Aston Martin DBS vs. Citroen SM, Buick Riviera, Jaguar XJ12C and Mercedes-Benz 280CE C123

2015 / 2016 Drive-My

Grand Designs – design legend Tom Tjaarda rates our style choices of the year, including Aston Martin DBS, Citroën SM, Jaguar XJC, Buick Riviera and Mercedes-Benz 280CE C123. Here are five designs lauded at launch and celebrated as groundbreaking ever after. Grand Designs: Tom Tjaarda rates our style choices of the year. We bring together five coupes at sundown to argue their case for style supremacy while Tom Tjaarda adjudicates – who will be the winner come the dawn light? Words John Siminster, Tom Tjaarda. Photography Tim Andrew.

Complex business, car design. Why does one car set your heart a-flutter and another leave you cold or, worse, bring on a sense of visual nausea? It’s subjective, of course, but there are also design rules relating to proportion, tension, flow and appropriate embellishment.

Aston Martin DBS vs. Citroen SM, Buick Riviera, Jaguar XJ12C and Mercedes-Benz 280CE C123

Five shades of visual seduction – Jaguar, Aston, Mercedes, Buick, Citroën.

One key job of a car’s design should be to evoke desire. An indulgent coupé needs to do that particularly well; while no one needs a coupé, its creators try hard to make you want one instead of something cheaper and less able to attract the eye. And if eyes are attracted to a car, they may well alight upon its occupants. Drive a coupé, look good, feel good – the world sees you as a person of taste and sophistication as you cruise the affluent streets of the metropolis, and the glint of streetlights on a coupé’s seductive curves only heightens the theatre. Here are five designs lauded at launch and celebrated as groundbreaking ever after. They span a decade and a half but each still looks fresh. We’ll assess their style outside, inside and on the road, with a professional designer’s critique on each from Tom Tjaarda. He and I won’t always agree. Take your sides as you wish, and join us for the ride.

Aston Martin DBS vs. Citroen SM, Buick Riviera, Jaguar XJ12C and Mercedes-Benz 280CE C123

The Aston Martin DBS is the most exciting mix of visual desire and driving thrills on offer here


‘It feels eager today, crisp to respond, smooth in its revving, the deep bark from its exhausts somehow more cultured than the V8’s NASCAR blatter’

Aston Martin DBS

When I, not quite a teenager, first saw the DBS at the 1967 Earl’s Court motor show, I was blown away. Here was a car that somehow embodied Aston Martin-ness and the crisp-edged modernity of the latest Italians and Americans all in one stunning package. And it was all done in Britain.

Aston Martin had been looking to replace the DB6 for a while. Touring of Milan, which designed the previous DB4 and its DB5 and DB6 evolutions, was commissioned to create a replacement. It came up first with what Aston designated MP220, a putative DB7, but it was an oddly frumpy, dated-looking thing.

A parallel thought was to widen the DB6 to take the planned new V8 engine, and add a new two-seater, V8-powered model to be called DBS. Touring made a prototype for this car, too, designated MP226 and extremely handsome.

But time was short, and the DB6 was getting very dated – widening it seemed a half-hearted evolution and Touring couldn’t promise that it would be able to create a production-ready DBS in time for the 1967 show.

Meanwhile William Towns, formerly a designer of seats at Rover and newly employed by Aston Martin, had been sketching a brochure for the ‘DB7’. He had also been creating his own drawings for a future Aston Martin, and on seeing these the management abandoned the Touring proposals and the fatter DB6. Towns’ design became the DBS, now with four seats and to be built on a wider, stronger version of the DB4/5/6 platform incorporating new De Dion rear suspension.

In its first clay model, the DBS had a more pointed snout than in the car you see here, plus flush-mounted rectangular headlights and no bonnet scoop. It also lacked the characteristic Aston air vents in the front wings, featuring two groups of horizontal louvres instead. At this point it had even more of the contemporary Italo-American look, but it was soon Aston-ised.

Certain hard points dictated the outline – engine height, wheelarch limits, rear headroom. There were simple constant radii and cross-sections to make manufacture easier, and they helped give the shape the crispness and purity that has made it last so well. And, crucially, it looked like a proper Aston Martin once given its scoop and vents; the rear-set cabin squatted powerfully on its haunches, and the raised section in the middle of the front panel brought about a broadened interpretation of the Aston front grille, with four round headlights set in its extremities.

Today, as the light fades, David Lewington’s Fiesta Red DBS looks magnificent. It has never been restored, and shows a few exposures of primer where it has been polished devotedly over the years. ‘It’s had two owners from new,’ says David, ‘and I bought it in 1995. The only non-original parts are the rear dampers, now Konis instead of the lever-arms. The engine was rebuilt after just 2000 miles, and the factory paid half the cost.

‘I’ve taken it to Le Mans a few times. It’s interesting that people like these original DBSs now.’

The point here is that not everyone did to start with. Bigger and heavier than a DB6, with a greater frontal area, the DBS was slower although Motor still piled plaudits upon it in the December 1968 road test, ‘…unanimous assent… a rare and worthy car… reviewed with almost lyrical praise by all who drove it here,’ it enthused, despite detail failings and a ferocious fuel thirst. Yet the DBS became a bit of orphan in the Aston Martin pantheon, slower than its predecessor, therefore pointless when buyers could, from 1969, have a V8 with a true 320bhp for an extra £795.

Aston Martin didn’t publicise a power figure for the DBS Vantage, its tuned, Weber-fed, twin-cam straight-six strangely a no-cost option versus the standard SU-carburetted unit, but if pushed would claim 325bhp. The truth is about 280bhp, enough to make the DBS a rapid enough car for most tastes at the time. It certainly feels eager today, crisp to respond, smooth in its revving, the deep bark from its exhausts somehow more cultured than the V8’s NASCAR blatter. The driving position is just right, low-set but not engulfing, and I find it very easy to forgive the hard bar at the base of the age-squashed, highly patinated driver’s seat in its creased black leather.

The five-speed ZF gearbox requires deliberate lever movements but yields its ratios cleanly, and the combination of a powered rack and quite a small steering wheel makes this wide, heavy car feel a lot smaller than it is. It’s a wieldy, pointable delight, beautifully matured and very fit. A properly covetable Aston Martin? Absolutely. And just watch those prices rise…

As well-appointed as the dapper gents who piloted it when new. Six-cylinder soothes rather than shouts, delivering an alleged 325bhp.


Back in 1967 when I first laid eyes on the DBS I remember thinking that something had suddenly gone wrong. This fastback with the squared off frontal area was something that might have come from Ford or GM. But from Aston Martin, what were they thinking? Being used to the soft, elegant and sporty DB6, it was a complete departure from that positive tradition. The DBS at first glance seemed influenced by the American muscle car design, as though the designers were suddenly obliged to abandon tradition and latch on to the more contemporary styling produced in Detroit.

When I see a DBS these days it still turns me off – the angular mediocrity of its design seems an insult to the Aston Martin tradition. It took a few years and a number of directors for the company to come around, but as we all know it eventually did. Aston Martin has been back on the cutting edge for many years now, and at this year’s Geneva show I thought that they had the best display of automotive design in the entire show.


Engine 3995cc, 6cyl, dohc, 12 valves, three Weber 45 DCOE carburettors

Power and torque 280bhp @ 5500rpm; 290lb ft @ 4500rpm

Transmission Five-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive

Steering Rack and pinion, power-assisted

Suspension Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: De Dion beam located by trailing arms and Watt linkage, coil springs, adjustable lever-arm dampers.

Brakes Discs all round

Weight 1717kg (3782lb)


Top speed: 142mph;

0-60mph: 7.1sec

Fuel consumption 14mpg

Cost new £5842 (1968)

Value now £52,500-£120,000 (2015)


‘It pays to plan your path carefully when roads are narrower than those of Texas’

Buick Riviera

Did you have the Corgi model with the Trans-O-Lite head and tail lights? In 1/43rd scale, or thereabouts, it oozed modernity, crispness and forward-thrusting dynamism. I bought it because of its early manifestation of fibre-optic technology, but it wasn’t until the Motor road test in September 1965 that I grasped the full grandeur of the real thing. All it lacked were the four headlights rendered in miniature in the model, because that test car’s lights were stacked vertically behind clamshell doors thrusting forward either side of the cast-aluminium lattice of a front grille.

Were the model’s headlights a figment of the modeller’s imagination, there only to show off Corgi’s latest gadgetry? I felt cheated. Then I discovered that the 1963 Buick Riviera, the first model year of this shape, did indeed have four hefty headlights and those vertical grille-bookending monuments were, in 1963, housings for sidelights and the world’s biggest direction indicators. The 1963 also had fake air intakes paired in the rear wings just ahead of the wheels, and tail-lights set in the rear panel. For 1965, the lights were in the back bumper and the fake intakes were deleted. Seldom has a full-size American car looked cleaner and purer than a 1965 Riviera.

General Motors’ styling head Bill Mitchell, responsible also for the Corvette Sting Ray and the fabulously bonkers first-gen Oldsmobile Toronado, set a template here for GM cars all over the world. In plan view the nose is W-shaped. The waistline has a ‘Coke-bottle’ upward swoop over the rear wheels. The rear pillar is thick, the others are slender. The glass goes right into the corners; nothing is rounded off. The wheelarch tops are slightly flattened. Look now at a Vauxhall Viva HB, Victor FD or Cresta PC. Look at an Opel Rekord or Commodore, mid-to-late Sixties, and numerous Stateside GM products. All those motifs started here in the Buick. There’s one big difference, though. The Riviera is a whole lot bigger than any of those Euro-cousins. It’s 17ft 5in long, 6ft 5in wide. It also has rather vague, super-light steering. It pays to plan your path carefully when roads are narrower than those of Texas, where Stewart Bickel’s 1963 example started life.

Buick Riviera

Sergio Pininfarina once called the Riviera the most beautiful American car.

It also has a very curious transmission attached to its Wildcat 445 V8 engine. That number relates to the gross torque output in lb ft; it’s actually the least lusty engine offered in the Riviera, with a mere 6.6 litres and 325 (gross) bhp. It’s the carthorse among Buick V8s, the colloquially named ‘Nailhead’ engine, and it sends its lazy burblings through a Dynaflow Twin Turbine two-speed automatic. Except that the first of those geartrains requires manual selection and is almost never used, which means in practice that the entire spectrum of ratio change is handled by a very busy torque converter with variable-pitch vanes, like an aircraft propeller’s blades.

It’s like driving a car with a CVT automatic, but with a greater sense of ample energy dissipating long before it gets to the rear wheels. Slow step-off apart, the Buick can be hustled along and it’s a good cruiser, but the 1964 model year’s three-speed Hydramatic made for a more engaging powertrain, if not quite such a seamlessly smooth one. The all-drum brakes feel powerful, too, thanks to the hair-trigger sensitivity that comes from a hefty servo. Whether they’d still work after one stop from high speed is another matter. ‘I wanted a 1964,’ Stewart says, ‘but I found this one in Portsmouth and its body is original. The interior got fried in Texas, so it’s been re-trimmed. I didn’t have the bottle to buy one unseen from the US. I had considered one, but I had an expert look at it and it was nothing like it seemed in the ad. We went to Normandy in it last summer, cruising along and enjoying the open frameless windows. I love it, and I think they’re seriously undervalued. Maybe it’s because they’re not part of muscle car culture, but their time will come.’

Certainly the Riviera is a fabulous machine in which to cruise, its ride yielding but not floaty, its interior a temple to ribbed aluminium, metallic gold and imitation wood. The heater controls resemble those of a mixing desk, the dials are as supersized as the big, squashy seats. Interior dome-lights abound, and Sixties soul grooves from the hidden CD player make the experience perfect. When Mitchell’s team created project XP-715, it was badged as a ‘LaSalle II’, in homage to the GM brand that died in 1940 and whose radiator grille XP-715’s giant, slatted headlight covers (as eventually productionised for 1965) emulated. They tried to get Cadillac to take the design, but got no joy. Same at Chevrolet. Pontiac and Oldsmobile were more interested but wanted to fiddle with the styling. Only Buick wanted it as it was, and after a slick internal pitch to GM management Buick got its chance to take on Ford’s Thunderbird. And with it, one of the best-looking, most influential cars ever to come out of Detroit.

Riviera is surprisingly wieldy for its size. 6.6-litre Nailhead V8 delivers a meaty 445lb ft of pulling power. Interior just needs you, some Motown and perhaps a fedora.


When I came to Italy in 1958 American cars were mostly loaded down with chrome and cumbersome styling motifs; lead sleds, we designers called them and not only for their appearance but also for their excessive weight and hopelessly low gas mileage.

When the Buick Riviera appeared it was a design revelation. Finally, a clean and well-proportioned American automobile that influenced other US car firms. Buick needed something to stimulate its sales and this return to simple styling was the answer. The name itself – Riviera – pointed towards the affluent image and popularity of the Italian and French coastline that was in vogue with American tourists. It was an elegant and radical departure from the negative look that Detroit’s stylists had created for themselves.

It’s a styling landmark and looks at home in numerous concours d’ elegance. It was still a heavy car and gas was still cheap, but at least it was a step in the right direction.


Engine 6572cc, V8, pushrod ohv, 16 valves, Rochester 4GC carburettor

Power and torque 325bhp (gross) @ 4400rpm; 445lb ft (gross) @ 2800rpm

Transmission Dynaflow two-speed automatic gearbox, rearwheel drive

Steering Recirculating-ball steering box, power-assisted

Suspension Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers.

Rear: live axle located by radius arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers.

Brakes Drums front and rear

Weight 1815kg (3998lb)


Top speed: 119mph;

0-60mph: 8.5sec

Fuel consumption 13mpg

Cost new £3092 (1963)

Value now £15,000 (2015)


‘Into gear and off we float, ready for the SM’s other-worldly blend of an unruffled, topography-redrawing ride, ultra-quick, fully-powered steering and potent brakes’

Citroen SM

Ever since the DS there has been a Citroën ‘look’. Even the ZX and the Xsara, despite their role as bargain-bucket Citroëns deliberately designed to bury the brand’s heritage during its darkest days, had elements of it. The most dramatic Citroën of all, though, a sort of DS-flavoured coupé auditioning for a role in 2001: A Space Odyssey, must surely be the Citroen SM, styled by Robert Opron whose next creation was the Citroen DS – replacing Citroen CX.

The SM has it all – the low, streamlined, seemingly grille-less nose, the long, curved bonnet, a waistline falling rearwards over concealed rear wheels all shout Citroën, but here it’s sharper, more muscular, suggestive of power but with the action coming from traction avant. Then there’s that full-width glassy enclosure for the six main front lights and the numberplate, the outer lights swivelling to point in the direction the driver is steering. It would be many years before ‘cornering lights’ reappeared on production cars. The chopped-off tail is barely less dramatic.

Inside, the scene is similarly iconoclastic. The majority of modern car interiors are broadly similar to each other, but back in the Seventies there was more scope for individuality. The SM takes that scope to the extreme, with a dashboard dominated by a single, sweeping curve, a steering wheel supported by a single spoke and soft, tan-leather seats shaped in a continuous cushion-to-backrest curve despite their reclinability. Then there’s the gearlever, which looks like an automatic transmission’s selector but actuates five forward gears manually; the slot for the radio, mounted far out of the eyeline next to the handbrake; the giant red warning light in the rightmost of four oval dials, which glows menacingly when any other malfunction-light illuminates or, indeed, when the sun catches it. And, behind and under it all, technology like nothing else.

This is best experienced as the SM is driven. On start-up, the oleopneumatic suspension rises and the slop in the steering vanishes as the 2.7-litre, 180bhp, fuel-injected Maserati-built V6 with its low-profile, 90-degree vee-angle burbles happily. Into gear and off we float, ready for the SM’s other-worldly blend of an unruffled, topography-redrawing ride, ultra-quick, fully powered steering and potent brakes triggered by a toe-flex on a giant rubber mushroom. It’s fast enough to battle with modern traffic on equal terms, and I know from recent experience with another SM – it won a coupé group test last year in this magazine – that the ride should be as bump-smothering as a DS’s but without the heave and float, and that the steering can feel much like a modern car’s electrically assisted system. Exposure to moderns has made the SM’s helm feel less alien than described by contemporary road testers. True, there’s no real road feel, your efforts instead working against a hydraulic synthesis of what the engineers considered the weight variation should be, but that last SM felt entirely intuitive.

This one doesn’t. It conforms to road-test type, Seventies style. The response is ultra-sensitive with little to ‘lean’ against, and the ride is surprisingly lumpy over poor surfaces. Its engine’s gravelly blare, a sound hard to reconcile with a Citroën shape, is a touch more enthusiastic at high revs – the last one was an earlier, triple- Weber-fed example – but this SM is a lot harder to flow with. It feels as alien as it looks.

Why the difference? Tyres, possibly; the earlier car was on more modern Michelins. Maybe the suspension’s spheres were pressurised to different degrees. Whatever, Des Burnett’s SM appears to give more of the authentic SM experience, while the other was the better for its newer tyre technology. None of this stops this 1973 example from being a captivating car, however.

It has a great history, too. Originally a Citroën UK press car with a Slough TKX registration, it was road-tested by John Bolster in period. It’s been in the Burnett family since 1978, and Des’s father used it to go between London and Ireland on business trips. He’d bought the car as an unwanted and unloved part-exchange, with all the valves damaged after the timing chain’s tensioner had broken, and rebuilt the engine.

He had it restored in 2007 by SM specialist BM Autos, and Des’s brother Gareth (an expert in vintage Talbots among other things) rebuilt the engine again, now with gas-flowed cylinder heads. ‘Dad had stripped it all down to the bare shell,’ Des relates, ‘and managed to get the last two genuine Citroën rear wings plus a used but sound inner rear wing from the US, where they don’t rust. The rest of it was okay, because the main structure tends not to rust.’ Des acquired it in 2008. ‘I’d had a GS, a CX and an XM, so I was of the faith. I’d been running an old 911 for a few years, but I sold it once I had this on the road. The 911 was boring by comparison.’

Robert Opron design speared the SM into the future. Inside offers spaceship style to match the out-of this world driving dynamics. Six-cylinder Maserati engine provides a raspy riposte to the SM’s smooth styling.


The Citroën DS and SM created a design world of their own. They were so exclusive and innovative that it inhibited other designers to come up with similar proposals. No other car company ever dared to emulate this design. The DS still looks futuristic. Robert Opron penned the SM to follow this exclusive design, and it had all the quality characteristics of a true GT, such as comfortable long distance travel, relaxing high-speed capability and a quality interior.

Using the Maserati engine and Citroën’s suspension and steering technology created concerns that there might be maintenance problems, but when it was working to specs it was a dream car to drive. The styling was certainly exclusive and attractive and, especially in this case, a matter of personal opinion. To me this car seemed more suitable as a four-door sedan than a two door GT. It didn’t have that nervous high tension look of a compact super GT sports car. It looked like it could be great going in a straight line but not going around a high-speed bend.


Engine 2670cc, 90deg V6, dohc per bank, 12 valves, Bosch D-Jetronic fuel injection

Power and torque 180bhp at 6250rpm; 171lb ft at 4000rpm

Transmission Five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive

Steering Rack and pinion, power-assisted

Suspension Front: double wishbones, self-levelling oleopneumatic springs, anti-roll bar.

Rear: trailing arms, selflevelling oleopneumatic springs, anti-roll bar

Brakes Discs front and rear, fully powered

Weight 1448kg (3189lb)


Top speed: 139mph;

0-60mph: 8.3sec

Fuel consumption 20mpg

Cost new £6691 (1970)

Value now £22,000-£60,000 (2015)

Citroen SM Club


Jaguar XJ12C

It looks smaller than an original XJ6 saloon, but that’s an optical illusion brought about by thick rear pillars and two long doors instead of four short ones. So it’s built on the same wheelbase, but coincidental with the XJ coupé’s launch was the Series Two saloon in original short- and new long-wheelbase guises. All three also wore higher bumpers to suit US regulations, and a squatter front grille now edged in chrome.

Like the Buick, and the Mercedes to come in this story, the Jaguar has no centre pillars. The doors are frameless and occupants can wind all the side windows down to create an unobstructed, uncluttered daylight opening, as car designers called it, or nightlight opening as it is here. The apparent abbreviation of the XJ coupé’s form is echoed in what looks a particularly cosy rear cabin but, again, it’s an illusion. Four people do have plenty of space in here. XJCs came with the regular XK straight-six, of course. But they also came with Jaguar’s 5.3-litre V12, destined later for the XJ-S that effectively replaced this XJC after too short a time, although they did briefly run together. The Jaguar XJ12C thus powered spawned a mad, bad ETCC race car run by Broadspeed, fast but fragile and prone to destroying its brakes. However, the race car’s roll cage did help put back the rigidity lost by removing the centre pillar.

 There’s a case for regarding the roadgoing XJC as the bestlooking Jaguar XJ of all, across all five major generations over the years. The vinyl roof sows an element of doubt here, but it was fashionable at the time and reduced the cost of finishing the seams in the steel beneath. Of painting them, too, judging by the horrors restorers have found in later years. Some XJCs have had their roofs retrospectively painted in the main body colour and look better for it. But for originality, it has to be black vinyl.

Steve and Tracey Arnold’s XJ12C is very original. It’s unrestored, and some parts of the painted coachlines have been polished away. And it’s brown, a very Seventies colour. ‘Before we had this car,’ remembers Tracey, ‘I was looking at a new car in brown and I said I’d never have one that colour. And now look at this one. But it looks right on the Jaguar.’

It’s similarly brown inside – seats, carpets, door trims, walnut dashboard. It oozes welcoming, relaxed luxury, playing down evidence of Leyland-era expediency in some of the cheaper plastic mouldings. The steering wheel has a thin rim to aid the subtle deployment of the directional delicacy I’m about to experience, and after the Citroën it all feels reassuringly, well, normal.

The engine, of course, is a powerhouse of silken shove, its languid 285bhp channelled efficiently to the rear wheels via a three-speed Borg-Warner automatic. The XJ12C feels very eager, helped by the way it sits planted on the road and disguises its considerable mass through its accurate, consistent steering, strong grip and fabulous damping. Dynamically it feels the most agile and the most modern car here, with just an occasional hint of structural shudder to chip away at dynamic indomitability.

In short, it’s delightful, especially if I eradicate from my mind the zeal with which the twin fuel tanks jettison their loads. It helps that this Jaguar retains the integrity and tactile authenticity that comes from still being in its Browns Lane-assembled state, with just 57,000 miles under its wheels. ‘My father had one of these and got rid of it in the early Nineties,’ Steve says. ‘I cried when it went. ‘We saw this one at the Windsor Castle Concours d’Elegance in 2012. It had been in storage for 20 years, but the guy who rescued it just serviced it and overhauled the brakes. It was built in late 1975 and sold by W§W Webber Ltd, Basingstoke, in 1976. The only non-original bit is the Retrosound radio.’

Plush cockpit is a joy for all the senses. Vinyl roof is a minor distraction from the Jaguar’s refined form. 5.3-litre V12 is a thirsty but silky performer. Pillarless design brought a little riviera style to Coventry.


There is little doubt regarding the fascination factor of this vehicle. The first thing that stands out are the pillarless side windows that provide an exclusive touch. This created an elegant appearance but gave headaches to the engineers who had to make it work, to prevent water leaks, rattles and wind infiltration.

The frontal area is set off by the refined grille and headlight clusters. This is probably the most elegant area of the car compared to some of today’s vehicles, which have a tendency to become rather bland and simple. But it was also the mechanics that had a huge contribution to the its prestige factor, beginning with the fascination of a V12 engine.

English cars have a reputation for fine interior design. This car has the traditional wood appointments and fine leather seats that make this car such a desirable place to be, especially on long excursions. These interiors have perfect stitching and leather quality, which makes occupants feel satisfied in such an expensive purchase. It’s a vehicle with lasting appeal.


Engine 5343cc, V12, sohc per bank, 24 valves, Lucas fuel injection

Power and torque 285bhp @ 5750rpm; 294lb ft @ 3500rpm

Transmission Three-speed automatic gearbox, rear-wheel drive

Steering Rack and pinion, power-assisted

Suspension Front: double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar, telescopic dampers. Rear: lower wishbones, driveshafts acting as upper links, radius arms, paired coil-spring/damper units

Brakes Discs front and rear, inboard at rear

Weight 1835kg (4045lb)


Top speed: 147mph;

 0-60mph: 7.6sec

 Fuel consumption 15mpg

 Cost new £7281 (1973)

Value now £4500-£15,000 (2015)

MERCEDES-BENZ  280CE C123 (W123 based Coupe)

‘The way it steers, handles and rides is more reassuring than inspiring, but that’s how a Mercedes-Benz was meant to be’

Mercedes-Benz 280CE C123

Motor described the Mercedes C123 (M-B code for the sybaritic version of the W123 saloon) as ‘a pleasant, if conservatively-styled, two-door coupé’. With such faint praise was it damned. But at first glance, and in the context of its time, there did indeed seem to be little remarkable about the C123 if it is viewed as a collection of parts and attributes.

It’s only with the benefit of hindsight, and with a chance to stand back and take it in afresh, that the spare, functional beauty of the thing becomes apparent. Less is more here. The designers of today’s overwrought, slash ’n’ burn Benzes, cars unlikely to appear in the 2050 version of this feature, should take note.

What’s so good about it, then? It’s the slightly frivolous application of styling flourishes – fractionally rising waistline, a lavishly convex rear window, bright-metal mouldings in subtly varying cross-sections and in unlikely places – to an otherwise solidly rational shape. It shouts self-indulgence. It adds virtue to necessity. Friedrich Geiger masterminded the look. He must have loved reconciling the opposites.

Of course, when driven the experience is one hundred per cent rational Benz. The pillarless sides and frameless doors generate the least wind noise heard in any car here, regardless of centre-pillar presence. The steering wheel is huge, despite the employment of power assistance; it’s so drivers can retain control if the assistance fails, or so the engineers used to say. The single steering-column stalk performs far too many functions, so some are less versatile than they could be owing to a lack of available switch positions. And the front seats give that unique Mercedes feeling of sitting on a well-upholstered piece of coil-sprung plywood.

This particular car has an unusual specification. The engine is the 2.8-litre, twin-cam straight-six that topped the range, 185bhp on tap in this later fuel-injected form. But it drives not through the usual automatic, nor even a five-speed manual, but a short-geared, hair-shirt four-speed with a laborious shift action and a short-ratio limited-slip differential. There is no rev-counter, just a giant clock, and only one door mirror. Windows are wound manually, there’s no radio and the paint is solid, safe Marine Blue. Buyers could specify all the toys when new, however – it was almost possible to double the car’s price should they have had one too many pre-purchase pints before setting about the options list.

As such, this car has a sunroof, headlamp wash/wipe and lovely ‘Mexican hat’ aluminium wheels. The UK importer would never have supplied such a car; it’s from Brussels. ‘It was loved by its first owner,’ says today’s custodian Roger Needham. ‘He took it to Wales and did 100,000 miles in 15 years. It then had a series of owners who kept it off the road, until Martyn Marrocco of the Mercedes-Benz Club bought it as a barn find and sorted it out. ‘I was looking for a more solid and basic Mercedes, having had a rogue W124, a late one. It had all the toys, which failed at odd moments. This is the antidote. Martyn was attracted by the strange specification and the fact that it was extraordinarily solid. ‘It’s a bit rough round the edges to drive, though, and I’m hoping he and I can sort it out a bit. We might fit a five-speed gearbox to give it longer legs.’

Other details? The bonnet opens right up to a right-angle, so you don’t bang your head on the front grille attached to it, to reveal an unrestored engine bay that looks almost new. The rear numberplate is held on with the usual M-B four screws threading into built-in captive nuts. The cabin wood is shiny, stripy Zebrano, a Mercedes speciality. The doors thud shut like the door of a safe, and are pulled open in one easy movement via pull-out door handles that presaged those fitted to most new cars today.

Sadly, in this particular specification, it’s not that great to drive. The engine pulls keenly, with a fruity thrum, that short gearing imparting a superficial eagerness. The fruity soundtrack might be exaggerated by the time-expired condition of various rubber mountings, reckons Roger, and this is certainly no relaxed cruiser. The way it steers, handles and rides is more reassuring than inspiring, but that’s how a Mercedes-Benz, that most permanent of automotive artefacts, was meant to be.

To drive it, as I did, for just a few miles is barely to scratch the surface. I suspect that as a car with which to share your life, it would surely be the most faithful of friends.


The first thing that I notice is the huge difference in the styling between this and the four-door sedan. It almost looks like they are from two different companies. The sedan was, and still is, a rather bland attempt at elegant design that never gained much popularity with classic car owners. On the other hand the coupé version seems to be in another world.

It is the same basic car but someone put in a touch of timeless elegance converting this car to a two-door coupé. The roof area and especially the rear pillars are designed to perfection, with soft curves and harmonious proportions. I do not know who designed this coupé but it certainly has a hint of Italian influence. Even today the coupé version is a sought-after classic and can fetch up to ten times the value of the four-door version.

This is a perfect example of how simple yet well-proportioned auto design can stimulate emotions. It is different yet integrates well with the basic design theme of the fourdoor version.


Engine 2746cc, six-cylinder, dohc, 12 valves, Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection

Power and torque 185bhp at 5800rpm; 177lb ft at 4500rpm

Transmission Four-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive

Steering Recirculating-ball steering box, power-assisted

Suspension Front: double wishbones, coil springs, gas-filled telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: semi-trailing arms, coil springs, gas-filled telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar

Brakes Discs front and rear

Weight 1337kg (2945lb)

Performance (figures for automatic version)

Top speed: 118mph;

0-60mph: 9.5sec

Fuel consumption 18mpg

Cost new £10,990 (1977)

Value now £5000-£12,000 (2015)


Mercedes-Benz 280CE C123

A fine way to view the Mercedes’ simple but solid interior. 2.8-litre six topped the C123’s petrol range Durable but unexciting saloon is transformed by removing two doors. Bruno Sacco and 300 SL designer Friedrich Geiger’s combined efforts took the safe but staid W123 to new design heights.


Style needn’t be expensive, although you could buy six or seven of the least valuable car here (the Mercedes, currently) for the cost of the most valuable (the Aston Martin). To me the real bargains are the Buick and the Jaguar, the former misunderstood, the latter perhaps tainted by the Leyland association.

All of them sum up their eras’ styling highs adeptly, and together they create a perfect continuum from early Sixties to late Seventies. As for a winner, do we base this on driving qualities (a win for the Aston Martin and Jaguar), on visual drama (Buick and Citroën) or on financial accessibility and likely freedom from aggravation (Mercedes-Benz)? There is no set answer to this conundrum. All we can do is go with a our individual gut feeling.

Aston Martin DBS vs. Citroen SM, Buick Riviera, Jaguar XJ12C and Mercedes-Benz 280CE C123

This writer’s gut feels best in the Aston Martin DBS. It’s the most exciting mix of visual desire and driving thrills on offer here, as well it should be at the price. That said, if I had the garage space I’d love to fill it with a Riviera, especially a full-fat, 360bhp Super Wildcat version. I’ve dreamed of driving one for years, and now I’ve managed to achieve that ambition. So much style, so little cost. Bargains come no better-looking than this.

Thanks to: The SeMantics section of the Citroën Car Club, the W123 Model Captains of the Mercedes-Benz Club, the Jaguar Enthusiasts’ Club, the Aston Martin Owners’ Club and Star Car Hire (


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