Festival of the Unexceptional

10 Unexceptional Years: FOTU Celebrates a Decade of the Drab

by Nik Berg
7 March 2024 4 min read
10 Unexceptional Years: FOTU Celebrates a Decade of the Drab

If it didn’t go against the very ethos of the event, one would have to call the Festival of the Unexceptional an exceptional success story. From its debut a decade ago, when the first everyday heroes gathered, FOTU has grown to become one of the most popular classic car meets on the calendar.

This year’s FOTU will be bigger and better than ever with more cars, more live stage features, and more awards. It will be an extraordinary celebration of the ordinary.

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Back in 2014, the idea of a car show where mundane motors took pride of place was unheard of, and, until 300 people parked up in the grounds of Whittlebury Hall in Northamptonshire, nobody knew if it would work.

As FOTU was finding its feet there were a few cars among the Ford Cortinas, Fiat Stradas, Vauxhall Chevettes, and Austin Maxis that probably didn’t quite count as ‘unexceptional’. Coventry Transport Museum brought along an Austin Metro once owned by Princess Diana, and the National Motor Museum produced a petite Peel P50. Even the winner would probably be classed as a little too special by FOTU’s judges today.

Eddie Rattley’s Nissan Cherry Europe GTi_Hagerty Festival of the Unexceptional

Eddie Rattley’s Datsun Cherry Europe was not only the last on the road, it had previously appeared badged as an Alfa Romeo Arna at the NEC Classic Motor Show. What’s more, it was a GTi model, and in FOTU world, where the blandest badges are celebrated, it was a tad racy. However, it did create a superfan in Rattley, who has been a regular ever since.

2015 FOTU winner: Ford Escort 1600, Barry Williams

2015’s Best in Show was Barry Williams’ 1978 Ford Escort 1600, which had been in his family since new, while in 2016 the winner was Jonathan Papworth and his 1980 Morris 575 pickup – also owned by the family from the moment it left the showroom.

Jonathan Papworth Morris Marina 575 pickup_Hagerty Festival of the Unexceptional

FOTU’s home would be Whittlebury Hall until 2017, when the event moved to the posh Stowe School in Buckinghamshire. Where one imagines that chauffeured Rolls-Royces and Range Rovers are the normal mode of transport, instead it was a 1983 Datsun Sunny that shone brightest. Owner Mark Ashbridge described his 1.5 GL as “a pleasant conveyance.” Just the sort of unenthusiasm we love.

2017 FOTU winner: Datsun Sunny 1.5 GL,Mark Ashbridge

In 2018 it was Guy Maylam and his 1977 Chrysler Alpine who took home a plastic tea mug, largely down to his dedication in keeping the car in original condition. 2019 marked a brief move to The Claydon Estate, where a 1977 Morris Marina Estate brought back from the dead by Michael Carpenter took the honours.

Guy Maylam and his Chrysler Alpine GL

During the Covid 19 lockdown of 2020, FOTU was forced into a hiatus, but the fascination with fancy-free cars grew online, amplified by fans on Facebook where an unofficial Festival of the Unexceptional Group now has over 3000 active members, Weird Car Twitter and its thousands of tagged posts, plus creators and their fans on YouTube and Instagram.

For FOTU’s return in 2021 at the new venue of Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire, there were more entries than ever, and encouragingly, a younger and more diverse crowd – thanks, no doubt, to that social media success. Over 900 mundane motors showed up, and it was Jon Coupland and his 1989 Proton 1.5 GL Black Knight who won the Concours de l’Ordinaire.

Jon Coupland's 1989 Proton 1.5 GL Black Knight Edition winner of the Festival of the Unexceptional

For Proton Jon, as he’s now known, winning was a life changing experience. “A LOT changed from that moment,” says Jon. “Not only did I have the opportunity to display my Proton at the RAC rotunda in Pall Mall but it inspired me to start sharing my car collection and my love for unloved and underappreciated survivors. I went viral in Malaysia and all of a sudden people started to appreciate Protons again. I’m not claiming to have started a Proton Renaissance, but it definitely helped bring Protons to the front of everyone’s minds again! It inspired me to start and work on my YouTube channel and build my Twitter ‘brand’.”

Jon Coupland, winner of the 2021 Hagerty Festival of the Unexceptional

“The event is special because not only does it celebrate the underappreciated street furniture of yesteryear, it also brings together this unusual little community of ‘car nerds’ who genuinely get more excited by blanking plates than optional extras. So many people have been so kind off the back of me winning, with me making new friends that I would never have met otherwise.”

In 2022 Grimsthorpe hosted almost 1300 humdrum classics, and of them all it was Samuel Allan’s 1994 Vauxhall Astra Merit that was ultimately unexceptional. Word of the weirdness had spread wide by now and Mateusz Strzyzewski even drove his 1991 Hyundai Pony all the way from Slovakia to take part.

Samuel Allan 2022 Festival of the Unexceptional winner

Last year, more than 1600 unremarkable cars and 3000 enthusiasts descended on Grimsthorpe. Not only did Stephen Pike drive his 1991 Daihatsu Applause 900 miles from Sweden to attend, completing a variety of repairs along the way, he also drove away with the highest prize.

Stephen says: “I was totally shocked and left speechless for a while, until it had sunk in! Even though I had not said anything before setting off from Sweden it didn’t take long before I was congratulated by many people here upon my return. It felt like I was in the spotlight for a while. Did it change anything for me? Well now I’m smitten, this year I have purchased a restoration project that I am currently working on in the hope to attend this year’s FOTU.

“I have attended many classic car events both in the UK and in Europe. What really stands out at FOTU is the extremely well-organised feeling of the whole event and I was impressed with the huge interest shown by younger enthusiasts, which gave the event a real youthful vibe. It’s great to see so many younger people showing an interest in classics.”

2023 FOTU winner

Who will win the coveted 10-year anniversary edition? Well, it could be you, as entries to the Concours de l’Ordinaire are now open. There are just 50 spots available in the competition for mediocre motors built between 1969 and 1999. Click here to find out more.

If you’re looking for inspiration, among the newly eligible machines are the Citroën Xsara Picasso, Kia Carens and Rio, Skoda Fabia, Toyota Yaris, and Vauxhall Zafira. You’d also be well-advised to check out our judge’s guide to preparing your car – and possibly bring a bribe!

So, put Saturday July 27 in your diary and best of luck. And remember that, even if your car isn’t selected, there will be thousands of other unexceptional enthusiasts displaying their run-of-the-mill runabouts and loads of activities at this year’s fabulous festival. Book your tickets now – at just £35 per car – or only five quid a head if you fill a Zafira!

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Hagerty Festival of the Unexceptional returns 30 July 2022
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  • Les the 1994 Mk5b Escort Si ESTATE says:

    Coming in something 25 plus years old, quite rusty and S Korean this year, not Les, and not my Rav4, if it starts and makes the 100 odd miles, mostly motorway driving

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