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Hurrah for the humdrum: the highlights of the Festival of the Unexceptional (2014 to 2019)

by Sam Skelton
23 July 2020 5 min read
Hurrah for the humdrum: the highlights of the Festival of the Unexceptional (2014 to 2019)
Photos: Hagerty

On 25 July, Hagerty would have held its Festival of the Unexceptional, a Concours de l’Ordinaire. Postponed until next year, here Sam Skelton, event judge and keen collector of everyday cars, looks back at his personal highlights from six years of marvellously mundane motoring.

The Festival of the Unexceptional would have been in its seventh year this year. As we all know, it was cancelled, a victim of coronavirus, like countless other events the world over. It’s tempting to turn misty eyed and feel sad at the loss of the show that celebrates awesomely average, everyday cars, but stay strong friends: it will return, next July.

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Together with your genial compere Danny Hopkins, I am the only judge who has partaken in all six previous events. For five of those I was on the primary judging panel, for the sixth I was the sole official judge for the invitational class, a new feature celebrating cars marking milestone anniversaries. Thus, I enjoy a unique position – I can look back at each show from the perspective of a judge and pass my opinion on the cars which took part at each of these events.

It’s a personal subject, and I’m sure any of my colleagues would paint a different picture.

I had planned to celebrate the all-time Top Ten Festival cars but there were just too many suitable candidates. Often, my favourites haven’t won prizes; not because we judges are in discord but because each decision is democratically taken, and there are too many potential winners to award prizes to all.

When Andy Mitchell brought a well used Renault 30TX adapted with hand controls to the 2015 event it made my day. Gavin Bushby’s entries too have deserved more acclaim than our deliberations could allow.

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

We can’t look back at the victors (and Vauxhall Victors) without considering the car that won the very first Festival; Eddie Rattley’s Nissan Cherry Europe GTi. I vividly remember that discussion standing around the open bonnet as he outlined to judges which bits of his classic differed from the Japanese Cherry N12. The Europe was the Nissan branded version of the Alfa Romeo Arna, with much under the skin drawn from the Alfasud. I drove this car for a magazine shortly after the event, and it was an experience – you could feel the Italian heritage, and yet its innocuous shape and dwindling numbers make it an Unexceptional hero.

I’ve always felt that the Festival of the Unexceptional should have a few guidelines as to the cars we should rate highly. We should avoid the mainstream, swerve the aspirational and look most fondly on the cars history has wiped from the map.

That brings me on to Guy Maylam and his Chrysler Alpine GL. Guy scoured the land for the parts he needed to revive this rare family classic – sourcing the last original seat fabric on a roll from France to ensure the car was restored to perfection. That attention to detail marked the Alpine out as special even among a field of equally rare delights.

Jonathan Papworth Morris Marina 575 pickup_Hagerty Festival of the Unexceptional
John Papworth and family with their treasured Morris Marina pickup

Jonathan Papworth was another case in point. His Morris ‘Marina’ 575 pickup had been in the family since new, and he recalls going with his uncle to collect it from the dealer. Jonathan is a potato farmer not too far from my own home, and his uncle was a farmer too. You’d expect a pickup bought as a working farm vehicle to look down-at-heel – yet his incredibly tidy example has never been restored and is in a condition which belies its true use. The Morris won the overall prize in 2016 and it perhaps sums up the event better than any other for me. It was maligned when new and forgotten by most, a beast of burden that against the odds has made it to old age – and which should be celebrated as a result.

I can’t pass much comment on the Peoples’ Choice Awards – these aren’t selected by the judges, but are voted on by the public. But one which deserves a mention is the 2018 prize-winner. Gavin Bushby, who I have previously mentioned, has entered the Festival every year without fail. His cars are always high calibre and provoke much discussion among the judges. And yet, because of the calibre of the other cars, he’s only ever won one award from the judging panel. His Fiat Strada very nearly came second in the very first event, and this made its nomination as the Peoples’ Choice of 2018 all the more perfect.

Michael Carpenter Marina Estate Concours d’Ordinaire
Michael Carpenter: a champion of champions

I’ve known Michael Carpenter for years, and I was overjoyed to find that his Marina Estate won last year’s Concours d’Ordinaire. All it’s ever had bodily is a clean; the car was taken off the road when four years old and was marked as scrapped in 2005. The previous owner rescued it from the salvage yard but put the recommission on hold after losing three fingers! Like the Papworthpickup, this is the sort of car that should have had a hard working life carting children and cargo – yet a twist of fate has saved it for our enjoyment today. Of all the cars which get to hold the top spot for a second year by default, I’m pleased Mike’s Marina has managed to do so. Incredibly, it has still not covered thirty thousand miles.

Five past high scorers from the Festival’s six year history then, which have particularly captured my imagination. But to look back at the event in terms only of the prize winners is to miss some of the hidden treasures that only the FOTU can produce.

We cannot judge the event solely by its winners any more than we can look back on automotive history and judge it solely by the aspirational. The Festival of the Unexceptional stands as a motoring monument to those which come first only in the sepia glow of memory, so to do it justice we need to think about the cars which didn’t win too.

Cars like the yellow Datsun ‘by Nissan’ K10 Micra, or the Rover 216 which had seen service on the Royal fleet, epitomise the spirit of the Festival of the Unexceptional as much as the trophy winner. These cars tell their stories – be it brand changes or the support of the monarchy – in mundane and relatable ways; for these are the cars we or our forebears may have driven in a dim and distant youth. Even the contents of car park, which one year played host to a row of three Hyundai Stellars, have their place in any considered review of Festivals gone by.

And the car that sums the event up best? The doom blue MK2 Vauxhall Astra estate parked at the base of the steps to Stowe School in 2018. This car is Nostalgia with a capital N to those who grew up in the ‘90s – the younger generation of enthusiasts which the hobby must attract to continue. These are the cars history has forgotten, once everywhere and now nowhere, the aspiration-free moments of motoring we look back upon with the greatest fondness. We will be back next year – and if you have anything similar, bring it along too. Judging the Festival of the Unexceptional is all about the bland leading the blind, and cars of this ilk are the ones which tug our heart strings hardest.

See more: A judge’s guide to preparing an entry for Hagerty’s Festival of the Unexceptional

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