Tuesday March 26, 2019
There it was on the Simca Club UK stand at Hall 5 of the NEC at the Practical Classics Classic Car & Restoration Show with Discovery last weekend. It was a car that instantly transported me back to the days when an Amazin’ Rasin bar was regarded as the height of luxury and, best of all, it was a car with a (plastic) “wood facia and ultra-fashionable spot lamps to induce envy in your neighbours,
For those too young to the glories of the Simca 1301, it was regarded in France as a mildly dashing saloon for the motorist who preferred RWD to FWD (thus ruling out the Citroën GS, Renault 12 or Peugeot 304) and who wanted a car with a slightly more youthful image than a Peugeot 404. In the UK, the Simca was the alternative to a Hillman Hunter, especially during times of strikes at Chrysler UK.
In short, the chance of finding any 1301 still in use on British roads, is about as likely as East Enders cast members not speaking in Dick Van Dyke mockney – and it was just one of the riches at the show. At the stand of the Fiat Motor Club, Brian Stigant was hard at work on a Panda “Italia 90”, a truly exclusive limited-edition model with football motif hubcaps. There was also a startlingly orange, and exceptionally desirable, second-generation 127 Sport, one of the best “hot superminis”.
Roaming through the NEC meant encountering the exquisite Riley RM, a very early Range Rover and some very well-preserved Austin Maxis. I’d almost forgotten the stylistic appeal of the Citroën Ami 8 Estate appeal and the sheer char, of the Bijou, Slough’s genuinely bold re-interpretation of the 2CV. In amongst the Princess “Wedges” was one of the very surviving base-spec 1800s, with seats upholstered in plastic and no distracting luxuries such as a clock or folding armrests.
Meanwhile, the various Metros reminded the show-goers how this crucial British Leyland model is now fast approaching its 40th birthday plus – and here one performed a double-take – a Montego hearse. An MG 1100 could have been driven from the set of a Look at Life travel film, and its Wolseley-badged stablemate is one of the few left in service. It was very hard to resist a choice selection of Lancia Gammas that epitomised the word ‘style’: the Berlina particularly captured my eye. And those Talbot-Matras served as a further incentive to have my father’s Murena back on the road before too long.
The Lancaster Insurance Pride of Ownership award was bestowed upon John Smith and his Volkswagen Type 2 De Luxe Microbus, one of the most splendid examples of a vehicle that truly merits the description ‘iconic’. Second place went to Ian Thompson with a 1971 Ford Escort Mk. I that can only be described as a symphony in green and in third place Tom Morley and his Metro 1.3L, an example that looks so smart that it is hard to believe that it is 30 years old. Mention should also be made of Annie Redshaw-Lloyd’s Bond Minicar Mk. G, a three-wheeler of true verve and style.
As for my own award – the not quite as well known “What Car Would I Like To Occupy A Space in My Garage” prize – there was an embarrassment of riches. As a Sotonian, I naturally craved a Ford Transit Mk. I although the stunning 1965 examples at the National Exhibition Centre both hail from the days when this ground-breaking light commercial was built in Langley. A 1940 Austin Eight Utility represented a further Hampshire connection as its coachwork was emblazoned with a New Milton telephone number.
After a game of Play Your Cars Right on the Lancaster Insurance stand (and not resisting the temptation to say ‘higher!’ and ‘lower!’ a la Bruce Forsyth), it was time to appreciate a 1969-model Wolseley Hornet Mk. III which reminded me of our family transport 45 years ago, although our Mk. II lacked such decadent fittings as winding windows. The Heinkel Kabine bubble cars conjured images of Blue Murder at St. Trinian’s and I’m All Right Jack, and indeed there was an automotive delight around every corner, from an unforgettable array of Frisky Meadows and “Puff” the Austin Maxi 1500 in which Bron Burrell competed in the 1970 London to Mexico World Cup Rally.
Largely because I am somewhat of a 1950s throwback in terms of style and popular culture, I found myself torn between a Morris Isis, a 6/80 (shades of Scotland Yard films) and a duotone green Riley Two Point Six, one of the most handsome British cars of the 1950s, but it ultimately went to the 1956 E-Series Wyvern of the Gay Classic Car Group. Their line-ups never fail to excel, and this year they have proclaimed the National Car Club of the Year.
The mighty Vauxhall had to compete with the likes of a Humber Imperial, a Hillman Imp, a Morris Marina Series 2 plus an Ital and even a C-reg Talbot Alpine, a form of motoring life that seemed to vanish in the mid-1990s. My opting for the Wyvern, who goes by the nom-de-Vauxhall as “Black Bess” is partly because she looked as though she belonged in a late 1950s crime film but mainly because it once belonged to the grandfather of her owner Elliott Dunn. You can read more about her remarkable story here.
The final word goes to my good friend Mr. James Walshe, as for him and his colleagues at Practical Classics, the Car of The Show was a Standard Ten that is known to all as “Bluebell”. Many of you will remember how back in 2017 this delightful motor-car was in real danger of becoming a victim of the scrappage scheme and as James explains, it represents:
The very essence of what we do in the classic car world. The will to restore, maintain, preserve and enjoy old cars has never been stronger, and the little Standard leads the charge in 2019, backed by the successful rescue mission carried out by Practical Classics and a team of enthusiasts in Scotland. We saved it from the crusher and the editor Danny Hopkins, and I drove it all the way to the NEC from Thurso, where it has been since it left the Coventry production line 60 years ago. Bluebell captures our unshakable love of nostalgia and will hopefully inspire others to keep an eye out for endangered vehicles of historic interest.