Unexceptional Classics

What is peak Unexceptional, ultimate Ordinaire?

by John Mayhead
19 May 2022 6 min read
What is peak Unexceptional, ultimate Ordinaire?
Photo: Austin-Rover

Hagerty’s love affair with the basic everyday car is a long one. It’s why, in 2014, we launched the Concours de L’Ordinaire at our inaugural Hagerty Festival of the Unexceptional. This celebration of everyday cars was an instant success with people flocking to enter their cosseted Cavaliers and mooned-over Maxis.

It is such a success that every year, the Hagerty team sifts through hundreds of entrants to select fifty concours finalists, a difficult job considering the rarity of many of the models and the extraordinary efforts their owners go to in maintaining their condition.

We feel that burden of responsibility as greatly as entrants hope to be selected. This is a world-class event, the greatest concours of its kind that attracts people from all four corners of the world – well, all four corners of Norfolk – and the only place to be if you want to see vinyl upholstered seats, limited edition coachstripes helping to flog yet another unoriginal special edition spin-off, supplying dealer rear window stickers and the sort of period-correct number plate fonts that get some of us curiously aroused.

1989 Nissan Bluebird 1.6 Premium_2021 Hagerty festival of the Unexceptional
Photo: Nick Chivers

Last week, we selected the finalists for the 2022 show and, it got us thinking: what is peak Unexceptional, or ultimate Ordinaire? It was time to buy a packet of Bourbon biscuits, [Ginger Nuts, surely? Ed] get a round of brews in and twiddle our thumbs. Oh, and take a look at the cold, hard data behind all the previous years’ entries and winners. Because, statistics are always right. Right?

On the face of it, the ideal Unexceptional car is surely something beige, ideally with a brown vinyl interior, and lacking anything but the most basic of instruments. The audible ‘ooohs’ that emerged from the selection panel last week when the entrants’ photos revealed a two-spoke steering wheel or a blanking plate where the rev counter should be led to almost instant acceptance of that car on the shortlist. Winding windows? Yes please. Plain black bumpers? Don’t tempt us. Garish colour-coordinated seatbelts that clash without a care for the designer’s original vision? Now you’re talking.

But before you rush out and buy a little beige number from British Leyland, allow us to sprinkle the tea leaves of data into your hands and paint a picture of what the future might look like on the road to Concours de L’Ordinaire glory.

Allegro at Hagerty 2021 Festival of the Unexceptional
A beige Allegro. Surely peak Unexceptional? Well, you might be surprised…

Hagerty’s data-crunching clairvoyants studied all the finalists from that first 2014 Festival right through to the successful 2022 entrants. At this point you’re supposed to spare a thought for us working so hard; that’s more than 360 cars to be checked off, of which 26 had received a prize, either awarded by the judging panel or by the public (the People’s Choice and Junior Judge awards).

Firstly, we looked at the colours of all the cars and were in for a shock: beige was in a lowly fifth place, with blue cars out on top (with 73 entrants) – just one ahead of good-old red. When we looked at the cars that had won prizes, the same was true: blue came out on top again with six, all but one of which had been Best In Show or awarded second place. That’s quite a strike rate, almost up there with the strike rate of the workers at British Leyland. So, the judges like a bit of blue. What else are they in favour of?

Unexceptional colour chart
Beige in “not the favourite” shocker. Blue has it by a whisker over red – presumably, the less metallic the better.

If there’s one thing that attracts the selection panel, it’s a four-door saloon, with this body style accounting for 44 per cent of all finalists. The judges agreed: 10 of the 26 winners were of this persuasion including all but two of the Best In Show winners.

In terms of countries of origin, the UK dominated in the same way, with another 44 per cent of entrants made on these shores, and French cars in second place with 14 per cent. Which brings us to an interesting point: although they are the second-most represented country, the judges have awarded a solitary second place to a French car: last year’s 1991 Peugeot 106 XN (plus a couple of public awards).

Gary Axon, the resident Francophile judge of the Hagerty Festival of the Unexceptional, believes there is a simple reason behind this outrageous slur on our Gallic neighbours. “I’m a bit surprised by this,” he tells us, “as the French tend to build very ordinary cars that used to sell very well in the UK. Renault, Citroën and Peugeot saloons and hatchbacks can be the epitome of an unexceptional car. Maybe the reason we judges aren’t selecting them for the highest honours is that even the base models do seem a little more chic than their British cousins, having that certain je ne sais quoi.

Unexceptional country chart
Cars from the UK are by far the most frequent finalists.

So, maybe it’s an element of ‘Nicole… Papa?’  that keeps the French from the top step. Not so those cars from Asia: five examples have made it into the winners’ enclosure, with three attaining the coveted Best In Show title. These included the only ever Malaysian motor, Jon Coupland’s 2021 Proton GL Black Knight, giving that country a perfect record of one entry, one overall win.

But what about the manufacturers? Again, the Brits have the advantage here. Austin is out ahead in the selection stakes with 12.5 per cent, and nearly half of the winners are represented by British marques, but it is an Italian brand – Fiat – that is the only manufacturer to have won more than two awards.

Whether this says more about the unlikely nature of a Fiat’s survival in concours condition to the present day, or the dedication of Gavin Bushby, a stalwart at the Festival of the Unexceptional who claimed two of those wins, is a moot point.

Unexceptional manufacturer table
Austin takes a not-unexpected lead as the favourite concours marque, with Ford and Vauxhall behind. It’s a strong showing for Fiat and Renault, though.

And now… drumroll please… the grand unveiling of the quintessential Unexceptional car.

We listed all the cars that had made it through to the finals since the show’s conception and combined them in one unholy mess of a normal car. It had to be a car built in 1989, it had to be an Austin 4-door saloon, and it had to be blue.

What is this utterly unremarkable offering of everyday transportation, we hear you say? Allow us to drive onto the stage (after a bump start behind the velvet curtain) the 1989 Austin (ok, ‘Rover’ if you’re picky) Montego.

Checking through the entrants, we weren’t sure a car of such perfection had never graced the hallowed lawns of the Concours de L’Ordinaire. Ian Fletcher came close last year, with his glorious 1985 blue Montego HL, but that was an estate. Then, we checked back through the photographs and found a glimpse of something back at our first Festival of the Unexceptional.

It was a grainy photo of a blue Montego saloon in the background of some of the shots, definitely on the field but strangely unlisted in our records. Then we checked the registration number… no details found. Could this be an illusion of unpretentiousness, a mirage of mundanity? Er, no. We discovered it belonged to judge Sam Skelton and was written-off in a road accident in 2017.

“There’s something almost bittersweet about finding out that the car that I would have kept until I died, was in fact as unexceptional as it’s possible to get,” Skelton told us. “Five years on, I still miss it, and would give most things to have that car back. Not only was it a survivor with every piece of history, but it was proof that old cars are up to the rigours of everyday use.”

The fact that what is perhaps the peak Unexceptional car was owned by Skelton, the only judge to have officiated at every single Festival of the Unexceptional since the start, and that the car is no more, seems rather apt. Maybe one day, we’ll see another. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll experience optimum ordinary again. Skelton has retained the registration number, so you never know.

Meanwhile, read into that lot what you will. Because, as we all know, no matter what tactics you employ to improve your chances of lifting the utterly underwhelming winner’s trophy presented at the Concours de L’Ordinaire, the judges are never knowingly unduly influenced and most certainly cannot be bribed. Even with biscuits. Or spam.

Read more

Hagerty Festival of the Unexceptional returns 30 July 2022 – tickets on sale now!
A judge’s guide to preparing an entry for Hagerty’s Festival of the Unexceptional
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  • David Bell says:

    I have two unexceptional cars both manufactured by Land Rover, a 1971 LWB Series 3 imported from South Africa in 1987 which is dismissed as just another Series 3 and a 1999 Freelander di 3 door which can enter shows run by the NECPWA as it meets the rule manufactured before 01.09.2000, comments like “it should be in the car park and not on the showfield” have been heard but I believe in trying to encourage younger people onto future classics they can afford to keep and maintain as a second car, with no ABS, HDC or TC you have to engage your brain when going off road rather than press a button and let the car take the strain.

  • Chris says:

    That Allegro isn’t Beige, it’s Harvest Gold – as was my company Marina in period. Back to basics I think BL said, how true!

  • Shaun Scott says:

    Hi, interesting article. I am 62 and was probably at the sweet spot for auto-mediocrity. I had a Chrysler Alpine in that rusty orange colour -with velour interior. It never started in the rain and the tappet noise was like shaking a bucket of nails. The Montego was truly crap, And the Maestro, wasn’t it ‘Car of the Year’ once? Probably the same year that they left the door open at Broadmoor. I have to hand it to you, brings back memories not all of them good. Scotty

  • Anthony Saunders says:

    How about going from unexceptional cars to a debate on what is the ugliest car? My vote without question would go to the Chrysler PT Cruiser although the convertible version is worse. When the Americal company wanted a retro look, why choose one of the worst lookers ever for their inspiration???

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