I worry about kids these days. Young folks. The youths, as I understand they call themselves. I worry that even if they work hard and get good jobs and make money and achieve, they may never know the sweetness of a good V8 luxury car.
I mean, sure, they could go out and buy themselves a cool vintage car. But the way things are going, the younger generation's future luxury cars — their rewards for making the next great Kim Kardashian-centric app or emerging victorious in a frivolous lawsuit — will be powered mostly by 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engines. Or worse, hybrid powerplants.
Maybe they won't even want V8s. When I tell people my age I write about the auto industry, they tell me they're really excited about Tesla, and that's about all I get. It's the march of progress, I guess, and we as a society will probably better off in the end using less gas.
But I recently drove two great older V8 luxury cars that really drove home for me the fact that as displacement gets smaller, and as cylinder counts decline, we really are losing something special about the cars we drive. If nothing else, we're losing their character, and character stands for a lot.
The two cars I'm talking about are a 1991 Mercedes-Benz 420SEL and a 1964 Buick Electra 225 Coupe. Two very different cars, for sure. Built nearly 30 years apart, and in different nations with radically different ideas on what luxury should be like, it may be hard to find common ground between the two besides the number of cylinders under their hoods.
One of the things that unites them is their owner, Dan Ryan. Dan lives in the D.C. area where he works for Mazda as their Director of Government Affairs and Public Relations. Before I moved, he invited me out to drive his cars and I thought I'd share a few thoughts on them with you.
Some of the people who work in the auto industry are true gearheads and some aren't. Dan's gearhead credentials are unassailable. In addition to the Mercedes and the Buick, he has a Porsche Boxster to meet his corner-carving needs, as well as a new Mazda3 sedan for practical commuting and to represent the team.
(Given his current employer and his taste for luxury cruisers, I told Dan he should get himself a Eunos Cosmo coupe next, although obtaining one of those is kind of a tall order here in the U.S.)
We'll start with the Mercedes because that's where I started. In Mercedes parlance, this one is a W126, the line of S-Class that ran from 1979 to the early 1990s. Towards the end of that run, Dan owned a 1985 380SE and always kind of wanted another after he sold it.
A few months ago, he picked this 79,000 mile example up from a Mercedes specialty shop in San Francisco after sending German car expert and Road & Track scribe Jason Cammisa to check it out first.
"I've always loved this bodystyle," Dan told me. "It's just classic Mercedes. It's aged really well."
It has. And more than that, Dan thinks this S-Class was among the last of the Benzes that were totally over-engineered, but not so loaded down with electronics that they're a pain to keep running.
"Today, 'German engineering' seems to be how many gadgets they can put on there," Dan said. And considering I can't remember the last newer BMW I encountered with an oil dipstick, I think he's kind of right.
The W126 came with a variety of engines, and as per its namesake this one has a 4.2-liter V8. That one wasn't even the biggest V8 you could get — that honor goes to the 5.5-liter motors in the 560SEL and 560SEC coupe. The engine in Dan's car puts out a whopping — wait for it, wait for it — 201 horsepower and 228 pound-feet of torque.
Yeah, engines have come a long way in 20 years. "It's not exactly a screamer, but it goes okay," Dan said.
I think that when you talk about an S-Class, you really need to start with its interior. It's been thirty years since this model debuted and it still feels stately and premium inside.
The seats are wide and comfortable, the leather is soft, the woodgrain trim is attractive, the gauges are clean and easy to read, and the switches are simple to use. It's proof that you don't have to overcomplicate something to make it feel more expensive.
Besides that big steering wheel, and the admittedly tiny buttons, it does show its age in other ways. Notice that there's a passenger-side airbag, a relatively uncommon feature for an early 1990s car, but it comes at the expense of a glove compartment. Hilarious.
As a child of the '80s, it reminds me of the cars I grew up in — it's just a car on the inside, no touch screens, no nightmare of buttons everywhere, no need to dig into the manual to figure out how to tune your radio presets. This one, being an an extended wheelbase model, has an ample backseat, so it's great for being driven in or driving yourself.
So how does it drive? Wonderfully. As good as, and in some cases better than, some modern cars I've driven. It's exactly what you'd expect from an S-Class: solid, quiet, comfortable, and with unassailable build quality.
The 420SEL feels as sturdy as the day it rolled off the assembly line. It's a featherweight compared to modern luxury cars at just 3,527 pounds, and while it's not meant to be a corner-carver, it handles with finesse and less body roll than I expected.
As for the motor... well, it's a leisurely beast, one that seems aimed at comforting the driver as much as the leather seats. In other words, it's kind of slow. But that has a lot to do with the four-speed automatic gearbox, which starts in second gear and almost never uses first unless hard acceleration is called for.
This makes it smooth, but not especially brisk. However, it's great for cruising, and once you get up to highway speeds it will gladly sustain them as long as you require.
My jaunt in the W126 was fairly brief, but memorable. And a lot of fun. I think it's one of those cars that, with the proper care, would be totally worth owning forever. It does so much right, and feels like such a modern classic, that it totally holds its own decades down the line.
The Buick, on the other hand, is as similar on the surface to the Mercedes as Wiener Schnitzel is to any food you can get at a Wienerschnitzel.
This is a Buick from the Golden Age of General Motors, back when Buicks were more than just re-badged Opels kept alive solely because the all-important Chinese market loves them for some inexplicable reason.
This is a Buick from the time when a Buick made sense in the marketplace as a viable option when you wanted a luxury car — it was for a person who was doing pretty well in life, but maybe not quite well enough to own a Cadillac. Not yet, anyway. Someday.
But don't think for a second that this newly-minted junior executive doesn't know how to party. When Dan turns the key, the 401 cubic inch (that's 6.5 liters if you hate freedom) thunders to life as if it's roaring, "Yeah, Detroit!" And then you know you're in for something cool.
If the Mercedes is all Class and Dignity, then the Buick Electra is Sex and Violence. It's an exciting car, bold and brash inside and out. This one in particular has a stunning light bronze color that contrasts surprisingly well with the interior, which is all black leather and vinyl and silver chrome. It feels showroom grade throughout; Dan says it's by far the nicest older car he's owned.
See that thing below the steering wheel? That's a Kleenex box holder, and it was a dealer-installed option. So. Awesome.
After Dan drove for a bit, he pulled over and offered me a chance behind the wheel, which I graciously obliged. I walked around the car — which takes about 10 minutes because it's massive — and slid into the bucket seat. Everything on this car is enormous, from those seats to its steering wheel to, of course, that engine.
Dan told me that this 401 puts out 325 horsepower and 445 pound-feet of torque. Given its age and its heft, I didn't take it seriously at first. Then I touched the gas pedal, only to be met with instant rear wheelspin.
"I underestimated you, old Buick," I thought to myself. "It won't happen again."
See, the Electra isn't fast, or at least it isn't by modern standards. But it will move. It will pull. In that reliable V8 sort of way, it has torque for days. And when its roar fills the cabin, it's impossible not to smile and try to blow away the all the puny-engined cars around you.
I will tell you that changing lanes is tricky, given the sheer size of the beast. Squeezing in between two other cars so you can make that exit is like shooting a rifle: you aim carefully and only pull the trigger when you know you have the shot. It's nearly 20 feet long, after all. It's a land yacht. It's just so much... car.
I got a ton of stares when I was driving around in the Electra from fellow drivers and pedestrians alike. And why wouldn't they? Look at that color! Look at those subtle tailfins! Looks at the sheer size of it! This Buick is from a time when cars were fun and thrilling and expressions of ourselves, before they were mostly just beige little boxes meant to get us around as anonymously as possible. It is American optimism on wheels.
The Buick comes from an era when cars were considered special. As amazing and high tech as new cars are, the majority of people just don't think that way anymore. I bet a person who drove a copper Buick Electra in 1964 did, and I bet a person who owned that long-wheelbase S-Class thought so too.
Like I said earlier, progress is, by and large, a good thing. It's good that cars don't get gas mileage in the low teens anymore. It's not like most of us can afford that anyway.
I just hope that as automotive progress marches on, we won't entirely run out of cars with big character, even if their engines get smaller.