Space, pace and grace. These are the hallmarks of an excellent executive express. Here are 10 of the most legendary luxury saloons from the past, in no particular order...
1. Mercedes-Benz 600 (W100)
Engineered to be the last word in luxury, Mercedes spared no expense in developing the magnificent 600. Produced between 1963 and 1981, the big Benz was the car of choice for those who required the best. A 6,3-litre V8 powered the three-tonne limo, while adjustable air suspension flattened any road imperfections that lay ahead. While most vehicles depend on electric adjustment for the windows and mirrors, the big Mercedes utilised hydraulics for everything. Yes, the windows, seats, bootlid and even the sunroof use hydraulics to move about, ensuring quick and silent operation. While the 600 appealed to many celebrities, such as Coco Chanel and Elvis Presley, Mercedes catered to a different clientele with the 600, too. Enjoying great popularity with 20th century dictators and politicians, it comes as no surprise an armoured version could be purchased directly from the factory. The last of the hand-built Benzes, the 600 commands a hefty premium on the classic car market, with perfect examples selling for up to R16 million.
2. Rolls-Royce Phantom VI
Measuring six metres long and two metres wide, the Phantom VI was as imposing as it was large. A car this large needs an appropriate engine to deliver suitable motivation. Initially, a 6,2-litre V8 did duty beneath the lengthy bonnet, before being replaced by the 6,75-litre V8 in 1979. Despite enjoying a production run of 22 years, just 374 examples were produced. Every example differs from the next, with Rolls-Royce providing lucky customers with an extensive list of personalisation options. Unique paint jobs, interior treatments and even unique coachwork distinguished these Rolls-Royces from the next. Given to Queen Elizabeth II to commemorate 25 years on the throne was her very own Phantom VI, complete with a higher roof line to accomodate Her Majesty's crown.
3. Jaguar XJ (Series 1)
The year 1968 saw the introduction of a British motoring icon. Designed to replace the ageing 420G, the XJ6 brought a much-needed touch of modernity to the luxury brand. Initially, two straight-sixes were available; the base model being the 2,8-litre and the more upmarket using the 4,2-litre. While both offered equally sumptuous interiors, the real range-topper would arrive only in 1972. The XJ12 featured a 5,2-litre V12, making it the fastest production saloon at the time, capable of over 225 km/h. That same year would see the introduction of a long-wheelbase model, offering more space in the rear. A beautiful leather-trimmed interior was teamed with rich walnut wood trim, giving the XJ the luxurious ambiance of a Rolls-Royce at a fraction of the price. The original XJ was produced until 1986, extensive facelifts keeping them fresh, while the XJ12 managed to live on until 1992, before being replaced by the XJ40.
4. Bentley Turbo R
Luxurious they may have been, but Bentleys from the 1970s and '80s weren't known for their sporty dynamics. Originally the car for gentleman racers, Bentleys had essentially become rebadged Rolls-Royces, with very little to distinguish their vehicles other than the badging. The year 1985 saw a return to Bentley's heritage with the Turbo R. While it resembled the Mulsanne on which it was based, the Turbo R had unique alloy wheels, a painted grille housing and a deeper front spoiler. While the ride comfort remained virtually unchanged, the Turbo R was a far more dynamic vehicle than its stablemates, sporting suspension that was stiffer by 50 percent. Through clever engineering, the ride remained largely untroubled. Over the years, the Turbo R enjoyed relatively strong sales success. While 7 230 examples of the original car were built, just 56 units of the phase-out model were commissioned. Dubbed the Turbo RT Mulliner Edition, the athletic Bentley produced a whopping 313 kW of power and 861 N.m of torque.
5. Lexus LS400
After proving it could make excellent and reliable vehicles for the masses, Toyota set out on tackling the exclusive luxury car segment. While BMW and Mercedes-Benz enjoyed great popularity in the United States, Toyota knew its brand image couldn't compete with the prestigious Germans. After years of arduous development, the LS400 was launched under Toyota's new luxury division, Lexus. Not being able to rely on reputation nor brand cachet, Lexus engineered the LS400 to be the best luxury car in the world. When introduced, the LS was not only quieter than its rivals, but faster and more economical, too. The now-coveted 1UZ-FE V8 raised the bar in terms of refinement, a fact that was drilled into the public with an elaborate stunt. A perfectly positioned champagne tower sat on the bonnet of the Japanese sedan, undisturbed by the V8 revving at its 6 200 r/min redline. Today, the original LS400 is remembered for not only rewriting the luxury car rulebook, but for doing so with mechanical precision never before seen in a production car.
6. Mercedes-Benz S-Class (W140)
Introduced in 1991, the W140 is still considered by many to be the last of the over-engineered Mercedes-Benzes. With a development cost of U$1 billion, der kathedrale (the cathedral) introduced numerous innovations to the motoring industry. Luxuries such as double-glazed windows refined the S-Class even further while electronic stability control kept the big Benz planted and secure. Initially, the W140 was criticised for being too big, a symbol of excess in a world that needed to be more environmentally aware. Ironically, the W140 was the most environmentally responsible car of its time, featuring a CFC-free air-conditioner and bodywork designed for full recyclability. A number of engines were made available, the most impressive of which was the 6,0-litre V12 in the 600 model. Producing 300 kW, the 12-cylinder could blast the luxury car to 100 km/h in 6,2 seconds. Most popular was the 500, featuring a 240 kW 5,0-litre V8. Tested in June 1994, CAR staffers were impressed, stating "right now, the S-Class represents the pinnacle of luxury car design. Whether it really is the last of a dying breed – the ultimate automotive dinosaur – only time will tell".
7. BMW 7 Series (E38)
The original dynamic luxury sedan, the E38 managed to offer BMW dynamics without sacrificing ride comfort. Launched in 1994, the E38 offered a high-quality, driver-centric cabin, trimmed in wood and the finest leathers. The E38 was available only as a V8 and V12 in South Africa. The base 740i was powered by a 4,0-litre V8 (later upgraded to a 4,4-litre V8) and a 240 kW 5,4-litre V12. Europe was lucky enough to receive more options; the straight-six 728i and diesel-powered 740d being the more interesting variants. Despite a relatively short production run (1994-2001), the Seven enjoyed great popularity courtesy of its sleek looks and well-made cabin. Being a movie star didn't hurt those sales, featuring as 007's wheels of choice in Tomorrow Neves Dies and seeing action in The Transporter. Interestingly enough, the E38 was so popular with well-heeled buyers that when the polarising E65 successor was previewed, sales of the E38 increased in its final production year, 2001.
8. Bentley Arnage
The year 1998 saw the introduction of the Arnage, a Turbo R replacement for the 21st century. Sharing a body with its Rolls-Royce sibling, the Silver Seraph, the Arnage was intended to be the more sporting, dynamic alternative to the Rolls-Royce. While the Silver Seraph was powered by the same V12 as the 7 Series above, Bentley opted for a different powertrain. A twin-turbo, 4,4-litre V8 did duty in the Bentley. Sourced from BMW, the engine produced 260 kW and 569 N.m of torque. The year 2005 saw a facelift, with the Arnage receiving updates to keep it looking fresh and appealing. By now, the 6,75-litre Bentley V8 had replaced the previous powetrain, boosting the power immensely. In 2007, the Arnage T was introduced, producing 373 kW and 1000 N.m. Rocketing from 0-100 km/h in just 5,5 seconds, the big car from Crewe would go on to a top speed of 290 km/h. Very impressive, for a car weighing 2,5 tonnes. 2009 saw the Arnage make way for the Mulsanne.
9. Volkswagen Phaeton
A people's car for the rich, the Phaeton was Volkswagen's attempt at breaking into the luxury car segment. During development, Dr. Ferdinand Piech, then-chairman of the Volkswagen Group, layed down a number of parameters that the Phaeton would have to meet. While not all of them were revealed to the public, one was that the Phaeton had to be capable of cruising at 300 km/h pretty much all day, while maintaining a constant 22 degrees celcius within the cabin. While capable of this feat, the Phaeton is electronically limited to 250 km/h. While a variety of six- and eight-cylinder powertrains were on offer, it's the 6,0-litre W12 and 5,0-litre V10 TDI that made the biggest headlines. Despite not enjoying the sales success VW had hoped for, the Phaeton enjoyed a long life, its production run spanning 14 years. Interestingly, the Phaeton platform and W12 engine were so impressive that the original 2003 Continental GT was based on the big VW.
10. Rolls-Royce Phantom VII
By the early '90s, manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW had caught up to Rolls-Royce. Not only could they offer equally comfortable cars, but with superior performance and at a cheaper price. The Silver Seraph has failed to capture the attention of wealthy buyers in the way Rolls had hoped, with fairly poor sales. The year 2003 saw the beginning of a new era at Rolls-Royce, with the introduction of the Phantom VII. Completely elevated from the mainstream, the Rolls-Royce sat in an ultra-luxury segement, pestered only by the Maybach 57/62. Offering customisation never before seen, lucky buyers could choose from more than 44 000 shades of paint and hundreds of different wood trimmings. In later years, the Phantom range was extended with a long-wheelbase model, cabriolet and coupé. Powering the Phantom is a near-silent 6,75-litre V12, producing 338 kW. If a buyer felt the standard Phantom wasn't exclusive enough, Rolls-Royce offered the choice of a bespoke Phantom, kitted out to the specifications of the customer. Of course, this came at a very high cost.