First thing’s first — there’s no shame in owning and cherishing an Unexceptional Car. For us, being Unexceptional should be worn like a badge of honour, alongside your metal AA or RAC grille logo, because there’s so much love for the Unexceptional in the classic car world.
Unexceptional cars are the ones your dad drove you to school in, or your neighbour bought brand new, and polished to within an inch of its life every Sunday morning. Unexceptional motors were the ones with the cheesiest adverts, and sold by the millions; they were brought to you by British Leyland, Vauxhall, Renault, Datsun, Talbot, Fiat or Citroen — and usually in an eye-searingly distasteful colour, had a book of discarded Green Shield stamps in the glovebox, and ran on four-star.
To really set off your unexceptional motor, it needed to feature at least one of the following five key Unexceptional points:
Back in the 1970s and into the ’80s, very few people bought cars in boring silver, black or grey, like they do now. Companies such as Berger and DuPont were very effective at mixing their base paints into some truly grim — and utterly contemporary — colours. Browns, beiges, greens and blues were all popular, the muddier the better, and they were topped off by some of the most imaginative, yet undesirable names. Don’t believe us? Would you buy a car in Russet Brown, Antelope Beige, Harvest Gold, Rattan Beige or Signal red? We did back then … in the millions.
Unexceptional cars came to you in an era when model variation was super important. The differences between De Luxe and Super or L and GL mattered more than you could ever imagine. Where this was the most obvious was in what hubcap your car came with — basic models had naked steel wheels, mid rangers might have had a chromed centre cap, and the very top models were usually bedecked with some overblown chromed wheeltrims, often designed to look like alloy wheels. They might have been designed to look that way, but rarely did they succeed. Our favourites are Rover’s Rostyle lookalikes, and Datsun’s pie-dish ‘caps, nailed to the 120Y.
Unexceptional cars often boasted some rather splendid interior colours and materials. We’re talking an era when old fashioned wood and leather for mass-produced cars had been consigned to the junk bin, and makers started liberally using petroleum-based materials, boldly coloured to overcome the misery equipment levels of some of the more poverty-spec models. Coloured vinyl was a base-level special, with tartan plaid a favourite the next level up. If you were at the top of the tree, you could enjoy velour, often coloured brightly to match — or to contrast — the exterior colour.
Thanks to Ralph Nader, for much of the 1970s, car manufacturers feared that the convertible was going to be banned — and for a while, it seemed like all new sports and GT cars emerged from their makers stubbornly wearing a roof. In order to try and give them some of that convertible glamour, without the abject danger of missing a roof, the vinyl roof gained massively in popularity throughout the decade. And it became one of those desirable items they larded on to top of the range models in order to show the world what you were getting for your money. With a vinyl roof, your neighbours knew you’d arrived.
The joy of the 1970s and ’80s was that in the back of most car brochures were a myriad of optional extras that the canny buyer could turn his Unexceptional motor into a slightly less Unexceptional one. A good example was Renault’s Boutique catalogue, which contained such lovelies as trip and MPG computers, luggage bay liners, roof bars and upgraded stereos — sometimes with extra speakers. BL’s Unipart catalogue was full of similar joys, although a rare treat for pretty much all were the styling kits, with rudimentary spoilers and bold looking stripes. Items from these, in addition to such items as Goodmans parcel shelf speakers, are the true making of a proper Unexceptional car.