It seems that midweek classic car shows are actually more common than I thought. Last Wednesday I combined attending one with another in my summer of firsts, this time on a glorious evening in an English country house garden. After yet another week of news headlines that made me wonder just what on earth is going on, this was the kind of event that was as soothing as a long soak in a warm bath.
The Luton Hoo Estate, as its name implies, is located just a couple of miles from the town of Luton, where I recently attended the Festival of Transport. A traditional country estate which once included one of England’s finest stately homes, it’s been owned by the same family since 1903. While the mansion house is now a luxury hotel, the main estate remains in family hands and includes a delightful walled garden (the focal point of this event – besides the cars, of course!), a modern farm and park, as well as a number of homes and commercial units.
Originally designed in the 1760’s by one of the world’s most famous landscape and garden designers, Capability Brown – who was also responsible for the gardens at Chatsworth House, Blenheim Palace and Hampton Court Palace, among others – in the late 1980’s the gardens fell into a period of neglect.
However, a project begun in 2000 to revive and restore the gardens to their previous splendour, all carried out by dedicated volunteers, has seen the gardens and related buildings gradually come back to life in a way not dissimilar to Bicester Heritage, albeit for a very different purpose. Yet on this Wednesday, its five acres provided a spectacular background for an equally spectacular display of classics. There is still much to do, but the signs of progress are visible all around the site.
The event is billed as “an evening picnic within and around the historic Walled Garden on the Luton Hoo Estate”, and is primarily organised by one man, Peter Madden. A long-time classic car enthusiast, this is the second event that Peter has made a fixture in the English classic car calender. Back in 1994, he started the Classics on the Common event in nearby Harpenden – one more to add to my list to attend – and after handing it on to new organisers in 2008 (it’s still going strong), was asked to organise a similar event inside and around the Walled Garden. The first one took place in July 2009, and it has grown steadily since, with over 650 cars attending last year.
With entry not possible before 4pm due to the gardens still being open to the public, I could take it easy with a leisurely cross-country drive in die Zitrone on a fine midsummer’s afternoon, joining the queue of classics waiting to get into the venue just a few minutes after that time. I had left registration too late to be included in the group of cars which could park within the walled garden itself – limited to 150 – so was instead in the group parked in the large adjoining field. My immediate classic companions included a line of Americana to my left, Brits to my right – I’m sure if I was so minded, I could come up with a wartime analogy but will leave that to others!
Of that quartet of US classics, I’ve always liked the Pontiac Bonneville (this one a ’64 model). It has great presence combined with restrained – at least by US standards – styling, and both the ‘69 Plymouth Super Satellite and ’61 Chevrolet Impala impressed equally. I’m a big fan of pillarless coupé styling, which all of these big cars pull off with aplomb.
The 1963 Dodge Polara was for sale, for £45,000, which, as someone fairly ignorant of American classic car values, I thought was a lot of money. Yet available for the same asking price was a very smart, nut-and-bolt restored 1955 Ford Thunderbird in bright red – a bit too much red for me, but it did look very cool. Maybe £45k is just the norm for American classics?
Classics of all varieties continued to make their way into the gardens for the next hour, and as you might expect, there was a healthy number of the traditional stalwarts that support such events in numbers. However, even among the relatively commonplace such as MGB’s and Triumph TR’s, there were a couple of standouts. Recently, Claus wrote about the Triumph TR8 and asked whether it was going to be the next big thing in classics. I don’t know about that, but it was a nice surprise to see a genuine 1982 TR8 among the cars spread around the walled garden itself and parked alongside it, another rarity among the commonplace – its Abingdon cousin, an MGB GT V8. Of course, like London buses, you wait for ages to see one, then two come along, and there was another fine MGB GT V8 parked in the main field – and this 1974 example was in a better colour, in my view at least. If I was ever to be in the market for a B, it would be for a V8.
Jaguar is another make that I think we take for granted at classic shows, especially the proliferation of E-Types, and there were naturally a number at the show. But what really struck me were the three magnificent XK150’s present, one fixed-head and two dropheads. I’ve always thought the XK120/140/150 series were superb-looking cars, but for some reason – perhaps the country garden ambience in the evening sun – these three reminded me of just how beautifully elegant a design these cars are. Two in Old English White and a stunning 1960 soft-top in perfect British Racing Green with Suede Green interior – all three in fabulous condition – had me thinking about driving one home along the country lanes later that evening, top down of course.
Sometimes an individual car that really stands out the first time one sees it appears at different shows throughout the year, but its familiarity does not breed contempt; rather, it remains outstanding every time. One such is the pink, with darker pink roof, 1960 Jensen 541 – previously seen at the Hampton Court Concours last September as well as the Knebworth House show, this absolutely immaculate car is always a true delight to see.
Lined up with the Mercedes-Benz Owners’ Club, was one of my favourite cars of the evening – a very original 1953 Mercedes-Benz 170S-D in dark blue. I really loved the interior, complete with period radio, though I was surprised to see it was an HMV rather than a Becker or Blaupunkt – perhaps one of our knowledgeable readers could clarify whether the radio is correct or not?
The prancing horse also decorated the lawns, in particular not one, but two Ferrari 250GTE’s, one a metallic grey 1961 car, the other a 1962 in navy blue – the 250GTE is one of my favourite Maranello models, and far more interesting than the other modern Ferrari’s that were present, 308’s excepted – oh, and a Dino 246GT in racing trim, though the impact was spoilt somewhat by its driver telling me it was a pig to drive…
There are always a couple of oddities – well, oddities to me, at any rate – at such a show, and that bill was filled by a couple of British kit-cars, the first being a blue 1961 Tornado Tempest – one of only 10 built of which just four survive. This one had a unique fastback body, but to me it looks awkward from almost every angle.
The other kit-car oddities were a pair of “before and after” JBL Javelins, a name previously unknown to me. These were based on a Ford Capri but were transformed to look very much like Reliant Scimitar GTC’s to me.
Various Porsches – and thankfully no fake 356’s – were dotted around the grounds, including my dream 1972 911S 2.4, though not in my dream colour (yellow, of course!) and a couple of examples of the 911’s supposed successor, the 928, were also present and correct, one in metallic brown complete with original Pascha interior, as well as a rarely seen 968 in dark blue.
Nice to see another 02 at the show, this one a 1974 Inka Orange 2002 Touring – great colour, but the BMW of the evening for me was the fabulous Fjord Blue ’72 3.0CSL. The E9 remains for me one of the most beautiful cars ever built, and experiencing one in the flesh never gets boring.
Another surprise was the presence of a genuine Bugatti, this one a 1927 Type 44. Often the “Bugatti’s” at shows like these are Teals or some other replicas, but this was the real deal, and very handsome in its traditional French blue. Amazingly, it had been rebuilt from a chassis found abandoned in a hedge!
More between-the-wars glamour was provided by a much-travelled 1936 Talbot 105 Alpine Tourer and a pair of superb Lagonda’s – one a 1935 3.5 litre, the other a 1932 3.2-litre, gorgeous cars, both..
Rolls-Royce and Bentley are not marques which I usually dream about, but there were some very impressive examples in and around the Walled Garden this evening. The 1930 R-R Phantom II in black and dark red had originally been fitted with an Imperial Coupé body, though this was replaced with a Barker-built limousine body. It’s first 60 years were spent in New York, since when it has been looked after in the UK. This, the deep blue 1929 Phantom II and the 1959 grey-over-red Bentley S1 were gorgeous – again, perhaps something to do with the surroundings, but they looked as if they belonged there.
What other delights were to be found? How about a bright blue 1969 Opel GT, though this one was the under-powered 1.1-litre, and when was the last time you saw a Renault 30 outside France – or even in France for that matter? Well, a smart red 30 TS turned up midway through the evening – it’s been so long since I’ve seen one that I wasn’t immediately sure what it was.
There were more delights all around, as there always is, but I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story. I enjoyed this event very much, which really did live up to its billing, with numerous owners setting up picnic tables and chairs, and the popping of corks was a recurring background sound. It was relaxed, there was a fine variety of classics to enjoy, the surroundings were splendid and with it taking place on a warm summer’s evening, how could it fail? By about 8pm cars were beginning to leave in numbers and as I wanted to get home before dark – die Zitrone’s lights being only slightly more effective than a pair of torches tied to the front – I set off back along the country roads I travelled in on; a leisurely drive with the window down and elbow out in the approved classic manner – a perfect end to a perfect classic summer evening.