Clarkson on: old saloons
Last year, I trawled through all the large executive cars on the market today and concluded that they're all rubbish. Oh, they have things that swivel, and buttons which summon air support, and the LS600h is glorious for cocking a snook at our whisky-sodden Mayor of London, as it glides immunely past the congestion-charge cameras while using a gallon of carbon-juicy fuel every three inches.
But all large cars are as cool as a crusty French loaf. And they're all grey. Turn up anywhere in any one of them, and you will immediately be marked down as a Rotarian. A businessman. A bore. Someone who thinks the 19th hole is on a golf course and the 20th is in his wife.
You ever wondered when you see a 5-Series cruise by, or an Audi, or a Jag or an E-Class or a Lexus, why there's only one person inside? It's because no one likes him very much.
And this is a problem for me because, truth be told, I've known for some time that I need a saloon car. The Lambo, the Merc and my wife's Aston are lovely, but whenever we want to go anywhere with the children, we have to use the school-run Volvo. Which is like clattering around in a diesel-powered wardrobe. Or the Land Rover which, because it's a Land Rover with a TVR engine, works only when there's a wolf in the month.
The solution, of course, is a Range Rover. I love them. Every time I drive one I get all sticky with affection. You know when you try on a jacket you can always tell straight away that it suits you. Well that's how I feel when I'm in a Range Rover. That I'm the teapot and it's the comfy woollen cosy.
The trouble is that we live in a country full of vegetablists, communists, hippies, social workers and various other lunatics who've got it into their thick heads that people in Range Rovers are somehow causing people to have soggy sofas in Tewkesbury. So they glower and leave rude messages under the windscreen wipers. This is very annoying. It makes me cold-prickly when what I want from a big comfy car is to feel warm-fuzzy. The upshot? Well, as a family, we tend to stay at home most of the time playing computer games because I don't like driving the Volvo, the Land Rover's throttle cable has broken and everything else in the yard only has two seats.
But then I had a brainwave. Car makers may not have the ability to make an interesting, cool, non-businessman saloon today. But that wasn't the case in the past. So I have bought a Mercedes 600 Grosser. This is the car used by Lewis Winthorpe in the film Trading Places. It was also used by Idi Amin, Mao Tse Tung, Leonid Brezhnev and Elvis Presley.
From 1963 to 1981, this was the most expensive, most advanced and most governmental car in the world. When I have fitted flags to the front wings - black eagles on a red background - I shall feel like Mussolini.
Mine is 38 years old, 38 feet long and, because it uses hydraulics rather than electric motors to move the seats, the bootlid, the doors and the windows, I shouldn't be surprised to find it weighs 38 tons. It is a piece of dark-green metallic magnificence.
Or it would be if it would move. Sometimes, the starter whirrs enthusiastically but having been unrewarded by either a spark or a supply of petrol, it loses interest and fades to an asthmatic wheeze.
"When I have fitted flags to the front wings - black eagles on a red background – I’ll feel like Mussolini"
Other times, it just clicks - signifying that, for some reason, the battery has forgotten what it is, and is hanging around in the engine bay imagining that it might be a hammer, or a fighter plane. I therefore called an expert on the 600 and asked him to check out the points. That made me sound like I knew what I was talking about. I also asked him to check the carburettors. That made me look like I didn't, because the 600 is fuel-injected. Anyway, since he didn't need to check the carbs, he had some spare time, so I asked him to give the car a once-over to make sure it's mechanically sound.
In my mind, I knew it would be. You can always tell, just from looking at an old car whether it's been cared for, or whether the undersides are being held together by friction and bits of dried-up fox that it's run over. Mine was kosher. I knew it.
And I was right. The expert has had a chance to plug it into various machines and agrees that while the bodywork is a bit pitted here and there, the mechanical components are in good order. Apart from one or two little issues, which he has detailed in a short, 800-page document.
Let's kick off with the brakes. They are good except the fluid condition is low, the offside front disc is marked and will judder, the nearside front disc is smeared with oil and may need a new caliper, which costs £3,000
The front pads are worn and will need replacing at around £500 a pop, both rear brake discs are rusty and marked, the offside rear anti-dive pivot is worn, the nearside pivots have slight play and the nearside rear anti-dive gaiter is perished and split. This means I won't be stopping in a hurry. But it doesn't matter because, chances are, I won't be going anywhere anyway.
The list of what's wrong under the bonnet is so long, it's easier to list what's good; the compression. Everything else is split, worn, broken, bent, leaking, flat, incorrectly fitted, backwards, upside down, rusty, empty or loose.
I called the man to talk through the issues and as I sat, for several days, listening to the tale of woe, I wished, for the first time in my life, I was James May. Someone who understands what's broken. Instead, I just made a selection of what I thought might be appropriate noises at various intervals.
Then we got to the V-belts. There are seven in a 600 and, combined, they take 50 of the engine's 300bhp. And guess what? They are not loose, leaking, broken or empty. But they are noisy. "Well," I said, "if they are being noisy and using all my power, let's just take them off."
This is not possible it seems, as without them the car will either not run, or will run briefly before exploding. I think the man on the other end of the phone thought I might be a lunatic.
Anyway, it seems that the propshaft coupling is good. The wiper arms may be bent, the rear bellows cracked and split, the front exhaust pipe bouncing on the road, the fuel tank dented and the fuel pump even noisier than the V-belts. But joy of joys. The propshaft coupling is good.
"Well, yes," said the man. "It's good. But the bolts holding it are incorrectly fitted". Of course they are. Wouldn't have expected anything less. And what makes this litany such a face-reddening, bowel-loosening experience is that this car comes from when Merc didn't make its cars out of diamonds, because they were too weak. The exhaust system, for instance, is welded together. With myrrh probably.
That makes a replacement not only expensive to buy but also eye-wateringly expensive to fit. Then you have the four electric window switches. Take a guess? Go mad. Let your mind run free.
Nope. You're wrong. They are £5,000. Not including labour. Or VAT.
The thing is though, even if I buy a whole trolley full of electric window switches, and several spare exhaust pipes, the Grosser will still have cost me less than Johnny Rotarian's 540i. And when it's working, gliding from place to place on its air suspension, I tell you this: it will be the coolest car on the roads today.