Dealer special editions: Mike Humble takes a sideways look at the once mind-blowing array of Limited or ‘Special’ edition cars and wonders if makers could have stooped any lower for custom!
A special edition too far
City, Merit, Popular… ‘ah yes.’ I hear you cry, ‘the poverty spec models from Austin Rover, Vauxhall and Ford. And the first step on the ladder for budget concious motorists after a cheap car.
I’m sure many of you up and down the land would go to sleep praying that your mum or dad would not buy the Champagne Beige Austin Maestro City or powder blue Ford Escort 1100 Popular, as depicted in the brochure stuffed down the side of the armchair nestling among the TV Times with Ted Rogers and Dusty Bin on the cover.
These entry-level chariots of doom featured lovely plastic blanks where the wireless or cigar lighter should be, fixed back non-reclining seats minus the headrests, and clad in wonderful vinyl. They all offered added misery when sitting in traffic on those long summer holiday drives to the coast, not even the crackly sound of BBC Radio One to take away the pain of looking at the the exposed painted metal inside the car – oh, the horror!
Remember the Morris Marina LE?
But wait! Back in the halcyon days, when watching ITV didn’t make you want to throw a brick through the screen of your wood-effect ITT Trinitron 24in Colour set (our’s was on castors too) to alleviate the drudgery of buying a base model car, the manufacturers (or even the dealers) produced their Special Editions. These added kudos and mystique to an erstwhile poverty spec car.
My own first exposure to this came ages ago, when my father came home in a Morris Marina 1.3LE coupe which I can still remember the reg number: DNV 207T. I loved this car and, in fact, my dad kept it for years. The ingredients were simple – take a two-door Marina, make it look exactly like the 1.8 GT, simmer on a low heat for 45 minutes, then add a 1275 A-Series engine. Allow to cool and fit a brown vinyl roof – et voila – one limited edition.
Looking back, it was dreadful, the fake wood on the dash and glovebox was about as convincing as your average Elvis tribute act and the striped nylon seats were as pleasing on the eye as staring at the sun!
It wasn’t all bad, though
Oddly though, I liked the car for it’s snazzy looking Cibie Iode 35 driving lamps in the grille, a rev counter, twin tone horns, 165/13 tyres, electric clock, Sundym tinted glass, rear armrest, push button Radiomobile MW/LW wireless and lamps in the glovebox and boot. How I never fainted being overcome with the standard equipment levels in 1978, to this day I’ll never know. But it was a proper limited edition car in a lovely colour – Oyster metalic I recall.
Though it looked like an 1800 GT, it sadly wasn’t. The poor little 1275cc A-Series plant offered 57bhp on a good day, and I can remember my dad giving it some beans on the M55 to Blackpool one summer. 90mph was the best she’d do and the screaming engine was drowned out by the shreiks of fear from the rest us squashed into the Bri-Nylon clad rear seat.
My suggestion to Alton Towers of the ‘drive the Marina over 90’ terror-ride was turned down by Tussaud’s HSE dept. So they went for the two lesser frightening rides: Oblivion and Nemesis.
What could eclipse this?
On a personal level, I think Ford and Austin Rover went edition crazy back in the 1980s. The Mini had seemingly millions of editions such as Chelsea, Ritz, Advantage, Mary Quant to name but a few. While the Metro suffered a similar plethora of sometimes pointless models like the Sport, Moritz, Principles, Red Hot, Jet Black and Advantage, for example.
But at least they were real manufactured editions. The ones to really grind my gears were the dealers’ own special editions. Only today I saw a Ford Escort Sundance – but, strangely, it seemed to be nothing other than a Popular Plus with a sunroof. It just goes to show how gullible car buyers used to be.
Dealers would stop at nothing or use any topical event to sling on a set of wheel covers, bedeck the car with some side stripes, take an air saw to the roof, and fit a radio/cassette deck that would eventually munch and destroy any half decent album for your listening pleasure.
Naming a car after a TV franchise?
One model I do recall, which incidentally shows how you can sink further if you really try, was the Fiesta Meridian which was available from your local Ford ‘Southern’ dealer. Many of you may recall when the ITV network went through a massive shake up, Thames, TVS and TV-am including others lost their franchise licence to broadcast, TV-am became GM-TV while the legendary Thames became Carlton.
What has this to do with cars you may think, bear with me reader – I’m coming to the crux. Down here, TVS lost out to Meridian broadcasting. On the stroke of Midnight in came 1993, and the first advert on the all new ITV channel was for the Ford Fiesta Meridian.
The advert might have had a voiceover by a slightly younger Steven Fry, but the car was a disappointment – it was nothing more than an L model with metallic paint and logo. Working as a mechanic at the time, these cheap and nasty add-ons were part of my remit – and, when I ponder on this, I hang my head in shame. But I still have the magic touch with a roll of pinstripe!
The treats within: Vauxhall Cavalier Calibre
Where once, your average punter would go weak-kneed and giddy at the thought of a Hyundai Pony Sport Special (with white Weller wheels, front spot lamps, twin coachlines and a Richard Grant glue-on tail spoiler), for better or for worse the buying public are more switched on these days.
Even your basic Corsa these days features a CD and power steering – so those disgusting dealer specials are now just a fond or painful memory. The bona fide manufacturers limited editions could be quite tasteful, take Vauxhall Opel and the Cavalier Commander of 1985 in silver paint and wide profile tyres on anthracite Astra SR rims – it looked superb.
The Manta Exclusive run-out model equally so, yet Vauxhall also did the Antibes based on the Nova, Astra and Cavalier with awful doom blue paintwork and a seat trim that looked worse than hessian wall paper, all topped off with some sexy brilliant white wheel trims. Who remembers the stunning Vauxhall Cavalier Calibre though? The thinking man’s SRi…
Saving the best ’til last – the East European cars
Even the Soviets were in on the act with the Lada Niva Cossack – yes, it was a production model but converted from the normal bitterly crude standard model in a big tin shed on the North Yorkshire coast. The Samara Flyte also was dressed up here in the UK, but with truly awful quality, the Skoda Rapid convertible hailed from a specialist coachmaker in Kent, and dare I say it, a fine looking car too.
Even shockingly bad cars like the FSO Polonez Prima could be found looking like a dog’s dinner with body colour coded spoilers and wheels looking about as appealing as a dropped trifle.
But to end another nostalic ramble, I recall hearing a tale about someone who owned a dealer edition Rover Metro who ran into the back of a stationary car at some speed. No serious injuries were sustained, but a rear seat passenger was almost knocked out by an aftermarket pod speaker that came away from the parcel shelf – part of the Metro’s exclusive additional equipment so I was told!
However, I have saved the best (or worst) ’til last. Enjoy this Fiat Panda Italia 90 special edition… and please do tell me if I’m right or wrong!