Furry Dice – Starter Classics Part 2

GrahamHowardDSC03430 (Large)Welcome to this month’s column, which continues last month’s theme by looking at four more suggestions for starter classics. This month it’s a couple of modern classics; an executive range from Germany and a sleek coupé from France; along with a British grand tourer that is now better respected than when it was new and possibly the best known of small British sports cars.

Mercedes E Class (W124 range 1985 to 1997)

W124SaloonProfileReplacing the previous E Class W123 model was never going to be an easy job for Mercedes. In its 9 year lifespan, 2.7 million of these well-engineered, well-built and comfortable but perhaps rather staid models were sold

However, Bruno Sacco’s design managed it in fine style. A modern but neat and uncontroversial body style combined with Mercedes’ usual engineering advances and build quality was a recipe for a successful follow up to its predecessor. Indeed in the 1986 European Car of the Year contest, this Mercedes was voted into third place, behind the Ford Granada/Scorpio (the jury being rightly impressed at the standard fitment of ABS anti-lock brakes as standard on all models) in first place and the Lancia Y10. History would probably now consider the W124 to be a better car than the Granada – and the Y10 (an unusual small hatchback based on the Fiat Panda) never really caught on with the car-buying public outside Italy.

W124-Cabrio-FrontThe W124 may not have included ABS as standard across all models as the Granada did, but it offered levels of passive safety (the safety equipment designed to protect occupants in the case of a crash) much elevated above the norm. If you were going to have a serious crash in the late 1980s, a W124 would give you a better chance of survival than more or less any other car on the road.

At launch the range was referred to officially as the 200-300 range, known by most by the Mercedes code W124 and often referred to as the E Class (Executive). During its lifespan, Mercedes altered its model designation system and – following the dropping of E as a suffix to indicate a model with fuel injection (the carburettor having by now been consigned to the Mercedes history book) – it officially became the E Class. The E now appeared ahead of the number, which in itself refers to the engine size. So, an early model with a 200 badge on the back would be a 2.0 litre with carburettor; a 200E or later E200 would be a 2.0 litre with fuel injection; a 300E/E300 would be a 3.0 litre with fuel injection. This coincided with a mid-life facelift which brought fully colour-coded bumpers, a revised grille/bonnet treatment and clear light lenses front and rear.

SONY DSCAs with the W123, the W124 was offered as a four door saloon, a two door coupé (CE) and a five door estate (TE), with an option to be a seven seater by incorporating a rear-facing seat which would fold out of the floor of the luggage compartment – this was adequate for two children. As with the W123, the coupé version was “pillarless”; both the driver’s door window and the rear side windows were of a frameless design which meant with both windows one each side wound down, there was a single gap from the pillar at the windscreen to the pillar by the rear screen. This lent itself especially well to a new derivative: the cabriolet. The styling is uncomplicated and fairly square but somehow neatly elegant no matter which bodystyle; certain colours show it off decidedly better than others.

W124-Cabrio-RoofDownIn addition to the wide range of bodies available, there was a good choice of engines too – 4 cylinder petrol models were 2.0 litre (carburettor then injection) for the 200, 200E and E200 and 2.3 litre for the 230E (later 2.2 litre 16v for the E220); 6 cylinder options were 2.6 litre for the 260E (later 2.8 litre for the E280) and 3.0 litre 12 valve for the 300E and 3.0 litre 24 valve for the 300E 24v (both of which were later replaced by a 3.2 litre for the E320). Additionally there was a very limited run of V8 5.0 litre engined models which were tuned by Porsche for the 500E/E500 – a real wolf in sheep’s clothing: despite packing well over 300bhp the model looks almost standard bar the wider wheel arches to accommodate the tyres necessary to cope with the phenomenal performance.

Those preferring diesel power were offered the 4 cylinder 200, the 5 cylinder 250 with or without turbo and the 6 cylinder 300, again with or without turbo. The coupé and cabriolet were only available with petrol engines.

One further – and fairly rare – model that was offered, was the 300 4MATIC four wheel drive which was available in both saloon and estate.

All models offered a superb ride quality thanks to the multi-link rear suspension developed from the smaller 190 range together with capable and safe handling and roadholding – not sporty in the majority of models though.

W124WreckThe W124 – along with the 190 and the larger S Class of the same generation – is the last of the properly engineered Mercedes from a period when the budgets were dictated by the engineers rather than the accountants. This is not to say that the W124 is without issues, but these are often very model-specific and can sometimes by prevented with maintenance or easily sorted out by a Mercedes specialist. Wings are rather prone to rust, although perhaps no more so than any other marque, which can make an otherwise good example look a little down-at-heel. Other major problems include the potential for heat damage to the wiring loom on later 6 cylinder models, whereas earlier 6 cylinder models are prone to cracks developing on the cylinder head. If you’re looking at a W124, check a website such as Honest John, work out what issues could affect the model you’re looking at and check these out. Personal experience has shown this to be very worthwhile; a couple of years ago a friend and I went to look at an E220 Coupé and following research we found this example to be suffering from almost every possible problem. Three days later a cheaper but far better one came along which has provided sterling service ever since.

W124EstateSideAny of you who have been to, for example, Gran Canaria may well have spotted many W124s still in service as taxis (on my last visit there were even a couple of W123s to be seen). Now bear in mind the punishing life and high mileages to which any taxi is subject and the fact that the saloon was phased out 19 years ago and the estate a year later – this is testament to the engineering and build quality of the W124.

In summary, a stylish range of cars offering great quality and durability, a safe and comfortable drive and that three pointed star on the bonnet – and one that needn’t break the bank either to buy or to run. Mercedes dealers are often the cheapest source of spare parts for models of this age – with the added benefit of the parts being genuine Mercedes ones.

Pros: Wide range of body and engine options; good and surprisingly inexpensive parts supply; good availability; good club network; many independent Mercedes specialist garages around the country with great knowledge and much more pocket-friendly costs; still a comfortable and practical enough car to use daily or for long journeys; a safe and solid car (later models available with ABS and airbags)

Cons: Some would consider the styling rather austere; some models look sparse inside; many with interstellar mileage and not well looked after; wings especially prone to corrosion; various well-documented issues to be aware of when buying

Stats:

Production: 2.56 million

Current pricing: From about £500 for a tatty runaround but a good condition cabriolet will fetch well into 5 figures, as will the 500E/E500 model.

Peugeot 406 Coupé (1997 to 2003)

Peugeot406Coupe-Front It might seem odd to be including such a recent car in an article about classic cars. However, it’s fair to say that a combination of the aesthetics of this car and the fairly small production figure of just over 100,000 in six years have led to this car becoming an instant classic, even within its own lifetime.

While the saloon and estate version of the 406 which form the basis of the coupé were very capable and well-liked family cars, the styling had lost a lot of the crispness of the 405 it replaced. The 406 Coupé is something completely different and yet recognisable as a 406. Styled and indeed built by Pininfarina, an Italian design house with a long history of creating designs for Peugeot, the Coupé is simply beautiful. An added advantage is that it retains those good looks no matter what colour it is. Soon after launch, it won “The Most Beautiful Coupe of the World 1997”, “Car Design Award 1997” and “The Most Beautiful Car of the Year 1998”. The interior doesn’t really match up to the exterior; changes compared to a standard 406 are chrome instrument surrounds, sports seats and not a whole load else – but it’s still a pleasant place to be.

Ø( qNot only is it better looking than the saloon it’s based on, but it also drives rather better too. Despite the coupé body shape, it’s still a fairly practical 4 seater and offers a surprisingly capacious boot.

Originally available with 2.0 litre 4 cylinder and 3.0 V6 petrol engines, these were soon replaced with slightly more powerful versions of similar capacity. In 2001 the 2.0 litre was upgraded to a 2.2 litre giving an extra 20bhp and additionally a 2.2 litre HDi diesel version offering 136bhp was launched.

Peugeot406CoupeFront3Quarters (Custom)It’s probably fair to say that now could a good time to buy a 406 Coupé – they are at the age where their value has probably fallen to its nadir – a stage at which ones used as daily cars get scrapped when something goes wrong and before the general public would tend to consider it to have classic appeal – and it could be concluded that in the coming years values may increase, especially for models in the most sought-after colour and specification combinations. There are of course no guarantees on future values.

The 406 Coupé really is a stand-out car – even for its looks alone; a trick not repeated by the later replacement 407 where the saloon could well be considered rather more stylish than the coupé.

Peugeot406CoupeFront3Quarters-Red

Pros: Stunning styling; generally solid and reliable; usable as an everyday car; good accommodation; potential for values to appreciate

Cons: Perhaps rather modern for some purists

Stats:

Production: 107,600

Current pricing: From around £500 to £3,000. £1,500 is enough to get a tidy example

Triumph Stag (1970-1977)

TriumphStag-HardTopThe Stag was the fruit of one of many collaborations between the British manufacturer and Italian design house Michelotti; in fact the only Triumphs post-1960 that were not designed by Michelotti were the TR6 and TR7 – along with the Acclaim, which was little more than a badge-engineered Honda.

Michelotti took the 1963 Triumph 2000 saloon and created the four-seater open-top grand tourer concept that would become the Stag. So pleased with this design was Harry Webster, the Head of Engineering at Triumph, that not only did the Stag head into production but the 2000 and 2500 saloons were also facelifted to have the same front and rear as the Stag. The design of the Stag incorporated a T-Bar roof arrangement – it is quite usual for an open top car to have a solid roll bar from side to side just behind the doors, reaching to roof height, but to this the Stag added a central bar from the centre of the roll bar to the centre of the windscreen header rail, hence the T-bar name. This gave the Stag a considerable extra amount of rigidity which is often lacking in open top cars. A hardtop for winter use was also available.

StagSelectionAt launch the Stag drew praise not only for its quintessential British sports car styling but also for incorporating all-round independent suspension, servo-assistance for its disc/drum brakes, power assisted steering and electric windows. The comfortable ride, proficient handling and roadholding together with cruising abilities and ample performance were also lauded along with the sporty yet refined growl from its all-new V8 engine.

While the 2000 provided the basis of the Stag in terms of chassis, the engine was not carried over. The Stag was intended to be a competitor to, among others, the Mercedes SL – so a larger, more powerful engine was called for. Along with more cylinders for added prestige and refinement. This led to the development of the Stag’s 3.0 litre V8 engine, which produced 145bhp.

TriumphStag-SoftTopRaisedWhile there’s no doubting the Stag’s mildly aggressive styling and driving abilities, it was the engine that really let it down. Although it was compact and powerful, it incorporated some unusual design features and was intended to be the first of a modular family of engines that could be produced in sizes from 1.5 litre to 4.0 litre. Being modular, the company could benefit from economies of scale by using the same parts across a wider range of engines – and this would also mean mechanics at dealers would need less training. Indeed the Dolomite and TR7 were powered by engines in the same family as the Stag.

However some of these unusual design features were not especially well thought out and – combined with sub-standard manufacturing processes using poor quality materials in a plant that was prone to poor industrial relations – led to production models suffering poor engine reliability. These issues had not affected pre-production models whose engine production had been outsourced to a different foundry.

The biggest problem – one for which the Stag has a perhaps unfair reputation – is overheating. The high positioning of the water pump can result in the pump being starved of circulating water when the engine gets hot, resulting in not only premature failure of the pump itself but also a lack of coolant passing through the engine. The pump was also prone to failure from inadequately hardened drive gears.

Other problems revolve around the combination of metals used in the production. While the block was made from iron, the head was made from alloy. This combination is now known to require the use of corrosion-inhibiting anti-freeze at all times. However at the time this was not widely appreciated either by Triumph dealers or Stag owners. The result was that the engines suffered electrolytic corrosion and corroded alloy debris could become loose and be distributed internally around the engine leading to damage. The alloy head was also prone to premature gasket failure as the combination of vertical and angled bolts led to uneven heat dissipation which would warp the head.

The other well-documented issue with the Stag’s engine is the use of a simplex (single) cam chain which really wasn’t strong enough, leading to it either breaking altogether or becoming loose and skipping links meaning the valves would operate at the wrong moment in the combustion cycle – leading to expensive damage.

Beyond the engine, the other major issue was the 4 speed manual gearbox which featured an overdrive. Developed from the Herald’s gearbox, it wasn’t strong enough to handle the Stag’s additional power. The 3 speed automatic gearbox didn’t suffer such problems and was the more reliable option.

With all these issues, the Stag rapidly gained a reputation for unreliability which inevitably had a detrimental impact on sales. This – and the effects of the global oil crisis – led to production ceasing in 1977.

However, all is not doom and gloom. Those Stags still on the road that have retained the original V8 (rather than having it replaced with a Rover 3.5 litre V8, Ford 2.8 or 3.0 litre V6 or indeed Triumph’s own 2.5 6 cylinder) will by now have been upgraded to feature improved water pumps, better coolant circulation and stronger cam chains. With these improvements made, and the constant use of anti-freeze, the Stag owner should be able to enjoy relatively trouble-free motoring.

It’s worth noting that the Stag has one of the largest owners clubs in the country behind it – and is also one of the UK’s most popular classic cars.

StagsWinterSunshine

Pros: Well styled and comfortable long distance cruiser; four-seater with reasonable boot space; gorgeous V8 sound; great club network; availability; hard top or soft top; powerful enough to be usable on today’s roads

Cons: V8 engine has a reputation for overheating and subsequent cylinder head issues – however a well-maintained and updated example shouldn’t give any cause concern.

Stats:

Production: 26,000

Remaining: Around 6,700

Current pricing: From around £1,000 for a project requiring extensive work to £20,000 for a top-notch example. Expect to have to part with upwards of £5,000 for a reasonable, usable example. Models with non-standard replacement engines worth around 25% less.

MG B Roadster (1962-1980) and MG BGT (1965-1980)

BearsLoveAnMGBRoadsterLooking back at the history of MG in the 80s, 90s and into the new millennium with MG Rover and the Phoenix 4, it’s easy to forget how successful the Abingdon company was in the post-war period.

The MG A had been a huge success and was the most popular imported car in the USA – thanks to many a US serviceman falling in love with them while posted to the UK. By the late 1950s though most competitors were offering equivalent performance and handling with a far superior level of comfort.

The big shoes of the MG A were however amply filled in 1962 with the launch of the MG B Roadster. It featured styling and engineering that were both bang up-to-the-minute. Thanks to an increase in engine size from 1622cc to 1798cc it had performance deserving of the MG badge.

The chassis boasted independent front suspension, rack and pinion steering, front disc brakes and a 4 speed gearbox with optional overdrive. It was also one of the first cars to have been designed with crumple zones to absorb the energy of a front-end or rear-end crash.

The combination of power, styling, handling and wind-in-the-hair motoring for two won it instant and almost universal praise.

MGBRoadster-RoofDown-SideIn 1965 the B Roadster was joined by the BGT which used essentially the same chassis and engine giving similar performance and handling but offered a more practical three door fastback, hardtop body – a sports hatchback if you like. It also came with a rear seat but it wasn’t really a suitable place for children, let alone adults. However, with an taller windscreen and a raised roofline, it certainly offered a lot more space than the Roadster. The chassis alterations that were ushered in with the BGT – a front anti-roll bar and a revised rear axle – found their way into the Roadster too within the following couple of years.

The additional weight of the GT body blunted acceleration slightly but the improved aerodynamics of the fastback design added 5mph to the Roadster’s already impressive top speed of 100mph.

MGBRoadsterLE&MGBGTV8From 1967 an automatic gearbox became available as an option but it was in 1974 that the most controversial update of the B’s life occurred. In order to comply with new safety and emissions regulations in the USA, the B’s best export market, the chrome bumpers front and rear were replaced with black moulded energy-absorbing polyurethane rubber ones. At the same time the ride height was increased so that the new federal regulations were met. Sadly for MG enthusiaste, these changes were implemented universally and not just on cars exported to America. At least the detuning of the engine to meet emissions regulations were only made to US-bound models as these rendered the poor sporty MG B one of the slowest new cars available in the USA.

SONY DSCIn recent years in Europe there has been a small cottage industry reverting post-74 models to the chrome bumpers and lower ride height of earlier models. However in comparison to many other cars such as the Fiat X1/9, the adaptation of the MG B to Federal bumpers was a successful and relatively elegant one. The additional ride height did, however, have a detrimental effect on the B’s sweet handling characteristics – and this was not rectified until 1977 with the fitment of a rear anti-roll bar.

In an act so typical of the troubled British Leyland in the 1970s, the very day after a weekend of celebrations to mark 50 years of the MG brand, plans were announced to close MG and that was the end of MG – and the end of the B. The final 1,000 models were a limited run of LE models, available in bronze for the Roadster and pewter for the GT, with 421 & 579 produced respectively.

The popularity of the B makes it a good classic. It’s basically a solid and reliable car – unlike many of its BL contemporaries – but as with any car it is prone to rust. Particular weakspots are the sills, wheelarches, battery tray, floorpans, the bottoms of the doors, the tailgate on the GT and most critically the scuttle – this latter issue will prove a much more expensive repair than the others.

It’s probably also worth mentioning a couple of derivatives of the MG B…

MG decided it needed a more powerful derivative and this came in 1966 with the launch of the MG C – similarly in Roadster and GT styles. The C can be recognised from the bonnet bulge to accommodate the repositioned radiator and the teardrop above the carburettor. The C featured Austin’s straight 6 cylinder, 3.0 litre engine seen in the Austin 3 Litre. This engine might have been great for an executive saloon but being lazy and unwilling to rev it was about as unsuitable an engine for a sports car as could be imagined. It was also a heavy unit which ruined the weight distribution. Despite larger wheels and tyres, altered steering and some suspension changes, the B’s sweet and sporty handling deteriorated into a nose-heavy, understeering C. The C barely lasted two years and only 9,000 were produced. However, history has been kind the C – the handling issues have largely been overcome with modern tyres and revised suspension settings while the performance of the engine can be boosted with fairly simple modifications to the head, cam and exhaust system – giving up to 30% more power.

1973 saw the introduction of what, perhaps, the MG C should have been from the outset: the MG BGT V8. Only available in the GT body, the V8 used Rover’s (ex-Buick) 3.5 litre V8 engine. Being an unusually compact and light engine (lighter not only than the C’s 3.0 litre but also the standard B’s 1.8 four cylinder unit), it slotted into the fastback body with minimal alterations and critically didn’t impair the B’s handling. Producing 137bhp – a useful hike on the 1.8’s 95bhp – the V8 offered true sports car performance, dispatching the 0-60mph dash in around 8 seconds and going on to top 125mph. For reasons that seem unfathomable today, the V8 was never sold in its best export market of America. Sadly though the 1973/74 oil crisis sounded the death knell of the BGT V8, along with the lack of supplies of the engine itself, production of which was mostly destined to the Rover P6 and its forthcoming replacement, the SD1. Production of the V8 ceased in 1976 after a run of less than 2,600 – making a genuine, original V8 the holy grail of MG B ownership.

MGBGT-SideSeeing the impact on the market the Mazda MX-5 was having, Rover Group decided to resurrect the B for a limited run of 2,000 Roadsters between 1993 and 1995. However, a lot more engineering went into creating this MG RV8 model. Again it used the Rover V8, this time enlarged to 3.9 litres and producing over 185bhp. It also featured a 5 speed gearbox from the Rover 3500, a limited slip differential and upgraded steering and brakes. A rather old-fashioned rear axle set-up was retained albeit somewhat modernised; this meant that the RV8 could be quite a handful if pushed towards its limits; it was much happier being driven a little more gently but could still be fun to drive. It featured a traditionally-British interior with plenty of leather and walnut – items which never graced the interior of the traditional B. As such the RV8 was considered a premium product and was sold at a commensurate price. This might be why only 311 found buyers in the UK. Production totalled a mere 2,000, over 75% of which went to Japan. A number of these have since found their way back to the UK due to the stringent roadworthiness tests in Japan which lead to many cars being taken off the road with faults that wouldn’t cause an MoT fail here in the UK.

MGBGT&Roadster

Pros: Ubiquitous British sports car heritage; open top motoring for 2 or practical 3 door grand tourer at reasonable cost; punchy 1.8 twin carb engine; powerful enough to be usable on today’s roads

Cons: Possibly too archetypal; can’t run on unleaded without major engine work or the use of fuel additive.

Stats:

Production:

Roadster: 399,000

GT: 125,000

Remaining: 32,000

Current pricing: £3,000 will find you an example in need of a bit of TLC; expect to pay over £20,000 for a concourse example. A good, genuine MG C will set you back up to £40,000; B V8 between £12,000 and £25,000 and an RV8 £13,000 to £20,000

 

 

As with any pre-owned car, make sure you research your chosen model and if you’re not mechanically proficient, enlist the services of a knowledgeable friend or pay for a vehicle inspection through, for example, the AA or RAC.

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