There’s something about a big, luxury car from the 1970s that’s hard to top. It might be their vast size, the fact that they ooze dictator-style chic, or merely that they date from an era when trifling concerns like safety could be comfortably bumped down the order of importance to make way for style, but whatever the reason, they’re cooler than a penguin in a deep freeze.
We’re fortunate enough to have been able to build examples of two of the finest luxury cars from the 1970s, Project Kaiser (our W108 project) and the recently completed Jaguar XJC. The cars have much in common yet have emerged from the Retropower build process with distinct, clearly defined characters, a legacy of the unique briefs set down by their respective owners. We thought we’d thrown the spotlight on both, just to show what can happen when you opt to re-engineer an executive express from the era of prog rock, the three day week and punk.
All Retropower builds begin in a similar fashion, with the car carefully stripped to a bare shell before being media blasted, in turn giving us a clear idea of exactly what we’re working with. In the case of the big Jag, this revealed plenty of rot dotted throughout (hardly surprising given that this is a British car from an era when rust prevention was hardly a source of national pride), most notably at the base of the B-pillar, the rear arches and the inner sills.
It was midway through the fabrication and bodywork process that the owner of the Jaguar opted to change course slightly, which led us to carry out some drastic bodywork revisions to the rear arches. We also carried out a slew of supporting bodywork tweaks, namely a smoothed rear valance, deleted vinyl roof and bespoke bumpers, the latter created by cutting and slimming down the side sections and ‘end-caps’ from another set of Jaguar items. Bumpers aside, much of the Jag has been de-chromed, a way of making its damn near perfect exterior proportions that bit more apparent, and a step which also saw us scratch build a one-off upper grille.
We’ve received a fair amount of stick for opting to fit an LS3 V8 into the nose of the XJC as opposed to something from closer to home, the supercharged V8 from a more modern XJ the most common suggestion. Our decision to turn to our friends ‘across the pond’ for propulsion was made on grounds of reliability, mass, and parts supply, the GM ‘crate engine’ able to produce an effortless 430bhp without even breaking a sweat, much less straight up breaking!
Messing about with the interior of a Jaguar is a fraught business, as let’s face it, models from this era have a ‘smoking room’ opulence all of their own. There’s always room for improvement though, particularly when it comes to replacing the full complement of BL ‘parts bin special’ switchgear littering the XJC’s dash. These have been evicted in favour of hydro dipped aluminium, a material used for custom switches, the centre console much else besides, while the interior itself has been re-trimmed in swathes of tobacco coloured leather. The best bit? Probably the Supermarine Spitfire sourced starter button – tally ho.
Convention and custom dictated the form of the suspension, with much of the standard hardware retained (having first been rebuilt, blasted and powder coated, naturally), plus the addition of the rear axle from mid ’90s XJS. This gifted us a Limited Slip ‘Diff, wheel speed sensors, vented discs and better suspension, at a stroke improving the overall handling ability of this big cat.
Mercedes Benz W108 ‘Project Kaiser’
Big Jags too wholesome for you? Then what you need is a classic ‘stack light’ Mercedes, which, thanks to their popularity with East African dictators throughout the ’70s, might well be the most menacing car ever built. The one currently passing through the Retropower workshop is an especially threatening looking beast, and that’s before we even touch upon its trump car – a thumping great LS V8.
Bodywork was one of the biggest challenges in the early phase of this project, that and working out how best to get the finished car sitting as close to the ground as possible without it clouting everything from cat’s eyes to speed humps. Doing just this has seen us re-mount both front and rear subframes further up within the shell, effectively killing two birds with one stone; optimum suspension travel is retained, and all while the W108 looks better than it ever has.
Minor, seemingly insignificant changes can make a massive difference on a build like this, and the W108’s wheels are a classic example. There was no way that the OE 13in steels were going to cut the mustard, but then again neither would a set of modern alloys – that would be akin to scrawling a ‘stache on the Mona Lisa! The solution, or at least the one we plumped for, was to order a set of 17in steels from US Wheel, then fit them with a specially cut down set of factory Mercedes wheel trims. The results rather speak for themselves, particularly when the aforementioned suspension system is, as the kids say, ‘aired out.’
The deviations from standard Mercedes spec aren’t limited to the wheels and suspension, the W108’s interior also groans under the (figurative) weight of custom tweaks. The centre console, an unbroken sweep running from front to back, is a good example. It will eventually house a pair of bespoke cubby holes, home to both the air suspension controls, a wireless phone charging facility, and in a nod to the owner’s occupation, a custom recess for a suitably high end bottle of single malt scotch.
Long time followers of Retropower will be aware that we’re firm believers in the virtues of a big, powerful, naturally aspirated engine, which is why we often turn to the LS3 V8 ‘crate engine’ whenever the need for monstrous power and rock solid reliability arises. This is why you’ll now find one of GM’s finest when you peek under the bonnet of Project Kaiser, a rock-solid setup good for approximately 450bhp.
So, which of these two old school executive cruisers would you rather be handed the keys to, the re-engineered big cat or the super-low ‘stack light?’