An Exceptional Feast of Treats – 2022 Festival of the Unexceptional

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By Darren Rungasamy

A short history lesson into the recent past first. Let’s look back at the first Hagarty Festival of the Unexceptional and Concours de l’Ordinaire from 2014 for a moment. When Saab built their final vehicle, the Ford Fiesta was the best-selling car in the UK, and an E30 BMW M3 could still be had for less than £10,000.

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That first event took place at the Whittlebury Park golf course, which is best known among petrolheads for housing thousands of campers during the neighbouring Silverstone British Grand Prix. The Festival of the Unexceptional started off as a rather low-key celebration for vehicles registered throughout a 30-year period beginning dating from the 1960s onwards, however, it was a bit more than a fancy dress party with Allegros. At the time, it may have been compared to the 1970s-era school pudding in the motoring world – a hearty delight with no nutritional benefit other than to make you crave more.

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Encouraged by the positive response, subsequent events provided additional delights such as retro-themed picnics recognition and an award for those who made the effort to dress up. At the heart of the event, it simply boils down to the connection of the car and what it means to an individual. The stories are fascinating, with lifelong connections made with what is basically a product made from metal, glass, plastic and rubber, but it goes far deeper than that. Those tentative memories of walking to school, as you noted the Simca that never moved, or travelling across the Motorway in the family Morris with your eye-spy book or perhaps its the very first car you learned to drive in.

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When you consider a car’s life cycle, you can see how millions were spent on development and production to create an aspirational piece of cutting-edge technology that would make a manufacturer money. After being marketed and sold as an appliance, something odd occurs when it is sold to its first owner. Before you know it, it has a personality and has become a member of the family. Extraordinary yet still unexceptional.

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Once you bond and share a life with the object, humans will find a way to ensure that connection stays with them. Of course, there is also an appeal to people who value engineering, art, design, and social history as well as the emotional and dependable aspects; otherwise, you would be reading a review for a working horse show.

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It’s interesting to note that as time goes on, the definition of unexceptional only seems to make more sense and the answer of what makes a car unexceptional starts becoming a positive attribute. Let’s hold off on making any quick decisions and instead take in the mood, the observations, and the conversations at what is fast becoming one of the key events of the Classic Car diary.

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The first thing you notice as you travel through the picturesque B-roads and inviting villages towards the expansive grounds of Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire, is the beautiful gardens and stunning topiary alongside the well-designed facilities. Food provisions were well catered for but seemed oddly crammed into one specific area. No harm in a fleet of Imported JDM ice cream vans and LDV kebab vehicles lining up the avenue is there? It’s worth noting that the event is also no longer free, and while the £20 fee allows an improved running of the event, which includes a notable improvement in traffic management (still complaints from those who arrived after 10 am though) and some confusion on which cars end up in the main display (A modern McLaren was briefly parked up) it seemed to justify the entrance fee.

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One of the first cars that we spotted was Ed and Bernie Ratley’s 1973 Daihatsu Fellow Max. Familiar with the event, Ed won the first Festival of the Unexceptional with his unique Nissan Cherry Europe in 2014. Since seeing the model online years ago, the freshly imported Kei car with its pillarless design and diminutive 356cc two-stroke engine has long been on his radar. He seized the opportunity to import one just before the lockdown and it proved to be a huge draw with the visitors.

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Another car falling into the familiarity of a long-gone era is the once ubiquitous Datsun 120Y. A volume seller in the UK, over 150,000 120Ys found homes and became a regular in the top ten seller list throughout the 1970s. The Datsun sold on its principles of dependability, good standard equipment, ease of driving, and at the time, no waiting list to purchase the car brand new. It was a typical example in a colour that will undoubtedly bring back a dozen memories.

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The French have always resonated with UK buyers, appealing to their sense of comfort and idiosyncratic design elements. Citroen was very well represented at the event, with half a dozen BX’s, as well as this handsome XM estate. The car was regarded as one of the most comfortable and well-balanced cars of its era and is now seen as the last of the big Citroen’s before they became preoccupied with sector branding.

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Guy Maylam, who owns this Talbot 1100 VF1, is another luminary on the victors’ podium after winning the competition in 2018 with his restored Chrysler Alpine. The commercial version of the Simca 1100 series managed to last long enough into the 80s for PSA to brand it as a Talbot and pitched it against its in-house rival, the Peugeot 305 van. It was significantly less expensive to purchase than the newer Peugeot at the time and as result sold well. This example had been in the club’s domain for a while but still required a sizeable amount of repair work to get it up to scratch.

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A small frisson of excitement occurred as the near silent arrival of the Autoroute finest tourers glided into the showground. The Peugeot 604 and its arch-rival the Renault 30, were often the chosen choice for the middle-class French society of the 1970s. Perpetually misunderstood this side of the pond, where its prestige and refinement were often counterbalanced by the savage depreciation, both the 604 and R30 were nonetheless characterised by their superb range of engines.

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While Citroen and Peugeot sold respectably in the 1970s, it was Renault that cleaned up UK sales during this period and was consistently the best-selling European importer throughout the decade. Instilling the French characteristics of mechanical durability and comfort, cars like the relatively conventional Renault 12 were renowned for their popularity. The long-lasting 12 was represented at the event by one of the last models to be imported.

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After spending a little time with the imported machinery, we’ll look at some of the domestically produced cars. British classics are the norm at any show, but Hagerty was astute enough to be selective in what they had on display and it must be acknowledged that they achieved the ideal balance.

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This early example of the Vauxhall Vectra is a prime example. Having fulfilled its intended goal and offered the public a substitute for the recently improved Ford Mondeo, they were cheap to run, comfortable and well suited for motorway slogs. The sporting versions have started to create interest but the more modest versions still remain in the shadows. Therefore a perfect car for the event.

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Not a single XR ford in sight, but plenty to appreciate for fans of the blue oval. This Yorkshire-registered Sierra, which is thought to be among the earliest RHD survivors, was built in September 1982 but didn’t find a home until February 1983, illustrating the opposition the jelly-mould car was encountering. Its biggest obstacle came from within, as the plush Cortina Ghia could be bought for the same amount, and many people choose to do so. Sales eventually picked up, but Ford never again dared to experiment, and despite the short blip, they continued to lead their position as class leaders for the rest of the decade.

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British Leyland products are another constant at every event featuring classic cars, but it’s one of their least popular cars that fit the criteria of the event best. The Marina-based Morris Ital remains a curiosity of low expectations as the older, formerly derided BL products gain a newfound level of respectability. When new, it was completely outgunned by its competitors, but that seems to be an irrelevance these days. They appealed to those who felt this new-fangled FWD business, like those Cortina buyers, was nonsense because they are powered by well-proven engines and have reasonable mechanical parts availability. You can’t argue with that.

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Seat were latecomers to the scene, having announced the Ibiza at 1985 Motorfair, after selling a handful of Fiat-based cars a decade before. Still heavily reliant on Fiats engineering, the new generation of Giugiaro-designed cars at least looked the part. The three ashtrays without a cigarette lighter may have puzzled some customers, but the 1.5-litre System-Porsche engine did boost the showroom appeal.

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The show wasn’t simply confined to passenger cars; in previous years, a good selection of ordinary vans and small commercials were also present, but this year, they are noticeably lacking. This outstandingly authentic Bedford CF250 pickup truck made up for it. A typical instance of having to hunch forward when driving, the CF was still a swift and refined van that offered a more than suitable alternative to a Transit. The owner put a lot of time and effort into bringing it up to a presentable state without sacrificing the appearance of that rustic street furniture look.

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We enter the fiercely contested but somewhat crowded Concours de l’Ordinaire arena after the countless diversions, photo opportunities, and brief discussions with various friendly faces. The judging is more involved than you might think because the panel of true anoraks need to carefully consider each entry’s attributes. Similar to choosing your favourite Matchbox toy with your pocket money, the criteria are balanced and the onus is equally on the owner and the vehicle, but it’s important to recognise that the amount of money spent on it is not always a guarantee of success.

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Dave attended the event in his well-travelled Peugeot 504 TI, a vehicle that has been regularly visiting car exhibitions since the late 1990s. Of course, anyone who had one of the fine cars while they were in production should not be surprised by that level of durability. It was Peugeot’s most popular model in the UK until the smaller 305 arrived, and in the 1980s, because of their reputation for eating up miles, they were popular exports to the Middle East and Africa, which may help to explain why there are so few UK cars left now.

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As the rolling cut-off date now approaches 1997, several vehicles were making their debuts at the event. The few good examples that are still being utilised as daily drivers could be saved if people can recognise that these quickly vanishing models are indeed worthy of preserving. This includes the iconic and entertaining to drive Ford Ka as well as the practical Renault Megane Scenic which was almost guided into the visitor’s car park by the marshals as it entered the event. Stealth unexceptionalism.

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There were many well-known media personalities who were cheerfully milling around with the general audience, expressing the same enthusiasm and excitement for the exhibits. Richard Hammond and the Smallest Cog crew, in particular, were present, and Hammond’s Opel Kadett ‘Oliver’ was parked up for everyone to enjoy. Despite being out of the running for the event because of its age, Oliver received an award for “Best Effort to Enter an Ineligible Car”.

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BL legend Tanya Field, top writer Sam Skelton, The Gadget Show’s Jon Bentley, and Practical Classics’ Danny Hopkins were among the judges, in addition to, Hegarty’s Gary Axon, and Autocars’ Steve Cropley. Mike Brewer, I Drive a Classic’s Steph and Ian “Hubnut” Seabrook were among the other notable figures at the event.

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Some owners had travelled a fair distance to attend but Mateusz Strzyewski and his partner had driven their dependable Hyundai Pony the furthest via Poland and were rewarded by a mention from the judges. Other cars discovered in the main field had travelled from France and Holland.

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Just before the announcement of the main event winners, a few cars within the Concours de l’Ordinaire received honourable mentions, including Paul Anderson’s beautiful Simca 1501 and Udara David’s Toyota Sprinter Carib (Toyota Tercel 4WD) The David family imported the car into the UK after using it in its native Sri Lanka. Despite it being damaged during a tsunami and receiving subpar repairs while out there, it has survived against all the odds and is still offering the family dependable and sterling service.

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The P10 Nissan Primera driven by Chris James won the public vote for the ‘Best Rep Mobile’. He purchased it from the previous owner after being inspired by the car’s presence at the event the year before. Chris had built these vehicles in the late 1990s while working on the Washington assembly line for Nissan, just as the P10 gave way to the P11. As a member of the Nissan Primera Owners Club, he couldn’t resist the need to acquire such a well-kept, original and solid example.

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Chris Jay and his pristine Peugeot 104 are the junior pick for the competition, in which young people with unquestionably good taste vote for their favourite vehicle. In 1984, he actually purchased this very car for his mother to use. Chris may have noticed something in the 104’s modest charms and perhaps been offered a sizeable discount in the process for this outgoing model, sidestepping the distraction of the then-new and much-lauded 205. The mostly forgotten Peugeot 104 was a significant development for the company. It was their first small car and while not Peugeot’s first front-wheel drive offering, it was the 104 that launched a generation of dynamic and entertaining FWD Peugeots.

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For his 1986 Skoda Estelle, Matthew Bareham received the runner-up prize. Restored after two years of laborious work, the Estelle is well known for attracting lousy jokes and the fact that a reputable car magazine favourably compared its handling to that of a Porsche 911. It is also frequently cited as one of the better products to come out of the Eastern Bloc. Sales were remarkably strong in the 1980s, assisted by the fact that it was among the least expensive new cars available. The brand has undoubtedly recovered over time because many people now buy Skoda products with confidence, but the Estelle was crucial in planting the seeds of potential.

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Samuel Allan from Edinburgh took home the top award in the Concours de l’Ordinaire with his 1994 Vauxhall Astra Merit. He first noticed the car almost ten years ago, and it was only after he made inquiries in 2019 that he was able to purchase it from the elderly long-time owner who had done well to protect it from the severe Scottish weather. The Mk3 Astra was a car that stood out for executing its task without a fuss and in comfort, yet almost blending into the car park without attracting a second glance. This makes it a deserving winner that fulfils the objective of flawlessly representing the Unexceptional.

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That’s it for another year. An event that has remained true to its roots, where the cars take equalling billing to the owners. Always civilised and one of the friendliest and most inclusive classic car events on the calendar, its appeal will continue to surprise, create discussions and no doubt encourage you to finish off that languishing project or maybe hit the internet to finally buy your unexceptional dream car. Either way, we’ll return to Lincolnshire next year with the promise of more unexceptional cars with extraordinary owners.

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