Dream drop-tops: Aston vs Mercedes vs Citroën vs Jensen vs Rolls

| 3 Sep 2019
Classic & Sports Car – Dream drop-tops: Aston vs Mercedes vs Citroën vs Jensen vs Rolls

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If Danny Donovan were Willy Wonka, then his DD Classics showroom, just off the A4 in Brentford, London, would be his chocolate factory.

Every kind of taste in automotive confectionery is catered for, from an early ’50s Citroën 2CV to Ferrari Daytonas and Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadsters – both of the latter available in a choice of colours.

There must be 200 classics on site; if you walked in with £100,000 to spend and didn’t go home in something tasty, you probably don’t really want to own an old car.

When applying the ‘what would you take home?’ test, one’s natural urge is to go for pure exotica of the Ferrari/Maserati/Lamborghini persuasion; you almost trip over a Miura SV as you walk in the door and hardly acknowledge its Espada and 400GT brethren among the sensory overload of gleaming steel.

But better value is to be found in the realm of luxury four-seater convertibles.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drop-tops: Aston vs Mercedes vs Citroën vs Jensen vs Rolls
Classic & Sports Car – Dream drop-tops: Aston vs Mercedes vs Citroën vs Jensen vs Rolls
l-r: Jensen’s stout nose contrasts with the long 280SE; dashing Décapotable

These are a more approachable, usable type of car; historically rarer than their fixed-head siblings (in most cases) and always more sought-after because they are adaptable to the weather and thus make perfect sense if, like most people, you put away your classic for the winter anyway.

They do not necessarily come with exotic running costs, and with the best power-assists the technology of 40 or 50 years ago could provide, they’re not intimidating to drive for old-car novices.

Best of all, with four seats you can share the enjoyment with friends and family; or justify your purchase to those who need placating.

So we selected five luxury four-seater drophead candidates from the DD Classics fleet, ranging in age from the late ’60s to the early ’80s, and in price from an eye-watering £700,000 to a little more than £60,000.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drop-tops: Aston vs Mercedes vs Citroën vs Jensen vs Rolls
The GT’s progress is refined and suitably quick

Did I say something about value for money? The price-tag of the DB6 Volante raises all sorts of questions about the cost of 1960s Aston Martins that are difficult to explain or justify. But it is hardly the car’s fault that it commands a figure close to that of the others combined.

It is a rare, beautiful, handmade, alloy-bodied grand touring convertible with huge snob value and ego-boosting credentials.

These open-topped DB6s have an odd history, because the first 1965-’66 cars were really uprated DB5s. Only from 1967 onwards did the open car get the DB6 saloon-style upswept tail – derived from the DP Project cars – and were officially Aston Martin Volantes, not DB6s.

This 1968 car, as perfect underneath as it is on top, is one of 140 MkIs; a further 38 MkII Volantes were built from 1969 to ’70, identifiable by their slightly flared wheelarches.

With a handsome twin-cam 4-litre straight-six and solid rear axle, this was quite a traditional vehicle even in the late ’60s. Its power steering, windows and hood meant it was a car that shifted the emphasis from touring to grandness.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drop-tops: Aston vs Mercedes vs Citroën vs Jensen vs Rolls
Classic & Sports Car – Dream drop-tops: Aston vs Mercedes vs Citroën vs Jensen vs Rolls
l-r: ZF gearbox a welcome upgrade; the Aston’s gorgeous straight-six

It is quite dainty by modern standards, with very little unnecessary ornamentation; the raised tail is not the prettiest thing about the shape, but it probably only suffers in comparison with the DB4/5.

The seating is low, the car quite narrow, and the overall feeling is of well-turned-out functionalism rather than showy plushness.

The Borg-Warner automatics were the kiss of death in these cars, but this one has a modern ZF four-speed that is much more versatile, responsive and adaptable to the torque characteristics of the straight-six; the Aston accelerates with the sort of assertiveness you have a right to expect and sounds glorious doing it.

If, at this kind of money, all rational comparisons exit stage left, at least the appeal of the DB6 is easy to appreciate.

It feels mechanically refined yet ruggedly vintage, with smoothly responsive brakes and steering. Like a fine shotgun or an expensive pair of shoes, it is satisfying to handle.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drop-tops: Aston vs Mercedes vs Citroën vs Jensen vs Rolls
Volante has slender looks – and quite some price-tag

I’m not sure it is quite possible to say the same of the Mercedes-Benz 280SE 3.5 Cabriolet, wonderful car though it is, because it is of a more modern generation.

I owned the Coupé version and loved it – I’ve probably never owned a better old car – but the enormous premium commanded by the Cabriolets (this one is up at £300,000) has always been a little hard to fathom.

In Coupé form it is perhaps the best-looking Mercedes-Benz of all; as a Cabriolet, with the (manually operated) hood piled up above the rear seats, it works a little less well.

It is still a very handsome thing, even if the heavy bumpers and massive, fat seats give it something of a war-criminal-on-holiday feel.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drop-tops: Aston vs Mercedes vs Citroën vs Jensen vs Rolls
The Mercedes-Benz commands the road

It is the magic numbers ‘3.5’ on the bootlid that get Mercedes collectors excited. This was a short-lived variant in which M-B’s new 200bhp V8 made its debut; 1232 were built.

The top speed was boosted to more than 120mph, and seconds were chopped from the 0-60mph time.

Like most 3.5s, this fully restored, US-market car is highly specified to include air-conditioning and the all-important Becker Mexico stereo; leather and power windows were standard.

The column-shift auto gearbox comes as no surprise, because almost all 3.5s were self-shifters; you have to be a little perverse to want the manual.

It has crisp, authoritative acceleration, with a subdued and expensive snarl from its dual tailpipes. It runs through its four ratios abruptly and there is a feeling that it wants you to ease up on the throttle before it will change gear.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drop-tops: Aston vs Mercedes vs Citroën vs Jensen vs Rolls
Classic & Sports Car – Dream drop-tops: Aston vs Mercedes vs Citroën vs Jensen vs Rolls
l-r: high-spec cabin; the Mercedes’ V8 has 200bhp

If you are only used to the teeth-chattering ride of most modern cars, the supple 280SE 3.5 will be revelatory.

It feels stable and happy enough on a motorway, apart from the low overall gearing (80mph is 4000rpm). There is something comforting about sitting behind that three-pointed star, amid lavish appointments of finely figured walnut and chrome detailing.

The non-original Nardi wheel feels a bit out of place, controlling excellent power assistance that gives you as much information as you need.

You quickly trust in the Mercedes’ natural poise and ability to make swift, majestic progress.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drop-tops: Aston vs Mercedes vs Citroën vs Jensen vs Rolls
The three-pointed star is smooth and stable

The £120,000 DS Décapotable is perhaps the perfect antidote to the Wagnerian Mercedes.

As an officially catalogued Citroën model, Chapron built 1365 between 1961 and 1971, although just 483 were on the DS21 base unit.

Like most Décaps this car has the leather trim and the Jaeger multi-dial dash, although there are few other trinkets.

Not that it matters; it’s all about the technology, the comfort, the elegance of a body that is the embodiment of chic, and the rewards of driving something that (once you’ve got to grips with the counter-intuitive nature of its controls) doesn’t give up its secrets easily.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drop-tops: Aston vs Mercedes vs Citroën vs Jensen vs Rolls
The Citroën’s pretty and iconic silhouette

The driving position is commanding on soft armchair seats. To turn on the ignition and start, the gearlever is pushed left.

The engine sounds plodding but dependable and, with the gearbox mounted up front, the floor is nice and flat.

The hydropneumatics swallow the bumps like almost nothing else, and the super-sensitive, high-pressure braking system puts the car on its nose with the merest caress of the rubber ‘mushroom’ in place of a conventional pedal.

What’s more, there is no clutch; you simply manipulate a delicate little stick on top of the steering column, handily placed so that you can control the single-spoke wheel with a hooked thumb at the same time.

As long as you remember to ease up on the gas between shifts, the changes are quick and smooth; and while 2.1 litres of in-line ‘four’ is no match for straight-six thrum (or V8 shove), the torquey DS goes well enough.

The fascination of learning to drive it smoothly, and the high limits of its front-wheel-drive roadholding, make up for a lot.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drop-tops: Aston vs Mercedes vs Citroën vs Jensen vs Rolls
Classic & Sports Car – Dream drop-tops: Aston vs Mercedes vs Citroën vs Jensen vs Rolls
Classic & Sports Car – Dream drop-tops: Aston vs Mercedes vs Citroën vs Jensen vs Rolls
Clockwise from top left: the DS has an innovative interior; torquey engine; the Citroën’s soft ride is hard to match

The Jensen Interceptor Convertible is unlikely to appeal to the same kind of driver, but at around £80,000 it has a lot to offer in this exalted company.

Launched in the teeth of the fuel crisis in 1974, it was a car that seemed to go against the grain.

Convertibles looked as if they might be legislated out of existence, and not all that many people wanted to be seen in a 12mpg, 7.2-litre car – even if it did cost roughly half the price of a Corniche, which at the time was its only true rival in the luxury convertible class.

It was almost Jensen’s last throw of the dice and its initial success suggested that it should have built a convertible version of the Interceptor years earlier.

Carrozzeria Touring’s drawings had been available from the start and it was an easy transformation because the rugged chassis needed very little stiffening.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drop-tops: Aston vs Mercedes vs Citroën vs Jensen vs Rolls
Muscle-car styling for the Jensen

Of the 267 built, 80% were exported. Most went to America, where the likes of Frank Sinatra and Quinn Martin floated about Beverly Hills in them.

Author Harold Robbins was a big fan, too. That Penthouse gave an Interceptor Convertible away to its ‘Pet of the Year’ in 1975 only added to the car’s louche image.

In platinum silver, with a power-operated blue Everflex hood, the Jensen looks as good with the top up as it does with it lowered – something few convertibles achieve. Nor does the hood eat into the legroom of the individual rear armchairs.

Swathed in dark-blue leather, with new Wilton carpet underfoot, this car has the late walnut dash – boxy and unappealing to my eyes – with a cheap-looking clock. But it redeems itself by having that essential piece of Jensen equipment: an 8-Track player.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drop-tops: Aston vs Mercedes vs Citroën vs Jensen vs Rolls
Classic & Sports Car – Dream drop-tops: Aston vs Mercedes vs Citroën vs Jensen vs Rolls
l-r: Lecarra wheel in the Interceptor; 7.2 motor is the largest of this group

The alarming, muscle-car acceleration of earlier Interceptors is lost in these later 7.2-litre Series IIIs. Instead it gained a quietly impressive thrust that still maintained the impression that it was a car hard-pushed to break into a sweat.

Its automatic gearbox is typically superb; you just put it in Drive and forget about it.

The Interceptor has a loping stride and, on firm springs, pleasing manners that belie its cart-sprung rear axle and front suspension not all that distantly related to an Austin Westminster’s.

It’s still a great package and still value for money in the grand scheme of things. Skilfully refined and developed, it is a car that could have kept on selling way beyond 1976.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drop-tops: Aston vs Mercedes vs Citroën vs Jensen vs Rolls
Hood raised or lowered, the Jensen looks the part

It is strange to consider that its only real rival, the Rolls-Royce Corniche Convertible, was already a nine-year-old model by that stage. Who would have thought that it would still be in production almost two decades later?

This left-hooker dates from 1980 and was sold new in Oklahoma. It has 52,000 miles behind it and could be yours for £64,950.

It’s an injected model, so down on power compared to the home-market Corniches, but still a lovely thing.

The graceful, curved hip shape dates back to 1967 and the first of the Mulliner Park Ward drophead Shadows, but the Corniche name and various enhancements didn’t arrive until 1971.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drop-tops: Aston vs Mercedes vs Citroën vs Jensen vs Rolls
Torque is key to the Corniche’s momentum

It is based on the Shadow II, which means rubber bumpers, rack-and-pinion power steering and, on this 1980 model, the much-improved Silver Spirit-type rear suspension.

Inside, the level of detail, the action of the switches, the smooth silence of the power windows and the flawless gloss of the veneers put the cabin atmosphere in another league.

Where other V8s can’t help but throb, this whispers – the aim being to divorce the occupants from the machinery and the outside world.

The power deficit is noticeable enough that you might not be able to live with it (or the fact that the speedo only runs up to 80mph, in true American style) but in most circumstances it feels fairly brisk, with torque being the key factor.

Commanding views, great steering lock and strong, smooth brakes give the Corniche perfect town manners.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drop-tops: Aston vs Mercedes vs Citroën vs Jensen vs Rolls
Classic & Sports Car – Dream drop-tops: Aston vs Mercedes vs Citroën vs Jensen vs Rolls
l-r: incomparable cabin; the Rolls’ serene 6.7-litre V8

Some magic must have been worked on the suspension, because it rides delightfully yet takes corners with a lack of roll and understeer that is almost disquieting. I was looking forward to some roly-poly barge action.

While there are strong signs that prices of Corniches are picking up, they are still inexplicably cheap for what is, after all, a coachbuilt Rolls-Royce convertible.

Each one took four to six months to build at the Mulliner Park Ward factory and it was easily the most expensive convertible in the world when it was new.

If you want an Aston Martin Volante or a Mercedes-Benz 280SE 3.5 Cabriolet, nothing I say is going to change your mind. Ditto the Jensen Interceptor and the Citroën DS.

They are great cars, rare cars, beautiful cars; but for me they only serve to highlight the near-bargain status of the Rolls-Royce Corniche at the moment.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drop-tops: Aston vs Mercedes vs Citroën vs Jensen vs Rolls
A delectable gathering of classic drop-tops

It doesn’t worry me, in fact it means I still might be able to afford one, and I understand why a car with so much social baggage might not be a statement everybody wants to make.

If you struggle to put these concepts to one side and fail to see the Corniche for what it is – as an engineering accomplishment, a car that could go on virtually for ever given the right attention – then you are missing one of the classic car world’s last great affordable experiences.

And ask yourself this: if you had to drive one of these cabriolets back home across Europe, which would you choose? I’d wrestle you to the ground for the keys to the Roller.


Images: Olgun Kordal

Thanks to DD Classics, and to The Royal Automobile Club for the use of Woodcote Park


Classic & Sports Car – Dream drop-tops: Aston vs Mercedes vs Citroën vs Jensen vs Rolls
The Volante’s tail

FACT FILES

Aston Martin DB6 Volante

  • Sold/number built 1965-’70/215 (37 short-chassis, 140 Mk1s, 38 Mk2s)
  • Construction steel platform chassis with Superleggera alloy body, tubular steel frame
  • Engine all-alloy, dohc 3995cc straight-six, with triple twin-choke Weber 45DCOE carburettors
  • Max power 282bhp @ 5750rpm
  • Max torque 290lb ft @ 4500rpm
  • Transmission all-synchro ZF five-speed manual or three-speed auto, RWD
  • Suspension: front independent by double wishbones, coil springs, Armstrong telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar rear live axle, trailing arms, Watt linkage, Armstrong Selectaride lever-arm dampers
  • Steering rack and pinion (ZF power option)
  • Brakes discs, with servo
  • Length 15ft 2in (4623mm)
  • Width 5ft 6in (1676mm)
  • Height 4ft 6in (1372mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 5in (2565mm)
  • Weight 3223lb (1467kg)
  • 0-60mph 6.1 secs (coupé)
  • Top speed 148mph
  • Mpg 12.5
  • Price new £5062 (1968)
  • Price now £700,000
     

Mercedes-Benz 280SE 3.5 Cabriolet

  • Sold/number built 1969-’71/1232
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-heads, single-overhead-cam-per-bank 3499cc 90º V8, Bosch fuel injection
  • Max power 200bhp @ 5800rpm
  • Max torque 211lb ft @ 4000rpm
  • Transmission five-speed manual or four-speed auto, RWD
  • Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones, anti-roll bar rear low-pivot swing-axles; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering power-assisted recirculating ball
  • Brakes discs front, drums rear, with servo
  • Length 16ft 2in (4923mm)
  • Width 6ft ½in (1848mm)
  • Height 4ft 8in (1422mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 11½in (2731mm)
  • Weight 3850lb (1746kg)
  • 0-60mph 8.4 secs
  • Top speed 128mph
  • Mpg 17
  • Price new £7000 (1971)
  • Price now £300,000
     

Citroën DS21 Décapotable

  • Sold/number built 1960-’75/483
  • Construction steel punt with GRP bootlid, aluminium bonnet
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, ohv 2175cc ‘four’, with twin-choke Weber carburettor
  • Max power 109bhp @ 5500rpm
  • Max torque 121lb ft @ 3000rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual or hydraulic semi-automatic, FWD
  • Suspension independent, at front by twin leading arms rear trailing arms; self-levelling hydropneumatic units, anti-roll bar f/r
  • Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
  • Brakes inboard discs front, drums rear, with power assistance
  • Length 15ft 11in (4851mm)
  • Width 5ft 10½in (1791mm)
  • Height 5ft 2½in (1588mm)
  • Wheelbase 10ft 3in (3124mm)
  • Weight 2899lb (1315kg)
  • 0-60mph 12.7 secs
  • Top speed 105mph
  • Mpg 27
  • Price new c£4000
  • Price now £120,000
     

Jensen Interceptor III Convertible

  • Sold/number built 1966-’76/6408 (all)
  • Construction steel body welded to tubular steel frame
  • Engine all-iron, ohv 7212cc V8, with four-barrel Carter carburettor
  • Max power 284bhp @ 4800rpm
  • Max torque 383lb ft @ 3200rpm
  • Transmission three-speed automatic, RWD
  • Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, Panhard rod; telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
  • Brakes ventilated discs, with servo
  • Length 15ft 8in (4775mm)
  • Width 5ft 10in (1780mm)
  • Height 4ft 5in (1345mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 9in (2665mm)
  • Weight 4030lb (1832kg)
  • 0-60mph 6.9 secs
  • Top speed 140mph
  • Mpg 10
  • Price new £9683 (1974)
  • Price now £80,000
     

Rolls-Royce Corniche Convertible

  • Sold/number built 1966-’95/7370
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine all-alloy, ohv 6230/6750cc V8, with twin SU HD8 carburettors or Bosch K-Jetronic/MK-Motronic fuel injection
  • Max power 215bhp @ 4200rpm
  • Max torque 325lb ft @ 1450rpm
  • Transmission three- or four-speed auto, RWD
  • Suspension independent, at front by wishbones, telescopic dampers rear semi-trailing arms; coil springs, anti-roll bar, self-levelling f/r (to ’69 at front)
  • Steering power-assisted recirculating ball (rack and pinion from 1977)
  • Brakes power-assisted discs (ventilated front from 1972)
  • Length 17ft ½in (5196mm)
  • Width 6ft 2in (1836mm)
  • Height 5ft (1518mm)
  • Wheelbase 10ft ½in (3061mm)
  • Weight 5346lb (2430kg)
  • 0-60mph 10.7 secs
  • Top speed 125mph
  • Mpg 10
  • Price new £12,078 (1970)
  • Price now £65,000

READ MORE

Grandest tourers: Aston Martin vs Maserati

Buyer’s guide: Jensen Interceptor and FF

Buyer’s guide: Rolls-Royce Corniche