Expect The Unexpected At The Festival Of The Unexceptional

Blimey, bit of a title that, isn’t it? It’s for good reason though. Because I never expected to rock up to a classic car event in an old BMW, only to be redirected into the general parking area because my 728i was ‘too executive’ to officially take part.

But that’s the way the cookie crumbles when you don’t read up on the rules of the land. Here at Speedhunters we’re used to automotive excess, motoring peaks and the highs that come with all of that. But at the Festival of the Unexceptional (FOTU), the following applies: “We prefer Ls to SRis, Populars to Cosworths, and Renaults to Rolls-Royces.”

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So, with my trusty BMW tucked away in the corner of the general car park, I grabbed my camera gear and did the walk of shame back into the show field to see what I could find at Hagerty’s very own celebration of ‘the little guy’.

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Celebrating the little guy isn’t a common thing at car shows in the UK. It’s always the cars that are objectively considered as good, desirable or important that are put on a pedestal and paraded about. Aside from this event, the only other occasions I can think of where the less desirable stuff is celebrated are small owners club gatherings where make and model-specific enthusiasts get together.

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I loved the FOTU, but I knew I would before I even went. You can’t live life in a comfort bubble of predictability though, as too much of this removes creativity and inspiration from your day-to-day life. We need ambiguity, because it forces the decision-making process that naturally encourages our creative sides.

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After attending a number of posh car events this summer, I realised I’d been neglecting my obscure car hobby. Being no stranger to mildly interesting cars, I found myself browsing videos on YouTube of various car junk. Things along the lines of “History of the Mk1 Ford KA.” As that video finished, a recommended video popped up from last year’s Festival of the Unexceptional.

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The gent on the video spent 30 minutes walking around a selection of cars you’d never even see take centre stage in a period drama TV show, let alone at a traditional car show. This was all the persuading I needed to attend this event myself.

Before I knew it, the 2022 FOTU crept up on my calendar, and after a truly beautiful drive through the hugely vast lawns of Grimsthorpe Castle, I arrived at the venue.

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The Festival of the Unexceptional ticket website wasn’t lying; an E30 318is is about as established of a motor as you got at this event. This doesn’t scare me, but I was a touch out of my depth here. The goal would be to take in some new motoring perspectives and ideas, and learn something I didn’t know already. And there was a lot to learn!

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But, I fell at the first hurdle, failing to resist the urge and instantly shuffling my way over to something I already know about. Ah, yes, the Peugoet 205. I’ve seen loads of these on the internet before. I’ve watched many, many videos on YouTube about these…

Roland Garros special edition trim? Like Wimbledon, but fittingly French, for a French car? A classy colour, posh leather interior and sexy additional badging to tell you apart from the other peasant 205s. Perfect, I know all about Wimbledon, I’ve watched it o TV.

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This is what the FOTU is all about. I completed FOTU before I even walked about, right?… Right?

Wrong. Whilst amazing and niche, the Roland Garros 205 doesn’t quite fully cover what this festival is about. It’s a desirable car and the spec was never really ordinary to begin with. To truly understand what this show is all about, we need to look back in time.

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Last year’s FOTU outright winner was a 1989 Proton 1.5 GL Black Knight owned by Jon Coupland. The car has a smidge over 13,000 miles on the clock and is in actual showroom condition. There’s school dinner plates out there that have seen more mileage than this Proton. When new, these were peak commuter cars.

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That’s good, but also bad. Good because at one point they were readily available, affordable and maintainable for the every-man. They were a tool, getting people around the country. The bad bit is that time isn’t always kind to tools, and once a better tool is available the old tool gets thrown away and forgotten about. The oh-so vicious cycle of consumerism isn’t kind to tools.

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So here is what makes the Festival of the Unexceptional so special. It’s a gathering of people who love these cars because they share an interest in them that runs deeper than just being reliable commuters. They’re appreciated for their time and place and history, not just their ability to go fast or get likes on the internet.

It takes a special type of car enthusiast to keep these cars going and looking smart. People are at the forefront of the FOTU, much more so than at any other car event I’ve been to actually. Hagerty are very well aware of this, and set up the award ceremony to highlight the fact. We’re all used to ‘Best Interior’ and ‘Best Wheels’ accolades, but at the Festival of the Unexceptional there are prizes for ‘Most Exceptional Picnic’ and ‘Most Exceptionally Dressed’.

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The latter duly went to Mateusz Strzyzewski, who did a 3,000 mile round trip to Grimstorpe from Warsaw in Poland. In a 1991 Hyundai Pony 1.5 – a trendy maniac with top speed commitment of 90mph. The car of course did it with no problems, and was presented in the main concours paddock in front of the castle.

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The battle for the Most Exceptional Picnic was a tight one, with a lot of contenders. Deck chairs and homemade sandwiches were out in full force, and the more serious competitors even brought along electric hobs.

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A car that grabbed my attention was John Corbett’s 1990 Fiat Panda Italia. In 1990, the football World Cup was hosted in Italy and sponsored by Fiat, who kicked off the occasion with a limited edition Italia trim Panda. The trim includes a whole host of World Cup references, including those factory wheel trims.

The mascot you can see on the seats above and the bodywork below was used by Italy for the World Cup. Named Ciao, it’s since been voted the best World Cup mascot of all time.

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This specific car was actually registered on the day England beat Egypt, 1-0. Rumour has it, when England were eliminated out of the World Cup, all remaining white Pandas were stripped of their Italia trim and sold on as standard, white Panda Ls.

John loves this thing, and was keen to show me all the rare and valuable official Fiat merchandise he’s collected over the years from the ’90 World Cup, including the keyring on his rear-view mirror and the huge Italia ’90 flag he’s wearing in the photos.

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Honourable mention of my personal favourite car goes to Ian Black and his lovely wife, who were keen to chat all about their Alfa Romeo Giulietta. Ian has owned this car since new, back in 1984. When I asked him why he chose this over more boring contemporary rivals, he said, “Oh, we own those too.” His wife drives an E30 convertible.

Trendy people with a true passion for cars.

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Everyone at the FOTU was keen to chat to me, and everyone was clearly incredibly passionate about their cars. I think everyone at the event could also relate to these cars on a personal level, something you don’t always get with the more prestigious car events. After all, did any of you have a science teacher who drove a 993 Targa? No, they drove a Montego. Cars should should get you thinking, and if that means pushing you out of your comfort zones, let it be so.

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Without the chatty people it would be easy to overdose on the amount of yesteryear’s commuter motoring on show. The Festival of the Unexceptional goes to show that even when you go to a field full of ordinary cars, the people remain far from unexceptional.

Michał Fidowicz
Instagram: candyshowroom

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