Proton's lonely black knight was the star of the show: Andrew Frankel

“The concours condition Nissan Bluebird was absolutely robbed of a prize”

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Unsurprisingly my favourite events of the motoring year take place at Goodwood, but not far behind is the Festival of the Unexceptional, held this year at the end of July at Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire, and whose Concours d’Inelegance it was once more my pleasure to help judge.

As a business case the festival looks utterly hopeless: a show for cars no one cared about even when new and whose few and limited abilities have been rendered entirely irrelevant by the passage of time.

But I think this is actually key to its appeal, because it speaks to the somewhat perverse quality of human nature that the more unexceptional the cars, the more the public wants to see them. And as a judge it is always strangely uplifting to talk to their owners, hear their stories, look at their cars and goggle anew that they have even survived (the cars, not the owners) for this long.

There are no hard and fast rules for judging. It’s done by gut feel and rightly so, but my guiding criteria is the car must have been utterly unexceptional when new: it is not enough for it to have been cheap or somehow become regarded by history as rather ordinary.

So how my friend Simon Hucknall thought he stood a chance of winning anything in his lovely R registration Fiat 128 that’s been in his family from new escapes me. Great car then, great car now so, in these terms, an also-ran at best. The same went for the Audi 100 Avant, the original V6 Ford Mondeo and a Renault Espace. Each might win something somewhere, but not here.

As for me, I failed to argue the case for a Triumph Acclaim, a really pretty mediocre car made far worse by the rare addition of a three-speed Triomatic (geddit?) automatic gearbox. And the concours condition Nissan Bluebird was absolutely robbed of a prize. I think when this business is finally done with me, of all the millions of words I will have written in pursuit of a living, I expect no two phrases will ever have made more unlikely bedfellows in the same sentence than ‘concours condition’ and ‘Nissan Bluebird’.

The runner up was a Peugeot 106 upon which I won’t dwell because I thought it far too capable to earn my vote, but the winner? We judges did ourselves proud. Because it wasn’t just a 1989 Proton 1.5 GL in immaculate condition, but one of just 201 ‘Black Knight’ special edition cars, of which it is perhaps unsurprisingly the sole survivor.

“Aston Martin now says it will only build 999 Valhallas”

The Black Knight came complete with lurid orange side decals of said nobleman in what I couldn’t help noticing was actually shining white armour, twirling a sabre of impressive proportion while mounted upon a fine black charger. The logo is reprised on the wheel centres with a thick rubber spoiler on its boot lid to just hint at the potential of the 85bhp motor under the bonnet.

Who needs exterior mirrors you can adjust without first lowering the hand-wound windows when the Black Knight has your back? I started fantasising about conversations from the period: “The traffic is bad, it’s five miles to Safeway, it’s starting to drizzle and there’s a medium amount of shopping to be done. Only one car could possibly cope with a mission like that: time to fire up the Black Knight!” At which stage I, as are you now, started questioning my own sanity. If we find a more worthy winner in next year’s Festival of the Unexceptional, I won’t be impressed, I’ll be astounded.


Forgive this coming from the ‘told-you-so’ department but it’s so rare I get anything right I’m going to briefly abuse the privilege of having this page to have a little crow about something.

Briefly, when Aston Martin released details of its heavily revised production-specification Valhalla hypercar I wrote a piece for Motor Sport’s website detailing the new car and expressing surprise only at the fact it had not said how many it would make. Specifically I said, “£600,000 is a vast and possibly unprecedented amount to ask for a car with no upper limit to the numbers built. I feel it will scare off an entire constituency of potential prospects who like to put such chattels under a cover in a shed and watch them appreciate.” I suggested that 950 units – the car’s power output in PS – might be an appropriate cap to put on production.

Well blow me down if there hasn’t been a change of heart. Because now Aston Martin says it will only build 999 cars and do so over a two-year period. Now, as I also happen to know, the company never thought it likely it would build more than 1000 units so what has been achieved here is to confer a degree of exclusivity the car never had before without having to sacrifice any cars to do so. The result, I am sure, is that by stating in public that production will be limited, Aston Martin will sell more cars not fewer, and provide each one with far better residual prospects than would ever have been possible were it simply to be perceived to be a standard production model like any other, albeit at more than twice the price.

So yes, I didn’t quite guess the actual number that will be produced, but it’s more than close enough for me to feel quite smug about it. And I’m pleased that Aston Martin has seen sense.


A former editor of Motor Sport, Andrew splits his time between testing the latest road cars and racing (mostly) historic machinery
Follow Andrew on Twitter @Andrew_Frankel