Best Luxury Cars of the Last 50 Years

Categories Motoring

Men’s Style’s Motoring guy Jez Spinks dons his tweed jacket and cap for a cruise through the top end of automotive history.

BMW E39 5 Series
The “Ultimate driving machine” was more than a catchy slogan in 1995 when the third-generation 5 Series was released. BMW had already established a number of firsts for the brand with the 1972 original, but the elegantly designed E39 established itself as the greatest sedan in the world. As good as successors have been, they have struggled to emulate the E39’s driving purity or just-right dimensions. That includes the M5 of 2000, which, unthinkably today, was offered with only a (deadeye-shifting) manual gearbox – which manipulated an amazing V8 complete with distance-destroying torque and muscle-car soundtrack.


Citroen DS23 Pallas Electronique
Citroen’s “Goddess” was an Aladdin’s cave of innovations when it debuted in 1955 – not least with its pioneering hydro-pneumatic, self-levelling suspension that provided a crucial magic carpet ride over typically crap French roads. Under that sleek, distinctive and aerodynamically honed body were more advanced systems for effortless steering, braking and gear changes. There were even headlights that swivelled in unison with the front wheels, while detachable body panels made repairs an easier, cheaper affair. The avant-garde DS remained relevant for its entire 20-year production, and was in its most advanced and luxurious guise in one of its final forms, as the DS23 Pallas Electronique.


Ferrari 575M Maranello
The Enzo supercar made the headlines in 2002, though a significant update to the model taking the name of Ferrari’s home base rather than its founder created a wonderful GT combining elegantly restrained styling and superlative performance. 575 indicated a 250cc engine capacity increase over the 550 that had returned the brand to a front-engine layout in style, while the M stood for ‘modificata’. Beyond the V12 engine, mods included the introduction of F1-style paddle-shifters and tweaks to take the Maranello’s dynamics to another level– at their best with the fitment of a  GTC Handling Package.


Lincoln Continental
In its most decadent form – a stretched version of the convertible with its ‘suicide’ rear doors – the Continental is unfortunately associated with the world’s most famous assassination. JFK’s death aside, the model was a historical sweet spot for Ford’s luxury division. The limo’s merging of American vehicle scale and European design restraint stood out among its big-finned peers of the time. Available in multiple body styles, the Continental featured almost every automotive convenience imaginable – electrically powered seats, air-conditioning, and electric windows to name just a few. The highlight was a 1968 update, which brought a more powerful, 7.5-litre V8


Mercedes-Benz 280SL
The 300SL Gullwing of the ’50s remains the most legendary of Benz’s enduring ‘super lightweight’ series, though it was the second-generation model that allowed sales to soar. In 1963, the 230SL debuted a chic body topped with the iconic ‘pagoda’ roof – in both hardtop and soft-top. It was also the world’s first sports car with front and rear crumple zones to help absorb impacts. The last of the line was the best. After the 250SL, engine capacity for the straight six-cylinder jumped again, to 2.8 litres, in 1968. It brought sportier, 170bhp performance even worthier of the SL’s excellent handling.


Jaguar XJ6
Jaguar truly was swinging in the ’60s. Having already made the world swoon at the start of the decade with its E-Type sports car, it then delivered the peerless XJ6. William Lyons’s luxury car set the benchmark with its combination of six-cylinder performance, ride comfort and handling. Svelte, beautiful and quick, it was as popular with crims as it was with cops. A V12-powered XJ12 emerged in 1972 and the model’s success continued well into the ’80s despite quality issues with the Series 3. Jaguar’s obsession with the XJ design theme would last another two decades, before the 2008 XF finally ended relentless ‘pipe and slippers’ references to revitalise the brand.


Porsche 928
Don’t let the 928’s famous failure to replace the 911 count against it. As the first proper front-engined car developed by Porsche (the earlier 924 was essentially a VW hand-me-down), it was arguably too luxurious for its own good, with an impressive level of interior quality and features, relative practicality, and a flexible, refined V8. There was still supremely fast performance even in auto form, and the handling was great. Throw in that distinctive design combining a wedge-shaped nose with a beautifully round derriere, plus the only European Car of the Year awarded to a Porsche (1978), and you have one all-time classic sports-luxury GT that lasted 18 years.


Bugatti Veyron
Volkswagen was hardly the ‘The people’s car’ when it bought the French brand Bugatti in 1998 and set about creating the indulgently engineered, €1m-plus Veyron. Mounted behind the driver was an extravagant powerplant pairing two V8s to form a 736kW 8.0-litre W16, boosted by no less than four turbochargers. The result was acceleration to match a Formula One car: 0-100km/h in less than 2.5 seconds – and a barely credible top speed of 407km/h. The more powerful, even pricier SuperSport still occupies the page for world’s fastest production car in the Guinness Book of Records, with its 431.072km/h. Reportedly, VW money spent on this vanity project disappeared just as quickly.


Range Rover
Rover had been tinkering with the idea of a more upmarket Land Rover since the ’50s before eventually releasing the Range Rover in 1970. It was marketed as the “world’s most versatile car”, offering the on-road manners of a Rover sedan and the off-road capability of a Land Rover. Indeed, it had permanent four-wheel drive, self-levelling suspension, and a 3.5-litre V8 to deliver 100mph (160km/h) performance. It featured only two doors and a fairly utilitarian interior until the ’80s, when its sumptuous ride and gorgeous, elevated view was joined by a more luxurious fit-out. It was famously beloved by the Queen, though its regal level of coolness was truly defined by the first of the BMW generations, in 2002.


Rolls-Royce Phantom
We like to think Men’s Style is the Rolls-Royce of men’s magazines, and it’s an analogy more appropriate today than it was even a couple of decades ago. Just as models such as the Silver Seraph were starting to border on chintzy with overdoses of chrome, BMW began an impressive current era after cheekily outmanoeuvring Volkswagen for rights to the brand. In the same year a move to Goodwood completed a severance with Bentley (which VW retained), the Phantom took the rarefied world of hyper-luxurious limousines to a new level of hand-crafted opulence and imperious presence.


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