Another weekend, and another decision to make as once again I was presented with a choice of classic events to attend last weekend, but having enjoyed Classics on the Crick in Naphill for the past four years, this year I opted for an event new to me – the Luton Festival of Transport.
For those who don’t know, Luton is about an hour north of London, some 55km away – apparently close enough for its airport, renowned for being the base of budget airline EasyJet and one of the least enjoyable starts or indeed finishes you can have to a journey, to be called London-Luton Airport – either a farcical or clever bit of branding, depending on how you view it.
For those of us interested in cars, Luton is much better known as the main manufacturing base for Vauxhall, one of the oldest and longest-running motor manufacturers in the world. Originally founded in 1857 as a pump and marine engine manufacturer, the company began producing cars, and later, vans and other commercial vehicles, in 1903 and has done so ever since. In 1925 it became a wholly owned subsidiary of General Motors, and subsequently was rolled into Opel. While for many years its model line-up differed to those from Opel, the two companies now make identical ranges differing only in the badging, but under the Groupe PSA umbrella, having been acquired from GM in 2017.
I mention all this as Vauxhall, though not Opel, was – unsurprisingly – a major presence at the Luton Festival of Transport. Visitors were also able to visit the Vauxhall Heritage Centre, an opportunity I chose to take up; more on that later.
The event itself is now in its 27th year and is another charity fund-raiser, not dissimilar in size and scope to the recent Chiltern Hills event. It’s organised by the Chiltern Vehicle Preservation Group, which arranges a number of events through the year, including pub meetings of the type which our own Dave Leadbetter recently visited.
Having kept an eye on the weather forecasts during what had been a miserable week weather-wise, Sunday morning dawned bright and clear – the organisers must have some incriminating evidence on the weather gods, as it’s pouring with rain again as I write this the following day. I arrived in die Zitrone just before 9:30 and Stockwood Park, venue for the day, was already busy with owners lining up their classics in the appropriate section, with some of them putting their polishing cloths to use. I parked up in Class K for Cars and Campervans Between 1971-1980. There was a wide range of classes for cars, commercials and bikes, with the usual food vans, autojumble (one day I’ll actually spend some time rummaging around one) and live music provided by the Wannabe Shadows – close your eyes and it’s as if Hank Marvin is in the house. As is my usual practice, I declined to join the polishers, searching instead for a coffee before setting off on my wanderings among the rows of classic treasures.
The half hour or so before a show officially opens gives a good opportunity to take photographs without being constantly photo-bombed. Among the early arrivals were members of the NSU Owners Club who had arranged a line-up of NSU Prinz 4’s. These tidy little rear-engined cars from Neckarsulm in Baden-Württemberg were built between 1961 and 1973 with only minor modifications over that time. The four on display here were later models, by which time the “Prinz” name had been dropped, and included a pair of 1971/2 1000C models, a 1200TT from 1971, and a 1970 race-prepared version sporting a 1498cc engine. I really liked the 1200TT in particular, and these small, light cars had surprising performance – even the 48bhp 1000C could reach 85mph or 135km/h, and the twin-Solex equipped 65bhp 1200TT could hit a claimed 95mph or 155km/h, not to mention spirited acceleration and handling as well.
While admiring this row of small NSU’s, the car that is perhaps the crowning glory of the company arrived in the form of a metallic blue 1973 Ro80. Sadly, but understandably given the original Wankel rotary engine’s reliability issues, this car had the Ford Essex V4 installed as a replacement, as was often the norm back in the day. This then-revolutionary car still looks modern today, and this was a lovely example. It did make its smaller contemporary stablemates look very dated, though – such a wonderful car.
A delightful surprise for me was the presence of an Opel Manta A, and a very nice one at that. The white 1971 1.6S belongs to Katrina Anderson, who has owned it for 18 years. Apart from the front spoiler and a Blydenstein head, the car remains as it left the factory. It was her daily driver for a while but in recent years has led a much more sheltered life and still has only 33,000 miles on the odometer. Katrina and her husband Mark are classic GM fans – Mark owns the bright orange Viva GT in the pictures.
Speaking of GM products, since the show takes place a very short distance from the Vauxhall factory, it’s only right and proper that I spend some time to mention some of the products of that factory on display.
As you would expect, there was a wide selection of Vauxhall’s from across the decades, as I hope the pictures will show. Among the various generations of Velox’s, Viva’s, Victors, Cresta’s and Cavaliers were some real gems – a pale blue 1957 Velox with white roof and matching wheels looked stunning in the sunlight, a very tasty mid-blue with black bonnet ’68 Viva GT, and the only 3-window PA Cresta Friary Estate known to survive. I can’t say that I particularly liked the Friary, but it had undeniable presence; although actually only 15 feet long, the Cresta always seemed like a British version of an American car to me.
There were regular coach transfers – via a classic coach – for those wishing to visit the Vauxhall Heritage Centre just ten minutes away, so I took the opportunity to check it out. In truth, the centre is pretty disappointing; it’s very cramped – whoever managed to squeeze the cars into the very limited space did an incredible parking job – and there’s little or no information about the cars on display. I gather that the centre will be moved to a new and more spacious location soon, which is nothing less than the cars deserve.
Despite the inadequate space, there was a succinct history of the marque, much of it reflected at the show. Perhaps the prize exhibit – actually on display outside – was the 1930 Hurlingham T-Type, but the most intriguing were the two concept cars tucked into a corner of the building. One was the 1970 Vauxhall SRV, as dramatic a wedge as anything from Bertone or Pininfarina – just 41 inches high, it was designed to seat four, just like an Espada, but sadly was unable to run under its own power.
Alongside it, and if anything even more futuristic, was the orange 1966 (!) XVR two-seater – three of these were built and one of them could actually be driven, though not the one on display. It’s a literally fantastic looking car and you wonder how the perception of Vauxhall as a manufacturer of mostly staid family-oriented saloons might have changed had the XVR – or indeed the SRV – made it into production. Perhaps this design exercise was what led to the Opel GT, or is that fanciful thinking on my part?
Back at the show itself, time to pick out a few more highlights, starting with some impressive landyachts from across the pond. Following the revelations from Tatton Park, Mrs. International Editor would have loved the sight of not one, but two very pink US classics – the obligatory pink Cadillac, this time in the form of a 1959 de Ville, and more unusually, a 1961 Chrysler Windsor. Other road-going oceanliners included a light metallic blue 1972 Chevrolet Caprice, a huge gold 1974 8.2-litre Caddy Eldorado convertible parked back-to-back with an equally huge de Ville, a red 1968 5.7-litre Buick Electra, and a black 1958 Oldsmobile Super 88. A menacing 1970 Dodge Coronet, elegant 1965 Thunderbird, and a 1959 Galaxie with retractable hardtop added to the acres of US metal, with some old-fashioned muscle in the shape of a metallic green 1969 Firebird 400 and a 5.7-litre second-generation Camaro Z28 from 1972 contributing to a significant set of American entries.
There were more Humber’s than usual – or at least it seemed that way. There were fine examples of this former Rootes marque in the shapes of a couple of Super Snipes, a Hawk, and a very tidy 1965 Sceptre saloon which I had passed en route to the show. But perhaps the most unusual one was the yellow 1975 Sceptre Estate – I don’t ever remember seeing one before. Another rarely seen Rootes survivor was a 1978 Chrysler Avenger 1.6LS which also caught my eye – fewer than 20 of this variant of what was previously known as the Hillman Avenger survive in the UK.
A couple of cars along from me was an even scarcer version of a previously common car – the Citroën GS. My father used to have a metallic brown GS Pallas back in the ‘70’s – of course we often asked him to turn the engine on and off just to feel the suspension rise and fall; we were kids, after all. Nowadays the GS in general is a rare beast in the UK, with under 50 in total on the roads here. But this was a 1978 GS Basalte – just 1500 were built, and this black and red one is believed to be the only one left in the UK.
Another uncommon eye-catcher was what appeared to be a bright yellow DAF 66, but on closer inspection, this proved to be a late-1975 – and immaculate – Volvo-badged version of the car. Only four are recorded as still being on UK roads – cars like this, and the aforementioned Avenger and Citroën GS are further proof that you don’t need a Ferrari or Lamborghini to own an exclusive classic!
I just want to mention a couple of other classics that stood out for me and then let the pictures tell the rest of the story of the day. One was a tiny two-seater sportscar in a very bright shade of mintgreen – a mid-engined GTM coupé manufactured, according to the DVLA, in 1961. More accurately, what this almost certainly meant was that a 1961 Mini had been used as the donor car for this GTM – the company wasn’t founded until 1967 and has a chequered history. Still, I really liked this little kit-car, and I’m not usually in favour of kit-cars at all.
One more notable rarity – a very stylish red Bond Equipe GT convertible from 1969 with a 2-litre 6-cylinder engine from the Triumph Vitesse, parked alongside one of the prettiest cars ever made, an exquisite 1961 Lotus Elite SE. This smart soft-top bears no resemblance to the three-wheelers for which Bond, and the company who acquired them in 1969, Reliant, are better known. Reliant should have kept making it; in my humble opinion it’s a far better-looking car than a Sabre.
To finish, I just have to mention one of the daftest vehicles I think I’ve ever seen, even though it’s not a car. I know that it’s customary for scooter riders, more specifically mods, to customise their rides, but there was one – dedicated to the 2-Tone record label and Madness in particular – which was so festooned with lights and mirrors that I’m not sure it can possibly be roadworthy – I’d hate to try to take it round a corner! Still, each to their own…
This was a pretty good show, with lots of the variety with which we are regularly spoiled at such events, and while I might make a return to Naphill next year, I’ll definitely come back to Luton another time.