CC has seen the Festival of the Unexceptional before but this year I was able to spend longer there, and also participate with my 1990 Mazda MX-5 in the supporting car park of unexceptionality and nostalgia.
Think of the Festival of the Unexceptional as being a celebration of the ordinary, not of Rolls-Royce, Ferrari or Aston Martin. The car Dad had, the one you were told Grandad had, the car Dad wanted but never actually went for, the car you wanted Dad to buy and couldn’t understand why he didn’t, the car you went to school in, the car you learnt to drive in, your first car, the first car you crashed…. they were there.
Let’s take a quick photo walk around. Starting with two Trabant estate cars, one with branding from East German airline Interflug, outside an English country house seems a good start.
A 1987 VW Jetta Mk2 in Tornado red. Dad had one, pretty close to this. The first of three Jettas, so I guess he can be recorded under “satisfied customer”. His first VW, his first red car, and the first one I dropped a kitchen table on.
If Dad had followed marque and dealer loyalty logic, he’d had chosen a Peugeot 405 rather than a Jetta. Some may say I’m harsh to put the 405 into unexceptional, but the use and UK market place position of the 405 tips the balance. In this context, good (even exceptional) cars can be unexceptional.
This is a 1994 2.0 diesel, and a nice example of the 405.
But what does the rear window dealer sticker say?
The Rootes business had started as a vehicle distributor in Kent, the very south east tip of the UK, and grown from there. Rootes was retained as a trading name for a dealer chain, owned by Peugeot UK, until 2010 when the branding was changed.
One of Dad’s friends had one of these. Let’s just say that after having heard about it, he had to ask me what is was. A Vauxhall Viceroy was an badge engineered 1978 Opel Commodore – the four cylinder Rekord D became the Carlton and the six cylinder Commodore became the Viceroy, while the larger Opel Senator became the Vauxhall Royale. A rarity when new, it lasted on the market for just two years.
The Viceroy was only ever available as 2.5 lite saloon, unless you were the Queen when you could have a have Viceroy estate. Imagine the conversation. “I’m the Queen, I want something truly special for the corgis. What I need is a six cylinder Vauxhall Carlton estate built in Germany!” Sometimes the British monarchy puzzles me.
Dad didn’t have one of these, but his sister did – a Vauxhall Chevette, the UK version of the T-car. More familiar, and better remembered, in the UK as a three door hatchback, the Chevette saloon was actually an underrated Escort (RWD type) beater, if a bit cramped in the rear seats, remembers a confined teenager.
Look past the French registration and this is a 1982 Peugeot 104S. Dad didn’t have one but Mum did, albeit right-hand-drive and a couple of years older. Peugeot’s first supermini, and a pretty good effort, although ours had a disappointing appetite for cylinder head gaskets.
The Talbot Samba was a post PSA-Chrysler amalgamation derivative of the 104, in this case seen as a convertible, which was only offered as a Talbot and not a Peugeot or Citroen LN. This 1984 car has a Coventry registration, so we can speculate about its original customer or user.
From 1985, Peugeot were building their own cars in the UK, at the old Rootes plant in Coventry. The first one was the Peugeot 309, developed from the European Chrysler Horizon. I think unexceptional is kind, to be honest.
This one may have the four spot light front end from the GTi, but is actually a run out special from 1993.
One of the Peugeot 309’s key competitors was the Renault 11 (aka Renault Encore), seen in a particularly period and virulent colour.
Next to the 309 was a 1990 Peugeot 205, in this case in top line Roland Garros trim. Like the 405, it was not truly unexceptional but the market spot and use was, and that sunroof, positioned on the outside of the roof panel, seals it for me.
Another European supermini now rarely seen in the UK is the original Fiat Punto, the successor to the better remembered Uno. This was a clear update of the Uno’s taller and upright formula, rather than lower and sleeker like the 205 or later 206. This is a 1996 1.6 litre version.
The Uno’s big brother was the initial Fiat Tipo, with innovative styling and some interesting use of materials. My brother had one, a 2.0 litre diesel IIRC, and he considered better than the preceding Golf. This is a 1995 1.4 litre example.
And above the Tipo sat the Croma, paired with the Lancia Thema, Alfa Romeo 164 and SAAB 9000.
No one has any real memory of the Croma in the UK – it passed pretty much unnoticed. This is a 1992 series 2 car.
And here’s the Lancia Thema – a saloon rather than a hatchback, playing a more upmarket role.
It’s a Lancia, so unexceptional status may be a surprise, but it isn’t a real Lancia to a Curbivore. This is a 1994 2.5 litre diesel, so not a very Lancia-sounding engine either.
The Datsun Stanza by Nissan was the first mid-size front wheel drive Nissan in Europe. This 1982 car is perhaps the first example I have seen for 20 years and fit the European mid size template pretty well, even if the execution in terms of on road behaviour left a little to be desired. Still, equipment and reliability sold it to us in sufficient numbers to make building the Nissan plant in Sunderland a practical proposition.
The badging was a bit of a confusion though. AA Relay was a service that not only tried to fix you by the road but would take you on to your destination as well, for a premium subscription.
This 1978 Datsun (no Nissan here yet) Cherry hatchback was typical of the cars that took business from BLMC. 988cc of total reliability with a MW radio and cloth seats.
Excitement was not on offer, but few customers would have asked for it, to be frank.
Dad never had a Japanese car and at one pint in the mid 1970s he refused to look at Datsuns. Conservative, but with a small ‘c’, we would say. So we missed out on the Datsun 140J Violet with its somewhat busy styling. This is a 1974 1.4 litre car. Dad was still driving a Hillman Hunter then, seen alongside and looking a bit old as well (the Hunter, not Dad).
Here’s the Hunter in more detail. This is a 1974 car – Dad’s was actually a 1971 car in Aztec Gold metallic rather than this bronze colour and as a 1971 car had the earlier style of grille and headlights (obviously). He’d also had a fender bender in it with Ford Cortina by then as well – my first car crash!
A DAF 33 – unusual but also unexceptional. Dad’s best childhood friend had one, as he only drove automatic vehicles. The rather whiny Renault engine and CVT transmission with its elastic band reputation sealed its unexceptional status. Unexceptional does not mean the same as unusual.
One other DAF was this 1971 55 Coupe, two generations of development from the 33 but still the same principle – Renault engine, in this case a 1.4 litre probably transplanted for the later Volvo 343 and the CVT transmission.
Styling, as was usual for DAF, was by Michelotti.
Another Michelotti design is the Austin Apache, and this was the first I’ve ever seen. The Apache was a South African market and built derivative of the Austin 1100/1300 ADO16, for which Michelotti added a very Triumph rear end and a new front. You might miss it first time, but once you know you can’t forget it.
A version of this car was also built in Spain as the Austin Victoria, but it was never built or sold in the UK.
Also unusual was this 1965 Bedford HA campervan conversion. This was the Bedford van version of the first generation Vauxhall Viva, with an expanding roof added and a compact camper interior. The bonnet was lifted not to display the 1159cc engine but because the owner was expecting to be going home on a recovery truck, having severely overheated on the way in, twice.
This is a 1981 Fiat 132 Bellini edition – 2 litres, all black, special cloth trim and alloy wheels – a car that was then 8 years old and about to replaced by the facelifted version sold as the Argenta. Sadly, this looked dated not just against the competition, such as the Peugeot 505, Citroen CX and VW Passat but also against the Fiat 131 Supermirafiori.
This Supermirafiori is a 1980 Series 2 car with a 1.6 litre twin cam engine, and made an interesting alternative to the Ford Cortina and Vauxhall Cavalier.
Fiat also offered a 2000 Racing with around 120 bhp and a strong world rallying pedigree, and an estate version of the car. It was sold in North America as the Fiat Brava and Superbrava, though success seems to have been limited.
Speaking of the Vauxhall Cavalier, how do you like yours?
The Cavalier Mark 1 1.6GL, from 1978. Dad opted for a Chrysler Alpine but my uncle (a Vauxhall employee) had one.
A late Cavalier Mark 2 1.6L, from 1987. Dad had opted for the Jetta by now, but my uncle stayed loyal.
A Cavalier Mark 3 2.0CD, from 1990. This was the Cavalier Brougham, and told the company car park you were doing well.
Of course, no British car show is complete without something from BL, its forebears and descendants, and you could argue some of these might just be considered unexceptional.
Like this Morris Marina estate from 1978. This is a 1.3 lite car, caught trying to compete with the larger Ford Cortina and cover the conservative buyer who didn’t want an Austin Allegro against the Ford Escort and Hillman Avenger.
Is anyone going to argue if we suggest that this was not BL’s finest hour?
I dont recall any actual Allegros this year (maybe I averted my eyes) but there was this – a Vanden Plas 1500. Take an Allegro, add a traditional style grille and a full British wood and leather interior with West of England cloth and folding burr walnut picnic tables. The interior fit out was done by Vanden Plas, and was the full coachbuilt standard. No plastic wood or Corinthian leather here.
Looks are always subjective, and there are people who admire the looks of this. Where they live, I have no idea.
This summer sees the 50th anniversary of the Austin Maxi, BLMC’s first new car and one that was in the development process when the company was formed in 1968. It was an amalgamation of Austin 1100 ADO16, Austin 1800 Landcrab with a new E series engine and 5 speed gearbox, and was Issigonis’s last production design. Some strengths, many weaknesses, and never the commercial success BL thought it would be, and needed it to be. Still, this very original and well presented 1969 car was quite an impressive example.
The Allegro and Maxi were superseded in 1983 by the Austin Maestro, and this is an early 1984 example, a 1.3 litre car.
The Maestro also came as an MG, seen here in 1985 2.0EFi form, with the digital talking dashboard. Alongside is a 1985 Austin Montego estate, the Maestro’s bigger brother.
The other big star for the early 1980s from BLMC was the Austin metro, the closest BL ever got to replacing the Mini. This is a November 1980 car, so very early in Metro production, with the 1.0 litre engine, and therefore not dissimilar to my car first car, and the first one I had a crash in.
Two other BLMC family cars of note were this 1983 Austin Ambassador – a very rare sight indeed now. The Ambassador was the hatchback derived from the Princess ADO71 range, and ran only from 1982 to 1984, when the Montego replaced it with car designed to directly take on the Ford Cortina and Vauxhall Cavalier rather than come in from left field with an unusually configured option would only ever appeal to a certain minority.
And a second series (1992-98) Rover 827 saloon, in this case all the way from Holland. This is the facelift of the car sold in North America as the Sterling, though by now the engine is a 2.7 litre Honda V6. These cars are quite fondly remembered, though usually as the 2 litre 820 or the more sporting Vitesse versions.
The Rover’s biggest UK market competitor was the Ford Granada. This is the earlier Granada Mark 1, from 1972 to 1977, seen in popular estate format.
Jason Shafer recently guided us through Omnirizon history; this is the UK market version, initially sold as a Chrysler but later sold as a Talbot after the Peugeot takeover. This is a 1985 car, with a 1.1 litre engine and a four-speed gearbox.
Mum had one very similar, albeit a few years older and without the Series 2’s great innovation – a partly blacked out rear window to permit a deeper boot space through a higher mounted rear shelf. This is the entry level LE version, so no rear wiper and a line in the specification that said “glovebox”. For the LS, it said “glovebox with lid”. You get the idea. And a fairly miserable and hard work driving experience with no power steering and an awkward gearshift.
One we missed from 1970s Chrysler was the Hillman Avenger. I class this as the last Rootes product, albeit Chrysler funded. More exciting than a Marina, if less spacious, and bigger and better than a Vauxhall Viva.
But perhaps the most unexceptional of all was this 2002 Proton Persona hatchback, known as the Wira in some markets including its home of Malaysia. At the time, this was probably the worst car on sale in Britain, and I do not think history has been or will be kind to to it. A derivative of the 1991 Mistubishi Lancer built down to a budget and disguised by using an odd amalgam of detail parts from other Mitsubishi models.
Unexceptional in almost every way, except in its total unexceptionality, in an exceptional show. And with good humour all round.
Later this week, some of the exceptional cars hiding in the festival.