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Festival of the Unexceptional

My unexceptional story

by Charlotte Vowden
2 August 2021 13 min read
My unexceptional story
Photos: Matt Howell

The Hagerty Festival of the Unexceptional is as much about people, their backgrounds and their stories as its is machines and their solid paint colours and miserly trim levels.

Unsurprisingly, there was a palpable sense of joy hanging in the air at the 2021 gathering of marvellously mundane motor cars, as like-minded car enthusiasts took in the scenes of smiling faces, shared anecdotes and, in some cases, rare accessories and literature – all set against the grand backdrop of Grimsthorpe Castle, in Lincolnshire.

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Here are just some of the wonderful people who were generous enough to share their car and their story with visitors at the 2021 Hagerty Festival of the Unexceptional.

Udara David, 1983 Toyota Sprinter Carib AV-II

Udara David, 1983 Toyota Sprinter Carib AV-II
Udara David and his Toyota Sprinter survived the tsunami

“If it wasn’t for this car, I might not still be here. When we lived in Sri Lanka I hit my head on a concrete floor and this is the car that took me to hospital – I’ve got the stitches to prove it.

My dad bought the Sprinter in Japan during the mid-80s and shipped it over to Sri Lanka where I grew up. It was our family car, it carried us everywhere and I was completely obsessed with it. I’ve got pictures of going to my first day of school in this car. I have so many memories I could talk for hours and hours about it.

Making the change from passenger to driver has been a bit scary, and coming to this show is the longest I’ve driven it – we travelled 150 miles from West London to get here.

In 2001 we moved to the UK and left the Sprinter tucked away in the garage at home in Sri Lanka – I begged my dad not to sell it. Our house over there is quite close to the river and the sea and got hit by the Tsunami in 2004. The car didn’t get too damaged, it managed to survive that whole ordeal, but it started developing rust underneath.

It was quite damaged by the sun as well so we did have it re-sprayed but the garage in Sri Lanka painted it a slightly off shade, there was a bit of a communication difficulty. I don’t always dress to match it, my mum put the jumper out, it’s just a coincidence.

We gave it to a garage to look after and when we went back to check on the car they’d completely messed it up, they’d stolen the brakes, so many trim pieces were missing, it was heart breaking to see. It stayed at my auntie’s house after that until I got to a point where I could afford to fix it up.

I sourced the parts to piece it back together from all around the world – I’ve stockpiled loads so my bedroom is like a storage unit now – and then flew to Sri Lanka in 2019, got it into a running state and had it shipped here. We ripped out the diesel engine (I can’t remember when that modification was made) and put an original drive train in.

The AV-II was the top of the range model from Toyota in the 80s, but it was still just a bog standard family car. Modern, or period, features include power steering, electric sun roof, electric mirrors and air-conditioning that maintains an ambient temperature on its own – all top spec stuff for an 80s car. It’s got switchable 4WD and as a kid I would stare at the tilt gauge on the dashboard when we were on an incline.

It’s got a four-cylinder 1.5 engine, nothing exceptional. With about 80 horsepower, anything over 90mph is a bit of a struggle. I mean, I’ve tried on a private road, obviously.

Back in the day it was just our normal every day car, but now it’s a family heirloom. I fell in love with the Sprinter when I was a kid so no amount of money could buy it, it’s a member of the family. It’s got one hell of a history and it’s not done yet.”

Chris and Nicola Haining, 1995 Peugeot 306 1.4i XN in Bermuda blue

Chris and Nicola Haining, 1995 Peugeot 306 1.4i XN in Bermuda blue

Chris: “When you’ve hung on to a car for a number of years it becomes a financial burden and you start to think that economically, you should replace it. Our car is effectively worth the value of mixed metals. It has whatever it needs to keep it running – a £600 new rear axle, a £400 calliper – and when it was written off six years ago it was like a life ending. We bought it back from salvage, put it back on the road and intend to keep it going for the rest of time.

It looks like a car that probably shouldn’t be on the road but that’s one of the reasons why we love it. She wears her age on her sleeve, remnants of the write-off saga are there for anyone to see, and the torn seat upholstery shows she’s had 26 years of hard work.

The Peugeot has been owned by the same person, my wife Nicola, since 2005. She bought it as her first car at the age of 18 and it being an entirely functional and very enjoyable car she’s shown absolutely no interest in replacing it since then, so it’s still with us. She’s owned it for almost half of her life.

Very soon after my wife and I got together we made a 4000 mile trip across Europe, sleeping and eating in the car – partially because we enjoy the car, and partially because I don’t like spending any money. Every journey is an achievement, but a lot of them are very mundane.

You wouldn’t want to arm wrestle my wife. She drives a Land Rover most days for work but the steering takes more effort in the Peugeot – she’s developed some real shoulder muscles. It sits on such narrow tyres and handles beautifully, but Nicola doesn’t quite take it for the entertaining drive that it actually is, she’s not the most determined driver.

This show is the heartland of every day cars and I find that so much more interesting than highly polished collector items. These cars actually say something about people’s lives rather than people’s aspirations. We can relate to that, we are not the most aspirational of people as you can imagine because we don’t mind being seen in a 1995 Peugeot 306.”

Nicola: “This is the only car show Chris has been able to successfully drag me to. I’m here, my car is here, but I’m just not a car person. I bought the Peugeot when I was a student and it was a good ten years until I was in a financial position to think about getting another car but by that time I’d had it for ten years and quite liked it. It’s been fun to keep it going, I drive it every day to work and I’m happy in it. It’s for keeps, but I’ve had it for so long because I’ve got so little interest in getting another car!”

Mick Rayner, 1989 Škoda Estelle 120 L5 1200CC

Mick Rayner, 1989 Škoda Estelle 120 L5 1200CC

“As one of the cheapest cars sold in Britain, this is not far from the bottom of the range. For a long time they were pensioner cars and they had a bad reputation for reliability; jokes along the lines of how the heated rear windows keep your hands warm when you push it, and that sort of thing!

Yet I’ve got a couple of classics and this one has been the most reliable. It hasn’t caused me problems apart from head gasket failure they’re renowned for – but it had been stood for 15-20 years before I bought it and it suffered when I put it straight back on the road.

It being rear engined it’s quiet because when you speed up all the engine noise goes away from you. The steering is light because there’s no weight in the front so it drives a lot nicer than you’d think it would.

It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I like that people notice the Skoda. You can buy a thirty to forty grand car and just blend in, or you can have something like this that’s worth a couple of grand and it stands out because people can relate to it. It’s one of those cars that people forgot, that people didn’t want.

I think there’s a generation of people that think Skoda’s aren’t cool, but they’ve survived this long so I think they are. I think because of the rarity people look at it now and they don’t laugh.

It’s one of the slightly better specced models, but it’s still down the bottom end and it’s still pretty dull. I’m not quite the boss man of Skoda, but we’ve been treated to a radio cassette, two front speakers, alloys, a digital clock and a sun roof. Its got nothing you don’t need, but also, a lot of things you do need it hasn’t got – for example there’s no cigarette lighter but you do get an ash tray.

It’s got about 15,000 miles on the clock, I don’t know anything about its history, but I think it’s had a really hard 15,000 miles. The paint is original but there’s wear on the pedals and the original seats are disintegrated.

If I’m nipping to the shops, I go in this. Down to Tesco or the co-op on Sunday night when we’ve run out of something and Tesco is shut, nice and mundane stuff.

Something like this show is ideal for it. Unexceptional and unloved cars that have often survived thorough chance rather than because they’re a car that somebody wanted to keep.”

Keith and Chris Rowbottom, 1963 Triumph Herald 1200 saloon

Keith and Chris Rowbottom, 1963 Triumph Herald 1200 saloon

Keith: “It was love at first sight – both for us and when we saw the car. We’ve been together since 1969 and we’ve had Ruby since 2014, she’s largely original and it took us three years to find her. We first went to see her in the week of our Ruby wedding anniversary, hence her name.

Our first three cars were Triumph Heralds, and we did all our courting in Heralds, it’s such an icon of the 60s. We went away after our wedding in a Triumph Herald and guests hid kippers in the exhaust and engine, it was just one of those things that people did. We drove from Devon to Luton before we realised.

Ruby’s quirkiest feature is the fuel gauge, which works its way from empty to full. We haven’t been able to solve the problem, nobody can work out why it works backwards, so we’ve left it as a nice quirk. From the paperwork we know she’s always been on the road, she’s at 61,000 miles so is still quite young in that sense.

We’ve done the Triumph Round Britain Reliability Rally twice. The first time we did it with our two sons, who are taller than us so it was a bit of a squash. The miracle was not only that we got round but that we were still talking to each other by the end of the 48 hours. The second time it was just myself with our sons, our eldest broadcast live on radio as we were travelling in Scotland which was fantastic. Last year we did a mini one ourselves just to get out because we’d been locked in for so long. We do talk to her, just to say well done Ruby, well done.

Over the years we’ve collected things to bring along to shows; a picnic set, radio, table and chairs – all original from the 60s. We’ve got the original Airfix model and one of the new ones, the lovely thing is the car on the box is red and white so they go nicely.

We love showing her off and enabling people to relive their memories, that gives us as great pleasure, we’re not petrolheads.”

Chris: “Ruby is part of the family. We’ve got three grandsons and they love going out in her because it’s so different for them – building memories is so important.

We dress to match her at shows, it’s just a bit of fun, and we love hearing people’s stories. We were at a show in Manchester and an elderly gentleman was reminiscing about when he had one. He talked about his wife who had died and I said would he like to sit in it, which he did, and he was very near tears, happy tears.

The Reliability Rally isn’t a race, but you have to book into different check points. The first time we did it we had three breakdowns and so were a bit tight for time. The boys kept saying go faster mum, but that’s not for me, however we did win a trophy for best car in the event which was lovely.”

Luke Hopson, 1993 ZX Volcane 1.9TD and 1974 Commer PB 1.8TD pick-up

Luke Hopson, 1993 ZX Volcane 1.9TD and 1974 Commer PB 1.8TD pick-up

“I was never a fan of originality but because of how few ZX’s there are left, I feel I’d be doing it an injustice to start modifying it. I’d lose the essence of what it is.

It’s my weekend car, I paid £850 for it and it’s called Cecily. I always thought the rule was if you’re a bloke you name your car after a woman and Cecily is the first one I thought of.

My first recollection of being in a car was in my dad’s ZX, that’s why I like them so much. This is my second one, he was a bit unamused when I bought the first, but when he saw this one his face lit up. It sparks memories and it’s a way for him to travel back and think of the time he enjoyed in his ZX’s.

The Volcane was the top spec for a ZX, and everything is standard apart from the wheels, they came with it and I don’t like them, but I’ve got a set which I’m restoring. Back in the day people used to like nicking radios out of cars, so Citroën designed the ZX’s one so it could be hidden away, but as soon as people knew it was there, that was a pretty pointless thing to do.

It’s got no air-con, but it does have remote central locking, which is rare. The electric sun roof actually works, which is also rare, but the rear wiper doesn’t. Inside, it smells like old velour and everything is square. It’s French, and it’s whacky. The door seal is broken so when I’m driving along in the rain I can hear the water running down the pillar – it doesn’t leak, it’s all character. I don’t want it to be a show queen, I just want it to last and make me happy for many years longer.

I’m 25 and I don’t rate people my age driving round in financed [Audi] S3s, they don’t really have any attachment to it in an emotional sense. I prefer being around like-minded people at shows like this who appreciate that it doesn’t matter how old a car is, they appreciate it for what it is. I love the ZX for being what it is.

Luke Hopson, 1993 ZX Volcane 1.9TD and 1974 Commer PB 1.8TD pick-up
Commer Eileen, says the sticker in the back window of Hopson’s Commer van.

The Commer is awful to drive. It’s very stiff from where I’ve lowered it at the back and you can’t go into a corner at more than 20 mph or you feel like you’ll flip it. Unstable, that’s the best word for it. I’d probably sell this over the ZX because the car is sentimental to me.

The Commer was an 18th bday present from my dad’s friend and it’s taken me seven years to put it back on the road. It’s been a bit of grief and it’s an unfinished project, I don’t know where it’ll go next. This is the first show I’ve taken it to and I was surprised it got here, I was even more surprised about the amount of people that like it.

It’s nowhere near standard, it was a caravans international motorhome but it’s now like a high sided pick-up with a Rover rear end and American racing wheels. The original 1.7-litre engine is gone, it’s now a 1.8 turbo diesel, with a 5-speed gear box and homemade charge cooler system.

I’m a mechanic but anybody could do what I’ve done, it’s not a difficult vehicle to work on – the best thing about it is its simplicity, you can make it anything you want. That’s what I like, the ruggedness and the agricultural feel of a vehicle of this age.”

Cam Hans-Brooker, 1997 Daihatsu Move

Cam Hans-Brooker, 1997 Daihatsu Move
Hans-Brooker travels with his hat and friend so he has someone available to adjust the wing mirrors.

“I bought Indiana five years ago for £300 off eBay, it’s my second Move. When I picked it up, I turned on the radio and it automatically tuned to a radio station. The Indiana Jones theme tune came on, da da da da da da daah. I thought right, it’s named itself. I don’t play the song very often, I like to keep it for special occasions, but the radio does have a button on it that just says ‘loud’. It’s quite noisy.

I did automotive engineering as a masters at university so I know a little bit about cars. I can get by with the maintenance on my own but body work I leave to other people because it’s so easy to mess up.

It’ll do about 55 miles per gallon and I was doing 20,000 miles a year in it but I’ve retired it now as my daily is a Daihatsu Copen. It’s gone from 6,000 miles miles to about 64,000 in the five years that I’ve had it, but it’s still got loads of life left in it. The only thing in all that time I’ve had to replace (except for service parts and the alternator belt which was perished because it had been sat) is a windscreen washer bottle bump.

With 42 horsepower this is the slowest petrol car sold in the UK since the early 90s. It takes 24.3 seconds to hit 60mph so you need planning permission to overtake – even if it’s a tractor.  If I see anyone, even a quarter of a mile in the distance, they’re too close and I won’t make it.

The heater is very powerful though, I’ve actually melted a pair of shoes because I had it directed onto my feet. It’s got no air-con of course, but it has got a strange feature that allows you to have warm air to the cabin, but cool air to the face to keep you awake as you’re driving.

It’s hilarious how much lean you get on corners. When I drive round a roundabout, maybe a little bit too quickly, I’ve had people behind me doing hand gestures as if it warn me about what’s happening to the car. There are no drain channels on the roof rails so when it’s raining heavily and I stop all the water comes sliding down onto the front of the car. It’s not got a cabin air filter either, so if I drive under a tree and the leaves are coming down, the leaves come into the cabin.

This is the basic model, it runs on a distributor, but I’ve actually got a few upgrades, even the little door bins are optional extras. They still make these in Japan, and sell really well over there, but in the UK, with this spec there’s only around 13 left. You can’t adjust the mirrors from the interior, you’ve got to grab the whole assembly and move it so you need a co-driver. There are no mirrors on the sun visors.

It’s simple, its got so much character and lots of space. I’ve collected all sorts of weird and strange things for it. On the dashboard I’ve got a little coffee cup that they used when they released the car which I found on the internet.

We’ve been doing a countdown for the show because it’s one of our favourite events of the year. I don’t know how many events you’d see a Bond Bug, Toyota MR2 and a Morris Marina all together. A lot of the time in the classic car world there’s a cut off date for cars to attend shows which is really annoying especially for younger people like us who have grown up in the 90s. Myself and my mates, are the people who are going to keep things going and we get excluded.

This is a keeper, this car is me. When people see it they’re like oh that’s Cam.”

Read more

Paul Cowland: Average is the new epic. Treat yourself to something utterly unexceptional
Young guns blaze at the 2021 Hagerty Festival of the Unexceptional
French of the Unexceptional: Gallic stars in the Concours de l’Ordinaire

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