Anyone who is into old cars must also have at least a passing interest in new ones as well. But Andrew Everett wants to know what…
Let’s go back 40 years to 1978. Your working man was content with a Cortina Mk4, a Cavalier or maybe a Princess. Most streets were populated by the likes of Fords, Vauxhalls,the Leyland brands, Fiats, Datsuns and Volkswagens.
But BMW or Mercedes? Not a chance, or very rarely at least and the ones you did see were pretty old. Mercedes has always had a clear edge over BMW in the prestige stakes – the news on ITN would have shown dictators in W116 S-Classes and you’d see W123 saloons in various Middle East locations.
The real difference in prestige between a 450SEL 6.9 and a Silver Shadow was not as great as you’d think. They were known for being impeccably finished, strong as a horse, very respectable and very expensive. The model range spanned a medium saloon, a big saloon, a longer big saloon, a medium coupe, a two-seater convertible and a fixed-roof version of that. Oh, and some vans, trucks, lorries and the Unimog.
BMW was still a relative newcomer, having been reborn in 1962 after a series of expensive flops but was snapping at the heels of Daimler-Benz, or so it liked to think. It was somewhere between Mercedes and Opel, making a simple range of cars that were very well finished if not as robust as the Stuttgart products, but chasing a different market. “Like a Merc, but feel it’s something your Dad would buy? Step this way, Sir…”
Starting with the 3-Series, you went through the 316 and 320 Surrey housewife specials to the He-Man 323i; twin exhausts, twin black tyre marks and lots of oversteer. The first-generation 5-Series was a neat mid-range saloon topped by the tyre-smoking 528i and the 7-Series – newly launched – fitted neatly somewhere between the Mercedes W123 and W116 and the Opel Senator. Neat, unobtrusive, not especially pretty, but lots of money. The 635CSi had just been launched, all 218bhp and £13,000 of it. At the same price as a 308 Ferrari… think about that for a moment. BMW was shooting for the stars with that one. And, in 1978, £13,000 was the average house price in the UK. A 450SLC Mercedes was even more.
But they were prestige cars, you see. They had a style and rarity that was actually helped by the seemingly daft prices. Walking into a showroom in jeans would raise eyebrows and asking for a discount would probably see security being called. A red 635CSi with the rubber boot spoiler, plastic chin spoiler and BBS cross-spoke alloy wheels would draw breath as it growled by and draw a crowd when parked.
A more prosaic 320 or 525 in a nice metallic red would draw appreciative looks from your Dad, not that you saw many when BMW was selling 10,000 cars a year in the UK. And were you lucky enough to ever see an M1 in the flesh? Well, that was in 911 Turbo or Ferrari territory and you never saw those either apart from that time you went to central London.
Now in 2018, a BMW is a mass-production car. On the average half-hour motorway trip you will probably count 30 of them as I did recently. Mercedes makes even more cars including five-door hatchbacks that don’t look very different from an Astra. BMW makes a Zafira-style people carrier and both marques are touting their wares on TV. Mercedes does however knock out the odd nutcase such as the SLR just to show us that Stuttgart still has a pulse. Profits are up, sales are unstoppable; M5s drive by and people don’t care anymore. It’s all down to cost per month and whether it dovetails neatly into your life.
So what is a prestige car in 2018? It’s nothing you’d think of. A lot of us, myself included, wouldn’t be seen dead in a Rolls, Bentley, or a noisy, rasping Ferrari. Big Mercs don’t have the impact they used to and a 7-Series? Not really. Porsches are just everywhere now but my prediction for the next marque to be seen in? I reckon it could just be Alfa Romeo, you know. The Giulia is a great-looking thing and, unlike a 3-Series or C-Class, I actually acknowledge one on the road.
Not only is it a bit left field, it’s also a very, very good car and it’s desirable in a way mid-range German cars just aren’t anymore. Ten years from now, Alfa could be in the position BMW was in once; fairly expensive and desirable cars that are the informed choice and not a company car choice. Please don’t cock it up Alfa.
It’s sad really. Earlier this year BMW revealed its new 8-Series concept car and what a stunning looking thing it was. At last! A BMW you’d ache to own, mega expensive Aston Martin class, a hundred grand, long waiting lists and the valet parking guys tripping over themselves in Casino Square.
But then the actual production version appeared and of course, they’ve ruined it. Clumsy door handles that look like they’re from a 2003 E-Class, a rear bumper that may as well have been designed by Honda and proportions that don’t quite work. And yes, you can get one with a diesel engine! Cue initial interest followed by massive depreciation and £24,995 five-year old ones just like the 6-Series it replaces and the 8-Series before that. I can’t help but think they’ve missed the bullseye. What a shame.