To every decade there seems to be a “great car”, one that stands out above the rest, stamps its identity on the motoring scene in some way or another and lives on regardless of time. A great car that was great when it was designed will stand the test of time. Unlike a lot of popularly accepted “classic” (I use the word casually) cars, a truly great car becomes no greater with the passage of time.
Today there are many cars that are hailed as “classics” when in reality they were awful when they were designed, and anyone who drove them when they were new will soon tell you the truth about what they were like to own.
The old-car “Trade”, and by that I mean anyone who makes money out of old cars, be he a journalist, a photographer, a used-car dealer, an auctioneer, a restorer, a collector or merely a manipulator, will hype up a particular model to make it appear to be worth more money than any self-respecting worker can visualise, let alone have in the bank. People who owned the model when it was new will tell you how awful it was; not necessarily a bad car, but merely awful. That goes for just about anything from a Ferrari to an Austin 7.
The Trade relies on two things. Firstly that anyone who has paid an astronomical sum of money for something is very unlikely to admit he has bought an awful car, for not only would it reflect on his knowledge and judgement, but would make it difficult for him to sell it on to the next person. And secondly that such a car is hardly likely to be driven very far, so the owner will never really find out how awful it can be. If journalists borrow it to do a fancy article about the car, few of them will drive it further than up the road and back so they will never find out, and will merely perpetuate the hype in their writings.
Last year, when I had a brief run in a 300SL Mercedes-Benz “Gullwing” coupe, it brought back happy memories of the many thousands of miles I did in various versions in 1955-56. Those trips covered everything from the Targa Florio circuit in Sicily to stony, unmade roads in the Arctic Circle. I always rated the 300 SL a “great car” and it still is; it has stood the test of time.
Another brief encounter at the end of 1988 stirred up similar recollections of a pre-war great car. This was a short run in a 41/2-litre Lagonda LG45R “Rapide” of 1938. When it was introduced in 1936, it was one of those cars you looked at in awe as you breathed a quiet. “Cor!” to yourself. Fifty-three years later it still has that same effect; but it hasn’t needed time to make it great, it was great when it was created. Apart from the magnificence of its looks, the LG45R shattered everyone when The Motor put it through its road-test programme and it recorded 108.2 mph over a flying half-mile. This was at a time when very few cars could achieve 100 mph in full touring trim, and the average family box was lucky to reach 60 mph. There were two-seater sports-cars that could clock over 100 mph, and here was Lagonda’s Grand Tourer travelling way over that magic figure.
The earlier 41/2-litre Lagondas did not hang about, but the big 6-cylinder Meadows engine was not the smoothest thing in the world. These were the M45 series, and in the LG series Lagonda had gone to town on refining the basic engine, so that it was more Lagonda than Meadows, and power and smoothness was impressive. A short trundle down our local “public race-track” at an effortless 80 mph recalled what a great car the Rapide was.
Back in 1947 I had a memorable run in a 41/2-litre Rapide with a well-known racing driver of the time; this four-seater tourer was his everyday transport and we had been to see someone about a car deal. The return cross-country run on fast clear roads was one of those you remember. My racing driver friend was not necessarily in a hurry, but it was a lovely sunny day, the roads were clear, he was in a happy mood and he knew the car well. We seemed to be at “over 90 mph” most of the time and the run ended with a final blast along the famous Hog’s Back road in Hampshire.
We hadn’t been home long before the telephone rang and the racing driver’s wife answered it, tactfully. It was the car dealer we had been to see, and a quick word between husband and wife had her saying: “Oh I’m so sorry, he’s not back yet. I’ll get him to ring you.” As we had a relaxing cup of tea my friend said, “I don’t want him to know how fast you can cover the ground in that Lagonda.” He rang the dealer about half-an-hour later and concluded their business, but I never did understand the philosophy behind that action, for I had a simple outlook on life and would have enjoyed boasting about the average speed we had achieved; my racing driver friend wasn’t like that.
Since then I have driven many 41/2-litre Lagondas, and enjoyed them all. Lagonda may have only won the Le Mans 24-Hour Race once, unlike its arch-rival Bentley, but for me the “Rapide” is the great car of the 1930s.
Looking to other decades, more than 200,000 miles in E-type Jaguars satisfied me in nominating the E-type as the great car of the 1960s, and in the other direction my nomination for the 1920s is the Vauxhall 30/98, the OE overhead-valve 41/2-litre. I know Vauxhall enthusiasts will explain how the side-valve E-type 30/98 was a much nicer car, smoother running and with better steering on its beaded-edge tyres, but the muscle of the OE is what I like. If you haven’t cruised across Salisbury Plain in the early morning at a restful 85 mph in a 30/98 Vauxhall, you haven’t experienced pure vintage motoring.
In the Edwardian era the big 11-litre Napier with its smooth 6-cylinder engine has to be the great car, regardless of the merits of early Mercedes or Panhards. The Napier Ron Barker rebuilt, which is still used regularly by “vintagents” Trevor Tarring and Tony Jones, is a truly great car, and a fast run on the open road in it makes you wonder whether we have made all that much progress in 80 years. That is until you get into a Porsche 928 or Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer, and then you realise that great cars are still being made.