World’s sexiest roadsters. Riviera style meets race-car pace in ’50s glamour showdown. Ultimate ’50s showdown Can Jag’s XK150 hold its own against a Merc 300SL and a Maser 3500GT? Race-bred for the road. They might look more Dolce Vita than Daytona, says Malcolm Thorne, but these roadsters’ glamorous lines concealed serious pedigree. Photography Tony Baker.
EXQUISITE SOFT-TOPS DO BATTLE JAGUAR vs MERCEDES vs MASERATI
When it comes to motorsport, has there ever been a more magical era than the 1950s? What a woefully dangerous yet utterly spellbinding age, the absence of safety diametrically opposed to the fearsome pace of the quickest machinery. Plus, just as the circuits were unfettered and deadly, so the cars were unfeasibly beautiful – blessed with a grace born of slide-rule aerodynamics and intuition.
From a personal perspective, much of the appeal is that even the most celebrated of ’50s race-winners could actually take to the public highway – as indeed many did. There was nothing extraordinary about a long-distance shakedown en route from factory to paddock. Extrapolating from that, the idea of using such a bolide as everyday transport is certainly tantalising, though I suspect that you might soon tire of the impracticalities; such mundane characteristics as luggage space, silenced exhausts and proper opening doors exist for good reason…
Fortunately, for the wealthy enthusiasts who craved the ultimate road car, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and Maserati had the answer. Forget the tenuous links between today’s LMP prototypes and the models that you can actually buy: the XK150, 300SL and 3500GT were genuine blood brothers to the cars pounding the tarmac of Sebring, Le Mans, the Mille Miglia, the Nürburgring et al. Sharing key components with the racers, but with the sophistication and civility necessary to tease open the wallets of a newly emerging jetset, these drop-tops were fast without being fussy, ravishing without being raw.
They were the sexiest cars of their day. Ostensibly, all three made their debut in the late ’50s, but the elder statesman is the Jaguar. Although unveiled in 1957 (in fixed-head coupé and drophead form, with the roadster following in 1958), it represented the final incarnation of a series that had made its debut nine years earlier as the gorgeously curvaceous XK120, and which had later morphed into the more usable XK140 – as well as the all-conquering C- and D-type racers. The 150 retained the overall aesthetic of its forebears, but a broader grille, curved windscreen and less heavily sculpted flanks – not to mention wind-up windows – lent it a feel that was more in line with the mood of the day.
Beneath the skin, the lion’s share of this big cat was as before, which meant a 3442cc twin-cam ‘six’ mounted in a hefty steel chassis and feeding power to the rear wheels. Suspension was the classic torsion-bar front and semi-elliptic rear, while four-wheel Dunlop discs took care of braking, and rack-and-pinion steering kept it on the straight and narrow. It wasn’t groundbreaking, but the proud insignia that proclaims five Le Mans wins for Browns Lane from 1951-’1957 is no meaningless boast from the marketing men; the XK has pedigree aplenty, and for just over £2000 offered remarkable value for money. As such, it could perhaps be viewed as the benchmark by which others were judged.
At two and a half times the price of the Jaguar when new, Mercedes’ 300SL might not have been a direct competitor in British showrooms, but the two promised similar levels of performance and panache. Yet where the English car is traditional, the Benz is dramatically futuristic – its body interspersed with frills and flourishes that are every bit as eye-catching as they are functional. From those dramatic aerodynamic flashes that top the wheelarches to the strakes that run the length of the bonnet (one provides clearance for the engine, the other is for symmetry), this car is as bold as any Motorama show queen. That it was also a practical, reliable production model must have made it all the more bewildering at its debut.
Like the Jaguar, the Benz was launched in 1957, replacing the sensational W198 ‘Gullwing’ that had appeared three years earlier. Stuttgart’s flying saucer was to all intents and purposes a production version of the W194 that had gained a fearsome reputation on the track. Just like its progenitor, the open-top 300SL featured a tubular spaceframe – rather than the more traditional ladder chassis that was still the norm six decades ago – but reworked side members meant that the new car’s sills were low enough to facilitate the use of conventional doors in place of the coupé’s signature wings.
As with the fixed-head, power came from a dry-sump 2996cc straight-six (canted over at 45º to permit a windcheating frontal area) and, technology being the order of the day, it was fuelled via Bosch mechanical injection. Other than the reconfigured roof and doors, goldfishbowl headlamps distinguished the roadster from the Gullwing, while that car’s notorious swing-axle rear suspension was tamed by lowering the pivot point and adding a transverse compensating spring, making the roadster a far more progressive machine at the limit.
If the Jaguar and Mercedes are instantly identifiable, the third member of our triumvirate is the one most likely to pass unrecognised. That is not to say that the Maserati is any less eye-catching than its contemporaries; on the contrary, this Giovanni Michelotti-styled masterpiece is a stunner. But it is by far the rarest: hand-crafted by artisans rather than churned out by heavy industry. That said, the Tipo 101 was the Trident’s first attempt at offering a proper production model, yet these things are relative – far more 3500GTs were built than any previous Maserati, but in the case of the Spyder we are still talking hundreds rather than thousands.
Parked next to the 300SL and XK150, the Italian seems like a prelude to the 1960s rather than a celebration of the ’50s – and it was indeed the latecomer to our party: although the 3500GT fixed-head is of the same vintage as our British and German duo, the open version was first previewed two years later in 1959. Befitting what was still the work of a low-volume manufacturer, the Tipo 101/C differed rather more substantially from its tin-top stablemate than was the case with the Jaguar and Benz. Clothed in steel by Vignale instead of the aluminium of the Touring Superleggera coupé, the Spyder belonged to a new age of sharper, less bulbous styling. Other notable changes included a 4in shorter wheelbase, meaning that the rear ‘seats’ are merely for decoration, but mechanically the specification echoed the closed car – so it’s not quite as Italian as you might expect.
The shift towards an off-the-peg machine rather than a bespoke flight of fancy led to the 3500GT relying upon a surprising number of parts from other manufacturers: there was a ZF gearbox – at first with four speeds, later with five – while the front wishbones were courtesy of Jaguar, the brakes (four-wheel discs on late examples such as the featured car) were from Girling and the differential was a Salisbury unit.
But if the presence of hand-me-downs leaves you thinking that the Modenese car is a bitsa, take a look under the bonnet. Powered by a wet-sump version of the 350S racer’s 3½-litre twin-cam straight-six, this svelte drop-top is very much the thoroughbred where it matters. Some 3500GTs were fed via Weber carburettors but, like the Benz, this one scores bonus points in the sophistication stakes as a result of its Lucas mechanical fuel injection – plus a glittering iniezione insignia on the tail to advertise the fact – and Marelli twin-plug ignition. It’s a tantalisingly exotic piece of engineering that leaves you itching to put the Maserati through its paces.
Slide onto the beautifully trimmed leather armchairs and it is difficult not to be seduced by your surroundings. From the vast three-spoke steering wheel to the electric windows and English-made Jaeger instruments, there is a wonderfully romantic feel to the 3500’s cabin, a magical quality that can convert a cold winter morning into a balmy summer’s afternoon in California or the French Riviera – which is to say the car’s natural habitat. Then – as now – the Maserati was the priciest offering, and it shows.
The twin-cam ‘six’ fires easily before settling into a smooth and unflustered idle: for all those race-bred credentials, it gives no hint of being a cammy prima donna. Slot the dainty lever into first, ease out onto the road and the impression of usability continues – the Vignale Spyder rides well, pulls cleanly and is a very pleasant thing in which to potter around. To do so, however, would be a crime, as you discover once the fluids are up to temperature. Extend the revs a little further and the Maserati comes alive, bewitching you as it emits a strident howl almost akin to a supercharged WW2 fighter. Yes, there is a hint of scuttle shake and the gearbox requires a firm hand – particularly as you slot down through the ratios – but the engine is a jewel and the nicely weighted steering a delight.
The speedo is calibrated to a massively optimistic 300kph (186mph in old money) and, while there’s little chance of reaching such heady heights, there’s no doubt that this a very quick car. The four-wheel discs mean that it’s just as happy to slow down, too, but it’s not an out-and-out street rod – no 250F with comfy seating for two. It’s a convincing device, nonetheless. Climb over the broad sill into the more compact cockpit of the Mercedes and the ambience could not be more different. With the exception of the purposeful bucket seats (it is the only car here so equipped), the aesthetic is pure jukebox-era Detroit, with a multitude of stylised, chrome-plated fittings – not least the vertical readouts between the VDO speedometer and rev counter that indicate fuel level, oil pressure, plus water and oil temperature. The soft furnishings are wrapped in swathes of red leather, and you can’t help thinking that if you replaced the huge white wheel’s three-pointed star with a Cadillac crest, most people would fall for the subterfuge. That’s not to say that this car drives like a befinned 1950s Yank, however.
For starters, there’s no lazy pushrod V8 rumble – although nor do you get the shrill overtones of the Maserati. Instead, the straight-six sounds like a large and powerful boat engine, with a deep bellow that, although purposeful, is strangely at odds with the supercar styling. But while it lacks the aural high-points of the Maserati, the Benz pulls with equal verve.
As you would expect of a vehicle with such impressive lineage, the 300SL is a genuine driver’s car, but is less demanding than the 3500GT. There is a certain homogeneity to German machinery of this era, and if the controls of a ’50s Porsche feel like those of a hopped-up Volkswagen, so the Benz feels rather like a bigger, faster, more powerful version of the Porsche. There’s the same easy-going, longthrow gearchange, the same reassuring brakes (discs replaced drums in 1961), and the same supple ride – the best of our trio. That last trick is thanks to the swing-axle independent suspension, another typically Germanic characteristic of the day. Would it bite back if you hit the anchors mid-bend? Mindful that the Benz is insured for almost £1m, I have no intention of finding out, but the late John Surtees considered it a much safer drive than a Gullwing.
If the SL’s cockpit borders on the fussy, the Jaguar offers a sober traditionalism that is, of course, a corollary of its late-’40s origins. The huge four-spoke wheel is mounted close to your chest and leaves little space for your thighs, the organ pedals for clutch and brakes feel distinctly vintage, and you sit much higher on what is almost a bench seat bolted close to the floor. The large Smiths instruments, meanwhile, are grouped in the centre of the leather-trimmed fascia. The overall impression is of an earlier age, a taller, more physical machine; but that is not to dismiss the Jaguar – it is merely an indication of how much progress had been made since the XK120’s birth. But if the ambience is old-fashioned compared to the other two, the performance leaves nothing to be desired.
The long-stroke 3442cc powerplant pulls the car along on a wave of torque, accompanied by a smooth and deep-chested growl that could only be a big British straight-six. The tiny cranked lever of the four-speed Moss ’box won’t be rushed but, if you allow it to dictate the pace – you need to tease it gently from one ratio to the next if you are to avoid an embarrassing crunch of meshing teeth – it is pleasant enough to use.
Above all, with its firmer ride, heavier controls and more spartan cockpit, of the three it is the Jaguar that would have felt the most obviously sporting to a 1950s motorist. It’s reminiscent of an MGA on steroids – and that is no bad thing today. This is not a car to throw around on its doorhandles – none of these three are, in fact – but it effortlessly winds up to speed on fast, sweeping roads, and feels more solidly built than the Italian, more discreet than the Benz. It’s a very appealing package.
Today, as in period, these three convertibles offer a sublime blend of performance with glorious styling and a guaranteed feel-good factor yet, in spite of their similarities, each offers a distinct draw. As a result, to pick a favourite depends almost as much on your mood as the cars themselves. Objectively, the Jaguar has to win: it is by far the best value and, though dated in this company, gives its rivals a serious run for their money. But classic cars are nothing to do with objectivity, and as such, our victor is an entirely subjective choice. Were it a Gullwing, I suspect that the Mercedes would have trounced the opposition in the battle for my affections, yet removing the lid of this incredible machine somehow dilutes the experience, rubbing away some of the drama. It’s a close call, but the least successful racer is the greatest roadster. The SL might have been unbeatable on the track, and it was Jaguar that scored unparalleled victories at Le Mans, but thanks to the Maser’s magnificent engine the 3500GT is king of the road.
Thanks to JD Classics (www.jdclassics.com)