The Big Test - 1989 Mercedes-Benz 300SL R107, 1992 Jaguar XJS 4.0 Convertible, 1991 Saab 900 Turbo 16S Convertible, 1973 Peugeot 504 2.0 Convertible and 1974 Triumph Stag
‘Convertibles have undeniable appeal, from their feeling of freedom to the way they exaggerate the sense of speed’ Grand Designs (L-R): Mercedes-Benz 300 SL R107, Jaguar XJS 4.0, Saab 900 Turbo 16S, Peugeot 504, Triumph Stag. Can you still get timeless style on the road for £15k or less? We take a memorable night drive in five of Europe’s finest-designed convertibles to find out if their beauty is more than skin-deep Words Sam Dawson. Photography Tim Andrew.
Written by Sam Dawson Thursday, 17 August 2017 12:43
1989 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL R107, 1992 Jaguar XJS 4.0 Convertible, 1991 Saab 900 Turbo 16S Convertible, 1973 Peugeot 504 2.0 Convertible and 1974 Triumph Stag - comparison road test2017 Drive-My and Tim Andrew
GRAND DESIGNSthe best £15k convertibles to buy now. COVER The Big Test Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, Jaguar XJS 4.0, Saab 900 Turbo 16S, Peugeot 504 and Triumph Stag go head-to-head to see which £15k convertible best marries design.
Design connoisseurship and convertibles are two concepts that rarely sit well together. Many famous drop-tops – including three of the cars gathered here – were originally penned as coupés, a design that allows stylists to artfully blend roof with rear deck. Interrupting this harmony with an angle-grinder and a canvas tent seems like butchery.
And yet a well-executed convertible has undeniable style and appeal, from its sense of freedom to the way it exaggerates the speed and allows occupants to bask in the open air.
Welcome, then, to an evaluation of the toughest design brief the car world has to offer – luxury convertibles that offer comfort, style and driving appeal. Each of our chosen five has its stylistic origins in the late Sixties and early Seventies and while the Triumph Stag may have bowed out after just six years, the R107 Mercedes-Benz SL, Jaguar XJS, Peugeot 504 and Saab 900 all soldiered on well into the Eighties, even if the Swede and the Brit only joined the drop-top ranks later in life. It’s a diverse bunch, juxtaposing carburettors and fuel-injection, front- and rear-wheel drive, automatic transmission and manual stick-shifts. But which offers the most compelling and complete design package for just £15k?
1989 MERCEDES-BENZ 300SL R107
Mercedes defined the European luxury convertible as a breed apart from wallowing American land-yachts years ahead of any of its rivals simply by abandoning any pretence of sportlich und leicht with the Pagoda SL W113. The model that replaced it – Bruno Sacco’s R107 SL – looks simple to the point of dullness at first glance, but a subtle masterpiece emerges the longer you stare at it. The ribbing on the lower quarters of the bodywork creates gradiated, pencilled shadows, using ambient light to create the illusion of organic barrelsidedness, a theme that also lends body and substance to otherwise-plain tail-light clusters.
Careful use of chrome on the bonnet and nose achieves the same effect and draws light to the huge and imposing corporate grille. However, Sacco stopped short of plastering it on in the manner of Cadillac, thereby emphasising the gentle curve of the bonnet’s frontal edge and causing the central oversize three-pointed star to simultaneously reference SLs of the past and resemble the air-intake of some futuristic jet-car. I’ll be very disappointed if this thing rumbles and grunts when I start it.
The SL’s cabin feels very welcoming when you slide inside – all dark wood, plush carpet and firm leather – and everything feels taut, from the initial ride quality to the movement of the chunky switchgear. The engine thrums crisply into life; its feeling of careful metering and control indicative more of precision than charisma, but it suits the car perfectly.
And yet my overwhelming initial impression of the Mercedes is that it’s not actually all that comfortable. There’s an odd lump in the footwell in front of the brake pedal that grinds away at my left heel and – together with the enormous unadjustable steering wheel – restricts the amount of legroom.
These 1985-1989 SLs have stiffer springs and lower-profile tyres – 205/65 R15s – than previously, which improves composure, albeit at the expense of the expected wafting sensation. The rear tyres slap hard into road imperfections and the fronts patter rather than glide over seemingly smooth tarmac. It resists roll impressively even in tight corners, a sign of the changing expectations of Eighties luxury car buyers, but there’s not much feedback through the squashy and coarsely grained vinyl-bound steering wheel.
The 3.0-litre straight-six exhibits a curious mixture of power and refinement. It delivers a surge of silken torque throughout its 2500- 5000rpm midrange, but there’s a noticeable thump from the drivetrain on kickdown and a hesitancy followed by an unseemly lurch from standstill even under progressive half-throttle. It’s something that a long-term owner would learn to work around but the SL’s jerkiness is not helped by brakes that are powerful but offer very little feedback, making them hard to apply progressively.
However, the SL is still a special thing to travel in despite underdelivering on its promise of ultimate refinement. It may thump, drum and lurch but its ambience remains extremely high quality. It’s clearly built to last but avoids the kind of depressing, impactresistant vinyl austerity you’d find in an Eighties Volvo. Oddly, the SL’s driving experience reminds me of the Aston Martin V8 Volante, albeit with the thickly veneered machinepolished sheen of mass-production. Like the Aston, you might envy the Mercedes’ driver’s seat from afar, but feel distinctly underwhelmed by it once you’re ensconced in there.
‘Bruno Sacco’s R107 looks simple at first glance, but a subtle masterpiece emerges the longer you stare at it’
OWNING A MERCEDES-BENZ 300 SL R107
‘I bought it nine months ago when I finally got fed up with my SLK,’ says Bill Williams. ‘I wanted to go back into Mercedes’ back-catalogue and get something genuinely stylish and mechanically bulletproof. ‘I use it all year round – hardtop on in winter, soft-top down in summer. It’s affordable to run and not heavy on fuel.
‘Nothing has gone wrong with it so far. The original valve guides had to be replaced at 60,000 miles but R107s are usually fine as long as they’re serviced regularly. Mine always starts first time, doesn’t overheat and is incredibly comfortable, especially when compared to my Jaguar E-type.’
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1989 MERCEDES-BENZ 300 SL R107
View an XJS from a slightly elevated position head-on and you can quash any notion that it doesn’t look like a proper Jaguar. It may have been historically dismissed as an ugly, slabby mess of overly sharp angles, but go back to that elevated front view, look at a point about two feet in front of the windscreen and the ghost of an E-type flickers across the curves of the bonnet.
Keep that E-type in mind as you allow your gaze to fall on to the front end, and you realise that far from being some ill-advised cleansheet exercise, Malcolm Sayer’s XJ-S design was a laudable attempt at dragging Jaguar away from the fading glories of the Fifties and into the Concorde era of high-speed, high-tech luxury travel. Sayer flattened the E-type’s round lamps and pouting mouth into low, squinting ovals and trapezoids, evolving but maintaining the Jaguar face in an era when all its rivals were flat-nosed wedges.
The XJS Convertible loses the coupé’s controversial rear buttresses and helps to accentuate its cigar-shaped profile. However, unlike so many convertibles created by slicing the roof off a coupé, the XJS avoids the optical illusion of excessive tail-heaviness – there being nothing to break up the long line from A-pillars to tail lights – by the sheer length of its bonnet. This serves to set the windscreen close to the car’s central point in profile and lends it another classical Jaguar attribute – perfectly balanced proportions.
Descend into the driver’s seat and the first thing you notice is the excellent driving position – low, with arms and legs straight out towards the wheel and pedals in the manner of an MGB. But this is no sports car – it’s a GT with an automatic gearbox and an interior swathed in soft, hand-stitched leather.
The engine breathes torque right from the start, with a quiet and smooth yet noticeably deep bass note at idle. Click the spindly T-handled shifter into Drive and it pulls away instantly with a low growl. There’s no Mercedes-style hesitation and you find yourself restraining the torque surge in traffic with the brake rather than spurring it along bit-by-bit with the accelerator. Perhaps it was inevitable with another litre’s displacement under the bonnet, but the Jaguar packs its peak torque – nearly 100lb ft more than the Mercedes – almost 1000rpm earlier.
The steering is a bit odd, though. Jaguar dialled more feel into the facelifted XJS, perhaps conscious of the fact that the earlier XJ-S delivered zero feedback through its pencil-thin plastic wheelrim. The tangible extra weight is welcome but manifests itself in an overly eager self-centring action rather than communicating eddies in the road surface. I end up fighting the car as it incessantly tries to tug itself away from each corner’s apex, but at least I’m interacting with it, unlike I ever have with its rather louche predecessor.
That said, handling is impressively neutral. Tip it into a corner – even a right-angled bend – and it uses its low centre of gravity, wide tyres and famously refined suspension to corner in a manner that convincingly combines sports car poise with limousine ride quality rather than rolling in the manner I had braced myself for. It’s possible to beat the steering’s artificial weighting too – attacking a complex of bends overwhelms the damping effect of the steering’s hydraulics, so it stops fighting for a moment and lets you revel in the precise and sharp rack-and-pinion set-up.
However, the XJS convertible falls down slightly on the very quality that put it in this test in the first place – its folding roof. Scuttle-shake occasionally makes itself known beyond 40mph and it’s draughtier than the Mercedes at high speeds thanks to its lower windscreen.
The XJS 4.0 is much closer to a sports car than you would ever give it credit for and it’s genuinely entertaining on an A-road. But there’s simply no getting around the fact that it’s even better – close to perfection, in fact – as a coupé.
‘The XJS is closer to a sports car than you would ever give it credit for and it’s genuinely entertaining on an A-road’
OWNING A JAGUAR XJS 4.0 CONVERTIBLE
‘I’m a lifelong Jaguar fan and have liked the XJ-S ever since I saw one as a teenager in 1977,’ says Cliff Kirby. ‘I promised myself one there and then and bought this one on the spur of the moment four years ago.
‘It’s superb to drive – it just glides along. Nothing’s really gone wrong other than the heater. It’s a known issue with the XJS, blowing cold in winter and hot in summer. But other than that, running this post-Ford-takeover model has just been a case of replacing worn-out bits as and when needed.’
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1992 JAGUAR XJS 4.0 CONVERTIBLE
Engine 3980cc in-line six-cylinder, dohc, Lucas 15CU electronic fuel injection
Power and torque 223bhp @ 4750rpm; 278lb ft @ 3650rpm (DIN)
The Saab 900 Convertible’s shape may have its origins in Sixten Sason’s 1968 Saab 99 but it identifies more strongly as a product of the Eighties than the similarly aged Mercedes or Jaguar. Car styles from the Seventies and Eighties are often confused because so many iconic cars of the era were colour-coded, bespoilered and bodykitted into the later decade by cash-strapped manufacturers recovering from recession.
However, true Eighties car design took its cue from contemporary home interior themes. Matt-black lower body cladding aped black ash furniture; bold, primary-coloured, cubist lines echoed the blocky postmodern De Stijl revival found in squared-off sofas; and smoked rear light lenses and black dashboards festooned with colourful fibre-optic backlighting evoked Japanese hi-fi systems and BASIC-programmed computer screens. As I fire the Saab up I half-expect to hear the voice of a NASA launch controller crackling through the radio speakers making reference to ‘the spaceplane’.
View it in profile, though, and it’s clear where the sticking plasters went. The two-door saloon’s rising bootlid is capped at the rear by matt-black plastic and the peaked lines at the back of the passenger compartment may help to visually shorten the car but don’t flow harmoniously, especially given how upright the windscreen is.
The driving position is Fangio-like, with both arms and legs straight out, and the gearlever is a stretch away too, with an odd shift action that suggests second gear is below and to the left of first. However, it begs to be flung around like a hot hatch with its combination of exhaust note snorts, then hisses with turbocharged induction past 3000rpm as the torque pours in. It remains impressively flat under turn-in and composed on exit, although its 205/50 R16 front tyres scrabble a little away from the line. Scuttleshake is more an occasional judder than a regular irritant.
I’m reconsidering the Saab’s purpose now – this is luxury, but in a specifically Scandinavian idiom. It’s special, not in terms of obviously squashy deep-pile comfort and overt showiness, but in its solidity and quality. With its four substantial seats and a big boot it feels built to last for ever in the manner of a Welsh dresser in a gentleman farmer’s house. These are old-money values in a new-money suit. A Mercedes owner might think it’s a bit rough around the edges but the Saab feels like it will last even longer than the SL, and it’s more fun to drive. Provided you like hot hatches.
‘It begs to be flung around like a hot hatch. Its exhaust note snorts and hisses with turbocharged induction as the torque pours in’
OWNING A SAAB
‘I always had BMWs and Porsches when I was younger and thought Saabs were a bit gawky and weird,’ says Ross Cunliffe. ‘But now that I’ve retired I’ve found something increasingly appealing about them.
‘I’ve been looking for one on and off for about five years and bought this one nine days ago. I like the fact that it’s an idiosyncratic, nonmainstream car, and a convertible but not a sports car. It’s still quick enough to be exciting, though. I drive it with the roof down all the time – the heater’s great!’
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1991 SAAB 900 TURBO 16S CONVERTIBLE
The Peugeot 504 convertible is the most elegant of our assembled drop-tops from a front three-quarter perspective, with its unadorned, simple lines from the very start of 504 production, no body cladding or plastic bumpers, four simple square headlights, a subdued bronze Peugeot lion on the grille and a subtle nod to the Ford Mustang in the three-part tail lights.
However, move to the side view and it’s not so harmonious – it’s a classic example of a beheaded coupé. The hardtop’s proportions are excellent because the bonnet and boot balance each other out, but with the roof removed the nose looks too stubby, the tail too long and the windscreen too far forward to break up the featureless expanse of metal. However, there’s still elegance here in its chrome detailing and door handles.
I turn the ignition key and am welcomed by a sporty snarl from the exhaust. The driving position initially feels perfect with ample legroom, a supportive and comfortable seat with plenty of adjustability and lots of manoeuvring room around the attractive, if unassisted steering wheel.
I soon learn to be smooth with the clutch and give it plenty of revs when moving away. Unfortunately, what at first seems to be an even better sports-tourer than the Saab is quickly undone by a gearlever and pedals that are as obstinate and as difficult to work with as Alfred Hitchcock.
The baulky, obstructive gearshift is a world away from that of the slick 205 GTi – the pedals are set very low and descend to the floor in such tight arcs that they force my ankles into painful angles whenever I press them.
This is a shame because the Peugeot’s ride is every bit as longsprung and smoothly damped as you’d expect it to be. The MacPherson strut suspension is supple and tactile and hints at the GTi era to come. It feeds back through the most communicative steering wheel here, albeit with a degree of slop and play in the dead-ahead position that robs the driver of minor adjustments. I discover that I have to commit to corners rather than just pitching it in on the understanding that I can adjust it mid-bend, but it clings on faithfully through its 195/70 R14 tyres, ready to flow neatly into the next undulation. In fact, it’s the closest thing to a sports car here – almost a French Fiat 124 Spider.
And it’s this sense of nearly-but-not-quite that makes the Peugeot such a frustrating car. There are so many aspects of it that are close to perfection – the driving position (pedals aside), the elegance, the neat handling – but all the while it’s undermined by maddening minor details that pull it up just short of genuine greatness.
‘It clings on faithfully through corners. In fact, it’s the closest thing to a sports car here – almost a French Fiat 124 Spider’
OWNING A PEUGEOT 504
‘A friend of the family came to visit us in this very car,’ says Tim Barnes. ‘This was around 1974, so it was just a few years old at the time and I thought it was the most gorgeous thing I’d ever seen. I swore I’d have one of my own one day. Sure enough, it failed its MoT test on structural rust and I bought it as a restoration project. It’s now 43 years old and one of just seven left on UK roads.
‘Mechanically it’s very strong but the quality of the Italian body panels is poor. I had to fit a straight-through exhaust too – the original was designed for the carburettor version of the engine (mine has injection) and suffers from pressure build-up and backfires.’
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1973 PEUGEOT 504 CONVERTIBLE
The fact that the Triumph Stag has a chunky roll-bar and saloonstyle window frames should count against it in a comparison test populated by pillarless cars – but doesn’t. Those stainless-steel posts may not have been part of Giovanni Michelotti’s original vision for the Stag but they lend it a touch of Porsche 911 Targa-style cool. More Seventies period detail than stylistic masterstroke, they’re nevertheless well integrated into a design that flows brilliantly in terms of overall shape – and this from a manufacturing conglomerate not known for its subtlety.
It’s the Coke-bottle curve, and the way its ascent coincides exactly with the base of the roll bar. It’s the way the chrome-edged front and rear indentations mirror each other, their pointed corners linked with a swage line, and the way the curved corners of the bodywork run neatly away from the indicator-light clusters like gently lapping waves at low tide.
Once aboard, I’m slightly disappointed by the high, perched saloon-style driving position and the steering column’s steep angle – it’s not very GT. But then I realise how comfortable it is – far more so than the Mercedes, funnily enough – and how much twirling room there is around the wheel. The long-legged do have to drive with their knees splayed, however.
The 3.0-litre Triumph V8 is the best-sounding unit here – it’s genuinely exotic when it’s on song. The cylinder layout lends it a charismatically louche off-beat but its relatively compact capacity means the exhaust delivers rather higher octaves than some off-the-shelf American small-block. Throw in a pair of Zenith-Stromberg carburettors rather than a chuntering, gobbling transatlantic fourbarrel, and you’re left with an engine whose character is more Ghibli or DBS than Corvette or Charger.
The exotic illusion remains at B-road speeds. The Stag feels lazily torquey at low speeds and although this doesn’t really climax with super-GT power delivery at the top of the rev range, you can fool yourself into thinking it might when gunning it out of bends. It’s a compliant handler too – its slight roll on turn-in feels dated compared to the Saab, Jaguar and Mercedes, but there’s a noticeable sense of balance to the drivetrain under mid-corner throttle and no scuttle-shake thanks to its T-bar roof construction. The four-speed overdrive gearbox has long travel but feels slick and positive – in fact, judged in terms of sheer driver satisfaction rather than performance statistics, it’s well into Saab territory.
Sadly, the Stag is let down badly by the same thing that dogged it when it was new – build quality. It aspires to Jaguar and Mercedes levels of luxury with its wood-and-leather aesthetics, but it’s really vinyl, veneer and the same cheap rattling plastics found in an Austin Allegro. Perhaps Triumph should have tried to work out what made Peugeots and Saabs so solid instead of charming aspirational buyers. As if to underline the point, our example’s indicator stalk bent under pressure at one point and fell into my lap.
None of this detracts from Michelotti’s style, of course – but design is about more than just a sketch on a piece of graph paper. It needs to have integrity and purpose and, to this end, the damped click of an indicator stalk and the reassuringly supple and comfortable squab of material beneath the thighs are as important as the balance of the body’s proportions and the note from the exhaust.
The Stag is a great styling exercise and its drivetrain provides a dollop of exoticism in a dull world, but compared to the Mercedes SL in particular, its lack of ambience counts decisively against it.
‘The 3.0-litre V8 is the best-sounding engine here. It’s genuinely exotic when it’s on-song, but more Ghibli than Corvette’
OWNING A TRIUMPH STAG
‘I liked my old Spitfire but long journeys to Le Mans and so on led me to the Stag,’ says Daniel James. ‘I had a different one originally, but it was never quite right. I sold it, but missed it so much that I bought this one.
‘It’s had quite a few electrical problems and the clutch release bearing was damaged too. The cylinder head gasket blew after three years and it failed its MoT on rust, so AD Autos rebuilt it over nine months. It’s had new inner and outer wings, boot floor, valance, doors and driver’s floor, full respray and thorough underseal.
‘Despite what enthusiasts say, they do still have problems – don’t assume every Stag’s been sorted!’
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1974 TRIUMPH STAG
Engine 2997cc V8, sohc per bank, two Zenith-Stromberg 175CD carburettors
Power and torque 146bhp @ 5700rpm; 167lb ft @ 3500rpm (DIN)
Transmission Four-speed manual with overdrive, rear-wheel drive
Steering Power-assisted rack and pinion
Suspension Front: independent, MacPherson struts, transverse links, radius arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: independent, semi-trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers
Each of these cars carries its period detailing well and is admired for its aesthetics, but they couldn’t be more different from the driver’s seat. The Peugeot is the sportiest, but let down by ergonomics that undermine its long-distance cruiser credentials. The Stag’s driving style is perfectly judged, but so poorly executed as to ruin all the engineers’ hard work. The Mercedes SL’s execution is faultless but refinement seems to have been overlooked in favour of build quality. The Saab is neither the best-looking nor the most cosseting car here but it punches far above its weight, despite costing a third of an SL. You can forgive it a great deal for what it offers.
However, there’s no need to forgive the XJS anything. This last-of- the-line model combines the best ride and handling with an involving, fun driving style. After 40 years of hearsay, it’s time to admit that Malcolm Sayer delivered a masterpiece after all.
Thanks to: Bill Williams, Cliff Kirby, Ross Cunliffe, Tim Barnes, Daniel James, Mercedes-Benz World (mercedes-benz.co.uk)
‘The SL’s 3.0-litre straight-six exhibits a curious mixture of power and refinement and delivers a surge of torque throughout its 2500rpm-3000rpm midrange’
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Owning a 504 coupe 1973 since 1983, (and a 504 cab -77) I find it strange that the gearshift is found to be obstructive and baulky if in good shape it really should be quite good and far from baulky! Maybe somethings wrong with the linkage or gearbox on this particular car.
Re the exhaust system, I believe the carburetor and the injected version uses the same 3 box system, at least that's what I have been using on my car. Owning a left hand drive car I do not find the peadal setup to cause any problems, maybe these are particular to rhd conversion?
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