Driving a 1984 Opel Senator.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on DTW on 14 February 2015.
Every time one has a reason to discuss the large cars from the ’70s and ’80s, the large cars that aren’t BMW, Mercedes or Audi, one seems obliged to talk about the status and success of these products in comparative terms. It seems incorrect to speak of the Granada, 604 or Senator without mentioning how they fared relative to the BMW 5 et al. I’ll avoid re-treading all that ground again.
By now even I admit that you would need to be very determinedly prejudiced to deny that the W123 Mercedes Benz is the clear winner of that long-term battle. The W123 is the definition of a high quality passenger saloon, the saloon car to end all saloon cars. I’ve seen these machines up close – we all have – and every visible element is made of some class of entropy resistant material, from the dwarf star chrome on to the NASA-class door seals and then to the cloth with an infinite Martindale value. That’s why they are still on the road and that’s why they are still worth money.
So, yes, noted. The W123 is great and that’s that. Is there any reason to look beyond Stuttgart?
Maybe you don’t want to drive the same classic car as everyone else. And what if you are prepared to trade Mercedes’ bullet-proof/bank-vault/billet-solid [delete cliché after your preference] quality for some other less material benefit? The Mercedes was well built but it was also not so very nice to drive. So what are the alternatives?
If you really must have some other medium-large car, the field is broad. For decades this was a very healthy market with lots of entrants. In fact the early 1970s was a boom period as various makers went chasing the executive customer. Ford used to shift millions of Granadas. Opel sold 1.4 million Rekord Es. Even Renault sold 700,000 of their 20 and 30 series cars.
I say the field is broad, but in theory more than reality. The numbers of the also-rans that remain on the road are unimpressive, especially here in Denmark. Of all those cars made, the vast majority are gone. It has taken months of looking to find a worthwhile vehicle to test.
Opel’s entrant in this sector was the Senator, today’s test car. The Ruesselsheim firm offered two series of the Senator, one from 1978 to 1986, and another from 1986 to 1993. The first series took the Rekord E, equivalent to a low-series Granada, as its start point. To make the Rekord into Senator it was made longer (mostly at either end) and had different interior trim and unique front and rear exterior styling.
The glasshouse featured extensive brightwork and a reworked side glass and C-pillar treatment. These modifications were intended to produce a luxurious but good value car that would compete with the top-end Granada, Rover SD1, Peugeot 604, BMW 5-series and the W123. Conceivably, even some Jaguar customers might have been tempted.
Engineering: The Senator’s layout was once the industry norm. It was a three-box saloon with rear-wheel-drive, a three-speed automatic transmission and a straight-six cylinder engine with Bosch electronic injection (introduced in 1983). Initially, Senators were sold only with six-cylinder engines but, towards the last half of the car’s career, the smaller engines from the Rekord E were also made available (a move Peugeot could have considered for the 604 but didn’t).
The version I tested was a 2.5E with the camshaft-in-head engine. The suspension uses McPherson struts up front and at the rear are trailing links, a system also used on the Mercedes W118, Austin 3-litre and Peugeot 504 and the Ford Granada. For the series 2 facelift , the Senator A2 had lost its frontal chrome trim and was smoothed off with new bumpers: this also reduced its Cd to 0.39. It’s still not an aerodynamic car, though: Citroen’s 1974 CX had a Cd of 0.34 by comparison.
On a more subjective basis, looking at the car in question, I saw a mildy worn but dirt-free example in pale greeny gold. The car was imported from Germany at the end of the 90s and one owner looked after it for most of the time. They could not stop superficial rust nibbling here and there, mostly around the flanges on the bodywork edges. This is the sort of thing the legendary W123 resists.
The Senator’s hood is a fabulously heavy sheet of steel with no struts to support it. You lift the many kilos up all by yourself and hope no stray fingers are around. The engine bay is superbly free of clutter. There sits in the bay a huge metal loaf dead centre, aligned longitudinally in front of you. That’s the straight-six of 2.5 litre capacity. For anyone who has only seen modern engine bays, this looks either refreshingly straightforward or worryingly agricultural. I like it. The set-up looks simple to repair and robust; pleasingly analogue.
Sitting inside: After taking a look at the voluminous boot with its unfashionably high sill, I got into the car and took some moments to get used to the sensory disconnect. The Opel is in one way a large car. It looks big from the outside and looks big when seen in isolation. When you sit inside you feel very close to the door as in a smaller car, though.
Then there is an openness to the interior created by all the space between fittings and the space from driver to passenger, and from the distance from driver to the passenger door. By comparison, modern cars are either very snug or over-furnished. Our cars now are full of trim. I like the Senator’s ambience and the relaxing quality of the broad, yellow velour seats.
There’s no centre armrest for the driver, alas. Back to sensory disconnect, the Senator feels very dense indeed. These days it’s about the same size as a Focus saloon but that car feels lighter. The reported weight of the Opel is in the 1,500 to 1,600kg range and most of this weight is metal and glass. The feeling then is of hardness, and of things fitting close together.
Settting off: Describing the sensation of driving a 30 year-old car (with roots in the 1970s) is not that easy. For a start, my immediate reference was the brand-new Fiat 500 I had rented for my trip. Trying to assess red wine after gargling cola is not ideal. What one really needs to do is to compare the car to its peers or try to judge it in isolation.
The engine started up with a healthy and very mechanical roar. There is no engine creep when you push the automatic into D. I pressed the floor-hinged accelerator pedal a little too enthusiastically and the rear wheels spun. My impressions are that the engine required more poking than I’d have expected. It growls and makes a fine noise but doesn’t react as quickly as I would have expected.
I drove the car over narrow country roads on a wet and windy day. The manners of the car suggest that it is a vehicle to drive carefully at all times. A recirculating ball steering system is used, which helps to eliminate kickback from the road but also creates a floppy feeling around the straight-ahead. Car magazine described it as “somewhat lifeless” in 1978.
Perhaps with experience I would get used to the Senator’s behaviour; initially it was something I felt required caution. I think the car is one that could easily be made to slide or, worse, it might slide when you don’t want it to. So I braked early and accelerated out of corners. It put me in mind of the Lancia Thesis I tested some years back.
The Senator in automatic form is a servant not an entertainer (not in a dynamic sense). In 1978, Car’s view was that the Senator was the most reassuring and rewarding to drive compared to the BMW 730 and Alfa Romeo 6. That makes one wonder about how the other cars were.
Outward visibility is superb all around. The slim C-pillars help in this regard so that when you look over your shoulder at a T-junction, you can see what is coming. It’s a very pleasant characteristic.
Overall impressions: Turning to the car’s showroom quality, one can’t help but admire the cheerfulness of the soft velour which covers the seats and doors. Though somewhat faded, it has held up well. The chrome fittings and brown plastic are all part of the car’s period charm. Alas, I know that the car I am testing is not the top of the Opel tree. The 3.0 Senator came with wooden door cappings, rear head restraints and an opulent green or blue material, which for me would make the car irresistible. I bet it had a centre arm-rest too. On the other hand, the car in question is not one you’d be afraid to use respectfully as it’s not a museum piece to be driven only with white cotton gloves on dry summer Sundays.
It is in the matter of plastics that you can see the W123’s clearest perceived quality advantages over the Opel. Looking around the car there are areas of incorrectly matched plastics that you don’t find in a W123; the driver’s ashtray has a squeaky zinc spring and the glove box lid sounds hollow when it shuts. This is trivial stuff and you’d forget it on a day-to-day basis, yet these little details are the ones that generate the long-term impressions.
The smell: engine oil and old plastics, how evocative. The noise: the engine feels very nearby and the sound is loud. While driving, you are very aware of more vibration and of machinery working not so far off. I didn’t mind this at all as it reminds you that you are in a machine from a different time. It is not anaesthetic.
Conclusions: I can’t offer any data on things like fuel consumption, but reports suggest it likes to have a gallon every 20-25 miles. The boot is nice and large. Can you live with a thirty year-old, straight six, automatic, rear drive, near-luxury saloon? In isolation, yes. The Opel offers clear advantages over the Granada, for example, in that it seems to be a better made car.
And in status terms, the Granada came in a wide range of trim levels from 2.0 L to 3.0 Ghia spec, whereas engine and interior differences plus nicer styling separate the Rekord E from the Senator. The difference was reduced somewhat when the Senator A lost its chrome in 1982. Again, the ultimate Senator is not this 2.5 E A2-series car, but the full-fat chromed 3.0 A-series.
I don’t mind the rusty edges, but I do mind the fact that I know there is an even nicer Senator out there. Perhaps the most surprising thing that makes me think twice about what is a very affordable car that needs no work, ready for immediate use, is the rear accommodation.
The theme of the month is passengers. And it’s in the back of the Senator that you can see the disadvantage of basing the car on the Rekord. The wheelbase is nearly the same in both cars. Hence,the rear legroom is not what you’d expect, and Car too thought so in 1978. I don’t think anyone would be uncomfortable in the back of the Senator. It’s better than the E12 BMW 5 Series and the Alfa 6, and the equal of the Benz. The seats are very cossetting.
Yet I think it’s not a car in which you’d sprawl on a long journey. You should sit upright and try to find a way to deal with the small and oddly positioned ashtry. I really wish it was more spacious because here the Senator’s other enemy, the Peugeot 604, hoves into view. That’s a car for passengers and it’s steering is on record as being better.
If you can get past the existence of the Mercdes W123, which you have to if you are going to go and test a Senator, you’ll find a very agreeable car. Some of the qualities are to do with historical accident: the passage of time has killed off straight-sixes so the Opel can provide what a modern car can’t. The same goes for the airiness of the car. Almost any old car is airier than a modern one.
So what is it about the Senator in particular that appeals, compared to the other possible contenders? I suspect that the Senator’s material and fabrics are amongst the best after the Mercedes. The engine is a strong and reliable unit that sounds great. Most of the other cars in the class offered V6s. The gearbox is smooth and the car looks decisively more impressive than Ford’s admittedly very good Granada of the same period.
On balance and adding it all up, I think that the Senator 2.5E lacks that extra something though, the particular element that gives absolute appeal, rather than appeal relative to its peers. I’d certainly like to live with a Senator for a while but I am not sure it’s quite good enough (in 2.5E form) to gain the gold medal.
As a counterpoint, it’s worth remembering that the car exists in quite good numbers compared to its peers, which might give a hint that if you did get into a Senator, you’d not regret it. It’s a survivor.