An Unexceptional new venue

My favourite event of the year has just been and gone again: Hagerty's Festival of the Unexceptional returned for a fourth year at a new and even more upmarket venue. I thought Whittlebury Park was posh, but the Festival's new home was on another level, the grandiose and world-famous National Trust house and gardens at Stowe, surroundings that were a hugely marked contrast to the down-to-earth cars. I was promoted from spectator to exhibitor too - no longer do I have to suffer the indignity of attending in a modern car as the Maxi fits in perfectly at this event and arriving early allowed it to secure a front row spot in the classic parking, where it drew a lot of attention.

What a fantastic view! What goodies can you spot here?

This year the Festival seems to have been much more widely publicised than before, and I spoke to a number of first-time visitors who were pleasantly surprised by what they saw. One improvement made at the new venue was to separate the parking for classic and modern cars, with the former only a small fence and some bunting away from the concours and the latter hidden away on the other side of the house, so the South Lawn was a sea of interesting cars uninterrupted by modern blobs. Officially there was a pre-1990 age limit for the classic parking but this wasn't rigidly enforced and newer unexceptional vehicles were allowed in - someone even entered a 2004 Nissan Terrano! Stowe's vast expanses of immaculately manicured grass looked too good to drive on, and the famed landscape gardens and manor house formed a stunning backdrop that multi-million pound exotica would look more at home against.

Fancy house, ordinary cars. Look at that immaculate lawn - it would soon fill up.

Numbers in the Concours de l'Ordinaire remained at their usual level of around forty, but were augmented by a couple more chosen from the car park on the day. Competition for places was very high and while there were a few repeat entries most had not been seen at the Festival before. It wasn't just cars as a Mini pickup was chosen to represent the commercial vehicles and for the first time an unexceptional two-wheeler featured in the shape of a little Honda C50 moped. Among marques that had not been represented before were a BMW 2002, a Saab 96 and two Peugeot 505s, one of which was the Bicester Heritage car, now road-legal and making its longest journey since it was laid up in 1985.

It wasn't just about cars

My favourites in the concours were a pair of obscure 1970s European estate cars. A white one I couldn't identify from a distance turned out to be a Fiat 128 estate, something I never knew existed, and alongside it was the sole surviving Simca 1100 estate. British Leyland's representation included two each of the Metro, Maestro and Princess, while there were four Vauxhalls and surprisingly only three Fords (two Fiestas and a Granada). Imported cars included a very early Nissan Micra, an Alfa Romeo Giulietta, two Renaults (5 and 12), two Volvos (a 340 and a 740 estate), a Volkswagen Beetle and a Fiat Tempra. It's just my opinion but I felt some of the cars in the concours were a bit overdone with hours of polishing that made them look just too perfect and turned them into shiny sculptures rather than usable forms of transport. I'm all for keeping such cars in good condition and showing them some love but some of these frankly went too far and ended up better than new.

I never even knew the Fiat 128 came in estate form

I was very surprised that there was only one other Maxi in attendance, an orange automatic in the concours itself. We did enter YDU but were turned down in favour of the orange one and given a ticket for the classic parking instead. Making its first public appearance with the original-spec wheel embellishers bought a few weeks ago, it was only the sixth car to arrive in the classic parking and coincidentally ended up next to a Mini Clubman; until I saw them side by side I hadn't realised just how much the latter looks like a baby Maxi. Another surprise was just one solitary Allegro as these have always been among the poster cars for the Festival and the first event featured five of them. Maybe the Allegro has become too exceptional with its new-found ironic cool image, but the visitors obviously liked this one as it was voted the People's Choice.

Mother and baby? Note the famous Corinthian Arch in the distance too.

The only Simca 1100 estate left in the UK

There were many highlights among the large numbers in the classic car park but top of my list was the gathering of three Hyundai Stellars, something that probably last happened at a Hyundai dealer in the 1990s. There may only be six of these now on the road so getting half of them together was quite remarkable and turned a lot of heads, not least because one has a little surprise under the bonnet. Mat's famed Rover V8-engined car caused many double-takes and incredulous comments when it arrived behind a Triumph TR7 as everyone assumed it was the TR7 that the V8 rumble was coming from, only to find it was that unassuming Korean saloon behind it! The beauty of this car is its completely standard exterior so it was indistinguishable from the original 1.6 versions alongside and spectators were utterly gobsmacked on seeing the engine.

When did you last see one of these, yet alone three together? The V8 is in the middle, not that you'd know.

Who even remembers the Honda Quintet? An utterly bland and boring car but now extremely rare

Another notable pairing saw two Hillman Avenger estates side by side, both painted in the same shade of green. There were five Avengers this year, with a very late Talbot-badged example also in the classic car park and two in the concours, an orange Deluxe and a stunning purple GLS. Some of the cars in the classic parking were even rarer than those in the concours, including such forgotten and almost extinct delights as a Honda Quintet and a Lancia Trevi plus the unusual sight of another Lancia, a Delta in ordinary non-Integrale flavour, and the 'when did you last see one of those?' factor was constant.

The Crimson Avenger. This would have been quite something in 1972.

Seeing double!

Top Gear fans may remember the Alfa Romeo challenge and the 75 that Jeremy Clarkson used. Astonishingly considering the amount of punishment this was given during the show, it still exists in private ownership and is roadworthy. At one point the exhaust fell off, it was run into numerous times and dragged on its side through the gravel trap at Rockingham, and suffered the indignity of Clarkson's 'improvements', but even after all that it is still with us, perhaps proving that Alfas are indeed good cars. Covered in dents and flaking green paint, it looked very out of place in such genteel surroundings.

Clarkson's Alfa stands out like a sore thumb here

More Italian exotica. There's only one other Lancia Trevi on the road.

Second prize went to one of the two DAFs and this year's winner was a 1983 Nissan Sunny, a car described by its owner as "pleasant" and "transport" and thus perfectly unexceptional. As chief judge Danny Hopkins said, this was probably the first time a Nissan Sunny had ever won anything, and the gods clearly weren't happy about that as the heavens opened literally moments after Danny finished his speech. That put a literal dampener on the event and resulted in most exhibitors making a quick exit, but at least the weather had been good for most of the day. As if to reinforce an old stereotype, the first to leave was the Lancia Beta, no doubt to get it home quickly before it dissolved.

Cars don't get much more unexceptional than this piece of transport. A worthy winner.

A DAFt choice of runner up?

With the rain falling heavily, the Festival came to a rather abrupt end around 2:30pm, cars quickly started leaving and Stowe House soon reverted to its usual guise as a staid National Trust property with little of vehicular interest. The new venue is even closer to home for me than Whittlebury, and the change of location seems to have seen the Festival of the Unexceptional really come of age and become a must-see fixture on car enthusiasts' calendars. It's only just ended but I'm already looking forward to the next one, so here's to many more years of thoroughly exceptional unexceptional shows...

One last look back at the fancy new venue

Prize winners:

1st: Mark Ashbridge, Nissan Sunny
2nd: Richard Holness, DAF 33
People's Choice: Colin Corke, Austin Allegro
Best Dressed: Simon Martin, Volvo 740
Best Picnic: John Usher, Austin Maestro

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