Theme: Compromise – One Car

Once in a lifetime…


The number of independent car manufacturers in the U.K in 1922: 183. Germany’s complement around the same time: 86. The number of cars produced in France in 1929 (then by far Europe’s largest producer) by a truly wide and varied number of companies: 253 000. This figure would remain a record till well after 1945. If you had a few bob between the wars and motoring was your fancy the choice available to you was truly vast. Mind you researching the purchase must have been a little more difficult than today. Nowadays we are told how much choice we have but anyone reading this site knows just how much crap that is.

Wing vents S124
Can’t really explain it but I like how they look.

It seems to me that before long it will be illegal to buy a car if it isn’t burdened with VW’s dreary 1.6 TDi or even worse Renault/Nissan’s life sapping 1.5 DCi. It might not be obvious from my gritty prose but I am prone to an occasional daydream. On these instances when my mind wanders I often think what if there was no choice? Or to be more accurate, what if you only got to choose once? What if you could choose any car for your 17th birthday but that was it. It was to be your only car till death do you part. Learning to drive and passing the driving test, impressing girls (or boys), raising kids (if they were part of the plan), transporting all those fridges and large screen TVs, ease of access and egress as your back gets stiff with old age and perhaps most important something that will please both your eye and driving senses for potentially 65 years. This is surely the ultimate compromise. Does such a car exist?

There is no budget and any production car ever manufactured is eligible for consideration. The (arbitrary) restrictions I placed on myself were that it couldn’t be in any way adapted or modified once it left the factory and roofboxes (racks etc) or towbars were unallowed cheats.

I quickly discounted all the fancy stuff. At the age of 17, although I was an extremely enthusiastic driver, I was not really possessed of the skills to match all this verve. A Porsche 959 (the car I drooled over for the second half of the 80’s) would surely have meant I never saw my 18th birthday.

Silver Porsche 959
How long would you give me? Source

At first glance an SUV might seem to be a runner. Then of course I realised that I would have to drive/look at an SUV for 60 years. Next please.

What I needed was something that would age well and look out of place in as few places as possible. A 5 door hot hatch perhaps? Then again clambering out of a bright blue OPC Opel at 70 was never in the program. What I really wanted to pick was a Q car, a debadged Phaeton W-12 sprang to mind. However when it came to the crunch I just felt that never being able to push the rear seat backs forwards coupled with only 4 seats was a compromise too far.

Tourmaline green S124 Mercedes
Late model S124 in Tourmaline Green. Surely it’s best colour. Champagne leather interior please. Source.

I finally settled on a car that despite its flaws ticks many of the boxes that would need to be ticked to pleasantly spend a lifetime on the road. A Mercedes E320 S124. A straight six is a good start – if I’m only getting one engine it had better be a good one. 220hp (give or take) is enough to enjoy a squirt in the fast lane yet still make it possible to make it to my twenties. After less dithering than I would have thought I settled on an automatic. The styling maybe be understated but it has class and will age better than almost anything else out there. Apart from perhaps the local disco is there anywhere this car would not feel at home? From the auction hall right up to a fancy hotel nobody would be surprised to see this slice of elegant motoring. 7 seats, massive boot and properly put together. I’m going to slightly bend my own rules and have it with the little vents in the front wing that help the turbodiesel versions breathe more easily. Not quite sure why but I’ve always liked how they look. The only flaw I can think of is where do I put my Panama hat when I attain old duffer status?

Is there a better car for this impossible role? I don’t think so….

42 thoughts on “Theme: Compromise – One Car”

  1. A very plausible candidate for this task, I agree. There aren’t many others that come close in terms of performance, practicality and quality. Maybe some Volvos play in a similar field. There might also be some Japanese estates of the nineties that could fulfill a similar role, however without the prestige.

    For me, a lifetime car could be a Citroën CX estate. A bit like the Mercedes, it would feel right in a lot of places (or rather, it looks a slight bit out of place at all occasions, which I like). I could see myself in that car at 18 (17 is out of question for driving here) as well as at 70 – but then I probably wasn’t the average teenager. Given good rust protection (or is that already an unallowed tweak?), it can go on forever and is easier to repair than modern rolling computers, despite its reputation.

    1. I think a meticulous maintenance regime including rust protection would be obligatory if the car was to last.

  2. Interesting question, Mick. “There is no budget” makes the answer pure fantasy.

    In my life budget has always mattered. Take budget considerations away and owning a car becomes superfluous. Taxis and hire cars for getting around locally, air taxis and first class commercial for long distance travel.

    When I was much younger I fantasized about having various expensive exotics and using them to go places. And then I realized that if I had the funds to buy one and keep it alive I could afford to fly, and in comfort. If you have enough money that it doesn’t limit what you can do, time becomes limiting. Spending money to save time then becomes a very good idea. Hence my now flying cross country instead of driving cross country as I used to do.

    1. Yes budget has always mattered to me also Fred. I think though no matter how wealthy I was I would always run my own car, even if it was sparingly used. I think I’d feel naked if I didn’t have a car in the driveway.

  3. Make sure you get a pre 1992 one, since the twin cam conversion had the biodegradable engine wiring looms. Mercedes were in a tizzy in the early ’90s after that MIT book came out in 1990 showing that Mercedes was squarely at the bottom of the productivity stakes. They had vast rework areas at the end of the assembly line with white lab-coated technicians rebuilding the (obvious) errors and hadn’t worked out that assembling them correctly the first time around was the inexpensive way to go. You know, like Honda and Toyota managed. – no panel adjustments, precision fit and slap ’em together like a Mickey D corporate burger ‘n bun.

    Having said that, my very best lifetime friend bought a 1988 300E SOHC 6 177 bhp, and I spent many thousands of miles being chauffered in it, some behind the wheel on long trips to the US and Upper Canada chasing 1/8 scale R/C car racing championships. The entire HVAC system self-destructed and was replaced under warranty, while the front passenger door trim was also wobbly and needed replacement.

    The car was an auto, so started in 2nd with a slight drivetrain wobble and zero spriteliness, unless you floored it when it decided to resurrect first gear. The steering was syrupy smooth and lifeless. The ride was superb in every respect and if life was one long series of highway trips, sure I’d place this beast near the top. Solid. But stodgy and not much fun around town. Ethereal maybe.

    The real problem is, we’ve had three decade of body design for better crashworthiness since the 300E came out, including better airbags and particularly better side intrusion protection. Plus much spritelier performance all around. I’ve toyed with this exact idea of picking one car for a lifetime as a mental exercise before, yet come to no conclusion. Having owned only eleven cars since 1967, I change rarely – three were used vehicles and four lasted only 10 months to two years as my patience ran out – one VW Jetta/Bora ugh, an Audi 200 turbo, blech, a 1994 90 quattro, nightmare, and a 1988 Subaru Loyale turbo which disintegrated with rust but bought when it was already 8 years old, so quelle surprise. The nicest one is the current one, a 2008 Legacy turbo, and test drives of newer cars have failed to persuade me to change.

    But to pick one car for 60 years of service? No, I just can’t do it. I mean would my 1960 Volvo 544 seem like a reasonable car today? I drove a restored one in 1985 or so and was startled how bad it was. Standards change and we move on. I think this means I wouldn’t make a good member of the Hillman Minx club with plastered-on rictus grin with a toolbox and jerry cans in the boot, denying reality.

    1. I agree that I definitely don’t want to be “pretending” to enjoy driving my car. I think that there would be no real pain though with the 124 no matter how old it got (providing it was well maintained). Newer cars would of course be safer, quicker and maybe more reliable but I suppose that was the whole point of the compromise theme-where do you draw the line?

  4. “It seems to me that before long it will be illegal to buy a car if it isn’t burdened with VW’s dreary 1.6 TDi or even worse Renault/Nissan’s life sapping 1.5 DCi.”

    Highly unlikely. Was this piece written 7 years ago?

    1. I see your point Laurent. I was writing this with an Irish perspective. The plethora of small charged petrol engines still aren’t making much headway here and although diesel sales are falling, they are falling very slowly due to our ridiculous car tax regime. That Renault/ Nissan engine is still being sold in lots of cars at an alarming rate.

    2. I hadn’t realised you were in Ireland. Having spent 3 years of my life there I know the local market is rather idiosyncratic. What sort of tax advantage are we talking about on diesel and is there any sign of it disappearing in the (very) near future?

    3. Laurent, the road tax (and VRT purchase tax which makes Irish cars the second most expensive in the EU after Denmark) is totally based on the co2 emissions. No other criteria counts. This dates from 2008 when the Green party got it hands on the levers of power. The cost/size of car, Nox emissions, fuel consumption etc have no bearing on the tax. A 520d can be taxed for €190 whereas a 1.6 petrol Golf would be €590. A large petrol engine costs almost €2,500 annually to tax! Now the newer charged petrol engines (e.g. Ford’s 1.0 ecoboost) can be as low as 190 per annum but the car buying public here seem to have been conditioned to think diesel is the only way to go. Pretty much all the big selling cars here are mostly diesels e.g. Hyundai Tuscon, Nissan Qashqui and the Golf to mention 3.

    1. A chap who used to rent the office upstairs had a 3-litre diesel E39 estate, dark blue with a sand interior. He may have bought it new but by the time I knew him, the car was over ten years old and well used as transport for family and dogs, plus cross continental journeys for business. I once asked the chap if he had ever looked at swapping it, but he claimed he could never find anything as comfortable, good to drive and so utilitarian. I admired that car.

    2. I owned an E39 530i once. Great car, although the electrics become extremely problematic after 10 years. So you’d have to factor that in.

      The petrol straight six is delightful, and surely the better choice than the diesel. The bad news was that I struggled to get miles per gallon above the early 20s, no matter how carefully I drove it.

      On the plus side, it was seemingly unable to do less than 20 mpg, even if caned.

      Consistent, if nothing else.

  5. a Volvo 740 turbo wagon would be great to have for a lifetime. or a 6-cylinder Subaru Outback from the 1998-2003.

    amazingly, all my lifetime car options (including the great S124 nomination you came with, Mick) are wagons, except for a 300CE (C124).

    1. I love the C124 Eduardo but I felt it was a compromise too far. Only 4 seats, smaller boot ruled it out for me.

    2. you have a point, Mick. in this case, what about a coupe W111? space, pace, grace. and, to be honest, I wouldn’t even care about safety questions if I were driving such a car for the rest of my life.

    3. Perhaps even more tempting than the C124 Eduardo but I still think the practicality of the estate still wins out if it’s going to be my only car. Now if I could have something for the weekend….

  6. I concur with Mick’s comments about the Renault/Nissan diesel. Every time I drive our work Kangoo I feel suitably dispirited.

    I also find it hard to disagree with his choice of the S124. Bill makes a very valid point about today’s cars being safer, and it’s something I think of sometimes regarding my SM. But all things are relative. No car is really safe. The SM is a lot stronger than the Dyane I drove tens of thousands of miles around in in my youth. A 124 Merc would have felt super safe 20 years ago. Of today’s cars some are significantly safer than others, so which do you choose. And since tomorrow’s cars will be so much safer, should one maybe give up driving until they come along. Massively flawed though my points might be, that’s how I justify it.

    Whatever I chose would also have to be a load lugger. I once thought a suitably tweaked Espace might be the perfect compromise. I think I have done with quattto Audis. There’s always one of the 124’s successors in 4matic AMG form. But then I ask myself, if I gave my Mum a lift in one of those, would she find it comfy?

    Certainly a Legacy makes a lot of sense, though my obsession to bolster the income of fossil fuel providers means I’d want a Flat 6. Otherwise, on another occasion I was asked this question, I came up with a Bentley Turbo R Estate. I’d use the fact that several of these seem to have been built for the Sultan of Brunei to claim this was a genuine production vehicle.

    1. I wasn’t even aware of the Bentley Turbo R Estate. It sure is big. Maybe it’s bending the rules slightly but I suppose if it’s good enough for the Sultan of Brunei…..

  7. Legacy 3.0 H6 Spec B Sports Tourer, BL series, in Regal Blue Pearl … all you would ever need or want if you could convert yourself to monogamy.

    1. S.V., I’m pretty lucky at home in that my partner is a pretty “sporty” driver and likes to have a nice car. Now her idea of nice and mine don’t often coincide but at least she’s happy to have something a little out of the ordinary in the driveway. Still can’t persuade her to the benefits of a w126 though.

  8. My bid is a Bristol 411. They are built to last forever and the compromise lies in the fact I’d have to rent a van or saloon occasionally. Otherwise, this car is the perfect blend of capability and durability. Unlike the Benz it’s a delight to drive (so they say).

    1. The only 2 door mentioned so far Richard. I’m guessing it’s a hell of a lot better to drive than the Benz.

    1. I am deliberately soiling the waters, but not without some justification. Isn’t an SUV all the car anyone could ever need?

    2. I absolutely agree. It’s not just all the car everyone needs, it’s even more than that. More height (without any benefit of it inside the car), more drag, more consumption…
      Otherwise, a good SUV can do anything the mentioned estates can do. I just wouldn’t want to be seen in any of those, but sure this doesn’t apply to everyone.

    3. Chris, thanks for stirring the waters! For me the only benefit of the SUV would be the off road/4wd capability. Luckily I live in a temperate climate and in 41 years have never felt the need to drive on mud or grass. I think the unused extra capability does not stack up against the poorer handling/looks/fuel consumption/massive tyre costs/difficulty parking etc.

  9. I admit to having a fleeting thought for a SQ5 … there, that’s offended at least 3/4 of the readers of this blessed site 😊.

  10. Simon: alas, the readers have been caught up in the latest trends.
    There was a C6 parked in Aarhus’ cathedral square the other night. Now the dust has settled it’s looking better.

    1. I have to say I also still like it, and even the odd spots grow on me. I think its scarcity helps – you don’t get tired of it quickly and seeing one is always a cheerful surprise.

  11. I would probably pick one of the american seven seaters. E.g. Ford Windstar or Chevrolet Trans Sport. Comfortable and spacious enough to load whatever you throw at them, just remove the sofas and armchairs in the back.

    Would a teen look cool in it? No of course not, but your friends would love to go for road trips in it.

    Growing old you would appreciate stepping comfortably into the the car, instead of down into.

    Add to this an American v6 and an inefficient automatic gearbox for a smooth ride and you have yourself a winner!

  12. Tough choice. Either a cockroach like a Volvo or Mercedes or Land Rover. Or a peoples car like the VW Beetle.

    I think I had to choose between a Citroen 2CV and a W123 Mercedes 300TD with the turbo and automatic.

  13. A Ds23 EFi Pallas in black with green tinted windows and leather trim. Can’t go anywhere too fast now with the police’s single-focus attention to anyone that dare exceed the posted limit, so may as well go in supreme comfort.

    May as well fit a tow bar, just in case more load space is needed.

    1. It’s not even that small. But very unpractical. It’s a deep hole in the middle and has raised floor sections at the sides. I think its successor was hardly an improvement on that, in sheer volume at least.
      My choice would be a lighter colour (it’s better for the temperature inside, and nicer to look at for my eyes) and nice cloth upholstery, e.g. in red or bright blue.

    2. If the boot is too small, and you don’t want to tow a trailer, then a Safari will do. Not sure if they ever came in Pallas trim though.

    3. Safari Pallas was out of the question. But with all the ‘pallasized’ DSs And IDs you can find in the ads, I’m sure you can find someone who does this to a Safari, too.

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