The weird and wonderful of the NEC Classic | Axon's Automotive Anorak

19th November 2021
Gary Axon

Following an enforced cancellation in 2020 due to the global Covid-19 pandemic taking hold, the (usually) annual Classic Motor Show returned once more in November as the first (and only) major UK indoor motoring event of the 2021 season.

Even with the exhibition stands more spaced apart with fewer car clubs in attendance, plus noticeably less visitors than in previous years, the NEC Show still attracted over 63,000 visitor, plus 3,000 classic and historic vehicles within its halls, with more car clubs than you could shake a stick at. Wading through the countless cars and halls, filled with endless familiar and obligatory classic cars – Minis, Jaguar E-types, MGBs et al – a handful of exceptional rarely-seen cars really stood out. Here are just eight of the many possible Show highlights that caught my eye.


Polski-Fiat 125p Coupe by Duda Garage

A communist-era licence-built Fiat 125, produced by Polski-Fiat (FSO) in Poland, doesn’t sound like a show-stopper. The beige Polski-Fiat in question wasn’t quite a run-of-the-mill 125p though and was undoubtedly one of the highlights of this year’s NEC Show. 

Now a rare sight even in standard four-door saloon form, this 125p had been very carefully handcrafted into an elegant two-door coupe with a lowered roof line by the ‘Wheeler Dealers-esque’ star of Polish TV; Duda Garage. Sitting on a Polish classic car club stand alongside an 1972 FSO Warszara – the first of these ungainly ex-Russian GAZ Volga saloons I had ever seen in the metal. Such is the notoriety of Duda with the Polish community living here in the UK, the pre-announcement of the 125p Coupe’s presence at the NEC helped to sell a welcome number of additional tickets to the event, for Polish-language TV fans to come and see the car for themselves.

Taking ten weeks to convert from an early Series 1 Polski-Fiat saloon, this striking 125p Coupe was so well done and looked so good, that it could have convincingly passed for a factory-built car. This begs the question as to why Fiat in Italy never offered a two-door coupe version of this model. Pleasingly spot on from every angle, this modified Polski-Fiat was shod with colour-coded Fiat Barchetta wheels (to cleverly retain the Fiat connection) with a skilfully considered lowered vinyl-covered roof. 

The interior of this one-off Coupe was suitably (and tastefully) retrimmed, with the standard strip speedo instrumentation retained, but with its engine moderately tuned.   


1974 Lagonda V8

Hidden away on a car insurance specialist’s stand was one of the seven Lagonda V8 four-door saloons built by Aston Martin in Newport Pagnell in the mid-1970s.

Clearly based around the ‘regular’ William Towns-designed ‘Oscar’ fronted Aston Martin V8s of 1972 onwards, the longer-wheelbase Lagonda sat on that model’s stretched platform with four doors and cosy rear seats. Quietly introduced in 1974 to remind prestige car buyers of the Lagonda name, ahead of the more serious introduction of the marque in 1976 Earls Court Motor Show with the advanced, daring William Towns-penned Lagonda, the 1974 V8 was a subtly elegant car that arguably suited the Aston Martin’s fastback shape more successfully the shorter DBS/V8 on which it was based.

Poorly presented, the majority of NEC visitors casually strolled past the Lagonda without even realising what this ultra-rare car was, possibly dismissing it as just another Aston Martin V8.


1938 Sunbeam-Talbot 4.0-Litre Sports Saloon

Launched at the 1938 London Motor Show, but with full production only getting underway in 1939 just ahead of the outbreak of war, the imposing Sunbeam-Talbot 4-Litre Sports Saloon was sadly never given the opportunity to make its mark on the world. Subsequently, the range-topping luxury model failed to be re-introduced immediately post-war as it wasn’t quite so well suited to the austere conditions of the time after the hostilities had ceased. Rather troublingly the Sunbeam-Talbot Club had a black and white photograph of Adolf Hitler admiring this stunning Sport Saloon on display at the 1939 Berlin Auto Show.

Now largely unknown and forgotten, this jaw-dropping large metallic place green Sunbeam-Talbot was fresh out of a recent restoration, having languished in an abandoned state for many years. 

The Sports Saloon previewed the distinctive signature rear three-quarter side window treatment evidenced on later post-war Sunbeam models, replacing the traditional C-pillar with glass only for both the rear doors and third side windows.  


1974 Innocenti Regent

Almost as rare as the aforementioned Sunbeam-Talbot, the Innocenti Regent was an Italian market-only version of our infamous Austin Allegro. The car at the NEC was the only known example in the UK.

Built for less than 18 months by British Leyland’s Italian Innocenti subsidiary, just for local consumption, the Regent shared many of the Allegros components and quirks including a modified ‘quartic’ steering wheel. There were however a few distinctive updates to better suit Italian motoring needs, such as opening quarter light windows in the front doors and a remodelled boot lid, to house the large square Italian rear licence plate.

Up against outstanding domestic front-wheel-drive contemporary rivals such as the Alfa Romeo Alfasud and Fiat 128, the costlier Innocenti Regent never really stood a chance. The model was dropped very soon after its launch, despite an ambitious and expensive marketing campaign, which included an amusing TV ad inspired by Steven Spielberg’s very first film; Duel. 


1935 Mercedes-Benz 130H (W23)

One of a trio of the first – and to date only – rear-engined Mercedes-Benz production models, ignoring the non-Merc-badged MCC Smarts, the entry-level 130H (W23) debuted at the 1934 Berlin Motor Show. It featured the marque’s first sub-six-cylinder motor, with a 26PS (19kW) 1.3-litre side-valve four-cylinder engine. It was later joined by the more potent 150H and 170H models, also available in a more conventional front-engined configuration.

Introduced some time ahead of the conceptually similar KdF/VW Beetle (production ended in 1938 before the first KdF’s were built) the Mercedes W23 shared the Volkswagen’s infamously poor handling qualities, in line with many other rear-engined cars of the time.

The only Mercedes-Benz 130H in the UK, and NEC model was voted the overall Car Of The Show by the expert panel at Classic & Sportscar magazine. The aforementioned Sunbeam-Talbot 4.0-Litre ran it a close second. 


Honda S660

Arguably too young to already be considered a classic, the tiny mid-engined Honda S660 kei car was, nevertheless, a great and unexpected thing to see at the NEC event.

Only officially sold in its domestic market of Japan, the S660 recalled Honda’s first production cars: the high-revving and now sought-after S range of S500, S600 and S800. The latter was the first Honda car to be sold in the UK among other export markets and was the car I passed my driving test in!

Launched in 2015 as the natural successor to the equally joyous Honda Beat mid-engine key sports car, the S660 crams a 64PS (47kW) 658cc turbocharged motor into the middle of its bespoke lightweight 830kg chassis. Used imported examples in the UK can be difficult to find, but can occasionally be seen for around £20,000.


1964 BMC Mini Cooper 'Twini'

The NEC Classic appropriately turned up not just one but two twin-engined Mini Coopers, or Mini 'Twinis' as they were craftily nicknamed in the early 1960s. With a BMC A-Series engine mounted up-front and a running ‘spare’ also plonked into the rear boot, the 'Twini' was intended to give the giant-killing Mini Cooper some useful extra grip and grunt in motor racing.

Taking inspiration from the twin-engines Mini Moke that Alec Issigonis developed and demonstrated in 1962 to effectively turn this tiny ‘Jeep’ into a four-wheel-drive off-roader, competition tuning ace John Cooper (along with other tuners/racers such as Paul Emery) experimented with installing engines front and rear into Mini Coopers to improve power and traction, ideally suited to rallying. 

Although the cars went well and developed twice the power, Cooper and BMC quickly dropped the idea when John Cooper almost lost his life driving a 'Twini' on the Kingston bypass in 1964, when the car flipped and landed him critically ill in hospital for a while. 


1958 Frisky Sprint

The Meadows Frisky was an unusually well designed and developed British microcar of the mid-1950s. Styled by the talented car designer Giovanni Michelotti, a handful of ‘regular’ Frisky models had been built when the idea of a competition-focused mid-engine Sprint came along.

Unveiled at the 1958 Earls Court Motor Show, the two-seater Sprint barchetta was intended for completion use, but the idea never took off. The remains of this unique prototype were displayed at the NEC in ‘as found’ condition on the small Frisky Register stand.

The Frisky Sprint went on a lead a short alternative life down under as the basis for the Lightburn Zeta Sports, a small GRP-bodied two-seater sports car made by Australian washing machine magnate, Harold Lightburn. This tiny roadster was ill-suited to Australian needs and conditions and was soon dropped.

  • Axon's Automotive Anorak

  • anorak_quiz_honda_nsx_goodwood_28082017_01.jpg


    Axon's Automotive Anorak: Bank Holiday Quiz 2017!

  • porsche_991_gts_detroit_13102017_01.jpg


    Axon's Automotive Anorak: Sprachen Sie Porsche?

  • axon_anorak_dagen_h_plan_goodwood_20112017_05.jpg


    Axon's Automotive Anorak: Is left right?