish with not a hint of crassness remaining. In the right colour, anyway. The perception of John Blatchley’s styling is highly colour-dependent: in something like Midnight Blue or the Tudor Grey Metallic of our test car they are truly ooh-worthy; but in metallic gold or wedding ivory it’s almost a different car, one in which even Steve McQueen would have struggled to maintain a modicum of cool. And if you are reading this in America or Canada, the game was completely up in 1973 when impact bumpers replaced the perfectly proportioned chrome originals.

At least in Europe we were spared that indignity until the 1977 Bentley T2, which added extra cheesiness in the shape of an under-bumper spoiler. This all results in an unhappy combination that still reeks of ageing nightclub owner.

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©Richard Pardon

The T1 is more likely to appeal to an Antiques Roadshow expert, who could knowledgeably enthuse over its fine interior appointments and true British craftsmanship that has created controls that are all a delight to use. He could then surprise the audience by announcing that it was an absolute steal at under £15,000 – a pittance for a car of such grandeur and quality.

Enthusiastic drivers may be disappointed; the big V8’s power was only ever set for cruise and is only adequate – or ‘not disclosed’, in the parlance of period road tests. There’s enough to heave two tonnes of Crewe’s finest about without fuss, but nothing more, and the steering has a Jaguar-like lack of feel entirely in keeping with a driving experience that sets out to insulate you from all the road’s chattering nonsense.

This is much more a car to arrive in. Anyway, even mildly spirited driving will see you burning petrol at the rate of a gallon every eleven miles, which may be the Bentley’s biggest downside.

Strangely, given its limited production numbers, the T1 is probably the easiest of this quartet to find today. It’s not the most expensive, either – allaying some of those fuel costs. This one’s an exceptional early example that justifies its price tag. For now at least you’ll not struggle to find a good enough one for under £10,000. Parts support is good too, and several specialists break these and can supply good secondhand items to help keep costs down.

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©Richard Pardon

Tjaarda on the Bentley

This was a period when it was difficult to distinguish a Bentley from a Rolls-Royce, sharing identical bodies with only details such as the grille to distinguish one from the other.

The real distinction in these cars was in the body engineering, being a unit-body construction in steel with aluminium opening panels for the engine and suspension mountings.

So the Bentley was lighter than previous models. Thus it had more interior space and smaller overall dimensions, together with a 6.2-litre engine that made for absolutely outstanding performance and excellent driveability.

The overall design concept was similar to the Jaguar 420, using four headlights, the important grille and rather similar body styling, except for the curvature of the rear side windows on the Jaguar.

It is hard to find fault with the Bentley’s proportions, but it does look rather boxy compared to the Jaguar 420. In my opinion the real attraction of the T1 was its advanced engineering. It is a pity that the conservative and rather cumbersome styling of the car does not convey this noble aspect.

CITROËN DS23

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©Richard Pardon

In some ways the DS could be seen as a bit of an interloper here, trying to punch above its weight. There’s no imposing chrome fireplace of a grille, it has only four cylinders and 130bhp, and – sacre bleu! as they once said in France – it has front-wheel drive. None of the other makers here would have got away with any of that without seriously reducing a car’s style and cool credentials, yet the Citroën shrugs off such concerns with the nonchalance of a Gauloises-toting French art film director in a black polo-neck sweater (is that enough clichés for you?).

So, fancy establishment badges be damned. The DS was a car that marked its buyer out as educated and worldly, and likely to take foreign holidays – possibly in the DS – at a time when the majority of Brits were still heading for Devon or north Wales.

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That’s what can happen when you toss the rulebook in the nearest canal and build something truly revolutionary, and I contend that the DS’s level of revolution is only matched post-war by the Mini and maybe the NSU Ro80.

The rest of the car is so off-the-scale that it’s almost a relief to find a common or garden iron-blocked four-pot engine under the bonnet. If it had got the planned air-cooled alloy flat-six I’m sure several road-testers’ heads would have exploded.

Anyway, the DS isn’t disadvantaged here in the performance stakes. Thanks to being 230kg lighter than even the Merc, an obvious aerodynamic winner and possessing a five-speed gearbox (semi-automatic, naturally) it posts the highest top speed and comes second in the 0-60mph chase. Only, however, because this is the Holy Grail of DSs – the DS23 ie (for ‘injection electronique’), the model’s last upgrade, produced only from 1972-75. The extra 5bhp that gives you over the DS21 ie it replaced does make a difference, though all ‘ie’ models are sought-after by Citroën enthusiasts.

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Comfort-wise, this car even surpasses the Bentley. The seats feel like they’ve been clad with 13.5-tog duvets and the ride quality is hovercraft-smooth on even the roughest of roads.

You do need to put effort into re-learning how to drive to get the best from a DS, though. The gearshift pattern, operated by a wand between the steering wheel and dashboard, is turned 90 degrees from the norm, and you have to be smooth with all pedal and steering inputs to avoid unseemly pitching. Try to corner too quickly and all you’ll get is tyre squeal and understeer. Join the revolution, allow yourself to be moulded by the new experience, and it all starts to make sense. Once you do, everything else starts to seem boring and crude. It’s a bit like joining a cult.

You’ll have to pay for the privilege, though: this is no longer the equal-cheapest car of the group. You can still find them for under £10k, but the best are now worth twice as much as any of the other cars in this test. It also helps if you live near a classic Citroën specialist as they need to be cared for by understanding folk.

A smattering of basic French wouldn’t go amiss too, for tracking down parts from abroad.

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Tjaarda on the Citroën

In 1955 the world gained a masterpiece in engineering and futuristic styling. Unheard-of smooth ride, semi-automatic gearshifting, low centre of gravity due to the glassfibre roof, aerodynamic body – the list goes on. It was years ahead of any other manufacturer. The DS still looks different, even futuristic, and with a few touches here and there might even be put back into production; a perfect candidate for a retro car like the Fiat 500 and Ford Mustang.

Many car designers still nominate this their favourite car for design and styling – it has even been voted the all-time most beautiful car. I am not so sure. To me it’s the most unique and innovative car of all time, but not the most beautiful. From some angles it looks awkward, sometimes too bulky, sometimes too slim and delicate. The harmony and basic proportions were not perfect but this is understandable for such a unique design. It was the first time such a different and new styling theme had been attempted, much less put into production. In any case, the DS never really possessed the type of design that most people expect for a prestige-type vehicle.

AND OUR CHOICE IS...

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©Richard Pardon

There really is a lot more to this classic game than sports cars and red paint. These four cars all prove that for the price of a merely average coupé you can enjoy a bit of older car high life. And far from any disadvantage, I feel a small grin of smugness might be in order. You’ll truly set yourself apart from the herd, and it also becomes a game you can share with family and friends.

All four certainly look the part, and there must be one that appeals to just about anyone. The Bentley has the greatest presence and an overwhelming sense of wellbeing; the Mercedes gives off an air of permanence, with the merest hint of organised crime; the Jaguar is a smooth-talking character in a sports jacket; the Citroën is all about daring to be different.

The Citroën is the car I’d spend my money on, but that’s just a personal thing. None of the other three disappoints and, as we’ve pointed out, they’re all a lot cheaper to buy. Which one are you feeling drawn to? Let us know at the usual address...

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