A French among ‘ze Germans
Classic car group test: Mercedes-Benz 230.4 (W115), BMW 518 (E12), Peugeot 504
We're at the beginning of the ‘70's. In the year of the Olympic Games in Munich, the first BMW is being launched with the numbers we are familiar with nowdays. The Peugeot family is not only known for their pepper-mills any more, it reached a quality standard that forced the Germans to admit: the big Peugeots are the French equivalent of Mercedes. Before we get sentimental about the modesty of the Germans, let's not forget, that this bootlicking statement also means that Stuttgart still serves as the reference point, Sochaux can only be compared with it.
When we say today that BMW is sporty, Mercedes conservative and Peugeot – well – probably comfortable, the collective wisdom is based on 40 year old observations. Even if we weren't born when the three green cars were built, if we have never driven or even seen them, here are the roots of the characteristics which form today's brand identities. Those brands that could hold on to their strengths are the lucky ones, because the consumers can recognize them.
I'm quite sure about this, because I know the corresponding products of the brands; the ones they offer now; or to be more precise, the cars which can be regarded as the successors of the three green sedans – even if they have massively grown in size. BMW has launched the 5th 5-series since the first one, but even their 3-series is bigger than the green E12 of our review. They were busy at Mercedes, too: after four generations, we are getting used to the facelift of the third E-series right now. Let's not go too deep into the Peugeot-history, but the 508 is also a good 30 centimetres longer than this mint olive 504.
But if you drove the 2013 German and French pendants, you'd never come to the conclusion that the BMW is the bad boy, that Mercedes builds indestructible fortresses and that the Peugeot caresses us as long as we confess all our sins with passion. Without those flattering 40 year old characters, the youngsters of today would never believe that those brands offer different qualities. And the marketing guys would have an incredibly hard time.
If the big sedans of the 2010's carefully whisper in our ears where they come from, whether we should feel sportiness, durability or comfort, the three classics shout out loudly and, grabbing our weak bodies, shake us to show that Mercedes, BMW and Peugeot were worlds apart in the ‘70's.
Their faces might be familiar, but those cars are not present in the streets any more. They are by far too old to be used as runarounds - the individuals who use them as such are crazy - the remaining few cars are true classics. Therefore it's unnecessary to compare the centimetres, horsepower and newtonmetres; it's much more interesting, what kind of reactions they trigger being 40 years old but in an almost new condition.
Target: eternal life
For courtesy's sake I have to begin with the W115, because you can only reach up to the Mercedes; he lives on the Mount Olympus, and its adorers are countless. Even as a pet car, the Benzes have a special status, almost every second roadworthy classic in Hungary is a Mercedes, and this is not only because of the legendary parts supply. Up to a certain period - and the classics of today certainly belong here - they produced incredibly tough cars in Stuttgart, no doubt about that. And many believe the W115 is the toughest of them all.
This is why it's hard to explain the reasons for not bringing the desired car to the photo-shoot. Let's say it was just too lazy after the winter hibernation, and it wasn't possible to breathe life into it. So a diesel had to jump in, which is probably even better for the pictures, because this way we had three green cars. But the BMW and the Peugeot were both petrol-driven, so a few days later I grabbed a second-series 230.4 to get to know the feel of the petrol W115.
You can already tell by the looks that the Merc is archaic. The chrome grille that defines its face makes it look much older than its provokers. If you put the BMW next to it, the W115 looks like its grandfather, which is more or less true, anyway, since the Mercedes was presented in 1967, while the 5-series only five years later - funnily enough, both were designed by Paul Bracq. But the 504 – European Car of the Year in 1969 – also looks much younger, than the elderly W115 - Pininfarina always had a taste of the future.
But those few years of difference don't matter any more, and the reason for the special Mercedes-experience is not the age of the technical design, anyway. At those times they didn't follow carefully the moves of the opponents, they stuck to their own standards. It was exactly this 5-series that made Mercedes look up from the drawing board, so the next-gen W123 was the first Benz that took a hint from its competitors. And hopefully I won't insult the Merc-drivers too much if I say that their somewhat proud approach can't only be understood by the look of their cars, but also by the driving experience.
The four cylinders of the petrol 230 run incredibly smoothly for our ears used to modern engines. In fact, the carburetted four-cylinders of all contestants put shame on those rattling cutting-edge direct-injection petrol engines. And the 230.4 is Nirvana, since it has oomph, which is unexpected for us all, being used to the very common diesel W115s. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's a blast, but it's strong enough not to feel like an obstacle in city traffic.
To command a healthy, petrol W115 is a juicy classic car experience. You drive a commode from the sofa, holding a thin but huge rubber wheel in your hands (the shiny bakelite wheel makes the experience even more archaic, but that's the privilege of the first series), you chase the star marking the end of the huge table in front of you. Everything you touch is massive, indestructible, except for the indicator switch. That's known to be a weak spot, otherwise everything has to be grabbed with a force that makes obvious: this is heavy machinery.
You have to push the accelerator with determination, moving the gear lever is a masculine job and the responses of the car are equally stiff. The suspension is firm without being harsh, and the motions of the car are quite unusual. As you turn the wheel it feels as if you had to bend the long nose of the car into the corner with a huge crank, it's almost like moving the front to the side instead of turning it in. Then the body follows with a burring German accent, but holds on to the line with unexpected stability. People who are used to this behaviour throw it into bends like Caracciola, but beginners are advised to stick to majestic marching, which is the better-known side of the W115.
The spring-mattress type seats are like granny's arm-chair, they throw the driver from the centre to the side, even if they are in as-new condition. Yes, it's entirely possible to drive fast sitting on them, like it's possible to ride a raging bull, but they are not designed for going bonkers. If you're rolling in peace, they'll iron out the potholes, and sitting opposed to the stern dashboard you can taste with great intensity the aim-in-life of the German accountant who had grown up in the
Can't believe it's a classic
The difference between the Merc and the BMW is huge. Compared to the stout, antique feel of the W115, the 518 is a flashy, modern gadget: just look at the banana green colour. Plastic grille, small hubcaps and an inviting rear: it could be the star of a clumsy adult film from the 70's. But if you try it on, you'll see it's not clumsy at all. It has the flair of a new car, believe it or not. Nothing happens that you'd expect from a 30 year old classic.
Although all of the tested sedans were in an exceptionally good, almost as-new condition, I suspect that the BMW had been refined to an extraordinary level in the last few years which have passed since its restoration, thanks to its perfectionist owner. Everything is so incredibly firm on this car that you can't believe its age.
The steering is full of life, it seems as if you had to turn it half as much as the one of the Merc. The suspension is a bit floppy which is typical for the decade, but it follows your commands a hundred times more precisely, and with the same discipline. Maybe it's not faster in the corners, but it makes you believe it is. Maybe the engine is not stronger, but it urges you to push it, and it revs with an elegance unusual for four-cylinders – right to the redline.
I've tried quite a few BMW four-cylinders, my own 1602 is also fitted with an M10, but the smoothness of this unit surprised me: it ran almost without any vibration. Before I drove this 518, I felt sorry for the four-pot 5-series owners - this one made me change my mind. It's probably a very good rebuild, because the engine is absolutely up to the job, although this is the smallest displacement motor of the trio with only 1.8 litres. It cheerfully moves the 5-series, you're changing gears up quickly, and after a while you're not aware that this is a classic, because it does everything as well as any second-hand car.
Only if you look around, you'll get the full show of the 70's. My favourite is the brutal centre console with the heating controls. Huge, round knobs, and in the middle a ribbed button, all that in a box that could house a complete instrument cluster. It's a tad more simple and cheaper than the Mercedes, but that doesn't mean that its quality is just average. The dash could be considered as avant-garde, it makes you forget about the unspectacular upholstery.
While driving the BMW, inhaling its agility, feeling its strong will and realizing that the Bavarians actually managed to build a car ten years ahead of its time, I can't imagine that anyone hesitated between buying this or a Benz. From a distance, their technical design might be very similar, but those two cars feel as if they were built at the opposite ends of the world, not in Stuttgart and Munich. The philosophy and the experience are so different, that anyone who has tried both must know which one is his or her cup of tea.
The soft spot
I have to warn you I'm biased in favour of the 504, since I own one. But even though I know the model, this olive petrol-engined sedan made me tremble with its tenderness, preciseness and elegance. It's an otherworldly experience to drive it, there are no cars today which would even come close to the 504. On the other hand - be it the French Mercedes or not – the Peugeot gives the impression of a much lousier car then the other two.
This green one is in fantastic original condition, it has never been taken apart or restored, there were only minor repairs and resprays and that makes it priceless. However, there are quite a few body panels askew and the gaps aren't perfect either - typical for a French car. The interior is even more so: the indicator switch that sits on the right side of the steering column feels like it is broken, although it works, in contrast the push-knob of the glove-box looks all right, but it isn't; I had better not even touch the heating controls. It's hard to decide whether the mummifying steering wheel or the screeching sunroof is the worst part of the cabin. Really, is this piece of junk the masterpiece of French engineering?
Those who heartlessly seek the faults of the 504 are wrong. They'll find many, in all of them. But take a seat in those soft, spongy seats, start the smooth engine with your left hand, easily slide into first gear and depart for a wonderful journey. Every trip with the 504 will be memorable.
The Peugeot is a strange patchwork. The irrelevant gadgets are made of cheap, fragile plastic, but the mechanics will keep on running even when the cockroaches are extinct. Just take a look at Africa, where most of the 504's were exported when their price dropped to an acceptable level on the second-hand market. There, they are used in a much harsher environment than the one about which we are complaining.
There is a whole bunch of more modern parts in the Peugeot than in the German competitors: rack-and-pinion steering, a differential with an aluminium case, plus it has disc brakes all round, which wasn't standard on the BMW, for example. All of this is built around an old-school torque tube structure, where the gearbox and the differential is connected by a rigid tube encasing the propshaft. It's bizarre, but by now we know that it works.
And it works incredibly well. You can complain about the look-and-feel of the interior, but the transmission is incredibly precise and the lever moves with such an ease that you instinctively touch it only with two fingers. The German cars seem just too heavy after trying this one. The brake pedal is also at least as firm as in the reference Merc, and the steering can be considered as a perfect match for the casual atmosphere. The important parts are all solid, it's just the sauce which is a bit floppy.
Anyway, you'll forget about all those things as soon as you drive off. Slide back the sunroof with one movement, select first gear, let the clutch go and start moving with a slightly sagging rear end. Instantly you'll leave behind all the troubles of 2013 - there are no potholes, just swaying little dimples; only the crazy are rushing, we are rolling in peace. It doesn't matter how many horsepower the two-litre engine develops, because it's enough for cruising, and it's equally unimportant, how fast the BMW goes around the corners when it overtakes the Merc, because we don't want to overtake anybody.
The Peugeot's charm is its calmness. It's not inspiring like the BMW that tells you there is no mercy for the slow ones, and not reassuring like the Mercedes that purrs that it'll take you to the end of the world. In the 504 the world is just scenery, there's no competition, no seriousness, you just don't give a damn.
Something for each of you
If you came this far, you'll probably know which is the right one for you. If you're flattered by the unique, transcendent Mercedes-experience, you'll love what you get for your money. For a classic week-end car I'd go for a petrol engine, since fuel consumption doesn't really matter and it's much more enjoyable, more elegant and smoother – it's simply a better car than the diesel. But, for historical reasons, the diesel engines are more common, everybody knows them and for some they can bring back memories which can also be important. The archaic feeling, the machine-operating atmosphere is the strongest in the Merc, that's for sure.
The BMW is exactly the opposite: you don't have to struggle with it, it's only the production date that makes it a classic. The 518 is a great car, even with the four-cylinder engine, which is incredible. You'll get spare parts for it just as easily as for the Mercedes, and although it's not as indestructible as the Benz, it's very reliable. As a bonus, the 5-series is probably the least popular BMW so prices are more moderate than for a similar-aged 02, for example.
And the Peugeot is a true rarity, it's difficult to find a good one in Central-Eastern Europe. Maintenance parts are relatively easy to come by, but I wouldn't recommend restoring one. Anyway, you don't have to struggle with restoration, because in France or Germany there are attractive offers for nicely kept 504's. The Peugeot is a special piece of history, a delicacy for fans who appreciate it.