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Having the budget for a luxury coupé in the late ’70s and early ’80s was a nice problem.
The post-Fuel Crisis doom-mongers had been proved wrong: amid all of the rational hatchbacks, the miserable family saloons and the promise of a future populated by hideous safety cars with monstrous rubber bumpers there was still a place for plush individualism.
It was found in expensive coupés that were better looking, less practical and that bit rarer than their four-door siblings. The premium coupé encapsulated a kind of restrained suburban decadence, a car for the gravel drives of the Home Counties – or a particularly smug district of Stuttgart or Munich – where the dinner-party conversation flitted between the stock market, house prices and golf.
Even more interesting, when you look closely at this trio, was the variety of solutions on offer to the problem of packaging four luxurious seats in a distinctive four-cylinder, two-door Grand Touring car of reasonable overall dimensions and socially acceptable levels of thirst. Cars in which packaging and interior space were subordinate to an elegance of proportion that put an emphasis on a smoothly compact roofline.
And if there was no rational argument that could be made for a Lancia Gamma Coupé, a Mercedes-Benz 230CE or a Lotus Elite, then who cared?
These cars – then, as now – are rarely bought for rational reasons. The vain secret that lurks behind every coupé is that people like them simply because they look nice and because they feel special to be in.
In the 1970s and ’80s, these were the two-doors of the establishment; people who had achieved a comfortable position in life and wanted a car that reflected their good taste and high degree of disposable income.
Here we have a face-off between saloon-based coupés from two of the oldest and most respected marques in Europe, plus an upstart Brit that was developed from a tradition of specialist sports cars into a vehicle with more mainstream appeal. As we shall see, there are advantages and limitations to both approaches.
The Germans – and Mercedes-Benz in particular – had been playing the coupé game for years. The 230CE was probably the best all-rounder in the firm’s well-loved range of W123-based two-doors. It was part of a tradition that stretched back to the early ’60s and the W111 coupés – cars that, to some extent, were a European take on the large American pillarless hard-tops of the time.
Mercedes aimed the C and CE models at owners without demanding families (with children still small enough to fit in the rear), or retired couples who could afford the luxury of a highly equipped vehicle with (usually) a larger engine and for whom the inconvenience of only two doors was not a concern.
The 1977-’85 W123 coupés were a direct replacement for the W115 ‘Stroke 8’ two-doors of the 1968 generation. Whereas the previous car shared its wheelbase with the W114/W115 saloon, the new model was 4in shorter between the wheels than the four-door and the interplay with the 2in-lower roof plus the sharply raked windscreen and the rear window gave the car a squatter look.
Naturally, space in the rear was tighter than in the saloon, but it was still good for a two-door car. Those large doors opened to reveal a pillarless design that required a stiffer body with strengthening in the rear quarters.
Conventionally yet meticulously engineered, the fuel-injected four-cylinder 230CE was only marginally less silky and potent than the flagship 280, but a vast improvement over the single-carb 230C it replaced. Mercedes placed a huge premium on the prettier coupé bodywork and buyers were more than happy to pay it, often waiting for up to two years for the privilege.
Not so the Lancia Gamma Coupé launched in 1976. Such was this car’s reputation for mechanical self-destruction that only a few brave souls could be persuaded to part with the £9185 Lancia demanded for the car. Not even an extensively improved 1980 Series 2 (as here) gave buyers the confidence to give this enigmatic misfit a chance.
Those who did were usually entranced by its elegance – one of Pininfarina’s best efforts of the time – and handling, which was amazingly neutral for a front-drive car with a 2.5-litre engine well forward of the axle line.
This was no ordinary engine, but a lightweight flat-four inspired by the boxer units that had powered a generation of Flavias and 2000s for 15 years. High-revving yet in a modest state of tune, the Gamma boasted the largest-capacity four-cylinder petrol engine of any European passenger car.
It was a specification that pleased Lancia fans, but frustrated owners with its head-gasket problems and propensity for stripping the teeth of its cambelt when the steering was on full lock with a cold engine at tickover.
Some genius had thought it a clever idea to run the camshaft and power-steering pump drives off the same belt, but the resulting mechanical carnage (smashed valves) trashed the Gamma’s commercial reputation before this flagship of the Fiat/Lancia range had really got into its stride.
In many ways, the 1974 Elite was the most ambitious Lotus road car since the original Elite – if you allow yourself a rather elastic definition of the term. After all, it was all new and the firm’s first full four-seater.
Colin Chapman had begun scheming the car in the late ’60s and its specification was largely frozen by 1972, but the launch was delayed by the miners’ strike and the three-day week.
With its low-drag shape (it had the best coefficient of any 1974 production car) and the modest fuel demands of its 16-valve 2-litre twin-cam engine, the Elite was heralded as the efficient and rational exotic of the future.
Codenamed M50, this dramatically wedge-shaped, close-coupled four-seater was a bold move upmarket. It was bigger, safer, more luxurious and more refined than its forebears, yet was carefully conceived not to forgo the traditional Lotus driver appeal.
The Oliver Winterbottom-styled glassfibre body – on a proven backbone chassis – was made by the new VARI process, injection-moulded in two halves. It was nothing new in concept, but a philosophical revolution for Hethel in that it represented an attempt to build fewer cars with higher profit margins.
The first generation of Elites came in 501, 502, 503 and 504 forms, with progressively higher luxury specification but always the same Type 907 2-litre slant-four engine – first seen in the Jensen-Healey – matched to a five-speed gearbox with Austin Maxi internals. Actually, the 504 version was an auto – another first for Lotus.
The improved Series 2 Elite (and the Éclat, its fastback running mate) landed in 1980. A longer-stroke 2174cc engine answered those critics who said that the 2-litre lacked torque, and a Getrag five speed ’box was a worthwhile improvement, but the focus of interest at Lotus had moved on to the Esprit and nobody much minded when the Elite petered out in late 1982.
That short production run makes the Series 2 a rare car, with just 132 built. Even if you include Éclats and all the 2-litre cars, the total figure doesn’t get much above 4000 units in eight years, so compared to the Lancia and the Mercedes this beautifully preserved S2 Elite, once the road car of Chapman himself, is a rare thing.
The shape still looks futuristic and is enjoying a resurgence of popularity after decades in the fashion doldrums. It isn’t beautiful, just bold and assertive where its Éclat/Excel offspring look apologetic and slightly anodyne. With that chopped tail and blade-like nose, it is a shape you would not have been surprised to see being driven by Commander Straker in UFO.
It looks impossibly low-slung beside the others here and upstages them inside in a frenzy of soft, aromatic red leather (although both the Gamma and the 230CE also offered a leather option) and boxy dash structure that seems to groan with switches, instruments and vents.
With deep bucket seats to get the bottom low and the knees high, those in the rear can enjoy decent levels of long-distance comfort, particularly with a cool breeze from the air-con in this high-specification car. A glass panel separates the rear seats from the modestly sized boot and the (very real) possibility of petrol fumes. Views ahead are dramatic down the tapering nose, but compromised to the rear by the thick C-pillar.
With a carburettor choke for each cylinder, the Lotus engine has a slightly primitive sound and feel to it for a car that aspires to such sophistication. It delivers the goods, though, whether you are winding it out in the intermediate gears or making briskly docile progress in fourth and top. It smooths out and is especially strong from 3000rpm, and feels intuitive straight away with light, precise gearchanges and a clutch that is heavy but with a well-defined bite.
That the Elite handles brilliantly almost goes without saying. It feels balanced, flat and has lots and lots of cornering power whether the road be flat or bumpy, so that going quickly feels more than just effortless: it is actually relaxing. The only mildly weak link is the power steering, which I had expected to be a shade quicker to respond. The assistance ‘hunts’ a little somehow, so that the effort required is not always consistent – but overall it’s still pretty good.
Even today the Elite would be considered quite quick, and neither the Gamma nor the Mercedes can catch it in a straight line or around corners, although the Lancia comes close.
The Italian has superbly weighted and accurate power steering – by far the best of the three – and, despite being front-drive, delays the onset of understeer to a point you would rarely reach on the road. It isn’t exactly slow, either. With five nicely stacked manual ratios in a slightly rubbery gearbox, the Lancia feels definitively livelier than the Benz, with bags of torque and an endearing willingness to rev.
Yet this giant boxer engine, visually messy under the bonnet, is curiously unappealing and lumpy-sounding at low speeds. You can see it at once in the way the tailpipe shudders and this low-mileage car, freshly out of a Scottish Lancia collection, sounds better than most. Having owned 15 Gammas now – and learnt my lesson – I’m in a position to comment.
From the inside, it hardly helps that the ugly, looming dashboard shakes and rattles seemingly in sympathy with the engine. Cruising in fifth in relative quiet, however, you begin to see the point. The flat-four becomes silken and, when you squeeze the throttle, there’s torque to spare for bursts of acceleration beyond three figures.
Were it not for that undistinguished dashboard, the Gamma would be a nice place to be. The dark blue ‘L cloth’ is slightly cheesy, but cosy, and the elegant simplicity of the seat design back and front is everything you would expect from Pininfarina, which built and trimmed the Coupés. That said, the seat feels low in relation to the dashboard and the driving position is odd in some hard-to-define way, almost as if the car was schemed out before anyone had decided where its occupants were going to sit.
If the Mercedes seems more ordinary, that is probably just because it is more familiar. Opening the long, heavy, frameless doors instantly makes the coupé experience feel special and the low roof and shorter wheelbase give the cabin an intimate atmosphere, although there is room in the rear for grown-ups on shorter trips. There’s a secret cubbyhole between the seats and, as in the saloon, the rear shelf features a first-aid kit.
On the move, the 230CE feels pleasantly airy and, with the windows lowered and the sunroof open, who would not be impressed by the way the pillarless windows give an unimpeded view of the landscape flashing by? The dash is as solid and well conceived as the Gamma’s is brittle and random, with swathes of quality plastic relieved by that slightly unconvincing Germanic wood trim and the controls, including the nine-function column stalk, shared with other W123s.
In fact, apart from feeling slightly cosier, the 230CE drives exactly like a 230E. Smooth, undemanding and slightly cut off from the world around as it goes about its business with a pedestrian exhaust note and perfectly deployed gearchanges from the auto ’box that was almost invariably the choice of coupé buyers.
There is nothing wrong with the way the Mercedes handles – it tends always towards safe, mild understeer – but it does feel several shades more cumbersome than the other two. That’s mainly because the huge wheel tends to accentuate a deadness in the steering around the straight-ahead.
So, where the Lotus offers excitement and the Gamma lusty eccentricity, the Mercedes performs with a tediously brisk efficiency that will never set your heart racing. The performance is there, with fuel injection and nearly 140bhp from the M102 overhead-cam unit, but one is rarely encouraged to go looking for it. The joy of the W123 is in its refinement and solidity, the sense that it will just keep on going with minimal attention.
For those who take only a passing interest in cars, it is a relaxing, undemanding vehicle.
For those who enjoy cars and driving for their own sake it is an ever so slightly boring one and, although I know that the CE is the best product here in terms of durability and utility, I can’t help being drawn to the stronger characters of the Lancia and the Lotus, however flawed they may be in detail.
Much as I still love the look of the Gamma, however, the surprise result is that I would probably settle for the Elite.
Images: James Mann
LOTUS ELITE S2 2.2
- Sold/number built 1980-’82/132
- Construction steel backbone chassis, with glassfibre body
- Engine all-alloy, dohc 2174cc slant-four, with twin Dell’Orto DHLA 45E carburettors
- Max power 160bhp @ 6500rpm
- Max torque 160lb ft @ 5000rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, driving rear wheels
- Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones, anti-roll bar rear trailing arms, transverse links, fixed-length driveshafts; coil springs, telescopic dampers front/rear
- Steering power-assisted rack and pinion Brakes discs front, drums rear, with servo
- Length 14ft 6in (4420mm)
- Width 5ft 11/2in (1652mm)
- Height 3ft 11/2in (953mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 13/4 (2484mm)
- Weight 2645lb (1120kg)
- 0-60mph 7.5 secs
- Top speed 130mph
- Mpg 23
- Price new £16,433
- Price now £500-12,000
LANCIA GAMMA COUPÉ 2500IE
- Sold/number built 1976-’84/6789
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-alloy, sohc-per-bank 2484cc flat-four, with Bosch fuel injection
- Max power 140bhp @ 5400rpm
- Max torque 153lb ft @ 3000rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, driving front wheels
- Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts rear struts, transverse links; coil springs telescopic dampers,
- anti-roll bar front/rear
- Steering power-assisted rack and pinion Brakes discs, with servo
- Length 14ft 8in (4470mm)
- Width 5ft 8in (1727mm)
- Height 4ft 5in (1346mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 41/2 (2555mm)
- Weight 2844lb (1290kg)
- 0-60mph 9 secs
- Top speed 122mph
- Mpg 23
- Price new £9185
- Price now £500-6000
- Sold/number built 1977-’85/187,367 (all W123 CE variants)
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-iron, sohc 2299cc ‘four’, with Bosch K-Jetronic mechanical fuel injection
- Max power 136bhp @ 5100rpm
- Max torque 148lb ft @ 3500rpm
- Transmission four-speed automatic, driving rear wheels
- Suspension independent, at front by wishbones rear semi-trailing arms; coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering power-assisted recirculating ball
- Brakes discs, with servo
- Length 15ft 3in (4655mm)
- Width 5ft 41/2in (1740mm)
- Height 4ft 53/4in (1368mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 11in (2715mm)
- Weight 2844lb (1290kg)
- 0-60mph 11.5 secs
- Top speed 112mph
- Mpg 21
- Price new £12,000
- Price now £1000-15,000