Daimler Double-Six Two-Door vs. BMW 3.0 CSi E9, Fiat 130 Coupe and Mercedes-Benz 450SLC C107
Never before had such fast and fancy cars been so sorted and sensible. Daimler vs. Fiat, Benz and BMW: the GT car re invented for the 1970s. Coupe shootout BMW 3.0 CSi E9 meets Fiat 130 Coupe, Mercedes-Benz SLC C107 and Daimler Double-Six. Faced with his greatest dilemma, can Martin Buckley decide between his favourite BMW, Fiat, Mere and Daimler coupes? Photography Tony Baker.
BMW E9 CSi, 130, SLC C107 and XJ 5.3C: for a child of the '70s, the bootlid badges still resonate powerfully. To be honest, trying to choose between them is like trying to nominate a favourite child. To favour one over the other would be a betrayal because these are the cars that I swooned over in my formative years; a jet-set dream ream that blended the traditional Gran Turismo sensibilities of continent-crunching driver appeal with the latest in technical and aesthetic refinements plus good taste.
Good taste? Aesthetic refinement? Big words and bold statements, but for me car styling really did peak in the late '60s to early' '70s and these cars make the point admirably. The successors to this generation of coupes were unnecessarily bigger, usually uglier and sometimes slower cars that seemed to lack their predecessors' panache.
Here were four of the most exclusive coupe flagships available, imbued with special hand-finishing and refinements that lifted them way above the rabble, ever before had such fast and fancy cars been so sorted and relatively sensible. If the '60s had been the era of the specialist GT car - hammered out over a tree stump, powered by an American engine and produced in piffling numbers by a company forever on the brink of bankruptcy-these machines were the antidote.
These were accessible status symbols that must have made even the wealthiest buyers think carefully before they splashed out on an Aston, a Jensen or any four-seater Ferrari, Maserati or Lamborghini. You didn't need a riding mechanic, a fuel bowser or a diploma in auto electrics to run one of these vehicles. Wrought from saloon-car mechanicals and built on production lines by big firms that also sold much cheaper family or executive cars, the Fiat 130 Coupe, BMW 3.0 CSi E9, Mercedes-Benz 450SLC C107 and Daimler Double-Six Two-Door were not truly exotic. Yet they were rare enough, fast enough and sophisticated enough to be hugely desirable.
I admired these cars from afar in period, but only really caught up with them in the '80s when they became attainable objects I could aspire to owning (or persuade my dad that he needed to). The BMW and the Fiat gravitated into the Ken Buekley stable circa '1978 and '1981, and thus have an unfair emotional advantage; the experience of seeing them on our d1ive for the first time, sitting in them and smelling them was something akin to religious back then. Even now, the sight of either vehicle on the road gives me a frisson of excitement. Not that I would ever dismiss an SLC or a Double-Six out of hand; I could concoct a convincing reason to own and love any of this quartet. Yet, were I governed by price, I would have to conclude that the £25,000 BMW is relatively overvalued. Or are the £10-15k Fiat, Daimler and Mercedes just remarkable bargains?
Daimler Double-Six Two-Door
With 5.3 litres and 285bhp, the Daimler Double- Six Two-Door seems like an absurd and glorious piece of British overkill even now, rather like Concorde. In ’1975 - when the first of the 150mph, fuel-injected Jaguar/Daimler V12 coupes began to emerge from the troubled portals of Browns Lane, Coventry’ - it must have been a proud moment. There was little dissent from the opinion that, taken all round, these were the finest cars in the world. Nothing could match the V12 for velvety, whisper-quiet power in the world of luxury cars and not even Rolls-Royce could equal the ride offered by the XJ Jaguars in terms of softness, control and isolation.
Daimler Double-Six Two-Door road test. Nicely balanced shape was based on same wheelbase as S1 XJ6 shell. Below. l-r: sublime, almost inaudible V12; signature GKN Kent alloys; reasonable room in the back; veneer of class in finely appointed cabin
You sit low inside the Double-Six Two-Door, its walnut facia pleasantly familiar from all other species of Series-2 XJ saloon and the centre console sweeping up between two fairly dainty-looking leather chairs. There is a gauche brittleness to some of the detailing in here that always let down Jaguars and Daimlers in the mid-’70s and seems to link the car with its less noble companions in the British Leyland stable. All is forgiven once underway, though.
Even now, driving Fredrik Folkestad’s Double-Six, there is an eerie silence about it that could make the acceleration seem almost ordinary until you see how fast the needle rises and feel how hard you are being pushed into your seat squab. The adoption of the disciplined GM400 automatic transmission in place of the jerky Borg-Warner ’box appeared to complete the perfection at the time and only the lack of ultra- high gearing really blights it as you are wafted along by turbine force. The thin wheel connected to featherweight power-assisted steering tends to mask the Daimler’s supple agility as it flows easily from corner to corner, though it refuses to lurch or founder on its fat tyres.
Some air playing with the pillarless window seals reminds you how Jaguar struggled to get this right but, with the windows lowered and the weak, wintry sun glinting off the GKN Kent alloys, it is an undeniably pretty car and, allegedly, was Sir William Lyons’ favourite. I don’t think that I will ever really get on with the vinyl roof because it seems to undermine the seriousness of the Daimler/Jaguar as a high-speed express rather than a pub landlord’s barouche. And yet, when you see an XJ coupe with the vinyl top removed, it doesn’t look quite right either.
Image could be this car’s only problem. You just have to think of it in the right way. The Double-Six seemed, and still seems, more grounded in domestic reality and the grubby world of BL - until you remember that it was powered by the world’s only series-production V12 engine. With some yellow headlamps and a discreet Italian numberplate, it would suddenly be super-cool in the right environment.
TECHNICAL FACT FILE
Sold/number built 1975-1978/1873 (Jaguar XJ12C); 354 (Daimler Double-Six)
Construction steel monocoque
Engine alloy, sohc/bank 5343cc V12 EFI
Power 285bhp @ 5850rpm
Torque 304lb ft @ 3500rpm
Transmission three-speed automatic, RWD
Suspension: front double wishbones, coils, anti-roll bar rear lower wishbone/ upper driveshaft link, radius arms
As far as I’m concerned, the 3.0 CSi just looks right - from every' angle. BMW has never made a better-looking car than these E9 coupes of the 1968-’1975 generation and I include the 507 in that judgement. The CSL is the pin-up car of this distinguished line of two-doors but for me the CSi is the one to have, its muscular lines free from the boy-racer stripes and wheelarch extensions that always looked slightly daft. With manual gears and 200bhp from its injected, canted-over straight-six, it had the same mechanical specification as the lightweight plus, where the UK market was concerned, was hardly any heavier and thus equally as rapid as the CSL; 139mph from 3 litres was something quite special in die ’70s. These coupes were among the best sellers in their class, but the all-steel CSi is rare here because the importer dropped it in favour of the CSL for most of its production run.
BMW 3.0 CSi E9 road test. Fantastic all-round vision with slim pillars. Below, l-r: injection raised output of 3-litre M30 'six’ by 20bhp; 195/70s on factory 14in alloys; sculpted seats, but least roomy of four; trim is vinyl, but usually velour.
With its aggressive snout forming a leaded one-piece apron with the front wings, its tightly tucked-in stainless-steel bumpers and long, heavy doors (containing the world’s most glacial electric-window mechanisms), the E9 shell has a hand-finished feel. That aura continues inside with a dashboard formed by a sweep of Germanic wood, hefty front seats (unusually vinyl-trimmed here) and extensive use of chrome to make the coupe buyer think that the price premium over the 3.0 Si saloon was justified. It is a generous 2+2 rather than a four-seater, with a wonderful feeling of airy cheerfulness about the cabin.
In pure figures, the BMW should go almost as well as the Daimler, beat the Mercedes-Benz and easily outrun the Fiat, but you have to work it quite hard to extract the performance. With the sweet, throaty timbre of its engine and the need to shift gears through a pleasant though not quite flick-shift gearbox, the BMW is a more physical motor car than the others here and perhaps the most rewarding if you give it die attention that it requires. The engine will pull hard to 6000rpm - with wheelspin in third if you want it to as the tail squats - or just loiter around in the high gears; third takes the car from 10 to 100mph. The CSi feels compact and aggressive in a way that the others don’t and there seems to be an imperative to drive it hard and well wherever you can.
The power steering is not super-sharp, but it does have enough weight to give you confidence so that setting up the BMW for corners is instinctive and satisfying. It is at its best through long sweepers, slight understeer keeping it stable, body roll more evident to onlookers than occupants. The semi-trailing arm rear suspension and lusty torque give the CSi a hooligan element to its character if you go looking for it in tighter, slower bends. It feels more intimate, less remote than the other cars with a persona that is part brawny masculinity, part svelte femininity.
The Fiat’s appeal is more difficult to quantify. Current from 1971 to ’1977 - to the tune of fewer than 5000 examples - it has a rarity and, for me at least, sheer beauty on its side. Cool and chisel-edged, with a perfect ratio of glass to metal, it descends from a line of architecturally elegant Pininfarina designs that began in the mid-’50s with the Lancia Florida. It is a majestic thing in the way an ocean liner has presence and it’s still large enough to carry a certain authority when surrounded by hideously bloated modern cars. Interestingly, when out and about, it is the one that gets the most attention from the uninitiated. But their features register a mixture of disappointment and incredulity when you tell them this big, aristocratic-looking car is a mere Fiat.
Fiat 130 Coupe road test. Stunning Pininfarina lines, with neat Carello lamps. Below, l-r: free-revving V6 works hard in car as heavy as Merc; 205/70x14 tyres on Campagnolos; opulent cabin roomiest here, even steering column adjusts.
Further points in the favour of the 130 are a superbly crafted interior that completely upstages the other cars here. Rich, tasteful and truly spacious front and rear, it is almost regal in its air of luxury, shutting off its occupants from the outside world in a riot of velour and wood. It has features the others lack, too, such as vertical adjustment of its front seats, a steering column that moves up and down as well as in and out, plus town and country horns and rear sunblinds. It seems Fiat was determined to make the 130 the most thoroughly equipped and engineered car in its class. When you glance underneath, you will find properly sorted suspension with torsion bars at the front and semi-trailing arms at the back (with the struts separate from the coil springs), plus a ZF limited-slip differential.
The 130 Coupe feels substantial on the road and you begin to realise drat it is in effect a sort of Italian Rolls-Royce Corniche: elegant, inconspicuously brisk and easy to control. Its single-carburettor Aurelio Lampredi V6 - unique to die 130 - will rev freely but was really designed to give smooth, low-down torque, which, in combination with the automatic ’box and the low overall gearing, wafts it effortlessly off the mark with an imperious snarl from its dual tailpipes. It will cruise with the other cars at the ton happily enough, but there is only another 15mph in hand - an entirely academic point if the gearing in top were not so low to the detriment of fuel consumption and refinement.
The Borg-Warner transmission is not the Fiat’s best facet because it tends not to be that smooth under pressure, though its sensitive midrange kickdown succeeds in making the 130 feel surprisingly lively in most situations, if not exactly exciting in terms of outright speed.
But it was never about that. What impresses more is the graciousness of its overall manners, the weighty feel of the ZF power steering and the way this big car - substantially shod for its day on 205/70 tyres - swoops and flows through fast corners in such a stable and unflustered fashion.
TECHNICAL FACT FILE
Sold/number built 1971-1977/4491
Construction steel monocoque
Engine iron-block, alloy-heads/sump, sohc/ bank 3235cc V6, twin-choke Weber carb
Power 165bhp @ 5600rpm;
Torque 184lb ft @ 3400rpm
Transmission three-speed automatic, RWD
Suspension: front MacPherson struts, with torsion bars rear coils, semi-trailing arms, lateral links; a-r bar f/r
The SLC is as bullish and rugged as the Daimler is silky and fragile; as ubiquitous and as ordinary as the Fiat is rare and exotic; and as sensible and sober as the BMW is flamboyantly elegant.
The 450 is the most commonplace member of the family of coupes that began with the 350SLC in ’1972 and ran through to 1980, latterly with the new, all-alloy 5-litre engine. A stretched, fixed-roof, four-seater version of the R107 SL (and thus a departure for a Mercedes-Benz flagship coupe that had always taken its lead from the contemporary saloon), the 450SLC was hideously expensive. It cost £14,750 in ’1977, against £11k for the Daimler, but proved popular, with 31,739 sold; the Americans were particularly fond of them.
Mercedes-Benz 450SLC C107 road test. Buckley says big Merc is, deceptively good to drive. Below, l-r all-alloy V8 sits well back in bay; M-B alloys have same-sized tyres as - Fiat; light lenses designed to resist dirt; plush velour and decent space in cabin.
SLCs have always left me slightly unmoved, but I sense that the tide is turning for them. The styling-with that pillarless side view and slatted blinds - looks prettier than it did 10 years ago, and I can now see the appeal of its robustness and usability. I recall being nonplussed when I first drove one - it seemed like another big, fast, quiet Mercedes - but I see now that I lacked the maturity to exploit what is an extremely vigorous and capable car. There is plenty of urge, in a lazy, almost-transatlantic way, yet the 225bhp over-head-camshaft V8 is free-revving, smooth and well matched to a fantastically versatile three-speed auto that encourages you to flick it around its staggered gate like a clutchless manual.
The 450SLC C107 is not an unruly muscle car like a 450SEL 6.9 saloon W116, yet it gets close to the performance of the Daimler. It’s recirculating-ball steering is the best compromise here, but they can feel horrible when worn. Plus, its road-holding proves amusingly skittish in the wet-and always easy to hold in a slide for lurid entertainment value - but is never anything less than forgiving, progressive and totally safe in the dry.
If, in the end, a car is just a machine - a balance of well-judged compromises wrapped up in sheet steel, glass and chrome - then I suppose we can name the 450SLC as the best car here. It is not the prettiest of this group - or the fastest or even the most refined - but, as a way of covering the ground effortlessly and reliably in a piece of 1970s engineering it is the only choice if you are determined to wear your sensible hat. I think it is a great, rather underrated car in the world of classic Benzes. And yet, in this particular set, it is the one that I would, regretfully, send home first.
I say this after spending a blissful two days in its company, searching in vain for the chinks in its armoury of steely competence yet somehow always dreaming of being behind the wheel of the Double-Six, the 3.0CSi or, best of all, the 130 Coupe. But then I’m biased - I own one.
Thanks to Fredrik Folkestad; Owen Lloyd; Clive Winstone; The SL Shop: www.theslshop.com
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