Last weekend saw the 28th Knebworth Classic Car Show, held in the grounds of Knebworth House, near Stevenage, Hertfordshire, about 35 miles north of London.
Knebworth House is a grand English country home with a history that can be traced back to 1490, with the current building largely dating from 1843-45. It’s perhaps best known for having hosted some of the biggest names in pop and rock music since the Allman Brothers and Doobie Brothers played to a crowd of 60,000 there back in 1974. Subsequently, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Queen, Deep Purple, Genesis, Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones among other major acts have played to huge crowds there – over 200,000 across two nights in the case of Led Zeppelin in 1978. Indeed, the grounds of the house will reverberate this coming weekend to the sound of distinctly lesser heritage rock acts from the 1990’s led by the Happy Mondays and Ocean Colour Scene; evidence, if it was needed, that classic rock – like classic cars – was better in the 1970’s.
Besides hosting several hundred classic cars arrayed across the field in various classes, the event includes a show arena for parades of classic saloons, sportscars, Americana, commercial, military and classic motorcycles. There’s a concours within the event, a ‘Pride of Ownership’ and ‘Daily Driver’ competition open to all owners, and even a ‘Decibel Duel’, where a few owners compete to find the loudest car of the show.
As seems to be the case with many classic events these days, there was also a section given over to new cars in the form of the ‘The Herts Motor Show’ with displays from a number of local dealers. As always, the moderns looked distinctly less interesting than the classics on display. Of course, I would say that, but I’m also right – naturally.
As an aside, this event took place over the same weekend as the Blenheim Palace Festival of Transport, almost equidistant from where I live, so maybe I’ll try that one next year – we classic car enthusiasts really are spoilt for choice on some summer weekends.
So what of this year’s Knebworth Classic Motor Show, held across the 26th and 27th August Bank Holiday weekend? This was my third, having last visited two years ago. Unfortunately for those who had booked for the Sunday, the weather was dreadful and attendance was not impressive. Fortunately, Monday, while not exactly on a par with the tropical weather of recent weeks, was at least dry, if cloudy, and there was an excellent turnout of classics which hopefully made up for the previous day.
Several local car clubs were present, and a wide range of oldtimers, youngtimers and potential future classics, from the exotic to the prosaic and most points in between, were arranged in the grounds within sight of the stately façade of Knebworth House. I turned up in die Zitrone to take my spot in the main field (fortunately not as ploughed up after the previous day’s rain as I had feared) in the section for 1970’s cars, parking between a 1989 Jaguar XJ6 and yet another fake Lancia Stratos, this one not even a Hawk, but something called a Napier Corse. More on this later.
At the end of “my” row was a lovely little Daf 66, but this wasn’t just any old Daf. This was a one-owner-from-new car, bought on October 18th1975 by Roy Allen and run by him ever since. It’s no longer in its original shade of mustard, but a Rover P4 deep red, and Roy has clocked up just under 120,000 miles in this little belt-driven car. It’s on its second Variomatic transmission and third belt, but he says it still drives well and it’s in good shape all round, and as rare – or rarer – than practically any Ferrari; only six currently remain on the road in the UK. A lovely start to the day!
As cars continued to pour in, there were of course many examples of the usual suspects – MG’s of all varieties, TR’s, E-Types, and lots of lovely 1950’s, ‘60’s and 70’s British and European saloons of the type that populate most shows. But on this occasion, I decided to actively seek out a few of those classics which we don’t see quite so many of any more.
I quickly spotted something which would fit the bill perfectly – a stunning pale blue Panhard PL 17 Tigre. This I had to investigate further, and fortunately its owner, John Bellwood, was on hand to tell me all about it. It’s a 1963 car, with an air-cooled 2-cylinder, 848cc engine, which due to the car’s light weight and streamlined body – only 830kg and with a drag co-efficient rumoured to be as low as 0.26 – meant it could reach perfectly adequate 145km/h. A life-long Panhard fan, John bought the car as a project in 2014 – the car had been standing since 1977 in a field. 27 months later, and having done all the work himself apart from getting the bumpers re-polished, this futuristic little French car was back on the road, and has covered about 3,000 miles since. It’s one of 18 in the UK, and John is rightly proud of his handiwork.
I meandered around the field looking for another special story or two. As it turned out, I could have picked out another half a dozen at least, and I didn’t have to go far to find another UK rarity – a blue 1962 Saab 96. This one featured the 2-stroke, 3-cylinder, 848 cc engine, and it was in lovely condition. It’s owner, John Pape, had run it for ten years, and he knew the car’s history well, telling me that it was now on its fifth (sic) engine and second transmission. Hopefully he won’t need to add to those totals!
Having been surprised to see one Saab 96, I was even more surprised to find a second one in another part of the field – this one a bright red example with the V4 engine and looked like it had been completely restored.
I continued my wanderings around the top of the field where there was an impressive row of predominantly US cars, including a mighty Dodge Charger R/T, and a land-yacht of a Ford Galaxie 500 convertible. I can think of few more intimidating sights to loom up in the rear-view mirror than that of the front of a Charger – it practically shouts “Get out of my way – or else!”.
US cars were very well represented at the show, as you’ll see from the photographs. Hard to pick standouts, but besides the usual Mustangs – of which there were many – and Corvettes, there was a stunning Packard 8, a lovely blue Buick Special from 1951, and examples of three generations of Buick Riviera including one of the second-generation cars with its unusual headlamp set-up very evident under the open bonnet. Elsewhere among the expanses of US metal were a couple of the relatively petite early Ford Thunderbirds (the black one was for sale at £30,000) that contrasted with the bloated third generation model that came along only five years later. A 1963 Dodge Polara 500 looked particularly smart, and a couple of Cadillac’s shined so pink, they should have starred in a Bruce Springsteen song.
There was also some serious muscle around – a very cool Chevy Camaro Yenko SC in metallic blue with white side and bonnet flashes, a Mustang Mach1 428 Cobra Jet, a Road Runner and a Sport Satellite from Plymouth, a 1970 Dodge Coronet, as well as the aforementioned Dodge Charger R/T, all oozing power, even while standing still.
Returning to Europe, there was undiluted elegance in the form of a beautiful silver Mercedes-Benz 190SL, with upholstery-matching fitted luggage for travelling in style, and a row of ooh-la-la French chic from Renault in the distinctive shapes of a couple of 16 TS’s, a 15 TS, and a very lovely pale metallic blue Caravelle. What happened to Renault?
For fans of brown cars among our readers, there was much to enjoy. Some archetypical ‘70’s brown legends in the shapes of a Triumph 1500TC, a TR7 Drophead, a Ford Granada Ghia Mk1, a Mercedes-Benz 280SE Coupé and a Citroen DS 21 Pallas were among the “Brownies” – the latter two being cars that look fabulous even in brown – but would look better still in any other colour – ‘tis true.
Since being caught out by a trio of Hawk Lancia Stratos replicas a few months back, I’ve become quite suspicious about some of the cars that show up at classic shows. There were a handful of fakes here too – the “Stratos” parked next to me, a Jaguar “D-Type” (which was at least based on a Jaguar), yet another Hawk “Cobra”, and most pointless of all, an “homage” to the Ferrari 275GTB based on a BMW Z3 – shades of the Allegro-bodied Beetle which Dave Leadbetter came across a few weeks back. I don’t have a problem with replicas or kit cars per se; the originals of these cars are huge money and rare as hen’s teeth, so if someone wants a car that looks like their dream AC Cobra or Lancia Stratos, a Hawk might be as close as they’ll ever get, and it’s still not cheap – but it bothers me that they are not branded for what they actually are, and instead wear the badges of the marques they are mere copies of. If it’s a Hawk, put a Hawk badge on it, not a Cobra or Lancia one. It’s as if a Pink Floyd tribute band actually called themselves Pink Floyd, as opposed to Brit Floyd or Think Floyd or Very Similar To Floyd (OK, I made the last one up) – they’d never get away with it. In the case of the “275GTB”, however, it barely got away with even being a tribute.
Enough grumpiness – back to genuine classics, and one marque that I don’t mention often (except usually in slightly mocking tones) is Vauxhall, but Knebworth offered a whole series of delightful Vauxhalls from back when they were interesting. These included a big 1962 Cresta PA, and a really lovely Vauxhall Wyvern Drophead in a deep red (no, not brown!), alongside a beige 1953 Velox, my father’s first car. A bright yellow Viva HC like my sister used to run was parked near to me, and there were a couple of Vauxhall Victor’s, a car that in it’s early 1970’s form was, in my view, more stylish than the equivalent Ford Granada. There was also a rather purposeful competition Firenza sporting Blyndenstein power under the bonnet, and last but not least, a couple of examples of the top-of-the-range Ventora, powered by its lazy 3.3-litre straight-6, one in a fetching metallic dark green with black vinyl roof.
One of the most unusual cars at the show was a 1949 Tatra 600T Tatraplan, in quite astonishing condition. On the card in the window – besides telling us that this was one of only three on the road in the UK and had been fully restored in the Czech Republic between 2003 and 2009 – was also the information that Tatra is the third-oldest motor manufacturer after Daimler-Benz and Peugeot to be in continuous production, having started building motor-cars back in 1897, something I was hitherto unaware of.
A contemporary of the Tatra, in equally perfect condition and almost as smoothly styled, was the 1951 Bristol 2-litre in burgundy/maroon alongside it. The two made an interesting comparison in post-war streamlining – while both looked modern and aerodynamic, both suffered from significant rear three-quarters blind spots.
On the other side of the Tatra, a stunning 1959 Jensen 541R, which I had passed on my way in to Knebworth, and which had an engine bay so clean I swear you could have eaten your breakfast off it. A diamond of a car, and one that will be at the Hampton Court Concours this coming weekend, so the owner told me – I’ll look out for it.
One of the nice things about this show was that I was not the only BMW ’02 owner there, as is often the case. Further down the row I was in, was the super polaris silver 1973 Touring owned by Tim Cook, a friend of these pages and whose car was featured just a few weeks ago in 50 Years of 2002, and just a couple of rows further back, a 1602 that proved to be another car with a singular history. This beautifully original black 1975 BMW 1602 has been in the possession of Geoffrey Nicholls since new, has never seen the hands of a restorer and has only 48,000 miles on the clock – a little more than 1,000 a year! When I asked him how this came to be, it transpired that it had always been a second car, so only got used on occasional weekends. I also learned from Geoffrey that there is a petrol station not so far from me (he lives just 3 miles from me, as it turns out) that still sells leaded petrol, and he runs his ’02 exclusively on this. He is a truly meticulous owner – there is a note on the air filter with the date (May 28th 2017) and exact mileage (47,482) when it was last changed!
After spending almost six hours at the show, it was time to head back home. It had been a very rewarding day, with a really interesting range of classics without there necessarily being a Ferrari 250 GTO, Maserati Ghibli or Porsche Carrera 2.7 present. Instead, lots of more “regular” classics perfectly representing our true automotive heritage, and a good number of real gems in among them. My car of the day? The Panhard, definitely.