As the reputation of all the most exquisite cars continues to be embrowned by the nation’s footballers, those who try to combine extreme wealth with a splash of discretion and good taste find themselves in a bit of a quandary.
In the olden days, if you were to turn up at a party in a Ferrari or a Maserati, women might imagine that you were the Aga Khan. Today, however, they will cower in a cupboard all night, fearful that if they come out they will be roasted in front of a jeering mob who’ll record the event on their mobile phones and, in the morning, upload it all to the internet. “I have a Ferrari” is code for “I am a rapist”. Or, worse, “I am Kerry Katona”.
The solution, then, for wealthy people who are not rapists or Kerry Katona is to buy a car that simply isn’t on a footballer’s radar. A car that manages to be expensive and comfortable, and possibly even quite fast, without shouting, "“Look at me.” A fatboy car."
The Bristol Blenheim is a fatboy car. So is the Mercedes SL. Then you have the Rolls-Royce Phantom, the Bentley Continental Flying Spur, the Jaguar XJR, the Range Rover – but emphatically not the Sport – the BMW 7-series, and the car I was given for Christmas. A 37-year-old Mercedes 600 Grosser.
Launched in 1963, it was by far and away the most expensive car in the world, with a price tag, in America, of $20,000. In its 18-year production run only 2,677 were made and almost all were bought by people who did not play football. Idi Amin, Louis Winthorpe from the film Trading Places and Leonid Brezhnev. Mao Tse-tung was said to be very fond of his, and it’s easy to see why.
Today we marvel at the power-operated boot lids on cars such as the Lexus LS 600h but the Mercedes Grosser had this feature 45 years ago. And yes, while it does without such luxuries as a heated rear window, and the dim/dip light switch is on the floor, it does have power-operated seats, windows, sunroof and even doors. And the power does not come from a fickle electric motor either. Oh no. Everything that moves on the Grosser is powered by hydraulics. Small wonder it weighs three tons.
It’s not a car you can just get into and drive, either, because hydraulics also operate the suspension. So after starting the engine you must do a crossword while the body rises to the correct height.
Still, you can then make up lost time because it has a 6.3 litre engine. The first production V8 Mercedes ever made, it develops 300bhp, thanks to fuel injection. In other words, in terms of luxury and power this was quite literally 40 years ahead of its time. In terms of style, however, it was bang-on, pure, 100% 1963. This was a time when designers were allowed to fit a car with ornaments, and the Grosser is fitted with so many it could almost be twinned with Elton John’s head.
The double bumpers, the enormous grille, the chromed wheelarches: it is a festival of brightwork and I’m only surprised it isn’t followed everywhere by a flock of magpies. It’s the same story inside, where it’s fitted with nothing so vulgar as tinted glass. Instead you get curtains, along with interior glass wind deflectors should you feel the need to drive along with the windows down, waving serenely at the untermenschen.
The only thing that it didn’t come with as standard – but that I shall be adding as soon as I’ve designed them – are two flags on the front wings. This is the only sound you want to hear as you cruise along. The fluttering of two pennants. Or, rather, this is the sound I imagine you’d like to hear. I can’t say for sure because I’ve had the car for a week now and so far I haven’t actually driven it.
This is because most of the time it won’t start. Sometimes it turns over with a decreasing level of enthusiasm for 10 minutes before the Titanic battery gives up the ghost. And sometimes it doesn’t turn over at all. Occasionally it coughs a little burp of hope and I prod the throttle, trying like a man marooned on a desert island to breathe a little life into the sliver of flame. But never quite succeeding. So then I plug it into a trickle charger, and after two hours have been spent pumping some fresh enthusiasm into the battery, the engine bursts into an uneven V8 strum. The sound of joy. Followed by the groan of despair as I realise that, this being Christmastime, I’ve passed the time as the battery charged with my face in a bucket of red wine. And now I’m too drunk to go anywhere.
And so we must now leave the olden days when cars worked only if there was some warmth in the month, and look at the complete opposite of the 600 Grosser. The Mazda MX-5.
When I first encountered the new version of this modern classic, I reported that it was a better-looking, more practical version of something we all loved anyway and that you should all have one. And you all responded by buying something else. No, really. The new MX-5 is like the new Ford Mondeo and the Subaru Legacy Outback. It is one of those cars that’s absolutely brilliant . . . and nobody buys it.
You never see one on the road. Fearful, therefore, that I’d missed some crucial aspect of the car – a spike in the driver’s seat, perhaps, or a snake in the glove box – I decided to have another look. And there’s nothing; not even a preposterous price tag. The new soft-top Mazda starts at just £15,730.
So what’s the problem?
I’'ve given the matter some serious thought and I'’ve decided what the car missed most of all was the mark. I liked the way the old car had few luxuries, because that made it light. For the same reason it had a canvas roof you raised and lowered by hand, and I liked that too. But actually, the fact is most of us would prefer some creature comforts and a roof that moved about using electricity. We may have been drawn to the idea of an MX-5 but actually we all went out and bought a convertible Vauxhall Astra instead.
Well, Mazda has obviously realised this too because the new 2 litre Roadster Coupe I tried has a superfast electric metal roof, a surround sound Bose stereo, and a button on the dash that says “Media”. God knows what it did.
All of this must be terribly galling for the engineers who struggled to make the new car only 22lb heavier than the old one. To find the marketing department adding stuff is probably enough to have them all disembowelling themselves but the fact is this: it doesn'’t make a jot of difference.
The engine still feels unsullied by cotton wool damping and active exhaust tuning. The gearbox still snicks. The handling is still deliciously front-engined and rear-drive. You still feel hemmed in behind the wheel and the plastics appear, correctly in a car of this type, to have been fitted to shroud various wires and rough edges. Not as a surface you feel inspired to lick and caress.
The MX-5, then, still feels simple and sprightly and lively. It still feels basic and honest and wonderful. It’s still a bacon sandwich made with good bread, good butter and good meat. Only now it has a splash of HP sauce. It is an epic car, this.
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