The road less travelled

In the classic car world, as in life, there are the obvious choices.  And the less obvious ones.  For every MGB there's a plethora of less well known alternatives.  In life or cars the path less travelled can often be more rewarding and more interesting.
Here are our four Obvious and Unusual classic car choices.

1. Classic Convertible

Obvious Choice: MGB

There aren't many classic paths more well worn than that of the venerable B.  It's endlessly popular for good reasons: it's stylish, robust, simple and undemanding.  Parts and club support are unsurpassed and most of what you need is cheap to buy or fix.  The MGB may not be the last word in handling or refinement but it's practical, comfortable and very easy to personalise with mechanical and body tweaks. And yet, MGBs are no longer cheap to buy - even rubber bumper cars are pushing 5 figures.

Unusual Choice: Alfa Romeo Spider

If you don't want a MGB then the classic world has a huge range of options.  But our favourite has to be the long-lived Alfa Spider: early cars may be pricey but Series 3 and 4 models are more than a match for an equivalent MG. What you lose in club and parts accessibility you gain in driveability and style: few classic convertibles are as effortlessly stylish and rewarding to drive as a well set up Spider.

2. Classic GT

Obvious Choice: Jaguar E Type

Of course, if you want an E Type, you have to have an E Type - nothing else will suffice.  It's easy to see why - the Jaguar is achingly beautiful and carries a sense of occasion few cars can match.  There is also an E Type for most people - from an early Moss-box coupe to a big, late model V12.  There's also an E Type if you don't like how the E Type actually looks - the horrific Series 1 or 2 2+2. Or an E Type if you don't like how the E Type drives - they are available with an auto box.

Unusual Choice: Jaguar XJS

It drives better than an E Type, it costs a fraction of the price (although for how long, who knows?) and it's comfortable. The marmite looks are beginning to mellow and it has that superlative V12.  It's not an E Type, but if you can overlook that you'll discover a car that's better in almost every respect.

3. Classic Saloon

Obvious Choice: Jaguar Mk2

The venerable Mk2 is the default choice here because it is so ridiculously good.  It looks ace, it drives nicely, it's got acres of real timber and it's quick like a sports car. Most saloon cars are overlooked in the classic world in favour of coupes and convertibles, but the Mk2 survives because it is really an E Type with an extra pair of seats. It's also fairly easy to own, with excellent parts supply.

Unusual Choice: Triumph 2500PI

The boxy Triumph is one of those cars that is both familiar and overlooked, lurking on the periphery of our vision.  Which is a shame because it virtually invented the now-ubiquitous posh mid-market saloon.  But before Audi, BMW and Mercedes gave us identikit cars, Triumph created the delicate Triumph with its straight six fuel injected 2.5 litre engine.  It was well built, luxurious and great to drive.  There was also an estate, which was arguably even better.

4. Classic Hot Hatch

Obvious Choice: VW Golf GTI

VW invented the hot hatch so it makes sense to covet the original Golf GTI. And it is, of course, very good, albeit in a perfect prefect sort of way. As you'd expect the VW is well built, reliable and handles brilliantly. Parts may be a bit pricey and difficult to get hold of and the electrics can be troublesome, but if you want a perfect all rounder, buy one.

Unusual Choice: Alfa Romeo Alfasud

I am biased because I own one, but the Alfasud is the car for you if you find the Golf just a bit too bloomin' perfect.  To start with, the Alfasud really was the first hot hatch, except of course it didn't originally have a hatchback.  A minor detail.  And it handles better than the Golf.  The less good stuff - the ape-like driving position, the rust and the asthmatic engines - are easily overlooked by that Italian rasp and go-kart steering.  And it's much rarer - and cheaper to buy.


Graham Eason
Great Escape Cars
01527 893733

My Five Most Disappointing Classics

Hiring out old cars has given me the opportunity to drive and own a lot of classics I've always admired.  Sadly, not all have lived up to expectations.  Here are the ones that prove you should never meet your heroes...

1. Porsche 928

I've never been a Porsche person, but I liked the 928 until I owned one.  It should work for me as it ticks so many boxes - big warbly V8, GT pretensions, decent handling and lots of creature comforts.

And in truth, it is all those things.  But also, frankly, dull.  Unless you drive very, very fast or are a very, very good driver you'll never get anywhere near the 928's limits on public roads.  That shouldn't stop it being thrilling, yet it does - the car is so competent that all enjoyment is dialled out. It flatters, it goes round corners quickly, but none of it is exciting.  It just feels too big, too unwieldy and too heavy.

I have a RS6, which sort of tries to pull off the same trick.  Except it does so without feeling dull and without the look-at-me styling of the Porsche.

Oh, and routine maintenance is a task requiring the willing sale of various organs.

2. Rover SD1 Vitesse

My parents' rich friends had a SD1 Vanden Plas.  It gave me a taste for luxury, cavernous panel gaps and wood trimmings.  So a few years ago I bought a SD1 Vitesse.

It was - and is - undeniably gorgeous to look at.  The interior is also quite nice, in a wavey, brittle plastic and industrial design sort of way. The V8 sounds lovely and there's a big fat spoiler at the front.

But step inside and turn the key and it all goes wrong.  The SD1 has the worst driving position of any car I've ever driven.  The gearbox makes stirring lumpy custard seem positively attractive.  The build quality is so incredibly bad that you wonder what will fall into your lap each time you negotiate a corner.

As an object d'art, the SD1 is hard to beat.  As a driving and owning proposition, somewhat less so.

3. Cobra Replica

Few cars have been copied and recreated quite like the AC Cobra.  And with good reason.  They didn't make many of the original, it looks flippin' amazing and goes like stink.  And a good replica does all of these things too.

I ran two replicas as hire cars for a few years and grew, over time, to hate them.  The first was a terrible Python kit designed by someone presumably using a blurry photo of a Cobra as their guide.  It also had a weedy Rover V8.  The second was far better, an engineer-built AK Cobra with a 5.7 litre Corvette engine.

The trouble with both of them, and probably most kit cars, is that they weren't designed and built in a factory.  They're a bitsa.  Nothing was originally designed to go together and so is never entirely happy with the forced marriage.  Eventually, in the way of such things, one partner rebels.  In my experience this tends to be the gearbox or clutch, which we replaced or rebuilt so many times we could do it in our sleep.

And this highlights another problem.  Because the components have often been adapted to work in the kit car, nobody except the man who built the car in his shed actually knows how it was changed and therefore how to rebuild it.  Factor in that kit cars don't go through the usual design process to make them easy and practical to live with and you have a car with a heavy clutch, awkward cockpit, complicated roof and sundry other niggles that you can live with if it's just you driving but not if you've spend £300 hiring it.

All of which tended to diminish the appeal somewhat.

4. Jaguar XJR

I've owned a couple of these, the early straight six X300 and the later x308 V8. They're essentially the same car, namely a reheated version of the 1968 XJ6, which donated its basic architecture.

And that's the problem. The XJ6 was a superlative saloon with Rolls Royce shaming ride and contemporary looks. The XJR is none of those things - it tramlines better than anything with an overhead electrical cable, it treats potholes like Everest and it looks like a car designed in 1968. The driving position is cramped and the handbrake digs into your thigh.

Certainly these cars are fast. In a straight line when they aren't breaking down or the five individual fuse boxes are in alignment. Which is to say, not often.

5. DeLorean

Ok, nobody expects the DeLorean to be any good. It's about how it looks, not how it goes. And I do know that.

But the DeLorean is a car not a static display. It has wheels and an engine, although in terms of the former it turned out not to be very good at staying attached to them.

If you like attracting attention from small children and the easily excited then perhaps you can overlook the shocking build quality, the terrible gearchange, the inability to see anything whatsoever from the driver's seat. I don't particularly and couldn't.

In case you think I'm being harsh on a car so central to so many childhoods, then consider how you'd feel if the suspension collapsed at 70 mph due to a fundamental design flaw. Twice.

DeLorean - look but don't touch.


Graham Eason
Great Escape Cars
01527 893733

Top Ghia

Early pre-production Mondeo GLX

There is no obvious reason to buy an old Ford Mondeo for £50, but I have. That it joins another cheap Mondeo, admittedly a ST200, smacks of a fetish.  
My latest purchase is a 1994 Mk1 Ghia 24v, one of the first sold in the UK and only 1 of 4 still on the road.  That this rarity can be bought for the price of a meal for two at a local Harvester is, frankly, one of life's great mysteries.  Like why Katie Price is famous. 
And yet the humble Mondeo is, for me at least, the forgotten motoring gem of the 90s. Whilst others gravitate to Golfs and Peugeot GTIs, I've been beguiled by a car that was once so ubiquitous but is now becoming very rare.
It may be because I cut my company car teeth on the original Mondeo - I had four in as many years, racking up nearly 200,000 miles in the pursuit of PR column inches for my double glazing employer.  Heady days kids. 

European spec Mondeo
Or it may be, more likely, because the 90s Mondeo was such a great car.  It's ubiquity and Mondeo Man image have tended to hide the car's inherent capabilities.  Here was a car with perhaps the best FWD chassis of any contemporary saloon car, endowing it with great handling.  That it was also well built, comfortable and quiet explains why I was so keen to get out the office and into my Mondeo.
When Ford began developing the Mondeo the halo of greatest was nowhere in sight. Dearborn's initial plans for the Sierra's replacement were pretty much business as usual, but with one major change.  The new car would play to Ford's strengths of high specification and simple mechanicals, but it would be a 'world car', as popular in Luxemburg as Los Angeles. 

Ford Cortina Mk1
The high spec but simple ethos had served the company well with all of its new cars, in particular the Cortina.  It was a car that looked good and had decent equipment but the bits you couldn't see were as basic as they come.  Most buyers simply didn't care and the ancient oily bits were sold by Ford as a virtue - simple, easy and therefore cheap maintenance. 
However, by the early 90s this winning formula was beginning to fray at the edges.  Vauxhall's 80s Cavalier had run rings around the Sierra with its decent handling and FWD specification.  And the Mk5 Escort, launched in 1990, had been a critical and sales disaster due to dismal dynamics and poor engineering.  

Audi 80 saloon
Alongside these problems, Ford's mid-size saloon market was under threat from premium German rivals such as BMW and Audi whose 3-Series and A4 were aimed at the fleet market.  Now low-spec German cars, well engineered, well built and aspirational, were beginning to nibble away at the profitable market for high spec Vauxhalls and Fords.  
All of this made Ford anxious.  The new Mondeo was being developed in the same vein as the Mk5 Escort, a pedestrian world car designed to appeal to everyone.  In a word, it was going to be bland. 
Thankfully a rethink was called for. A new engineering team was brought in, headed by Richard Parry-Jones, with the task of making the new Mondeo sparkle.  The brief was to create a car as well engineered as an Audi and as good to drive as a BMW. 

Richard Parry-Jones
Despite joining the team very late in the day, Parry-Jones achieved exactly this, tweaking the Mondeo to deliver a car whose handling and ride were far better than anything from Vauxhall, Renault or Peugeot.  It out-drove Audis and out-specced BMWs. 
It's worth taking a moment here to consider that achievement.  Parry-Jones took over engineering for the Mondeo about 18 months before the car launched, so very late in the development programme.  His 'no is not an answer' approach to problem solving enabled changes to be found and implemented quickly. 

Ford Sierra
What Parry-Jones couldn't influence was the final shape of the Mondeo.  Where the jelly mould Sierra had split opinion and alienated conservative Cortina buyers, the Mondeo played it safe.  The design was pleasant but bland, no match for the handsome designs from Germany. 
The Mondeo launched in 1993 and was an instant success. Striving middle managers, locked out of Audis and BMWs by status or company fleet deals, no longer felt short changed.  Here was a well specified car that was fun to drive, in a way that those base model Audis simply weren't.  The range was also refreshingly simple in a manner perfected by Ford - LX, GLX, Ghia and Si, with three petrol four pot engines and an agricultural turbo diesel from the equally farm-orientated P100 pick up.  Distinctive wheel trims and discreet badging made it clear to fellow motorway-ploughers exactly where you sat in the company hierarchy. 
As a green twenty-something I remember being genuinely impressed when I got my hands on an early Mondeo - a red turbo diesel LX.  It replaced a Sierra 1.6GL and felt space age - nice interior, quiet ride, well screwed together and with a heady 88 bhp compared to the Sierra's 70.  Over the next 18 months I naturally ran it into the ground.

Mondeo ST24 Mk2
Ford quickly refined the Mondeo, playing to its sporting strengths with the ST24 and ST200 and tickling the chin of those spartan German marques with the kit-dripping Ghia and Ghia X models.  
25 years on and we're on the fifth generation of that original car. The Mondeo has survived, just, by playing to the original formula of decent handling and good specification, managing in the process to keep the Germans at bay.  And yet, despite the car's ubiquity, despite 'Mondeo Man' becoming shorthand for middle England, not many people give a stuff about the original car.  It's become rare because nobody cares about it.  Even Ford use an original Mondeo to advertise its modern scrappage schemes.  If the company that built it isn't bothered, why should we?
Because those first cars are so good. Whether you drive a humble LX or enter the heady wood-trimmed world of a Ghia, the Mondeo Mk1 - and its virtually identical Mk2 sibling - are great drives. The later Focus may lay claim to the finest mass market chassis of the 90s, but the Mondeo isn't far behind.  If it was a coupe, we'd all want one. 

Mondeo Mk2 BTCC Touring Car

All old Fords eventually appreciate.  Not long ago we were laughing at the idea of coveting XR3s and Capris, now we all wish we'd spotted the trend sooner.  The same fate awaits the Mondeo.  But that's probably 10 years off.  For now, find a good one and just enjoy it.  


Graham Eason
01527 893733