Believe it or not, I am actually a busy man and time is a precious commodity. I may appear to spend prolonged periods staring blankly out of the window, but that is purely a tactic to throw people off the scent. Like all internationally mobile successful players I need to focus my efforts on those ventures that will generate the highest rewards, and not squander my energy on those that will disappoint. Many local car shows are perfectly acceptable places to shuffle around and spot MGBs, but it’s a rare event that pays out like a Las Vegas one-armed bandit drunk on cocktails.
It’s also best if I don’t have to travel far, because time is money and all that. Ashover show is always one of the most interesting in Derbyshire, now in its 8th year and organised by an alliance of local Rotary Clubs. It can normally be relied upon for some interesting cars and we decided to hit it for a couple of hours just around lunchtime to pick out the best of bunch. As you’ll see from my laser focussed selection, we were not disappointed.
First up, let’s jump back twenty five years and if you don’t know what to do with that worthless Mk2 Ford Escort you have lying around we’ve got a reminder of the answer here. Don’t waste your time fixing the frilly bodywork and pouring money into a hopeless old seventies Ford. You probably can’t get the parts anyway and who’d want it when it was finished? It’s a far better idea to convert it into a stylish country estate at far less outlay than one of those Range Rover Vogues or whatever. Yes, what you want is a Rickman Ranger, I mean even the name is halfway there already. It all probably seemed a good idea at the time and Rickman found home for about 1,000 kits of various types, with the Ranger being the best known. With GRP bodywork and a galvanised chassis, the corrosion problems of the donor cars aren’t a concern and the Ranger looks far better than many kit cars with its Suzuki SJ influenced styling. The running gear is borrowed from the Ford and the whole venture comes from a time when Escorts were largely considered to be only fit for landfill. Hindsight now takes a rather different view, but why not embrace the best of both and build a BDA powered Ranger? I can’t imagine that being dangerous at all.
After spotting a rare Volvo 66 at the recent Festival of the Unexceptional I mused that the original DAF variants are also rarely seen, but Ashover gave generously with an unexpected trio of DAF 44s. I don’t know what the collective term for DAFs is, perhaps a “band” given the Variomatic transmission? You can have that gem for free, no credit necessary. The DAF is not grandly proportioned but the two-cylinder 844cc engine is so compact that there is still room for the spare wheel to live in the engine bay. The 44 was also available in estate and panel van forms, but the gaggle here were all saloons.
If a section of DAFs isn’t unusual enough for you, an Austin Allegro probably isn’t going to cut it, but all was not what it seemed. For starters, this specific Allegro appears to have hydragas failure but there are conventional shocks and springs under there instead. It also carries a registration number from three years after the end of Allegro production so there’s something odd going on. A trip round the back deepens the mystery as Allegros are not normally rear-engined, neither are they twin carb flat-four powered. It turns out that what we have here isn’t an Allegro at all. Under the red herring of a bodyshell lurks the complete floorpan, chassis, suspension and running gear of a 1984 Mexican import Beetle. As the floorpan hasn’t been altered the car is still registered as a Volkswagen, just one that has been re-bodied in the most inventive way. Whether a Beetle / Allegro combo improves either vehicle is up for debate, but there is a fair bit of skill gone into making it happen and if you’ve always wanted a rear wheel drive Allegro, here it is. It pleases me that people spend their time in this way.
As with most shows there were rows of generic Minis and wretched Volkswagen camper vans. Real individualism is desperately hard to find in such circles, so I was pleased to see a brown Wolseley Hornet parked away from the others. If I had approached it from the front I may have missed it entirely however, as the upright Hornet nose is gone, replaced by Clubman front panels. Of course such a creation never escaped from the factory partially because the Hornet ceased production in the same year the Clubman entered, but mostly because it looks odd. It may not be completely cohesive but it gives the air of a blind alley prototype that may otherwise only exist in a BMC stamped black and white photograph. The Wolseley badge has been neatly applied to the centre of the Clubman grille and the Hornet script nestles exactly where the design office may have placed it. In fact, the more I look, the more I like it and you can’t argue with that colour.
Volkswagen campers are unfortunately ubiquitous and anything but interesting. They do seem destined to stalk the earth until the end of time, and there would appear to be an active breeding programme with them multiplying at every show. Some started life as panel vans that were converted to campers because realistically a rear engine van is a stupid idea as the load bay is compromised and you end up only being able to use the side door for anything remotely heavy or bulky. Ford make real vans and the Transit has been showing the world how it’s done since 1965. In contrast to the VW where a poor van made an adequate camper, the Transit made an excellent job of both, but the period motorhome conversion is now rarely seen. Often based on a chassis cab with a coachbuilt caravan body attached, the Transit could also be found with the regular van body but equipped with a pop up roof and additional windows. I was therefore delighted to find such a thing right in front of me, and in early 1968 Mk1 form too. The owner had scarpered so I’m not sure of the provenance but it appears to have high top functionality and the curtained living quarters pointed to holiday accommodation within. Best of all were the clever windows, providing ventilation in the manner of a venetian blind. Camper vans should really be various shades of cream and beige but battleship grey was clearly favoured here, perhaps to complement the deep red curtains, but interior design isn’t my strong point. Anyway, take that VW lovers, this is what a real motorhome looks like.
Next up, filed under “things you never see any more” is a smart Escort XR3i with a “backflash” in the rear window. For uninitiated, the backflash was a must-have accessory for a while during the 1980s and could still be spotted well into the 1990s if you moved in the right circles. Taking the form of bright red vinyl across the rear window, it announced your status in italic lettering with speed stripes either side to emphasise your status as a driving God. “GTi” was a favourite, “injection” was something to shout about and “turbo” was often a red herring but deeply impressive. Perhaps the most quintessential backflash example would be “XR3i” so whilst I was happy to find an immaculate Escort I was ecstatic to find it was equipped with this most essential of accessories. Immediately upon returning home I fired up the desktop and plugged in the dial up connection to find that backflashes are once again available for the bargain price of only £20. After nearly choking on my beer I took the next obvious step of opening the classifieds to find a car to put one on. “GT/E” has a certain ring to it…
Ashover show is a big enough affair to justify a public address system and the opportunity for some promotion was too good to miss. As luck would have it, the outside broadcast studio was being staffed by my good friend and local celebrity David Yorke, so within its luxurious surroundings we traded interesting trivia for the benefit of a captivated audience (not a captive audience as fire regulations prevent the gates from actually being padlocked). I don’t think anyone left without a full awareness of ViaRETRO.com, that name again folks, ViaRETRO.com, that’s right madam, and you sir, you with the smartphone, that’s ViaRETRO.com. I feel I added immensely to the occasion (and David, if you’re reading this I hope you’ve not forgotten we agreed £500 in non-sequential used notes, ok?).
Having educated the masses, time was running short so I had to find more quality and find it fast. I missed the first-generation Honda Prelude so I can’t show you a photo of that, but you’ve clearly got the internet so find one yourself. I did get a shot of the fantastic blue 1974 Gilbern Invader, amply propelled by a 210bhp V6. The 1953 Morris commercial caught my eye and looked very smart in its local handyman livery with lovely two tone paint scheme. The Bedford HA was also a welcome sight and unusual in maroon. British Telecom and British Rail bought thousands of these so used examples were normally yellow and the colour is synonymous in my mind. It was only here that I noticed a strange detail however, that the door windows have a strange curvy cut-out at the top. Nothing about the door frame gives the game away so if you know what’s going on, please do comment as I’d love to know.
Obviously the pressure is on to leave you on a high and I was worried I had peaked too soon with the VW Allegro, but one more strange creation was lurking. If you had a small sports car that was adequately powered but known for its compromised rear suspension design and difficult handling at the limit, what would you do? If your answer is “stop worrying and stick a V8 in it” then you must be the owner of our last car. I present, the 3,528cc Triumph Spitfire. The visual impact of this car is quite something with a large hole cut in the heavily re-profiled bonnet to accommodate a chrome topped air filter the size of a bin lid, and a Mustang-like grille up front with flush auxiliary lights ready to flash dawdlers out of the way. I have no idea what other re-engineering has gone on under the skin but I note the hard top remained in place on a hot day so perhaps structural rigidity needs a helping hand, but you have to admire the ambition and I bet it goes well. Long may mad cars like this continue. That’ll give me something else to think about next time I’m staring blankly out of the window.