Not all big executive cars were German



For the last 30 years to be top of the tree in the executive car park meant to own a BMW, Mercedes or Audi. Preferably one of the bigger ones.

It wasn't always thus. There was a time before the big three German firms crowded out everyone else, when the company car park echoed to the sound of grown men, hairlines receding but egos blossoming, debating the relative merits of cars made by firms we might now either laugh about or have simply forgotten.

Like Saab, Rover, Peugeot, Citroen and even Ford. The high water mark for this executive express rivalry was the late 80s and early 90s. Back then volume makers like Vauxhall jostled shoulders with premium rivals like Jaguar. The market was wide open and the spoils went to the car firm offering the deepest leather seats, most complex array of switches and widest sweep of faux timber.

But then the Germans came along and changed all that. Suddenly luxuries were old hat and Britain's army of Burtons-clad middle managers wanted badges. Specifically The Right Badge. A German badge. By the late 90s it was game over for everyone else.

History is written by the victors. And so most of those non-German executive saloons are long forgotten. Except by us here at Classic Car Stuff.

1. Peugeot 604

It's quite hard to imagine now, so shoddy has Peugeot's product range been until so recently, but there was a time when Peugeot was a premium car maker. It built solid, dependable saloons that ran and ran and ran.

Top of the Peugeot saloon tree was the 604, a car seemingly not so much designed as assembled from a random pile of straight lines lying around the design studio. And this being a 1970s car company, there were quite a lot of straight lines knocking about. In its understated, conservative way, thought, it was actually beautiful: crisp, simple and efficient. There were no showy flame surfaces or 'signature' lines, because the 604 didn't need them. Inside the big saloon there were huge comfy seats and lots of space. An ideal environment for the dilettante executive to work on the move. Perhaps with his secretary luxuriating by his side. Because this was the 1970s after all.

Despite its sober styling, the Peugeot was a pretty left field choice for Britain's business elite. Driving one conveyed a certain 'Frenchness' that at the time translated into louche style and probably an unhealthy fondness for the ladies. Which few could carry off and even fewer were keen to foster with their wives.

2. Ford Granada

In the 1970s the Granada was firmly established as the wheels of choice for captains of industry. Like its Cortina sibling, there was a Granny for every executive, from the Production Manager to the Chief Executive. The Ford was safe, sober and big. All of which worked perfectly.

Ford pulled off the same trick with the Mk2, whose commitment to straight edge styling arguably resulted in one of the prettiest big saloon cars of the era.

Then in the mid 80s Ford decided to reinvent the wheel and the result was the new Granada. Although it looked quite a lot different and there was a hatchback version, the rest was familiar - lots of trim levels, huge specification and an engine to suit every eventuality, including a Cosworth-stoked V6.

The new Granny was very good, despite being based heavily on the dynamically-challenged Sierra. It was also built in Germany, which should have played well against the triple charge of BMW, Audi and Mercedes.

And there's the rub. Although it sold well, it was never a car any of these executives actually wanted. Once they'd seen what the 'real' Germans were offering, they wanted those instead. Even if it meant trading electrically adjustable rear seats for optional radios. The Granny's continuing success lay in the deals struck by fleet car managers, which dictated everyone drove Fords. Or Vauxhalls.

Ford gamely soldiered on with the Granada until the late 90s, by which time the car had received a new front and rear. This version, nicknamed the Wide Mouth Frog, suggested a certain level of 'WTF' had seeped into Ford's executive design department. The car's awful styling killed the model off for good in 1998.

3. Vauxhall Senator

Vauxhall has - many times over the last 40 years - seemed to be deliberately ploughing a trough marked 'mediocrity.' So many of its cars have been either not very good or just about good enough.

Not so the Senator. Or its smaller Carlton stablemate. The big Vauxhall, born chisel-jawed in the 70s and then softened in the 80s, was brilliant. Conservatively styled, very well built and equipped with lovely V6 motors, it really was a humble-badged executive car you'd be quite happy to own.

The police certainly thought so. Back in the 80s they couldn't get enough of Luton's big express, its combination of space, speed and comfort making it perfect for catching crim's without breaking a sweat.

Vauxhall replaced the German-built Senator with the Omega. Although well received - and still popular with the rozzers - it lacked the Senator's imperial presence. Just like the Granada, the Omega struggled once the 'proper' Germans arrived...

4. Rover 800

Before the Rover trident was nailed to rebadged Indian city cars, the firm was renowned for building big, solid cars for big, solid captains of industry.

Admittedly by the time the original Rover 800 hit showrooms in 1986, that reputation wasn't quite what it used to be. Thanks in no small part to the SD1, which was as stylish as it was badly built.

The 800 aimed to redress all of that. By buddying up with Honda, which still knew how to make cars well and reliably, the firm hoped to prove the naysayers wrong and stake its claim once more to the reserved section of the company car park.

And it was a good attempt. The original 800 - and the reskinned version shown here - were good cars built to much better standards than before. But Rover had lost the game: its association with the ailing vestiges of British Leyland gave the new car an air of failure that clouded any objective assessment of its merits.

The 800 was caught between a rock and a hard place. It was too premium to play the mass-market 'all the toys' approach of Ford and Vauxhall, and too tarnished to meet the German charge head on. Yet Rover gamely played on until the big Rover bowed out in 1999. A shame because the 800 was a decent car: big, comfy and pretty reliable.

5. Saab 9000

In the 1980s Saab's star was in the ascent. It made distinctive, fast executive cars that made pot bellied managers look cool.

Well, actually, it made one executive car. The 900. Then, in 1984, it launched the 9000. Bigger and more luxurious, the new car aimed to push Saab upmarket. It was made possible by a joint venture with Fiat, resulting in Lancia, Fiat, Alfa and Saab derivates of the same basic design. Except in Saab's case, Saab being Saab, the 9000 shared very little with its Italian cousins because the firm redesigned virtually everything in the pursuit of engineering excellence. So very Saab.

The 9000 had all the ingredients to succeed in the executive car park. It had a cool badge, it looked right and, in turbocharged form, it was very quick. Except Britain's managers never quite took it to heart. Because although it was a Saab, designed a bit by Saab, there was another executive Saab that was designed completely by Saab, without compromise. The 900.

So the aging 900 soldiered on alongside the 9000, which meant the newer car never quite made the mark it deserved to.

6. Renault 25

Ever since the 'Nicola! Papa!' Renault Clio advert of 1991, La Regie has been synonymous with small cars. But in the mid 80s almost the opposite was true. The firm had just launched the ground-breaking Espace and its 25 executive saloon was making waves across Europe. The 25 was very good. Big, comfy, stylish and practical it had just enough Gallic cool to succeed in Britain without attracting the unwanted associations of the 604. That it was quite well screwed together helped too.

Nobody knew it at the time but this was Renault's last real punt at the executive car market in Britain. The Safrane that replaced it seemed to pull off the same 'cool but conservative' trick but by then the times had changed. The Germans had arrived and suddenly a big Renault made no sense to anyone outside of France.

A shame because in the 80s and early 90s France arguably made the most comfortable executive saloon cars in the world. And if not for comfort, what is the point of a big car?

7. Citroen CX

I'll be honest: I've included the CX here for completeness. The 604, 25 and CX were the BMW, Audi and Mercedes of the 80s French executive car market.

In reality, however, no brogue-wearing British executive ever seriously considered buying a CX. It was, for conservative 80s Britain, the automotive equivalent of garlic bread: we knew it existed but for the life of us we couldn't work out why.

The CX was its own worst enemy, a car that was almost wilfully odd. Where Saabs were odd but there was a point to it, quite often there didn't seem to be much point at all to the big Citroen's weirdness. The liquid suspension we could sort of grasp, and the turbocharging we really quite liked, but the concave rear window, the strange steering wheel and the even odder dashboard? Well, these were things quite out of our comfort zone.

8. Jaguar XJ

Jaguar invented the modern idea of the executive car with the Mk2. In place of floaty gin palaces with asthmatic engines, the new car was essentially a four door E Type: quick and beautiful. It was also luxurious - many cows and trees gave up their lives to coat the new car's interior.

That was in 1959. Then in 1968 the firm moved the game on once again with the XJ6, a car so utterly right in every respect that Jaguar had to take out newspaper ads to apologise to customers for not making them fast enough.

Unfortunately, having created the perfect executive saloon, Jaguar seems to have looked around and decided 'job done.' For the next 30 years the firm brought out several new cars but they all looked exactly like that 1968 XJ and none of them moved the game on.

So the XJ40 of the 1980s felt like treading water: it was an all-new design but you'd never know. Where Jaguar's German rivals were pushing boundaries with new body styles and ever-widening choice of engines and specifications, Jaguar stuck to its tried and tested formula - one car, a couple of engine choices and not much else.

In failing to move forward Jaguar started to look very conservative. The XJ40 became an old man's car, for the Chairman of the Board, a parting gift before retirement. It also wasn't terribly reliable. All of which meant the door was left wide open for BMW, Mercedes and Audi to rush in, because they made cars that were reliable and weren't fuddy duddy.

Jaguar belatedly cottoned on, launching high performance versions of the XJ in the mid 90s that began to claw back some of the lost ground. But the genie was already out the bottle - the German triumvirate were the new show in the executive car park. ______________________________________ Graham Eason runs Great Driving Days, the classic car experience company.

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