There is no harder fall from grace than that of the executive car. For other cars, life is certain and predictable. Even when a small family hatchback is old, it’s still useful. It’s economical, safe and cheap to run. There will always be a buyer. A van will always be a van. A sports car will always be a sports car. An executive car, however, will lead a far more turbulent life.
Executive cars are typically two things; expensive to run and rather impractical. The former comes care of the huge engines they’re normally fitted with and the tech that the brochure once boasted about. They are, new or old, incredibly expensive to maintain, especially when compared to a more ‘normal’ car. The latter is down to them almost always being saloons, and you can’t fit a washing machine/bikes/the family dog in the boot. As such, when the first buyer falls in love with something else, the second-hand executive car is cast into a painful world of corner-cutting maintenance before being sold on again after each new owner gets frustrated by the impracticality.
If that all sounds a bit bleak, don’t worry. We’re about to put a positive spin on things. You see, executive cars are the best of the best. They’re the platform from which any given manufacturer can shout about what they can do. And yes, while many lead a tough life, a select few survive to become bone fide classics. And that’s what we’ve picked here. And because classic status transcends a general need to be practical or frugal, these cars are welcomed into our world with open arms.
1) The E38 BMW 7 Series
If you want an executive car, one of the best places to go is Germany. The Germans have been knocking them out since year dot, and they’re still at the top of the game. There have been many greats, but one of the biggest hitters has always been the mighty BMW 7 Series – the company’s flagship car since 1977.
The model we’re focusing on here is the third-generation E38 model. Arguably the best-looking 7 to ever be built, it was manufactured from 1994 to 2001. And yes, while that may be seen as modern by many of you, trust us when we say it’s going to be a classic. Plus, its age means it’s still the sort of car you could use every day.
The E38 was a car of firsts. It was the first car to feature curtain airbags. It was the first BMW available with a TV in the dash and it was the first European car to have satellite navigation, care of a system joint-developed by BMW and Phillips. It wasn’t all about the tech though, the E38 was and still is an exceptional car to drive. With a range of straight-six, V8 and even a V12 engine, the E38 can still satisfy the needs of any keen driver. All have a ZF five-speed automatic transmission, which if looked after is silky smooth. They ride like they’re driving on silk, but they also handle exceptionally well thanks to 50/50 weight distribution. Pretty perfect, then.
2) The W116 Mercedes-Benz S Class
Any car with a three-pointed star on the front is going to make it to classic status, and the W116 S Class is the epitome of that trend. This is the car that cemented Mercedes-Benz’s place as the leader in all things luxury. In fact, the W116 is also the first S Class, and with it, the first true big luxury saloon from the brand. There was the W108 before it, but by comparison it was a dainty, small car. The W116 was and still is a bold, big, muscular car with chiselled, imposing lines.
It was the design of the W116 that was key. Mercedes-Benz was keen to use it as the vehicle to take forward a new design direction. The cars became less rounded and ‘soft’ and instead took on a more angular look. You can see traces of the W116 in everything from the W123 and W126 through to the R107 and the W124. That square, angular face, the big rectangular headlights, it’s all from the mighty W116.
The ultimate W116 is easily the 450SEL complete with a 6.9 V8 – that same car that was made famous in 1998’s Ronin. However, with £10,000 to spend, your money is only going to get you a basket case 6.9. Don’t panic though, as the W116 had plenty of other engine options ranging from a 2.8 straight-six through to a 4.5 V8. There was even a turbo diesel – the W116 was the first car to ever have that!
3) The Rover P5
In the UK in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s, you knew you’d made it if you found yourself behind the wheel of a Rover P5. The UK has always been the spiritual home of the luxury car, given we have Jaguar, Bentley and Rolls Royce. But people are keen to forget that back in the day, Rover was happily within that mix, too. Rover wasn’t a producer of family hatchbacks back then, it was an out and out luxury brand, and had been for years.
The P5 took over from the P4, a car that was very much a product of the ‘50s. While lovely, the P4 was a tall and somewhat ungainly machine and featured old-school design features like ‘suicide’ doors. It was still a good car, but it was lacking the sophisticated edge needed to be at the top of its game, hence the arrival of the P5 in ’58.
It was lower and with it, sleeker. The elegant lines flowed more naturally than those of the P4 and served to make the P5 look exceptionally modern. It was given revision in ’62, ’65 and ’67, but still retained its looks throughout. It also retained its 3.0 straight-six engine, though in ’67 the P5B was made available. The B stood for Buick, as a nod to the aluminium 3.5 V8 engine’s origins.
4) The MK2 Ford Zodiac
Between 1956 and 1962 Ford of Britain offered one car three ways. You could have the Consul, the Zephyr or the range-topping Zodiac. Ford branded these three cars as ‘the three graces’ and it was very proud of them indeed. The logic was that the man who could only afford a Consul could do so yet still have a Zephyr or a Zodiac by association, given the body shell was largely the same.
Moving up the range, you had the Zephyr that was a smidge longer and featured more chrome. At the top of the pile was the Zodiac. This came with more chrome again, especially around the back, and also the six-cylinder 2.5 engine from the Zephyr. If you had a Zodiac back in the ‘50s, you had made it.
Being an old Ford, rust is always going to be a concern, so do make the effort to get under the car. Speaking from experience, we can tell you the boot floor, the doors, the bulkhead, the A pillars, the inner wings, the sills and the rear arches all like to rot out. Get a solid one though – your £10k should do that – and you’ll be laughing. Bonus points if you buy a manual with ‘three on the tree’ gear shifter.
5) The Series 1 XJ Jaguar
By 1968 the Jaguar range of cars was getting somewhat diluted. The company had four large saloons filling up the showrooms, and that meant buyers were getting confused as to what they wanted. Jaguar needed to condense its range into one car, and that one car would be known as the XJ. You’re probably familiar with it, what with it being an icon of pop culture be it via music videos, film or television. Everyone knows what a Jag XJ looks like.
Everyone knows what a Jag XJ means, too. This is a car with a bit of bite, a bit of muscle. If it was a person it’d be a muscular bouncer called Grant. If it were a drink it would be whiskey. Neat. It’s an executive car, make no mistake, but it’s got a bit of no-nonsense swagger about it, too. Drive an old XJ and people will always let you out of junctions. It’s a bit of respect, isn’t it my son (best said in a thick Cockney accent).
The Series 1 is the purest XJ. It’s carried along on the Mk10’s independent rear suspension and the Mk1’s subframe-mounted front suspension. Under the forward-tilting bonnet was the 2.8 or 4.2 straight-six XK engine. Later models got twice as many cylinders care of a V12. Jaguar had wanted it to be available from launch, but cooling it was a difficult task for engineers to overcome. Your £10k will get you a V12, but honestly, a 4.2 is a safer bet, and just as lovely.