Forget Pebble Beach: welcome to the first Autocar Concours d’Inelegance, in which Autocar’s staffers and contributors bring out their pride and joy to be judged by Colin Goodwin
3 January 2015

So out of all the cars they test all year round, which models are the ones that Autocar staffers are willing to spend their own money on? 

The results are varied, ranging from a 1990 Volkswagen T3 Syncro, through a 1974 Ford Escort Mexico and even including a 1965 Chevrolet Corvair. All have come forward to be assessed on their coolness, dynamics and ability to paint a broad smile on their driver’s face. There’s only one judge: Colin Goodwin. And his decision is final.

John Simister – 1961 Saab 96 (owned since 2001)

I came up behind John Simister’s Saab 96 on the way to our gathering in Bicester. Knew it was him because there was a little cloud of two-stroke oil smoke hanging in the air over the last roundabout he’d negotiated. 

“I’ve always been intrigued by Saabs and I fell in love with the 96 after driving one for Practical Classics magazine,” Simister says. “I bought mine from a mechanic from the Saab museum in Trollhättan and drove it home from there to the UK.” 

You can’t just jump in a car like this and drive it, so John is in the passenger seat, giving instruction. “Three on the tree for gears,” he explains, “and because there’s a freewheeling system, you can change down gears without using the clutch. Just give it a little blip of throttle to help. You’ll get the hang of it quickly.”

The water-cooled, three-cylinder 841cc engine is incredibly smooth. If you’d owned cars like Morris Minors and Ford Populars, stepping up to the Saab would feel like a tremendous leap forwards. It’s a torquey engine, too, with 59lb ft (against an 850 Mini’s 44lb ft) and it feels perfectly set up. 

“I do about 3000 miles a year in the car,” Simister says. “It’s probably the nicest car that I’ve ever owned. It’s eccentric and interesting and I doubt I’ll ever sell it.”

Without doubt, Simister’s 96 is so nice to drive because he uses it regularly. Idleness is a killer for classic cars and it's asking for trouble in a machine that uses a petrol mix.

Ben Summerell-Youde – 1990 Volkswagen T3 Syncro (owned since 2009) 

I’ve owned three Volkswagen Type 2 vans, all with the split screen. The most I ever paid for one was £250. Today, they’re north of £20k, and I reckon you’d be crackers to buy one for that. I’d much rather have Ben Summerell-Youde’s T3 Syncro. 

“I bought it in Germany for £2100. It’d have been double that in the UK,” Ben says. “It had a blown head gasket and shot CV joint, so we towed it back on an A-frame. My dad is a mechanic and used to convert T3s into campers, so he knows them really well.”

So what on earth does a four-wheel-drive VW van feel like to drive? It’s a question that I’ve asked since I first saw this Syncro in the Autocar car park. “I wanted a Syncro because they’re rare and I wanted to go off-roading,” he says.

There’s a familiar VW flat four rumble from the back, slightly raspier than normal because there’s a hole in the exhaust. “It’s 2.1 litres and injected, with 95bhp,” he says. “They’re amazing off road because they’ve got a central viscous coupling and have front and rear diff locks. In the US, they didn’t have the front lock because Americans left it on and then crashed when they were back on a grippy surface.” 

Summerell-Youde says his Syncro is now worth far more than he paid for it but that he’d never sell it. And so he shouldn’t. I can’t get over how well this 24-year-old VW rides and how tight it feels mechanically. I also love the way it looks.

Mark Tisshaw – 2000 Subaru Impreza Turbo (owned since 2007)*

The asterisk on the left is important because, legally and morally, the Impreza belongs to Mark Tisshaw’s dad, Geoff, who bought the car on Mark’s 18th birthday. “Sadly,” explains Tisshaw junior, “not as a birthday present for me. If I’ve been behaving myself, I am allowed the occasional go in it.”

“I’d always wanted an Impreza,” says Geoff Tisshaw. “I was a big Colin McRae fan and a mate had one as a company car. Took me a long time to find the right car, but in 2007 I found this one. It had 132,000 miles on the clock and I’ve done another 30,000 miles since. At first it was our everyday car, but now I use it about once a week.”

I drove Imprezas when they first came out, and I wondered then what they would be like after tens of thousands of miles had passed under their wheels. The Tisshaws’ car is the first really old one with a high mileage that I’ve driven, and it’s amazing how tight it still feels. 

Geoff says: “It had a new turbo at 90,000 miles and I’ve replaced the cambelt and rear shocks. It’s been very reliable, but the current task is to attend to the bodywork, as rust is popping through in places.”

Geoff is concerned that I’ll find his car disappointing, so it’s a pleasure to see the big grin on his face when I step out of it and tell him that I reckon it’s a good ’un. The standard 215bhp Impreza was always one of my favourites and still is. Well done, Geoff; just keep the boy away from it as much as possible. 

Jesse Crosse – 1974 Ford Escort Mexico (owned since 2010)

“My Mexico was a barn find bought off eBay,” says Jesse Crosse. “I bought it for road rallying and regularity events and restored it to that spec. I rallied an Escort in the ’70s, so these cars are very close to my heart. So close that I’ve got carried away and built a Mk2 Escort for stage rallying. Now that I’ve got that, I think I’ll revert the Mexico to nearer standard spec.”

If you were born before 1970, you would never have imagined that a Mexico would one day be a valuable, sought-after classic. I owned several Mk1 Escorts but never anything as special as a Mexico. “It’s a proper AVO [Advanced Vehicle Operations] car,” Crosse explains, “more special than an RS2000, in fact.” 

This orange Ford is stunning. It’s a matching numbers car and Jesse has done a lovely job on the restoration. The 1600cc Kent engine wears period twin Weber twin-choke carbs and in its guts is a Piper 234 cam. 

On these damp roads, the Mexico will be a hoot, but you don’t get carried away with the owner in the passenger seat. Crosse says he’ll remove bits like the fly-off handbrake but will probably not return the engine to standard spec, because it works so nicely with about 115bhp, whereas a standard Mexico is a bit slow. 

The outstanding feature of this car is its gearbox. It’s from a Corsair and not the famous Rocket gearbox, and I reckon it has the finest shift action of any gearbox ever made. But everything else is wonderful about this hot Ford, too: its lightness and simplicity of design inside and out.

There’s no point in asking Crosse if the Mexico is a keeper; the answer is in his eyes.

Tom Langan – 1989 Mazda MX-5 (owned since October 2014)

Tom Langan is a repeat offender, because this is his second MX-5. And like the first one, which was red, this one is a Japanese import and therefore badged as a Eunos. 

“I paid £850 for this one and it’s got 75,000 miles on the clock," says Tom. It’s an S model, but this one has Koni shocks and springs and is 15mm lower than standard, which is a pain because I can only approach my house at one precise angle or it’ll ground out.”

What can you say about a car that promises this much fun for well under a grand? It has to be one of the great bargains. A short spin up the road and Langan’s Mazda proves to be as it should be. It’s a little rough around the edges, but the important bits are spot on. 

“I love the purity of the steering, the throttle response, the simplicity and the chassis,” Langan says. “I used to work for Caterham Cars, so you can judge my criteria for a great sports car. I’m planning to prepare the car for sprinting.”

It sounds like young Langan has really got his motoring life sorted out: great road transport and a bit of motorsport chucked in for what will work out as barely nudging into four figures. 

“I use the car every day,” Langan says. “It makes commuting so much more interesting.”

Steve Cropley – 2003 Citroën Berlingo Multispace (owned since 2004)

Steve Cropley has owned this car for 11 years, and that’s quite an accolade. I’ve known him for almost 30 years and never has he kept a car longer than a couple of years. 

“Yes,” he admits, “this blows my previous record to bits. I ran the Berlingo as a long-term test car in 2003 and didn’t want to give it back. So I bought it. It’s got good towing capacity, has massive suspension travel and is great over speed bumps. People following assume that it’s being driven by a slowcoach and sit on my rear bumper, but I do them in roundabouts.”

Cropley’s Berlingo is powered by a 2.2-litre diesel and is in Desire spec. Angela Cropley, known as The Steering Committee, loves the car. “She finds it most suitable for sitting in to read The Sunday Times at Prescott,” says Steve. “As I said to Carlos Tavares [PSA boss] the other day, new versions or equivalents are simply the wrong size.” 

So is this car going to be in the Cropley household until it drops? “It’s only done 67,985 miles,” he says, “and it fits into our lives so well. It’s the car that friends visiting from abroad are given to drive. So, yes, I think we’ll keep this car forever.” Which is something I thought I’d never hear Cropley say – or rather, it’s the first time I’ve believed it.

Richard Bremner – 1965 Chevrolet Corvair (owned since 2008)

I knew that Richard Bremner would agonise for weeks over which member of his extensive car collection to bring to this event. So to save him the worry, I told him to bring the Chevrolet Corvair. The Corvair is a very Bremner sort of car, because it played such a key role in motoring history.

“It was GM’s first monocoque body,” Bremner explains, “and was so popular with the young that it inspired Lee Iacocca to come up with the Ford Mustang. Car and Driver magazine reckoned that the second-generation car [which Bremner’s is], which has similar suspension to the Corvette, was America’s best-handling car. Including the ’Vette.”

The Corvair is a stunning-looking car and Bremner’s is in lovely condition. The 2.7-litre air-cooled flat six rumbles into life.

Sound like a Porsche 911? Well, it sort of does but it doesn’t play a note-perfect rendition of Stuttgart’s flat six. Four on the floor (which is completely flat and without protuberances) and manual steering. Really, I should have a Corvair myself, because in spirit it’s a combination of the two best cars I’ve ever owned: a Chevrolet El Camino and a 1970 911S.

The steering is ridiculously vague and requires some forethought when approaching a bend. A small roundabout requires preparation that an Olympian would admire. There is 140bhp out the back and the Corvair feels brisk rather than fast. The gearshift, with classic white knob, has a narrow gate but is precise. Much more so than an early 911’s.

The Corvair is Bremner’s favourite of all his collection, which is quite an accolade. And entirely understandable.

James Ruppert – 2000 BMW X5 (owned since September 2014)

It’s pure Ruppert. Exactly the sort of car I’d expect the Billy Graham of used cars to arrive in. This 4.4-litre V8 X5 fulfils all the requirements of his Bangernomics criteria. 

“Three grand, bought through the trade a fortnight ago,” says Norfolk’s Arthur Daley. “It’s for Mrs Ruppert to replace a Mitsubishi Shogun. She specified high up, but not an MPV. One of the rules of Bangernomics is to not go after a particular model but simply keep to type, so we weren’t looking for an X5.”

The Rupperts’ 88,000-miler drives perfectly. As is usually the case with luxury bangers, a few items that were once expensive options are no longer present and correct. “The sat-nav has conked,” says Ruppert, “and one of the rear windows doesn’t work. It also came with an optional swimming pool, but I’ve fixed that, as it was simply a blocked drain hole up around the sunroof.”

It’s always dangerous meeting up with Ruppert, because he sets such a bad example and you inevitably end up going home and sitting on Auto Trader for half the night, searching for cars that you’ve never wanted to own and don’t need.

Ten minutes in Ruppert’s X5 and I start wanting one myself. “It’s rather thirsty,” says Ruppert, “but we don’t do many miles and we do have a few other cars.” In the several decades that I’ve known Ruppert, there have always been a few other cars.

Amar Hussain – 2006 Audi A4 2.0 FSI SE (owned since 2009)

Meet Audrey, Amar Hussain’s beloved Audi A4. “I don’t like diesels,” he says, “so this has a 2.0 FSI petrol engine. I think it might be an SE, but I can’t remember.” Interesting how trim levels mean nothing once a car enters the secondhand world. It’s all to do with how much kit it actually has and how much of it still works. 

“We bought it from a car supermarket for £7700 with 60,000 miles on the clock,” he says. “It’s done over 150,000 miles now and can’t be worth more than a couple of thousand pounds.” Funny how attached you can become to a fairly straightforward car if it has been very good to you.

Hussain is appalled to find a dried banana skin in a rear door pocket. “The kids,” he moans. “Our last car was a Honda Civic, but we needed something a bit bigger.”

No need to drive the Audi miles to suss out its health. A couple of bumps and potholes on Bicester Heritage’s internal roads will reveal whether 150,000 miles have turned Audrey into an elderly lady wobbly on her pins or if she’s still in her first flush of youth.

Fortunately, Audrey feels like she’s in good shape: dampers a bit baggy but clutch, gearshift and steering all good. The fir tree air freshener, essential in a family car, is emitting a healthy whiff of Scandinavian countryside. “The kids love Audrey,” says Hussain, “and prefer it to most of the flash stuff that comes home from work.”

Matt Prior – 2005 Land Rover Defender TD5 (owned since 2013)

Another Land Rover nut. Good job Andrew Frankel isn’t here, because he might have brought his. Actually, I’d have insisted that he brought his very early Citroën 2CV.

This is a good start: there’s a bale of hay in the back of Matt Prior’s 90-inch Landie. “It’s my wife’s daily driver,” he explains, “and we use it for towing a horsebox. It excels at that job because it’s so stiff.”

Prior’s TD5 is an XS, which means that it has heated seats and air conditioning. The air-con is proper Land Rover kit, although it looks like an aftermarket system, with its vents in a long unit that’s attached to the bottom of the dashboard.

In a way, I prefer this basic approach more than the trying-a bit-hard dashboard of Julian Rendell’s later-model Defender. I also see why some prefer the older TD5’s powertrain. 

“Mrs Prior finds all cars boring except for this one. We’ll never sell it,” says Matt. Worryingly, he can feel another one coming on. “My dad worked for the REME [Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers] so I grew up around army bases and, of course, army Land Rovers.”

Prior paid £12,000 for his Defender and points out that he could have bought a Toyota Hilux of the same age for a couple of thousand quid. Wouldn’t be the same, though, and with the end of Defender production drawing close, I’ll wager that Prior’s car will retain a remarkable percentage of its current value.

Julian Rendell – 2009 Land Rover Defender (owned since July 2014)

For me, Land Rovers are like Morris dancers. That they exist makes me feel tremendously British, but I don’t actually want to join in myself. Not so Julian Rendell.

This 2009 long-wheelbase model, powered by Ford’s Puma diesel that was also found in the Transit, is his second Defender and replaces a TD5. “The engine and six-speed gearbox aren’t as nice as the old car’s, but the rest of it is a massive improvement. We go on camping holidays in the Defender and the kids love it.

They’d really kick off if we didn’t have one in the family. We take a trailer tent camping and it’s a fantastic tow car; you’re never aware of anything out the back.”

Matt Saunders – 2007 Ford Fiesta 1.25 Zetec (owned since 2009)

My success rate for family and friends taking my advice about cars is pretty poor. Wrong badge, wrong image – usually something not connected with a car’s actual ability. I’m not alone, because Matt Saunders didn’t even manage to persuade Mrs Saunders to follow his recommendation. 

“I tried to sell my wife on a Skoda Fabia or Yeti, but no,” Matt says. “Entrenched Skodaphobia ruled the day. So instead we bought this Ford Fiesta 1.25 Zetec. It was two years old and we bought it on finance for £6000.

“It’s been completely reliable. Emma put it into a snowdrift, which bent a half-shaft, and the radio lost its code after a dead battery some years ago, but I haven’t quite got around to sorting that out. Oh, and I think the air conditioning might be on the blink. We used to get it serviced by a Ford dealer, but as soon as the finance finished we went to a local garage.”

A stork is inbound and landing is due in February next year. With two Saunders juniors, the Fiesta will most likely be moved on. “My father-in-law tends to drive the Fiesta mostly, using it to ferry my daughter Isobel around. We’ll probably replace it with a Honda CR-V.” Presumably, only if Mrs Saunders is happy to sign it off.

And the winners are...

3rd place – Chevrolet Corvair / Ford Escort Mexico

Yes, it’s a cop-out, but I can’t decide between Bremner’s Corvair and Crosse’s Mexico. The Chevrolet is absolutely stunning and technically fascinating but not a great car to drive. The Ford is almost the exact opposite. I love them both, and since I’m in charge, it’s a tie for third.

2nd place – Volkswagen T3 Syncro

The judge applauds Summerell-Youde’s left-field choice of campervan. Shunning more trendy VW vintage leisure products, our picture editor has equipped himself with the ultimate go-anywhere mobile bedroom. Perfect, as car marketing people would say, for an active lifestyle.

1st place – Saab 96

Quirky, eccentric and extremely capable, Simister’s 96 is a treasure. And quite rightly, extra points are gained by the owner’s determination to use the car as much as possible.

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Comments
14

3 January 2015
The common denominators here are that most of these cars are interesting, useful and not that expensive. The exact opposites of most new cars in fact. It's a pity that the industry is so hell bent on selling us expensive, fast depreciating cars dressed up with big wheels and the latest "design language", when previous generations got it right in the first place. Now where's the Autotrader?

289

3 January 2015
....its the Mexico as a clear winner for me.
Fantastic!

289

3 January 2015
This website is a mess...its time Haymarket's IT team got off their arses and sorted it out...either that or shut it down.

e.g. Cant see subsequent pages of comments....the pictures in this article wont scroll.
There always seems to be something not working here...except the infernal adverts...they always work just fine!!

3 January 2015
289 wrote:

This website is a mess...its time Haymarket's IT team got off their arses and sorted it out...either that or shut it down.

e.g. Cant see subsequent pages of comments....the pictures in this article wont scroll.
There always seems to be something not working here...except the infernal adverts...they always work just fine!!

Big fat plus one! Its dreadful. Why can't we click on images to enlarge anymore- what was the problem with that function that it needed to be removed?

3 January 2015
For me the saab was top of the the pops.
as for the webbsite sorry it is crap.there is no other way to put it.

TS7

3 January 2015
... and refreshing to know some of you chaps own some 'real' cars!

3 January 2015
Love the Escort. Great colour too. Wouldn't mind the 4WD camper either.

3 January 2015
They keep stating the website WILL be sorted, but it never does, i asked them weeks ago, and got an email response stating it would be sorted imminently......... Can i suggest you look that work up in a dictionary.}

We cant have paragraphs......... No enlarging of pictures anymore......... posts wont post..... so i expect this wont either, so why i bother writting it is anyones guess........

3 January 2015
Finding out one of autocars journalists drives a 1.2 Fiesta.

Gutted.

Saab and Corvair 1st and 2nd with X5 (£3k!?!?) and Syncro tied for third.

Good to see the berlingo too. Fancy one of those for dog/bike duties.

3 January 2015
For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of following tha Autocar website is being able to make contributions and read the contributions from other readers, which are (generally) interesting and insightful. I would happily trade in the recent website "improvements" for being able again to read the second and subsequent pages of posts and track my own posts.

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