Q Car

“Through a chink too wide there comes no wonder”

Patrick Kavanagh

In the summer of ’99 my best friend got a one year visa to live and work in Australia. The fecker never came home. He’s now a dual Irish/Aussie citizen with a wife, kids and enviable lifestyle. He recently spent a few weeks at home and more often than not the conversation turned to cars. As we were chatting he told me that he had almost bought a Holden Caprice but at the last minute went for an X5. All I really knew about Holden was the fact that they produced massive lairy V8 hooligans like the Monaro. I always had the idea (and quite liked the idea) that they produced big, loud non PC cars that couldn’t possibly be sold anywhere that taxed cars in accordance with their engine size or co2 emissions. A little internet research proved me partially correct. Holden have a storied history and they have produced plenty of delinquent Aussie muscle cars over the years. However being wholly owned by GM it seems that they were coerced to sell cars from Opel (Germany’s specialist purveyors of blandness) rebadged as Holdens over the years. A little disappointing to say the least.

Silver Holden Caprice
Discreet-A ringer for the Vectra C

A little bit of investigation reveals the Caprice comes with a massive 6.0 V8 as standard. 350 tyre shredding horses. Specced to the hilt. Yet look at it. These impressive stats are truly well hidden in a discreet body. It makes me think of a stretched 3rd Gen Vectra with a small dash of Astra’s headlights and grille (GM’s fingerprints are definitely in there). The car pictured above is one of the few cars currently for sale off the peg that is a true Q Car. The term Q car comes from Britain during wartime when the British Government tried to tempt U Boats to attack warships disguised as passenger boats and then giving it to the submarine with both barrels as they surfaced. These wolves in sheep’s clothing were called Q Ships or more commonly Q Boats. Of course anyone with the money and inclination can build their own Q car but off the showroom floor they are becoming fewer and further between.

The recipe for the perfect Q car was perfected between 1966 and 1968 in Sindelfingen and is as follows:


  1. Paul Bracq’s elegant and understated W109. (minus it’s 3 litre straight 6).
  2. Mercedes’ monstrous M100 6.3 V8 from the Grosser.
  3. A discreet bootlid badge that says 6.3
  4. Erich Waxenburger (legendary Mercedes engineer)
  5. Extreme patience


    1. Using items 4 and 5 spend months trying to shoehorn item 2 into item 1
    2. Apply item 3 to the bootlid
Engine Bay of Mercedes Benz 300 SEL 6.3
This car was never designed to house such a massive engine

This will turn a 1500 kilo wafter into a 2 ton madman. However apart from a 6.3 badge on the bootlid no amount of squinting at the outside will tell you that this discreet and elegant machine with it’s advanced air suspension could make 60 in under six and a half seconds nor that it topped out at well over 140 mph (quicker off the mark than a 2015 Golf Gti out of the box!). Only a handful of dedicated sports cars at that time could match it’s performance (but could they carry 5 people and their luggage in complete comfort ?…)

Mercedes 300 SEL 6.3
Definitely on the bucket list, the beautiful 300 SEL 6.3

A 6.3 litre V8 (launched in 2010 and the most powerful normally aspirated V8 in the world) remains to this day a touchstone for performance Mercedes. However the briefest glance at any car sporting this fire-breathing monster will disabuse you quickly of any notions that Mercedes still produce Q cars. This AMG engine is only available in cars with massive wheels, multiple exhaust pipes and showy body kits – the antithesis of what I’m talking about here. This is of course understandable. Most people who spend €150k (and up!) on their car want people to know that they have spent €150k+ on their car and would recoil at the thought of such understatement. I think this is a pity. I’m not picking on Mercedes as all the big manufacturer’s performance models (M Division, RS (both Ford and Audi) and Lexus F cars spring immediately to mind) are all a bit shouty, it’s just that having perfected the Q car it’s a shame they feel there is no market for one in 2015.

Sure I had pictures of 959s and testarossas growing up and who doesn’t love scissors doors. I think there was a law in the 80’s obliging all teenage boys to have at least one red Ferrari and “that girl” lifting her skirt slightly on the tennis court plastered on their bedroom wall. Even back then though I had an interest in these “sleeper cars”. It goes without saying that I have put a lot of thought into this and my dream garage contains 3 Q Cars. In reverse order they are as follows (drum roll!)

3. Lotus Carlton: A twin turbo straight six producing 377 bhp. Barely over 5 seconds to reach 60 and capable of 177mph. The fastest saloon car in the world for 5 years. Barely anything can touch this 25 year old 4 door even today. Only available in Imperial Green (which basically means black unless you own an electron microscope). It’s not totally discreet though, (a louvred bonnet, large spoiler and 17″ wheels) are cues that hint at it’s potential. For this reason (and this reason only) it’s not top dog.

Imperial Green Lotus Carlton
Yes I know it’s an Opel Omega, but I really really want one.

2.  VW Passat W8: It is a toss up between this and the Phaeton W12. The Passat wins out though by epitomising Teutonic restraint. Slightly special wheels and a tiny grille badge means that only the most eagle eyed amongst us will spot it whilst stationary. 277hp from it’s 4 litre double V4 means everyone will notice it whilst in motion.

VW Passat W8
It really was this discreet.
    1. No prizes for guessing that Waxenburger’s gorgeous 300 SEL 6.3 sits in pride of place here. The W116 that replaced this car came with an even crazier 6.9 litre but I much prefer Paul Bracq’s delicate work over Friedrich Geiger’s attractive but slightly bluff S Class.
Mercedes 300 SEL 6.3 bootlid badge
Remove this and you’ll never know!

The current batch of uber powerful cars from all the big marques have all been taking anabolic steroids for the last 20 years (and look it!), with massive flared wheel arches, more exhausts than a power plant and rock hard suspension. The newest of the three cars in my “garage” is now over 12 years old. There really doesn’t seem to be a market for cars that don’t shout about their capabilities which really is a pity. It’s great to see someone driving a serious car who doesn’t feel the need to tell everyone about it. However it seems that there remains a small bastion of Q Car-ness and isn’t it a nice irony that it’s the brash Aussies that are leading the way?


16 thoughts on “Q Car”

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  2. Opel cars are increasingly the backbone of GM. Pontiac, Saturn, and now Buick are rebadged Opels. The Corsa platform is the biggest selling item in the GMpire. It’s lucky that Opels are pretty good cars to begin with, less lucky that Holden and Buick have lost their character. I don’t know much about Holden but I know Buick isn’t really Buick any more.
    Wouldn’t you think that it would be possible to sell a hot car without any screaming identifiers? Mechanically it would mean not applying some cosmetic trim. I suppose BMW will sell you a big engine in an ordinary-looking car if will pay up and await special delivery.


  3. You are right that it is possible to specify a Q car, I just feel it’s a real pity that there no longer seems to be a market for them. I thought the quote (although perhaps not intended to describe a Q car!) was pretty apt. It really encapsulated what I was trying to say. I did describe Opel as “Germany’s specialist purveyor’s of blandness” but in fairness the new Corsa and Astra are streets ahead of their predecessors.


  4. The Kavanagh quote is absolutely right. The Q-car leaves a lot to the imagination. The modern high-performance car spells it out. That the 6.9 SEL was advertised by a little badge is a beautiful understatement. No, the quote is perfect. Very apt.


  5. Ah, the 6.3! My wallet still flinches at the recollection 20 years later. Features like the air suspension, “engineered at no expense spared to be completely reliable” had, by the time the thing reached me, to be re-translated as “engineered to be bankruptingly expensive when it inevitably goes wrong.” A folly I could not afford, alas, and one which led me to moving instead to a 230S Fintail deliberated chosen for it’s cab driver spec (manual column gears, no PAS, though thankfully no diesel engine). A baroque, Cold War veteran that I hope my children will drive to my funeral (better make that in Berlin, perhaps?).


    1. Wow, you were brave to take that car on! My eyes are watering just imagining those repair bills. There must have been moments though when you felt important as you swished imperiously passed the proletariat?


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