by James Kraus
There are few gentlemen left in the world today and that has unfortunately led to the demise of the Gentleman’s Express. A true gentleman eschews common ostentation and can normally be outwardly recognized in public solely by the fit of his shirt or the cut of his suit.
Such a man for example, would have been unlikely to dangle his Rolex Submariner or Breitling Super Ocean on his wrist whilst driving to dinner at Lucas Carton. Rather, lurking beneath his Turnbull & Asser Cocktail Cuff one would more likely find his Breguet Classique or Patek Philippe Calatrava.
In the halcyon days of yore, such a man had the choice of a number of proper motorcars to suit his lifestyle. Such cars could cover ground quickly without drawing undue attention, and had a certain panache, without being in any way flamboyant. Stylish, but not too stylish. Not for him the flashy machines and glitzy nameplates lusted after by the masses and favoured by the fast-money crowd.
The Gentleman’s Car: understated, discreet, a bit of élan. Performance and roadholding sufficient to satisfy the enthusiastic driver. Capable of good transit times over a variety of road conditions, so as to never cause the driver to be late for an engagement. Anything generating bragging rights at the local pub is unnecessary, as the gentleman has no need to boast. Performance should simply be, in the manner Rolls Royce once used to describe their power outputs; adequate. At the same time, the performance available should be easy to extract so that rapid journeys can be undertaken in a comfortable and relaxed fashion. Here are some notable exemplars:
The first postwar car to handily fulfill this criteria was the Lancia Aurelia Gran Tourismo. In many ways, this car defined the category. The Aurelia, along with the 356 Porsche, advanced the sporting car firmly into the postwar era, both cars ably demonstrating that a harsh ride was not prerequisite to superlative handling and roadholding. The Aurelia also demonstrating that high noise levels were not a necessary companion of good performance.
The Lancia was mechanically intriguing, with the world’s first production V6 engine, a rear transaxle, fully independent suspension and equipped with the revolutionary new Michelin radial tires. The Ghia-penned body was decidedly sporting, while at the same time offering the precise subtlety and understatement of a Gieves & Hawkes suit. There was no model designation affixed to the exterior, and the only Lancia identification was a cloisonné logo incorporated into the grille surround. The right-hand number plate lamp cleverly doubled as a boot lid release.
The Aurelia was no slouch in the performance arena, being the only car other than the Porsche 911 to ever win both the Targa Florio and the Rallye Monte-Carlo.
In 1957, the Aurelia lineup began to be replaced by the newer Flaminia series, marking a turning point in automotive styling. The Flaminia range was the first squared, flat-plane razor-edge Pininfarina design that would proliferate and become widely imitated in the 1960’s with Pininfaria’s own Peugeot 404, the Lincoln Continental and the Fiat 1800/2100, among others.
The Flaminia rode on a more modern chassis than the Aurelia, with upper and lower front wishbones supplanting the venerable sliding pillars used by Lancia since the 1920’s. Four-wheel disc brakes replaced the former drum system and featured typical Lancia dual independent hydraulic circuits.
The Fiat 2300 Coupé, with its Ghia designed body, was based on the Fiat 2100 Berlina and powered by a 2.3 litre Fiat inline six designed by ex-Ferrrai engineer Aurelio Lampredi. for the ‘S’ Coupé the engine was given a higher state of tune by Carlo Abarth. Motor described the big Fiat Coupé as the sort of car you put on like a good suit of clothes.
Probably its greatest recommendation was the glowing review by one of the world’s greatest automobile writers and former race driver, the late Paul Frère, in his book My Life With Cars. Paul, who personally owned a 2300S in the mid-1960’s, considered it one of his favourites. Prince Claus of the Netherlands was another owner of note.
Designed and built when BMW was still a boutique manufacturer whose automotive products were purchased almost exclusively by motoring enthusiasts, the 2000 CS achieved a perfect blend of sporting athleticism and elegant grace. Based on the platform of the Neue Klasse sedans, the Coupé was the first of the line to receive a 2.0 litre version of the BMW M10/M12 engine.
This engine would go on to greatness over the next two decades, both in road cars and in Formula One, winning the World Championship in 1983.
The body detailing was exquisite, with flush-mounted multi-function lamp units front and rear, door handles incorporated into the side moulding strips and cabin air extraction vents built into BWM badges on the base of the C-pillars.
The Mercedes-Benz W113 roadster debuted in an era before the cars bearing the three-pointed star became a fashion accessory. The new 230 SL replaced both the earlier 300 and 190 SL’s. In place of their stylistic flamboyance, the new Paul Bracq-designed SL offered the new look of restrained elegance for Mercedes-Benz that began with the W111 Coupé and would continue on with the 600, the 1965 S-Klasse and end with the Neue Generation models of 1968. The 230 SL was notable for its concave ‘pagoda’ roof and was also the first design to incorporate matt black sills, reducing the visual bulk of the body and endowing it with a lithe, svelte profile.
The 230 SL set new standards for sporting refinement with an unusually smooth ride, very effective heating and ventilation and optional power-assisted steering. These luxuries did not compromise performance, as the 230 SL demonstrated when it won the 1963 Liège-Sofia-Liège Rally outright. The W113 really hit its stride with the 2.5 litre 250 SL which benefitted from greater torque, a smoother 7-bearing crankshaft, rear disc brakes and an optional 5-speed gearbox.
The Citroën DS, while certainly luxurious in matters of ride and comfort, never quite ascended to the upper ranks of elegance, held back in part by awkward detailing and poor panel fit. These deficiencies were both remedied in the Décapotable. Hand built to special-order by the coachbuilders at Chapron, the Décapotable not only benefited from proper panel fit, but was also adorned in flawlessly executed bespoke stainless steel trim. The interior was fitted to Pallas specification, which meant full Wilton pile carpet throughout and fine leather upholstery. Twice the price of the corresponding sedan, it was offered in thirteen colours of exterior enamel, eleven leather colours and three shades of carpet. One could select personal colours as well, as long as they were not considered too outré by Monsieur or Mademoiselle Chapron.
Alan Clark, British politician, diarist and automotive writer, famous for his stable of Jaguars, Porsches and Bentleys, praised the DS as the nicest genuine touring car ever built and enjoyed its ability to maintain high average speeds on French Autoroutes and Routes Nationale while driving from his castle in England to his chalet in Zermatt.
At its February 2007 Automobiles de Collection auction, Christie’s described the DS Décapotable as having a spirit of refined elegance. At the sale, one of the last examples built changed hands for over €175,000 (just under a quarter million USD).