The Lancaster Insurance Classic Motor Show is one of the largest shows of its kind. Spread over seven halls at the enormous National Exhibition Centre roughly half-way between Birmingham and Coventry – two cities in the Midlands synonymous with the motor industry in the UK – this year’s show, the 35th, boasted over 3,000 cars, 300-plus car clubs, 600 trade stands, the country’s biggest autojumble, an auction (run by Silverstone Auctions), and a host of other special features.
Last year I tested our readers’ stamina (and patience) by writing 3 articles and about 7,000 words about the connections between the show and the Midlands region’s importance to the history of the motor industry in the UK, as well as some of my own personal reminiscences of my time employed in the industry. Don’t worry – I’m not going to repeat it!
This time, I thought I’d take a look at some of the lesser-spotted – and in some cases, downright quirky – cars scattered around the show, our own Dave Leadbetter will regale you with his thoughts on the competition cars on display, and we’ll finish with a gallery of some of “the rest” – and we’ll still miss a lot out…
Before that, a few general comments on the event.
1. Did I mention that it’s huge? And I mean HUGE – I spent a day and a half there and could easily have lost my entire weekend wandering around the NEC’s halls.
2. It gets busy – some 71,000 people were quite happy to fork out up to £36 a ticket over the weekend, and half of them seemed to want to be in the same photos as the ones I was taking. Patience is truly a virtue, and the extra hour’s access we get as press is invaluable.
3. Many of the car clubs did their marques proud, including – but not limited to – Sunbeam Talbot, the Opel GT club, the various Rover and Triumph clubs, Mercedes-Benz and others. Unfortunately, the BMW club again failed to understand the meaning of the word “Classic”. Yes, the 30th anniversary of the original 8-series is worth marking, as it starts to enter genuine classic territory – but surely a couple of examples (along with one of the very latest 8-series if absolutely necessary) would have been enough? Instead, every car bar the new one was an 8 – not one ’02, E9, E21, E12, E28….
Enough complaining, on to the good stuff, and there was plenty!
Perhaps the first unusual car we saw was what we initially thought was an Austin Apache, designed by Michelotti and bearing a strong resemblance to his Triumph 2000/2500 designs. These were based on the ADO 16 1100/1300 series and manufactured in South Africa, and would have been unusual enough, but in fact this one was a Spanish-built 1973 Austin Victoria in a nicely-patinated red. These cars were built by Authi in Pamplona between 1972 and 1975 – British Leyland needed a way to sell its cars in the then-restricted Spanish market, and a joint venture formed in 1965 between BMC and NMQ (Nueva Montaňa Quijano) was the answer. The venture came to an end in 1976 when the plant was sold to SEAT.
Lots of specialist British manufacturers were on show, and ViaRETRO favourites Unipower had a nice little stand showing the first three of their stylish small coupés built (more on these from Dave), and a little further along was a colourful display of two Piper GTT’s and a P2. These show up regularly at the Silverstone Classic but are rarely seen on the road – there are 57 known survivors of the 80 to 90 believed to have been made, a pretty good survival ratio. Very futuristic-looking back in the late 1960’s, I think these coupés still look good today.
A diversion over to the Silverstone Auctions stand – location of our Peugeot 205GTi Prime Find, which sold for what I consider a very reasonable £13,163 – coughed up a couple of lesser-spotted classics, such as the 1965 Datsun Fairlady, which didn’t sell, and a 1957 Volvo PV444 LS 08, which went for £21,375, although their star sale in terms of price was one of two common-or-garden 1965 Aston Martin DB5’s, for which the successful bidder parted with £618,750…
One of my uncles in Germany used to run an Auto Union 1000S, and seeing one always elicits warm memories for me, though they’re not often seen on the road here. The DKW Owners Club had a smart line-up that included a very cool 1958 Auto Union 1000S in red with a white roof, and a pair of DKWs, one of which was a deep green with white roof 1955 F91 with two-stroke, two-cylinder 896cc engine that had been diligently and skilfully restored by owner Stuart over a two-year period. He’d done pretty much all the work himself except the headlining and one or two other details where he had enlisted assistance from the distaff side of his family!
The Borgward Drivers Club had a smart stand showing one of each of their stylish coupé, saloon and estate cars. These fine cars were expensive to build and the company always struggled financially and was forced into a controversial liquidation – some say as part of a concerted effort by their rival German car manufacturers and the press, led by Der Spiegel. Whatever the real story, Borgward disappeared from dealer forecourts in 1961.
Perhaps the most dramatic car of the entire show was the flamboyant bright orange Adams Probe, or M-505 Adams Brothers Probe 16, to give it its full name. One of three built in 1970 (!) by former Marcos designers Dennis and Peter Adams, its extraordinary bodywork hid a very ordinary mid-mounted Austin 1800 engine. Less than three feet high, all cars of the future were going to look like this back then (see also the VW-based Nova, with which it shared it’s one “door” access) and this particular car featured in Stanley Kubrick’s controversial dystopian film A Clockwork Orange.
Much less dramatic, but equally interesting, was an example of one of the first new car designs out of post-war Poland, a white FSO Warszawa. Over 250,000 of these bulky, sturdy cars were built between 1951 and 1973. They were popular as taxis, although their weight and relatively small 2.1-litre engines made them thirsty. This 1972 Warszawa 223, brought to the show by the Klasyczna Polonia (Polish Classic Car Club) – membership is determined by the nationality of the car owner, not the car itself – is believed to be one of only two in the UK. This would go a long way to explaining why I’ve never seen one in this country, but I’ve also been to Poland scores of times over the last 25 years and don’t recall seeing more than a handful there, either.
Of the Americana on show, perhaps the most unusual was the metallic blue 1963 Studebaker Avanti – one of which was also on display in the Maine Auto Museum, so I’ve now seen two examples of Raymond Loewy’s masterpiece in a matter of months. There’ll be more from the US presence at the show in a separate feature.
Nipping back over to Europe, I confess to being quite perplexed (some say this is easily done, but anyway…) by what looked to me like an Opel Manta A Estate. In fact it was an Opel Ascona Voyage, but modified with a Manta front end and in another interesting shade of green. Now as regular readers will know, I’m not particularly keen on modified classics, and I don’t know when this was done, but what I do know is that it looked really good – especially in that green – and made for an interesting exercise in “what if?” for the Manta A. Could it have been a success as a sporting estate? I think so.
And so we come to the microcars, the stars of the show for me. What qualifies a car to be a microcar? Well, according to the astonishingly spry – at 80 years old – and exceptionally knowledgeable John Meadows, Frisky Register secretary and grandson of Henry Meadows, founder of the Meadows Engineering Company, engine size is more important than body size, with the important marker being that the engine must be below 700cc. In Japan, kei cars are of similar size, being limited to 660cc in their last incarnation (they started off as having to be under 360cc) for tax reasons and continued to be successful until as recently as 2013. Indeed, one of the best known kei cars was present at the show, a dark green 1972 example of Honda’s tiny N360, but it was the Europeans who stole the microcar show for me, with strong displays from the National Microcar Rally, Isetta Owners Club, Frisky Register, Peel and Heinkel Trojan clubs, as well as the FIAT 500 Enthusiasts’ Club, which also featured a lovingly restored and immaculate FIAT Topolino or “Mighty Mouse”, as it was known.
Made in the Isle of Man, the Peel P50 – at 4.5 feet long and 3.25 feet wide – is believed to be the smallest car ever made, seats just one person, runs on three 6-inch wheels more suited to a kids’ scooter, and pumps out a mighty 4.8bhp from its single-cylinder 49cc engine. It has no reverse gear – the driver has to get out and lift the 59kg car and turn it around. Costing £199 when new in 1963, it was marketed as being “almost cheaper than walking”. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a commercial success and only 55 were built, of which 27 or 28 are known to survive today, and believe it or not, to acquire one of these could cost you over £100,000…but you can buy a new one for a mere £14,000, as recreations have been being produced since 2011.
Peel also made the Trident microcar, which shared the same 49cc engine as the P50, but unlike the P50, it seats two, and has a clear glass canopy that makes it look like it belongs in The Jetsons and is just as sci-fi as the Adams Probe. This vision of the future also failed to gain traction, unfortunately, and fewer than 50 were made.
An oddity even among microcars, not least because it bears no resemblance to the type of car usually to emerge from this Italian design house, was an orange 1974 Zagato Zele 2000 electric car – one of these came up for auction a few months ago with Historics of Brooklands and sold for £10,640, perhaps the cheapest Zagato you can buy. Probably the first electric microcar, with a range of c.80km; about 500 were made between 1974 and ‘76, and unlike the Trident and the Adams Probe, it turned out to be a much more accurate predictor of the future.
There was a jaunty and colourful display of BMW Isetta’s – another car I remember one of my German uncles owning – as well as a number of Heinkels and Trojans. All these shared the same layout of two wheels at the front, engine and a single wheel at the rear, but one thing I hadn’t previously realised was that the Isetta was originally designed and made by Iso before BMW bought the right to build the car under licence and completely re-engineered it – its name means “little Iso”. The BMW Isetta was the most successful of all microcars in terms of units sold – over 161,000. The Heinkel Kabine started life being built in Germany, then under licence in Ireland before transferring production to Trojan Cars in the UK in 1960, so unsurprisingly these look very similar. I especially liked Gary Longstaff’s orange 1959 Heinkel 153.
The National Microcar Rally, which has been organising the eponymous rally for owners of these tiny cars since 1975, had a tasty selection on their stand – a 1961 Messerschmitt KR200, a Nobel 200 “Vicky” with just 99 miles on the clock, a 1963 Peel P50, a 1960 Scootacar Mk1, a 1951 Bond Minicar – almost 3,300 made – and most appealing of all, a 1961 Goggomobil T700. Owned by Glas, Goggomobil was pretty successful, producing 86,943 cars in total yet a mere 95 are known to survive globally, and this lovely blue and white example is one of just two in the UK. It was found as a wreck three years ago in Norfolk and has since been beautifully restored by Simon Williamson.
My favourite microcars though are undoubtedly the Frisky Meadows two-seater mid-engined (yes!) coupés, manufactured for just three years from 1957 to 1960 by Meadows Engineering in Wolverhampton.
The Frisky I would take home would be the gorgeous little yellow and white 1958 Mk II Family Three (obviously!), but perhaps the most famous one was the six-wheeled Frisky Sport that completed the Monte Carlo Rally in 1958. Our International Editor wrote about this particular Frisky when he saw it at the NEC show two years ago, so I shan’t say more about it here, but there’s a fascinating and quite convoluted story here that we plan to cover in the near future.
I was captivated by these tiny cars, and the joy they bring their owners. They might be small and slow, can be rolled easily and are not exactly suitable for trans-continental trips, but they are very charming and look like a lot of fun, which is really what owning a classic is about.
Microcars were pretty much killed by the success of the Mini, certainly in the UK, but for a few years, they were the ultimate in affordable motorised transport for many people.
More to come…watch this space!