Jon Bentley is a former producer and presenter of Top Gear and presents The Gadget Show on Channel 5. He was once found wandering the Hagerty Festival of the Unexceptional of his own free will – staying so late that the only way we could persuade him to leave so everyone could go home was to be a judge the following year!
The Festival of the Unexceptional is my favourite car show. The boundless enthusiasm devoted to the preservation of unashamedly ordinary cars makes it a life-affirming tonic.
For me, an unexceptional classic car is one that’s everyday, unremarkable, and usually treated with indifference, both when new and today. Ideally, but not necessarily, it also has a distinct whiff of the naff.
Allegros, Sunnys and Chevettes define the breed. They were cheap and cheesy when new, rarely won any prizes, and are largely unloved today, surviving only in miniscule numbers.
My day job is presenting a programme about gadgets on Channel 5 and I recently started pondering whether there might be similar unexceptional movements in other areas of technology.
At first glance, an obvious candidate is the vinyl record. With its wow, flutter and rumble, not to mention dust and scratches, the sound can’t approach the perfection of its digital equivalents. But, on closer consideration, the world of vinyl is too good to be put into the unexceptional category. Playing and even cutting a record is an art rather than a science and many prefer the “warmth” and “character” they get from their discs. Many record players, and the records themselves, aren’t cheap. You can still spend over £100,000 on a turntable. Even Dansettes, which sound awful, are too cool and command high prices.
That’s not to say there aren’t unexceptional niches in the vinyl world. My nomination is the radiogram. There’s something thoroughly kitsch about this oversized piece of furniture, usually housing rather rubbish electronics, and in some cases doubling as a cocktail cabinet or a reproduction period sideboard – remember Dynatron, anyone? After years when you couldn’t give them away, prices are starting to rise – just what you need to spark interest in restoring them.
Another unexceptional bit of period audio tech is the Compact Cassette. A growing number of fans seem to relish the hiss, the tangles, the inconsistent playback between decks, and the endless battle against decomposing drive belts that come as standard. Sales of pre-recorded cassettes are exceeding figures last seen in the early 2000s. Bjork recently re-released her back catalogue in a stylish limited edition, while Sam Smith, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and, perhaps appropriately, Rick Astley have all launched albums on cassette. But the overwhelming proportion of sales are the blank variety. Presumably people want a genuine mixtape experience.
Even more unexceptional is the audio cassette’s big brother, the VHS. The artwork on the boxes and the thrill of discovering obscure titles that aren’t available on other media outweigh the dodgy tracking and hopeless video quality. And there’s the joy of unearthing period ads and programme announcements on home recordings of obscure programmes. What could be more unexceptional than loading a selection of forgotten schlock horror titles into the boot of the Montego and motoring round to your friend’s house for a VHS movie night… on a CRT TV of course.
Talking of pictures, how about photography? Classic equals film where photography is concerned but, like vinyl, it’s a broad church. There’s serious money at the prestige end, with Rolls-Royce grade cameras such as Leicas and Rolleiflexes, but there’s also an enthusiastic “lo-fi” movement. Lomography started it, named after a crude 1980s Russian compact camera, the Lomo LC-A that produces slightly exaggerated colour effects on 35mm film. The appeal has encouraged photographers to take shots on a whole range of old, cheap cameras and revel in the artistically blurred images they produce, complete with fog and light leaks. The cameras are so simple they’ve even started to make some designs again, like the Diana.
The Kodak Instamatic would be the ideal unexceptional camera, They made 60 million and I’m sure many lo-fi photographers would love to use one again, but most run on 126 film which ceased production in 2008 and no-one can justify the capital expense of remanufacturing it. Happily, petrol seems to have a brighter future as a consumable.
There’s better luck for those wanting to keep old Polaroids alive. A group of enthusiasts called the Impossible Project successfully relaunched the film and is even making new cameras as well, both now with their original Polaroid branding. Like the Diana it’s a sort of continuation camera model. You won’t see that accolade happening with a Marina any time soon though I’m told there are plans to remanufacture Reliant Robin bodyshells for 3-wheel banger racing.
Maybe it’s the photos themselves, however, that are truly unexceptional, rather than the cameras; portraits of ordinary people taken by anonymous photographers. The People’s Archive is a crowdfunded accumulation of not-for-profit snapshots that aims to document everyday life in twentieth century Britain. The Anonymous Project rescues slides from house clearances and flea markets before they self-destruct from chemical degradation or simply get thrown away.
I suspect you may need to know an area pretty well to identify where the seams of unexceptional interest lie. I would have to consult a master gaming guru to help decide whether there’s anything unexceptional in the current passion for retro gaming; playing simple old games like Super Mario Kart, Tetris and the Legend of Zelda on ancient equipment. There might not be any – it could just be pure nostalgia for what was always deservedly popular.
I’m on safer ground when it comes to interest in old computers. My suggestion here is Amstrad. I hear Alan Sugar is thinking of opening a museum celebrating some of his budget machines that brought word processing to the masses. That could certainly be a display of the unexceptional. I’m already beginning to wish I hadn’t taken my 1988 PCW9512 to the tip.
Retro interest in white goods is definitively unexceptional. In idle moments I occasionally do a YouTube search to see if anyone’s celebrating the appliances I remember from my childhood. Surprisingly the answer’s often yes and I settle down to watch, say, the wash cycle of a top loading Hotpoint washing machine. Do a search for Kenwood Chef and Kitchen Aid restoration and you’ll find plenty of interest in classic food mixers.
There’s plenty of unexceptional scope in gadgetry then. However, while people can go all dewy eyed about their off-focus memories of the family Viva I think they’re less likely to be stirred by a Servis twin tub. With the possible exception of those old photos, nothing combines the everyday, the unremarkable and the unloved in such a mesmerising way as unexceptional cars.
Cowland on Cars: Average is the new epic. Treat yourself to something utterly unexceptional
Hagerty’s Festival of the Unexceptional returns on 31 July to celebrate the most marvellously mundane motor cars