Selecting ten of the coolest motor cars for this feature was no easy task. There are so many variables and options that impact on what makes a particular car cool. For example, the way a car is used or presented is crucial. A concours red Porsche Speedster with chromed adornments is uptight and neurotic and therefore not cool. Whereas a shabby, slightly careworn example which is well used and in fine road-going condition is über-cool. A modern 4x4 is the choice of a WAG, but the original off-roader is unpretentious and perfectly fit for purpose and therefore cool.
When the Octane team had to set parameters for this feature the consensus was that the term ‘cool’ sprung out of the American jazz age, so the cars had to be post-war. The debate was whether pre-war cars could be defined as being cool but the feeling was that, while they can certainly be elegant, gorgeous, rakish or flamboyant, they predate the term cool.
In the same way, pure racing cars are too hard edged and focused to be cool. They are tools to win races and that makes them aggressive, noisy and harsh. Cool cars aren’t trying quite so hard.
We came down to this disparate selection of cars: a surprisingly eclectic mix of classics of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. They are the sort of machines that look good anywhere. They can be used for the simple pleasure of driving, be it along boulevards, around twisting mountain roads, on historic rallies or even, in two cases, well and truly off-road. None is an out-and-out racing car but all attract the eye of the purist, because of their form or their function or a combination of both.
You might disagree with our selection here. But we are sure you will agree, like we do, that if you were tossed the keys to any one of these classic cars you would find it a pleasure to drive and it would add a frisson of excitement. It might even make you feel rather… cool.
Number 10 - Bentley T1
The Bentley T1 glides in at number 10...
The Bentley R Type Continental (or Bentley Continental Sports Saloon, to give it the correct nomenclature) is absolutely fabulous – but it is now worth absolutely fabulous amounts of money.
For about a tenth of the price, the T1 two-door by Mulliner Park Ward is actually more comfortable for mooching about on motorways and in traffic. We are talking the fixedheads here, in both T1 and T2 guises. (The open RR Corniches are too glitzy and Hollywood to be taken seriously.)
Bentley interiors are sublime and their massive V8s relaxed. With their ever-so-understated radiator grilles, these effortless two-door Bentleys are motor cars for true gentlemen.
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Number 9 - Mercedes-Benz 300SL
The Gullwing Mercedes-Benz 300SL is the iconic cool car
The Gullwing is a tricky one, as it is becoming the default choice of rich bods who want to take part in classic rallies. Nothing wrong with being a rich bod, but if you all drive the same immaculate Gullwings in silver with chrome wheels you are not cool.
So, to cut it, a Gullwing should look smart but well used. Even better if it is driven hard and gives the driver a few frights when the rear swing axle comes into play. On the Mille Miglia, the quick Gullwings are now set down really low at the back, with plenty of negative camber.
Boy, are they then fast through the Futa and Raticosa passes.
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Number 8 - Jaguar E-type Series 3
It's the last of the E-types that tickles Octane's fancy...
Naturally, everyone is aware the E-type Series I coupe is one of the most beautiful cars ever, but when it comes to cool the Series III has it beaten.
First, it has that V12 engine, which is silky smooth and turbines the Jaguar to an effortless 60mph in a little over six seconds. The V12 will cover continents quietly and effortlessly. But there is one crucial caveat: only the black Anniversary limited-edition run-out models (only 50 made) are cool.
Oh yes, and you must keep the (black)hardtop in place and the air-con on!
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Number 7 - Citroen SM
Citroen's Maserati-powered Euro-cruiser is achingly cool
It might have seemed like a marriage made in hell, but when Citroen teamed up with Maserati to produce the SM they issued one of the most dramatic grand tourers ever.
When it was launched in 1970, the Citroen SM’s features list read like an executive car’s tick-sheet from the late 1990s: speed-sensitive steering, steering headlights, quad-cam engine, windtunnel-honed aerodynamics.
Had this been any other car it would have been merely a geek’s delight, but thanks to dramatic styling and Euro-chic marketing it’s the coolest method yet devised of covering big distances in style.
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Number 6 - Buick Riviera
Some of the world's coolest cars hark from the USA
Oh, and the Riv’ appears in a movie, too. Unfortunately the movie is Roadhouse, starring Patrick Swayze; maybe its time has yet to come…
Corgi’s diecast toy of the Riviera came in a set with a matching speedboat and trailer, which summed up the big Buick’s image as transport for the Beautiful People of the 1960s.
Billed as a ‘personal coupe’, despite measuring nearly 17ft in length and having a 6.3-litre V8, the Bill Mitchell-penned 1963 Riviera introduced the Coke-bottle shape to car styling. Unusually, the mildly facelifted ’65 version is even better looking, thanks to headlights that retract behind the grille.
Oh, and the Riv’ appears in a movie, too. Unfortunately the movie is Roadhouse, starring Patrick Swayze; maybe its time has yet to come…
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Number 5 - DB5 Shooting Brake
Estates uncool? Hardly, when they look like this...
The ultimate in droll understatement, the DB5 shooting brake must be the smartest station wagon for use on your shooting estate in Scotland.
Just 12 were converted by Radford. You need one with a roof rack, a gun rack for the Purdeys and an AMOC badge on the grille. Beyond cool.
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Number 4 - Land Rover SIIA
Ready to conquer the world, and that makes the LR cool
The Willys Jeep is heroic but driving one in Britain seems a bit contrived and is suggestive of those quaint fellows who dress up in WW2 gear and go off to re-enact the Battle of the Bulge.
A Land Rover Series IIA, on the other hand – the ‘A’ means it has the tough 2.25-liter motor rather than the old SI’s 2-liter – looks right at home in any British village, whether driven by peasant or squire.
An example starred in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral with a bunch of upper-class twits and the beautiful Kristin Scott Thomas
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Number 3 - Ferrari California LWB
Ferrari's California really ticks our box in LWB form...
Modern Ferraris are emphatically not cool. A proper Ferrari has to have a V12 engine in the front and to make this list it has to be a car of the ’50s, when Ferraris were driven by aristocrats and playboys.
The Short Wheelbase Cal Spider grabbed the headlines when the ex-James Coburn car sold for £5.5 million last year; ding dong, but what you want is one of the 45 Long Wheelbase examples built from 1957.
It is a more relaxed car than the SWB and the money you save will buy you a nice Riva for your house on Lake Como.
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Number 2 - Mini
The Mini completely changed the way we thought about small cars...
When the Mini first appeared in 1959, the average family car buyer simply couldn't understand it. After all, it was just 10ft (and a quarter inch) long, and there was simply no way it could accommodate a family of four and their luggage. It just wasn't possible.
But Issigonis' wizardry on wheels could do just that, thanks to hugely clever packaging. But that's not what made the Mini cool - it was the sheer classlessness of the thing, and how the coolest people in the business took it to their hearts collectively. Once the Beatles, Peter Sellers and Mary Quant started getting seen in the right places behind the wheels of theirs, it was job done.
40-plus years on, the Mini remains an object of cool, although it's been helped - and hindered - by the arrival of the BMW MINI in 2001.
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Number 1 - Jaguar XKSS
A race car for the road, with looks that remain unmatched...
In the 1950s, Jaguar was the dominant British marque around the world. Its racing cars were
tearing up the opposition at circuits everywhere – particularly in the tough and dangerous Le Mans 24 Hours at La Sarthe. The motoring world was agog at the firm’s incredible string of five victories at this fast and furious French track, where speed, courage, endurance and guts were required to vanquish the opposition from Ferrari, Aston Martin and Mercedes-Benz. Names like Moss, Hawthorn, Hamilton, Rolt, Sanderson, Flockhart and Bueb are embedded in our collective consciousness.
Incredibly, if you were a well-heeled young blade in 1957, you could have picked up your heavy black Bakelite telephone receiver and dialled Coventry 88681 to order one of the devastatingly successful Le Mans race-winning D-types. Even more amazingly, you could have one suitably fettled for use on the public road.
At that time, Jaguar was absolutely the car to beat at La Sarthe. The earlier C-types had taken the crown twice in ’51 and ’53, the first time the race had been won at an average speed of over 100mph. The replacement D-type might have been victorious on its maiden outing in ’54 but for sand in the fuel tanks. It won in ’55 and ’56, and would go on to take five of the top six places in ’57, with the Ecurie Ecosse privateers securing first and second. This was the 160mph motor car for the keen, press-on driver – especially in road-going trim.
This street-legal D-type was badged the XKSS. It was a full-on production machine lightly worked over by a few fellows with their planishing hammers in the factory to make it a little more user-friendly for the gentleman driver and his genteel passenger. Work involved removing the tail fin and the division between driver and passenger, plus adding a full-width windscreen, nearside door, folding hood and side screens, touring instrument panel, well-upholstered interior, luggage rack, dainty bumpers and rear lights from the XK140. And that was it: from race winner to road car with a little deft use of the old tin-snips!
At the end of the 1956 season, Jaguar had announced its withdrawal from direct involvement in motor sport, saying that it would rather leave the racing to privateer teams. The 100 planned D-types were proving difficult to shift, so the company came up with the idea of the XKSS. But three weeks after the launch of the new model, fire gutted the Browns Lane works and destroyed the body jigs and other tooling used to manufacture the D-types. Nine cars were lost in the blaze, although the 16 that had already been converted to XKSS-spec survived. The factory later reworked two more customer-owned D-types to road-going mode, so the 18 limited-edition XKSS cars (as opposed to 54 C-types and 77 D-types) remain the rarest production-line Jags in existence.
Some might argue that the XKSS is neither the most beautiful nor the most graceful of classic Jaguars. The original XK120 Fixed-Head Coupé, the C-type and the E-type are often held up as being some of the best designs to have come out of Browns Lane, and they certainly are stunningly styled. However, the XKSS has an extra quality that makes it supremely special: it remains a savagely successful racing car, half-civilised for road use.
Except it wasn’t! It was, in fact, a worked-over long-distance competition machine equipped with rudimentary road-going equipment to make it conform to the Sports Car Club of America’s ‘Class C Production’ regulations for wealthy gentlemen drivers to enjoy in the prestigious club racing in the ’States. That never came to fruition as insufficient numbers were produced. The equivalent today would be putting a call into Audi’s competition department on your iPhone and asking if it has any R10 TDI Le Mans cars to go. With air-conditioning and parking sensors, naturally; well, it is a diesel, after all!
The clues to the Jaguar XKSS’s race car intent are evident in the heat-shielded exterior exhaust pipe that runs under the passenger door. Then there are the leather bonnet straps, lock-down catches, exposed rivets, stick-on front number plate and magnesium wheels, all of which indicate this purposeful motor car’s aspirations. The dry-sump engine and an instrument panel that would look at home in a Supermarine Spitfire rather give the game away as well…
Steve McQueen is undoubtedly becoming overexposed in the classic car world as ‘Mr Cool’. But he was the most popular and highest-earning actor of his time, and he knew a thing or two about exciting motors, ranging from countless flat-out laps in a Porsche 917 whilst filming Le Mans to throwing a green Ford Mustang around the streets of San Francisco in Bullitt. McQueen owned a whole host of fast cars – including a Jaguar XKSS.
He purchased his own example in 1956 and enjoyed blasting it up Mulholland Drive. On one occasion he was pulled over for speeding. His wife Neile in the passenger seat was six months’ pregnant, so he came up with the excuse that she was in labour. A police escort rushed them to hospital where, of course, the ‘false alarm’ was exposed. McQueen sold his XKSS in 1969, but bought it back in 1977 and kept it until his death in 1980. The man could have had any motor car he chose, and he chose the XKSS.
Looking at the example in these wonderful photographs, it really is the most evocative creation. Malcolm Sayer’s aerodynamic aluminium bodywork appears to have been sparely poured over the mechanical components underneath, yet it proved to be functional, distinctive, beautiful and assertive. The aerodynamics were extremely advanced for the time, aiding the car’s prodigious top speed. All in the name of engineering efficiency, granted, but just look at the feline curves, open snout, upwardly thrusting bonnet line, taut flanks, powerful hips and tightly tapered rump. The Jaguar is pure animal! It exudes an instinct for speed and action. It is handsome yet feminine. All astonishing stuff from those hard-bitten engineers from the Midlands.
In absolute detail the windscreen, reputedly a rear window from a Buick or Chrysler, is a little too upright, while the soft-top is a very simple device and the bumpers are vestigial at best. But so what? This simply gives the SS racing car an attractive and dangerous demeanour. These additions were an attempt to make this Mulsanne warrior just decorous enough for road use.
Driving the supposedly ferocious XKSS is much like driving any other of the marque’s classics. While it is a pure-bred racing car capable of 160mph flat-out with a 4.7-second lunge to 60mph from rest, it remains, instinctively, a Jaguar. So it has an underlying gentleness – an initial softness and relaxed feel. But tweak its tail and the fangs emerge.
The 3.4-liter dry-sump straight-six runs on three Weber DCO3/45mm carburetors and pumps out a fulsome 250bhp. But it also produces a swell of torque – 242lb ft at 4000rpm – so it is no high-revving prima donna. Characteristically, that evocative engine is the heart of this sports car; a masterpiece of design, performance and reliability. The work of William Heynes, Harry Weslake and Walter Hassan, it is undoubtedly one of the best power units the world has ever seen. Like any great piece of engineering design the Jaguar works all-of-a-piece. To complement the lusty motor, the seductive body not only looks delicious but also gives the car a wind-cheating form to achieve its absolute best. It is incredible to realise that the XKSS weighs just 921kg (2030lb).
It has front and rear spaceframe sub-structures bolted to a central monocoque of sheet aluminum. The front suspension uses unequal-length forged-steel wishbones sprung by longitudinal torsion bars. The rear suspension consists of a live axle located by four trailing arms. A single transverse torsion bar is attached to the forward ends of the lower arms and an A-shaped member provides lateral location. With anti-roll bars front and rear plus rack-and-pinion steering, the simple suspension proves remarkably effective – especially at getting muscle down on a smooth race circuit.
So, with power, aerodynamic efficiency and a capable chassis taken care of, what else does the all-conquering Jaguar have to offer? Dunlop disc brakes: emphatically the chaps from Coventry were ahead of the international competition in this important area.
At the top of its game then – but what is the XKSS like to drive? In a word: fabulous. The whole fighter plane analogy comes to mind. Its leather interior has an aroma of a rich history. Those soft aluminum body curves suggest high-speed miles tearing down dark roads as fast as you dare.
Once you’ve settled in behind that large wood-rimmed steering wheel, the Jaguar is a tight fit. Switch on, allow the fuel pumps to prime, depress the starter button and fire up. The Webers emit a more hungry sucking sound than the usual SUs found on most Jaguar engines, and they spit and fluff initially. Allow the motor to come up to temperature and it produces an oily scent as it becomes ready.
The obstreperous old Moss gearbox wants more time, so be patient; the clutch needs a good shove and the shift requires a firm but slow hand. The XKSS moves off in high first gear. Press the throttle pedal and the car leaps forward. On the move, the steering is super sharp and the Jag immediately feels light and frisky. On broken roads the firm and rudimentary suspension is challenged, but the lightweight chassis compensates for that. You place the car with the seat of your pants – plant your foot and hold on, because it lunges forward with a willingness that is irrepressible. And the soundtrack is orchestral, the fit and strong bark of a race-tuned Jaguar engine.
Lithe and lusty, the XKSS is resolutely a pure-bred racing thoroughbred only ever available to the few. It offers unfettered driving in its purest form. On skinny tyres it will slide and counter-slide, lock its brakes, and react to your slightest wrist action and prod of the throttle with an unremitting zeal. It is probably the most thinly disguised competition machine for the road. And as such, in our estimation, it is the coolest motor car. Ever.