Here at ViaRETRO we strongly believe that any classic is better than no classic, and you may have noticed that we don’t write many articles about the supposed automotive icons; the 250GTOs, Gullwings and Miuras of this world. In my recent article about my visit to the Carsington Show I specifically ignored the assembled Jaguar E-Types in favour of the more relatable cars, and sparked a debate about whether the show scene may have reached “peak E-Type”. We’re clearly not the only ones to think that way and one show in particular has been quietly growing in size and stature, with the stated aim of celebrating “the cars that were the workhorses of their day; the base model saloons, hatchbacks and estates that were sold in their millions between roughly 1968 and 1989, and are now so rare.” If there was ever a show that matches the ViaRETRO philosophy, it’s the Hagerty Festival of the Unexceptional.
It was fitting that our first attendance at the Festival also marked the first time we have had three ViaRETRO writers at one show, with myself, Anders and Claus simultaneously stalking the field. Usually this would be impossible but with a Mazda RX-7 to repatriate and wall to wall quality guaranteed, it was time to ensure a strong deployment of two Danes and a Dave.
There is so much to see we’re splitting our coverage over this week, so be sure to check back later, but I’m diving straight in with the fabulous Concours de l’Ordinaire which represents the very peak of overlooked and endangered cars. You might expect a celebration of the ordinary to be held in a windswept car park or downtrodden yard, so it may come as a surprise to learn that this event luxuriates in the seriously impressive surroundings of Stowe House, a Grade I listed stately home dating from the 18thCentury, now in the care of the National Trust. Stowe is also known for housing the famous public school, which for the benefit of any international readers unfamiliar with the terminology of the English school system, means it is in fact not open to the public, but very private and very expensive. In addition to the house, the Trust also own 750 acres of the surrounding parkland which usefully provides plenty of space to park a load of old cars.
The Concours de l’Ordinaire takes place right in front of the grand entrance to the house, thereby providing a stage to rival Pebble Beach or Lake Como. Winners at the 2017 Pebble Beach Concours included a 1955 Ferrari 375 Plus Pininfarina Cabriolet Speciale, a 1931 Hispano-Suiza J12 Saoutchik Transformable Grande Luxe and a 1967 Gyro-X Alex Tremulis Prototype. Hands up if you remember your uncle owning one of those, or your mother collecting you from school in such a machine, or of course that family holiday to Cornwall in your father’s Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8C Monterosa Boneschi Cabriolet? I thought not. Let’s look at some real cars instead. The Festival invites previous champions to display in a separate enclosure, and we find some real gems here starting with the winner of the inaugural 2014 Festival, Ed Rattley’s Nissan Cherry Europe GTi. This is not just any Nissan Cherry Europe GTi, it is the Nissan Cherry Europe GTi because you won’t find another one anywhere in the UK. This car was the product of the ill-fated cooperation between Nissan and Alfa Romeo which also spawned the Arna, demonstrating the best of Italian build quality clothed in the finest Japanese styling. It would be easy to dismiss the Cherry GTi, but what we find here are sharp lines with purposeful spoilers, twin driving lamps and a discreet set of smart alloy wheels. A look inside reveals a sturdy looking sports steering wheel and seats clad with marvellous lurid green centres which give the interior a startling splash of colour. Could the Cherry GTi be the great lost hot hatch of the 1980s? Probably not, but all credit is due for one man’s commitment to the cause and you definitely wouldn’t find one at Pebble Beach – it’s far too rare for that!
The variety of previous prize winners was impressive with the 2017 title winning Datsun Sunny 1.5GL being only a few steps away from an Austin Allegro 1750SS, a beige Hillman Minx Estate, Morris 575 pickup and an impossibly scarce and immaculate 1974 Mitsubishi Colt Lancer. The Allegro is worth a second look being a pilot production car built in December 1972. If ever an Allegro could be described as attractive, it’s this one, painted in an almost phosphorescently bright metallic blue that photographs struggle to do justice. The body is crowned with a black vinyl roof, whilst the wheels wear distinctively 70s designed black wheel trims with silver detailing and centre caps. The famous quartic steering wheel was present and correct, set against the light wood trim on the dash, but what really remains in the memory are the alarmingly yellow and beige seats and door cards. The Allegro won the People’s Choice award last year so clearly I am not alone in my assessment. Having viewed these previous champions, it is clear that victory is helped along by a big slice of nostalgia and the more unusual the exhibit, the better. With that in mind it was time to enter the grand arena and find out who would take the honours in 2018.
I usually find it quite easy to circulate at shows as I can just walk straight past the derivative MGBs, E-Types and “Sportsbeetles” in the search for something more interesting. However, I had a problem here as everything was absolutely brilliant in its own way. As someone who grew up with 70s and 80s cars, the field of attending classics resembled the everyday car parks of my youth, but the Concours d l’Ordinaire arena took it to another level. I can’t present my findings in any order of preference, so I’ll just hit it in a stream of consciousness brought on by blistering summer temperatures and sensory overload.
First up, everyone loves a Volvo 300-series don’t they? Well in case you need any convincing there were two to choose from here. The red 340 is a 1.4 litre Variomatic in base specification and showing only 53,000 miles. It’s a no frills machine with a clock instead of a rev counter and a blanking plate instead of a radio, though curiously it does have a roof mounted aerial. It was very much like the car that Volvo fired through a third floor plate glass window in the television advert that proved how strong they were, but this particular car showed no signs of such a hard life. The Variomatic transmission probably contributed to its survival as the manual cars have become popular with drifters, especially in 360 GLE form, and as luck would have it, one of those was on show too in giffer-specification metallic beige. With 30 years of perspective it’s about time the 360 is recognised as a prime sleeper classic. I did own one once, but never even saw it let alone drove it, but that’s another story. Incidentally, if Variomatics are your thing, then the car most closely associated with rubber band transmission was also present, nearly. The DAF 66 was the culmination of a couple of decades of small car development by the Eindhoven firm. At the risk of rousing any sleeping CVT experts, drive is transmitted to the wheels via centrifugal weights, vacuum effect, rubber belts and witchcraft. With no gears to restrict matters, the transmission worked as efficiently in both forward and reverse, so the cars would travel as quickly backwards as they would forwards. The Netherlands has a famously open policy where mind altering drugs are concerned. The sunflower yellow car found at the Festival was in fact the more unusual Volvo 66 variant which was a development of the Dutch original following Volvo’s purchase of the car division in 1974, and effectively the predecessor of the 300-series. The car on display was one of only 12 remaining in the UK and includes Volvo safety innovations such as high backed seats with head restraints, impact absorbing bumpers and reinforcement bars in the doors so you can drive backwards at 85mph in total safety. Bonus.
If you prefer your classics Italian, you were well catered for with some real treats. The gleaming white 1971 Fiat 125 was the forerunner of the FSO variants later built under licence in Poland. The owner bought the car five years ago from its original keeper in Malta and had it recommissioned in the UK to seemingly good effect with 0-60mph available in under 10 seconds and the five speed gearing allowing over 100 mph. To put that in 1970s perspective, that’s Escort Mexico territory and pretty impressive for a car that everyone assumes is a Lada. A car that few people would make any assumptions about is the Lancia Trevi, mainly because it’s faded beyond obscurity into a sub level of obscurity. Essentially a booted Beta it failed to make any sort of dent in the UK market, and entered a turbulent world where Lancia’s credibility had been shot to pieces by having to buy back Betas that were rapidly crumbling to dust. Corrosion is not normally a process that can be viewed in real time. Contemporary road tests of the Trevi praised the engines and handling but were dumbfounded by the bizarre dashboard which consists of 24 deep set holes into which the instruments and warning lights are scattered on a first come first served basis. The show car is one of only eight UK survivors and the only automatic remaining.
My final pick of the Italians is the 1982 Fiat Strada 65CL owned by Gavin Bushby. Handbuilt by robots, much was made of the technologically advanced factory in the marketing campaign that launched the Strada onto an unsuspecting world. It almost won the 1979 European Car of The Year award but was pipped to the post by the Talbot Horizon in one of the greatest injustices of the 20thCentury. The Strada was a better car, but it soon became evident that the robots were actually slapdash, lazy wasters and the Strada was hobbled from the start. A few 105TCs and Abarth 130TCs survive but the lesser variants are a distant memory now, which makes the car here a rare sight. Incredibly, it has covered fewer than 12,000 miles and is completely unrestored and original. Knowing what to do with a car like this must be an impossible dilemma; you can’t press it into daily service and let it deteriorate and you can’t make any improvements for fear of ruining the originality. Thankfully this one is in safe hands and clearly loved and appreciated for what it is.
French cars were strongly represented across the show, and all date from the period before their industry nosedived into crushing mediocrity, as defined by me on these very pages last week. At the risk of overdosing then, here is my rapid review of my favourite Gallic motors from the Concours arena. 1982 Peugeot 104 Z; a French import, slow but looks fast so I approve. 1986 Renault 11 TXE Electronic; it’s not really electronic but James Bond once had a go in one, though it didn’t end well. 1972 Renault 16 TS; wearing a lovely patina and looking like it had just been lifted from a Paris backstreet forty years ago. 1985 Renault 4 F6 van; I’ve always considered these to be much more usable than a 2CV and far more interesting as a result, and this one is exactly how I would have mine following a modest lottery win. There, I think I got away without any blundering into any technical inaccuracies or causing political controversy this time. Maybe?
The Festival of the Unexceptional champions the cars that were once ubiquitous and have disappeared before our eyes, and that’s certainly the case with the early Ford Sierra. The example on display was one of the very first off the line in September 1982 and represents the virtually extinct 1.6L trim level in understated Coral Beige. It may have been a car for the 1980s but “L” trim didn’t extend to a clock or even an auto choke. However, being an early car it does have the aero wheel trims and dangly door mirrors, the latter feature being a mark of the earliest Sierras. It does have a body coloured grille rather than the grey plastic type, but we’d be expecting an unreasonably level of scarcity to demand that. The Sierra was displayed next to an appealing Cortina Mk4 in ubiquitous Bermuda Blue which allowed easy comparison of what a departure the jellymould styling of the Sierra really was and it’s not surprising the new cars took a while to get established in the market.
There was no Cavalier saloon for comparison in the Concours arena but there was a stylish 2000 GLS Coupé as consolation. Owner Dan Goff and his wife had arrived in what I assume were carefully chosen 1970s costumes rather than their daily attire, and they were also partaking in a period correct picnic, so full marks for devotion to the cause. We love a Manta on ViaRETRO, and the Cavalier Coupé is welcome variation on the theme with this car in excellent order having had a respray a few years ago. With 82,000 on the clock it gets enough exercise to stay in shape and if it was mine I’d struggle not to add to that significantly. I really must get around to buying one of these at some point.
Next up is some evidence that the Europeans didn’t have the saloon car market all to themselves in the early 1980s. Datsun had the foresight to cater for the future minicab market by shipping Bluebirds into the country long before the Sunderland plant began churning them out. The 1981 Bluebird GL was displayed by owner Kev Curtis on a second-hand car sales themed pitch, instantly bringing back memories of the dodgy used car lots of my youth. The clinging signs proclaimed luxuries such as “cloth upholstery”, “tinted glass” and “automatic”, and with only 23,000 miles on the clock there is plenty of life left in it yet. The 12 months guarantee was exceedingly generous too, and there was no sign of chronic rust or sills made from newspapers and underseal. Come to think of it, this was nothing like the used car lots of my youth as the Datsun was far too tidy.
An honourable mention must go to the silver Skoda 100R coupe that was invited into the Concours from the main field. This was a fine example looking very purposeful on its minilite style wheels with a few well-chosen Czech owners club badges decorating the nose. The rear engine and rear drive layout ensures excellent traction and formed the basis for the storming 130RS rally car which dominated in class for many years. Amongst all other temptations, this car really stood out for us. And to continue the Iron Curtain vibe for a moment, a Wartburg 353 is always welcome in my world, this one being a late 4-stroke 1300.
So, to the prize giving and the announcement of the 2018 winners. With so much at stake and so many deserving cars, the crowd was silent in anticipation. The People’s Choice award very deservedly went to the time capsule Fiat Strada of Gavin Bushby. Second overall was Kev Curtis’ Datsun Bluebird so that car sales pitch theme clearly did the trick. Overall honours for 2018 went to the 1977 Chrysler Alpine rescued and restored by Guy Maylam, and more deserving victory would be hard to imagine given the work that went into getting it to this place. Believed to be the oldest Chrysler Alpine on UK roads, it had lived a hard life on the North East coast before being parked up in 1992, and left to become spectacularly rotten. A large collection of virtually unobtainable NOS panels was used to return the body to magnetic form with only the roof and one rear wing being good enough to leave untouched. The challenge of finding a myriad of trim and consumable parts was significant and a chance find of old stock seat fabric in France enabled the fragile and tattered original interior to be recovered. The dedication to such an unexceptional car typifies the ethos of the Festival and the win was therefore richly deserved. The car currently sports a number plate “UVN 17” that belongs to the first owner, but this will be returned and the car will soon have an age related “R” registration assigned. I personally can’t wait for this to happen as the lopsided spacing on the current plate makes my eye twitch and drove me nearly insane in the few hours we were there. It’s a great restoration, but please get the number plate sorted as all I can see is the maddening spacing and it’s hard to appreciate the car!
I’ve really only scratched the surface of the show and I’m handing over the Anders to cover the main parking field. Stay tuned for part two of our report, which will hopefully include the words “fabulous Cavalier SR with period Hella spot lamp grille”… but whatever the content I can guarantee that the Unexceptional will be really Exceptional.