Festival of The Unexceptional: 20 cars we wanted to take home with us

Published: 31 July 2023 Updated: 31 July 2023

► Festival of the Unexceptional enters ninth year
► Why forgettable cars are being celebrated now
► 20 cars we wanted to take home… with added GBU

The 2023 Hagerty Insurance Festival Of The Unexceptional was the ninth running of the UK classic car scene’s most idiosyncratic – and successful – event, and it was the biggest and most vibrant yet. With around 1200 cool cars on show, 3000 visitors, and a concours lawn featuring 50 of the most storied mundane motors in cherished condition, it’s a magical nostalgia trip for anyone with even a passing interest in motors.

On the concours, chief judge Danny Hopkins, editor of our sister title Practical Classics said: ‘If your mum and dad had bought a new car and you went into the school playground the next day to tell your mates and they were so unimpressed they just said “oh right, shall we play football then” – if that happened 30 years ago, that car should be here.’ The winning cars highlighted that.

The winning car was Stephen Pike’s Daihatsu Applause, driven in from Sweden, with Siôn Hudson’s Austin Metro and Hugo Naaijken’s Subaru Justy taking the runners-up spots. They were all winners.

Festival of The Unexceptional

The Festival’s centrepiece might have been the concours show ‘n’ shine, but the sheer diversity of fantastically rare and unloved cars parked on either side of Grimsthorpe Castle’s grand avenue was a sight to behold.

What was also interesting was the people who brought their cars in – they were young, enthusiastic and fuelled by a shared passion for attainably priced older cars. Brilliant!

On this page you’ll find 20 cars we desperately wanted to take home from the 2023 Festival of The Unexceptional – with contemporaneous entries from CAR magazine’s GBU listings page, where available. 

1. Renault 14

If you were to epitomise this event in one car, the Renault 14 comes close to explaining the festival’s appeal to petrolheads. Missing, presumed extinct as a breed in the UK, this slightly careworn example of La Regie’s unpopular 1970s VW Golf rival surprised and delighted all who set eyes on it. CAR’s 1970s view of it makes interesting reading – mainly because the poor Renault 14 was actually quite good to drive in a loping, roly-poly way, and its contemporary GBU entry reflects this.

For: Room, zip, versatility. Against: Transmission noise. Sum-up: Softer, more comfy Golf alternative.’

2. Seat Ibiza Mk1

The first-generation SEAT Ibiza was closely based on the firm’s forgettable Fiat-Strada-based Ronda, which meant it was always going to be troubled. But the car’s sharp ItalDesign-styled suit and shouty ‘System Porsche’ branding allowed it to stand out from the crowd, and be memorable almost four decades on. Shame they wrote cheques the Ibiza couldn’t quite cash. CAR’s contemporary view via GBU is very interesting, rating it interesting – a rarity for budget-priced cars.

3. Ford Sierra

The Ford Sierra story has been told so many times, and yet it’s still often forgotten just how much of an impact it made when launched in 1982. Also, the common misconception is that it was a commercial failure – it wasn’t. It comfortably outsold the Cortina/Taunus in Europe, only failing to gain traction in the UK because of our love affair with its predecessor. CAR’s view was simple – the headline on the cover was ‘Sierra shock! It really is a good car,’ with the GBU entry reflecting this.

For: Excellent, carefully-designed family car designed to be Britain’s top seller. Light years ahead of the Cortina. Against: Some FWD rivals have better boot space. Sum-up: Excellent family car – new deal for Cortina buyers.’

4. Datsun Cherry F11 Coupe

Datsun’s success in the UK came swiftly in the early 1970s, appealing to buyers who craved reliability from a car they could actually buy from a factory that hadn’t been crippled by strikes. By 1974 Datsun was the biggest importer into the UK, beating traditional big players from Volkswagen and Renault. The Cherry was typical of the cars offered at the time – fussily styled and woolly to drive – but hugely appealing today thanks to stand-out looks. CAR’s view back then wasn’t exactly glowing.

For: Economical, modestly priced. Against: Hideous styling, no go, poor ride, cramped cabin, poor seats, feeble brakes. Sum-up: Replaced by new Pulsar next year… thankfully.’

5. Peugeot 405

The 405 was a massive game-changer for Peugeot, bringing a dash of design flair and dynamic brilliance into a market sector not exactly packed with talented players. Styled by Pininfarina, it still looks fresh today, and if it weren’t for its indifferent build quality, the 405 would be regarded as one of the greatest cars of the 1980s. No surprise it won the 1988 European Car of The Year award, and CAR loved it, as demonstrated by this glowing GBU entry in our contemporary road test directory.

For: Looks sharp inside and out, fluid handling and ride, roomy and quick. Against: Heavy steering, shoddy interior. Sum-up: It will take your breath away.’

6. Alfa Romeo Alfa 33

One of the toughest gigs in the business was to replace the Alfasud – the original car of the 1970s, as celebrated in the January 1980 issue of CAR magazine. The 33 never really recaptured the magic, despite being better on just about all levels. The festival’s show star was this fabulous example of a Walter da Silva-styled facelift models – and how sharp it looks today. CAR nailed it with this GBU entry.

For: Modern, roomy design, better than usual Alfa ergonomics. Against: Lacks sporty edge. Sum-up: A little too bland for an Alfa. 1.5 model best bet.’

7. Oldsmobile Silhouette

Oldsmobile Silhouette - festival of the unexceptional

We were deliriously happy to see one of these 1990s minivans parked up in a particularly fetching shade of burgundy. Nicknamed the Dustbuster for their wedgy appearance and also sold as the Chevrolet Lumina and Pontiac Trans Sport, it has massive, squashy seats, more glass than a fishbowl and just as much personality as any European MPV of the time. The Silhouette never made it to the UK, so GBU managed to completely ignore its magnificence.

8. Nissan Cherry Europe (Alfa Romeo Arna)

Often cited on worst car lists, the Nissan Cherry Europe and its Alfa Romeo Arna sister car are perfect fodder for the Festival of the Unexceptional. Be honest, the Alfasud-engined car looks sharp today, and and has one of the best back stories underpinning its place on the field. For the record, they’re perfectly fine to drive, by the way. CAR wasn’t too impressed, though. Weirdly, it was never commented upon in GBU – we can only assume because it left no lasting impression…

9. Austin Allegro

Another doyen of worst car lists, the Austin Allegro is now an established classic car that younger drivers are enjoying, whatever the historical baggage it’s carrying. This Allegro Series 1 sported the infamous quartic steering wheel that just about all car makers are using today. CAR was a big fan – from launch it thought it would take the fight to the best Europeans, and it sat in GBU’s interesting section throughout its 10-year production run.

For: Big range; tenacious roadholding, good handling and ride comfort. Against: Engines, gearboxes lack refinement. Sum-up: A happy, if uninspired all-rounder.’

10. Alfa Romeo Alfa 6

The Alfa 6 is another perfect candidate for unexceptional status, having sold so disastrously throughout its life, and indifferently it was rated when new. Yes, it’s styled like an industrial breeze-block, endured a seven-year gestation period and was launched in a middle of an energy crisis, but doesn’t it look magnificent now? Considering its magnificent 2.0-litre V6 engine upfront, CAR’s GBU entry from the time was scathing, rating it boring.

For: Well-controlled suspension, good equipment. Against: Noisy, thirsty engine, dreary looks. Sum-up: Distinguished by overall mediocrity – another duff big Alfa.’

11. Audi 80

Audi 80 - festival of the unexceptional

The Audi 80 was based very closely on the Volkswagen Passat, and signs of that weren’t hard to find. The formula was to add a premium, plush-up the interior and style, and sell it from posher dealers. It was a long game, but today Audi is a paid-up member of the premium elite. This 80 was clever, lightweight and well engineered – and today, it’s vanishingly rare. CAR admired, rather than loved, it.

For: Attractive roomy body, flexible and powerful engines, clean handling, strong grip, first-class finish. Against: Lumpy low-speed ride, antiseptic character, expensive compared with rivals. Sum-up: Gives the impression of being a cunning German mobility system – some will love that, others may not.’

13. Toyota Corolla

The Toyota Corolla epitomises Japanese design and engineering – it looks like a scaled-down American car, but was so well-built and dependable that you could utterly depend on one. Given the general unreliability of 1970s cars, this was a massive attraction. And that’s why it was the decade’s best-selling car. CAR respected it, but was a long way from loving the Corolla.

For: Smooth, economical engines, good finish. Against: Inadequate ride, modest grip, buzzy at speed. Sum-up: Mediocity epitomised.’

14. Ford Fiesta Mk1

The Ford Fiesta might have – for now – joined the ranks of dead nameplates, there’s still a huge amount of love for these cars. The first-generation car was a clever product that was cheap to make and looked superb. Out of the box, it became the UK’s bestselling small car, and looking at this tiday Bravo special edition, it’s easy to understand why. CAR certainly found it interesting enough for a sparkling GBU entry.

For: Styling, maintenance, light controls, handling. Sum-up: Good but not the best.’

15. Peugeot 205

What’s left to be said about the Peugeot 205? It celebrated its 40th birthday in 2023, and looking at this fine example above, this fact is almost impossible to get your head around, so fresh does it look. In many ways, it was the most exceptional unexceptional car at the event. CAR certainly championed it, even naming it car of the decade towards the end of its life.

For: Superb styling, ride comfort, diesel refinement. Against: Poor instrumentation, steering self-centring too strong. Sum-up: Gives nothing away to Uno, except poor equipment and high prices.’

16. Colt Sapporo

Colt Sapporo - Festival of the unexceptional

The Sapporo was named after the venue of the 1972 Winter Olympics, and looking at this one, we reckon this car now looks super-cool. It’s a cruiser with head-turning looks, but when new, it was expensive, devoid of road feel and the strength of the opposition meant it sunk without a trace. So, it’s lovely to see one today… CAR wasn’t impressed, placing it firmly in the ranks of the boring in its scathing 1970s GBU entry.

For: Reasonable styling. Against: Slushy steering, handling; cramped. Sum-up: High-priced mediocrity.’

17. Tatra 603

Tatra T603 - Festival of The unexceptional

This felt almost too exceptional for the festival. We’ve always loved the sheer weirdness of Tatra – with its Beetle-on-steroids styling and rear-mounted air-cooled V8. Immaculate examples are £30,000 or more, but this heavily patinated model is almost more cool with its incomplete interior and roll cage. It’s always felt like T603s belong to an alternate steampunk future where we all have private Zeppelins.

Understandably, it didn’t feature in CAR magazine’s acidic GBU listings, mainly because it wasn’t sold in the UK and you needed to be a Communist apparatchik to get anywhere near one at the time.

18. Citroen BX

Citroen BX - Festival of the unexceptional

The 2023 festival felt almost like a Citroen BX owners’ club rally. There must have been dozens of these angular Gallic beauties gracing the lawns of Grimsthorpe – from GTIs all the way down to Spartan Leader models, but all sharing that brilliant Citroen magic. Another car to hit 40 in 2023, this one has a huge following. CAR rated it interesting in GBU at the time, reflecting our lasting fascination with quirky French cars.

For: Superlative ride, styling, economy, comfort, service ease. Against: 1.4 power pack thrashy, has gear whine, rear headroom unimpressive, poor dash design. Sum-up: Excellent mid-range car with traditional Citroen strengths.’

19. Kia Sportage Mk1

Kia Sportage Mk1 - Festival of the unexceptional

It’s wild to think that this is what Kia was pumping out 25 years ago – unrefined, cheaply-made and ugly – where now it’s a thoroughly modern manufacturer beating the Europeans in many ways. Note also the standard equipment on this immaculate Sportage Mk1… You won’t find a low-range gearbox or a ‘high rollover risk’ sticker on a 2023 crossover!

20. Vauxhall Cavalier Mk3

They say that familiarity breeds contempt, and never has that been more true than with the Vauxhall Cavalier Mk3. This sleek repmobile was the most aspirational car in the UK between the late 1980s and early 1990s, and before the Mondeo became the go to car for a generation of professional drivers, this was where it was at. That so few survive now tells you what you need to know about how times have changed.

For: Progressive design with impressive aerodynamics, wide range of engines. Against: So-so dynamics and steering. Sum-up: The General gets it right’

Additional reporting by Tom Wiltshire.

By Keith Adams

Devout classic Citroen enthusiast, walking car encyclopedia, and long-time contributor to CAR