Blog : The joy of the unexceptional

This year’s Lancaster Insurance Classic Motor Show was very different for me. After years of going to the event to manage coverage for my previous employer (Classic Car Weekly), it was good to turn up at a civilised hour and actually look at the cars. It was rather different to feverishly trying and get the story behind them, while conversing with dozens of readers, and simultaneously looking after the needs of advertisers, commercial and marketing people, at the same time as selling subscriptions…

No, this year was an altogether more relaxed affair and, as a consequence, it was good to re-familiarise myself with the cars I really love, and some of the great friends I’ve made over the years.

The thing that always strikes me about the NEC is that the cars which seem to get the most love from the crowds are the normal ones. You know what I mean – day-to-day cars that our mums and dads drove, and which we actually rode in the back of as children. Or, if like me, you’re getting on a bit, ones you drove in your ‘glory’ years, such as the Metro, above.

Classic supercars an attraction? Hardly!

So, as much as I love seeing a supercar or sports car doing its stuff, in the hallowed halls of the Classic Motor Show, I found myself pushing past some serious exotica in order to get a closer look at some humdrum family saloons. Take the Fiat Supermirafiori, below – it was located near some very fine Aston Martins, but I practically knocked over some bemused show visitors in my haste to hustle past the Brit heroes to get a look at this gorgeous 1979/80 example.

Does that make me weird? I suspect many of my work colleagues may think so but, in reality, I suspect that the power of nostalgia is always going to be far more potent than the draw of the aspirational.

Yes, we all desire something a bit special, but the joy of classic cars is that they are very good time machines, capable of taking you back to a bygone age. And when presented with a car like the Supermirafiori, you’re taken straight back to the 1980s – because it was the last time you saw one.

Nostalgia is age related

Of course, I’m now in my mid-forties, so the cars that take me back to my formative years are getting fewer and farther between. I’m sure that many of you do the same thing as me when on a foreign holiday – you reach for your camera when you see a once-common family car parked by the side of the road, and grab a snap.

Recently, when I was in Rome, almost in the shadow of the Colosseum, I was stopped in my tracks by a Fiat 132. Again, I had to photograph it – and enjoy looking at this car. When new, it was unexceptional at best, but it was a reasonably common sight on the roads. Street furniture, if you like. Today, it’s a like a chocolate-covered unicorn. Had there been a Bugatti Chiron alongside it, I’d have still been hot for the 132.

So, for me it would appear that I have maximum nostalgia for what would have been bangers on our roads in the mid-1980s. Yes, and no. Okay, so I have a good example of the breed, with my own current classic of choice, a Citroen GS, but it’s also an exceptional car for its technical complexity and sheer cleverness.

I don’t have the same fondness for, say, a similarly aged Ford Escort or Opel Kadett, so clearly there’s more to it than simply the age of the car. Perhaps, there’s an element of aspiration built in. After all, foreign cars still had the whiff of specialness back in the 1970s and ’80s.

On to the 1990s

Nostalgia plays weird tricks, too. Another car that floated my boat the NEC was this wonderful Ryton-made 1990 Peugeot 405 GTX. Now, the attachment to this is somewhat different – by the time this car rolled off the line, I’d been driving three years, and this was exactly the kind of car I aspired to. Elegant, good looking and fine to drive, some would say it’s one of the best-designed family cars to emerge from France.

I thought so. In 1992, I bought a year-old Peugeot 405 GR Injection in Graphite Grey (over and above a Rover 214 Si, and that’s another story), and loved it to bits – until I crashed it, and replaced it with a Citroen BX. Since then, I’ve never even sat in a 405 and, at Birmingham, I really wanted to climb in and experience that velour-lined luxury once again. I’d love another one, too.

The point of this rambling blog is that for me, the most powerfully evocative cars are the once-common, now-rare family cars that used to litter our streets, and which we most readily related to at the time. It might also seem strange that, although I’ve just bought a Renault GTA (below), I suspect that I’ll still get more joy from my GS on a purely emotional level…

Considering they are just lumps of metal and plastic, cars really are quite emotional things. Or maybe it’s just me…

Keith Adams
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  1. Hello, Keith, excellent article, but the Peugeot 405 was made in Coventry, alongside the 306 and 309. I must admit Peugeot family cars of this era I’ve always liked, none of the complications of a Citroen, but just as smooth riding, good looking and different. The 406 in particular was an excellent car, but the Coventry made 405 was almost as good.

    • I remember analysing a teardown (benchmarking) of a 405 body at Cowley. You could see where the Citroen body engineering ended and the Peugeot body engineering started. Citroen was all simple planar surfaces, Peugeot was curved and swaged everywhere. BX was the platform I think.

  2. That Mirafiori is lucky to have survived this long, remembering how quickly rust killed these cars in the eighties. It’s true, though, people will always be interested in seeing cars from their younger days that their parents had, or the neighbours owned. I can remember seeing a Talbot Horizon on the A69 a couple of years ago and rather than overtake it, I just wanted to sit behind it as I can remember my parents driving a Talbot Alpine numerous times on the same road.

  3. GTA? Didn’t see that one coming!

    On the subject of 405’s, there’s a 605 near here – when did you last see one of those? Its replacement the 607 looks like it will vanish into obscurity in the next few years as well.

  4. In the early 80s I always liked the understated class of the 604. If I’d had the money back then, I would’ve considered one.

    • An extremely underrated car that was one of the best drives in its class and was related to the ill fated Talbot Tagora. Buying a Peugeot 604 would have been a real individualist statement back then as it was a very nice car and had a badge that was different.

  5. Hi Keith… no it’s not just you loving nostalgia! I guess most if not all aronline visitors feel the same. In most cases memories of typical cars take us back to simpler (perhaps happier) times. eg the Mini as my first car, the Viva HC as my second, the Cortina MK3 & 4 series that my Employers operated etc.

    I agree the Peugeot 405 was a nice looker in its day. I drove a 1.6GL hire car in 1988 (comfortable and decent power). Talking of nostalgia and typical cars, today I saw a parked up BRG MG ZT on a 56 plate and it looked in nice condition & clean – hard to believe it is over 12 years since built.

  6. I remember the 405 as a sort of thinking mans Cavalier in the late 80s and was generally considered the best of the rep mobiles by the press at least. By 93/94 the Mondeo, Xantia and Laguna where all jostling for position at the top of the company car lists and the 405 faded fast. The 406 that arrived in 95/96 never managed to match the 405’s appeal.

    • The 406 was a good car, design wise it looked like an evolution of the 405. The coupe was stunning. The 1999 facelift gave it an attractive aggressive front with a black grille that gave a nod to the likes of the 505 and 305.
      Though this was when the company car market was starting to get taxed heavily, and the Germans were muscling in with tax / PCP / business hire specials, regular D segment saloons were a dying breed.

      The 407 didn’t seem to be as popular, though I reckon it has aged well especially the coupe. the 40x and 60x ranges replaced by the 508, which in facelift form is a good looker, though most survivors of this segment (Mondeo, Insiginia, Octavia) are hatchback. Seemingly to be replaced by a ‘CC’ style model, though whether the UK market will see it or not is up in the air, especially with the withdrawal of the C5, eyeing Renault’s resurgence while not selling the Talisman here, and PSA now having the fleet friendly Insignia in this segment.

      • The 405 had the XUD diesel engine which was one of the best round for years, & the 406’s was almost as good, but eventually the other manufacturers caught up with them.

  7. Funny isn’t it?
    I stopped off at the Mercedes museum in Stuttgart whilst driving back from Italy

    The cars that interested me the most were the mundane models from the 70s and 80s rather than the aspirational models. I guess part of it must be nostalgia, models that were once ten a penny in our childhood are now like hens teeth

  8. I’m jealous a GTA! One of my favourite cars of all time.

    I do get you and your comments about the Fiat Miafiori – my uncle had one which rusted away, but they were a good car that have just rusted away and now they have become a rarity. My brother things I’m mad when I was drooling over some rather dubious material at the last Battlesbridge Classic car show.

  9. Passed my test in 1994, and bought my first car in 1997. I aspired to a Peugeot 306 or an (early 1990s) Civic as my first car, but they were out of my budget at the time.

    I love all the semi-exotic stuff from that era that I read about in magazines as a teenager (Z3M, Supra, Jag XK8, Porsche 968) and these are still attainable classics that I fancy owning at some point in the future.

    I don’t have much nostalgia for vanilla cars of that era though. I regularly see mid-spec Cavaliers, 405s etc advertised as “future classics” by dealers such as KGF, and I wonder who pays £3-5k for these kind of cars. You can’t keep them as a daily “use and abuse” car that gets left out in all weathers, but at the same time they’re hardly going to impress anyone when you’re out on the road or down at your local classic car show.

    Anyway, tell us more about that GTA! Looks to be in great condition.

    • I followed a great condition 405 the other day, occasionally see mk3 Cavaliers and R8 200s. The astounding thing is that for nearly 30 year old cars, they really don’t look that out of place in modern traffic – compared to how say a 50s/60s/70s car would in the 90s.

  10. I get Keith wanting to photograph the Fiat 132 in Rome, these were a familiar sight over here in the early eighties, but rapidly vanished due to rust and apathy as no one really wanted to save a big Fiat. A shame as the 132 was quite an underrated car, its powerful two litre engine made it an excellent motorway cruiser and it was very well equipped for the time with electric windows and PAS.

    • When working in Iran in 1975, our client contact had a FIAT (and I think it was a 132). It was a nice enough comfortable vehicle, but the air-con was not very effective! His colleagues Chevy Royale (rebadged Opel Commodore) was better.

      As mentioned here, many of these cars are forgotten nowadays and unknown to younger drivers!

  11. I’m the same, I love seeing “normal” cars, the sorts we would have seen everywhere 30/40 years ago

    Peugeots in the 80s and 90s rode and drove so well, even the cooking models, a real shame that they’ve gone backwards so much since then

    • A MK1 Cavalier Coupe or Sportshatch (or Opel Manta equiv) would be my aspirational car from that era – perhaps a Capri as well.

      • I’m not a massive GM fan, but I admired this Mk1 Cavalier Coupe when it showed up in KGF’s online showroom recently ( Really elegant coupe lines, and you can see the similarity to the Manta. It’s sold now, but I think the asking price was comfortably into five figures.

        The 90s equivalent is the Calibra, and you can still pick one up for a grand.

        I guess this tells us that all cars eventually achieve classic status, but “ordinary” models take longer than anything rare or exotic.

        • Andy, I looked at that Cav Coupe on the KGF site and agree it looks marvellous. Colour and spec exactly as in my Vauxhall brochure from the era. A resident in a nearby street had one in the same colour back in ’77

          The 1900 engine was replaced by a 2 litre in 1978, as well as the Sportshatch launch.

  12. Me being an anorak, the Pug 405, with the ‘H … KPH’ plate, leads me to suspect it was supplied in Apr/May 1991 by Stag Hill Motors (Guildford, don’t think they’d moved to Godalming by that point (taking over Jacksons)).

    Why, oh why do I know this stuff?

  13. My uncle had a Fiat 131/ Mirafiori similar to the one in the photo that he bought new in 1977. Mechanically quite reliable and the twin cam made it an excellent car for long journeys, but when he came to trade it in four years later, the car was rotten underneath and the trade in was terrible as the Fiat needed hundreds of pounds worth of work to get through its MOT and be sellable. It’s a quite a miracle to see a Mirafiori at the show due to their rusting reputation.

  14. And when did you last see a Ford Sierra on the road. Not a Cosworth or an XR4, but a basic 1.6L repmobile, preferably in hearing age beige! There were millions made, and they’ve vanished completely.

    • I remember the 1982-7 ones were getting rare even 15 years ago, but the later ones seemed to last longer.

      Some 1980s cars seemed to be thin on the ground even by the late 1990s.

      • I had one of the last pre facelift Montegos in 1998 and they were very rare even then due to rust and reliability issues. Mine lasted 6 months before being scrapped for £ 30( the scrap man said Montegos made before 1989 were worthless) as the electrics had given up, it was covered in rust and was leaking oil.

    • The Sierra went out of production 23 years ago – no surprise they are virtually extinct. Rust and banger racing (RWD was good for this) killed them off.

      They’re too old to be used as daily drivers these days but plenty of Ford enthusiasts keep them as classics. “Ford Tax” means they’re not cheap. Here’s a low mileage 1.6GL in hearing aid beige…

      • There is still a couple used round my way in Basildon as regular run arounds, though I think they are the original owners as they are getting on a bit.

  15. I had 3 405 diesels, 2 turbos and 1 normally aspirated, by far the best of them was a last of line ’96 GLXDT estate in Diablo red with the standard fit 5 spoke 306 Dturbo alloys. I picked up a full black leather interior for it and I LOVED that car. I still miss it!
    I love that some are now making it onto the show scene and are being saved.
    (Saw a Sierra yesterday btw)

  16. My father ran three 405’s from 90 to 97, the last being a GTX DTurbo Estate in Diablo Red with the 306 alloys. It was a stunning car I was rarely allowed to drive. I’ve also fallen into the nostalgia trap by rescuing a £600 02 Subaru Forester from certain death, and getting ready to empty my wallet for clutch, cambelt and welding on it. Why? No idea!

    I also get the “snapping old cars” thing – On my last holiday to Alpine France I found a parked up Lancia Gamma 4 door, with red velvet interior and yellow headlights. Stunning.

  17. I think the overwhelming number of exotica on display at the NEC show – lovely as these cars are – somehow makes the fewer modest vehicles in excellent condition stand out more. Nostalgia plays a big part of course but for me, the sheer size of the show across so many vast halls after a while has me retreating back to the more everyday vehicles that I used to see so regularly in the 70s and 80s which are now actually rarer than the aspirational ones. Maybe my 51 year old brain can only take so much exclusive stimulation in one day!

  18. It’s understandable that if the same amount of time and effort is needed to restore the “desirable” top of the range model as the cooking one, that you’d restore the former, as it will be worth so much more if you decide to sell

    I imagine a Sierra Cosworth would be worth a lot more than a 1.6LX, a Golf Mk1 GTI vs a 1.3 5 door etc

  19. I still see a Skoda Favorit estate in Eskdalemuir. These were fairly common in the nineties and were Skoda’s first attempt at a Western car( communism was ending when they came out) and had an engine in the front and were hatchbacks and estates. However, apart from the one in Eskdalemuir, they seemed to fade out after the nineties, in the same way the much better Felicia that replaced the Favorit is rare now.

  20. The ultimate in the unexceptional, to being downright unfashionable even when it was produced, the Kia Mentor. You never see these now, but in the nineties they became popular for being cheap and extremely reliable cars.

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