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The Great Classic Cars We Forgot To Love

Time can be a cruel mistress. It gradually sifts and selects what we remember. Heroes and villains come and go and the ones in between often get left by the wayside.

So it is with old cars. Some rise to the top of our collective consciousness for their innate brilliance. Others for their abject awfulness. And for classic car enthusiasts, choosing their objects of affection, it somehow doesn't matter which extreme they're drawn to. Which may explain why a decent Austin Allegro will nowadays set you back four large ones.

In between these extremes lie the cars that failed to ripple the tide of history much beyond their original lifespan. I think it's time we changed that, because within that morass of motoring also-rans lie many, many gems.

Here are my five favourite overlooked classics.

Ford Sierra XR4i

In the mid 1980s the Capri was meant to die. Across Europe it had almost burnt itself out in a dizzying displaying of tyre smoke, but not so in Britain. Where between 1984 and its demise in 1987 we couldn't get enough of the car we always promised ourselves.

This was bad news for the car that was meant to replace it, the XR4i. The 'hot' Sierra was, on paper, everything the former Capri buyer wanted: coupe-esque styling, rear wheel drive and a big 2.8 litre Cologne V6. Unlike the Capri it was designed post-The Dinosaurs and had a dashboard angled towards the driver. Because it was All About The Driver.

Except, of course, there were no former Capri buyers because they were all still buying Capris.

Even naming it as the popular XR3's big daddy and bolting on a mahoosive twin-level rear spoiler couldn't save the XR4i. The problem was that, aside from that spoiler, it looked pretty much like the rest of the Sierra range and it wasn't that quick - the 150 bhp compared unfavourably to the 160 in the lighter and nimbler Capri.

The XR4 was phased out after less than two years, replaced by the RS Cosworth, which was an altogether more focussed affair and didn't have to compete with the Capri.

All of which means the XR4 is the fast Ford that most fast Ford enthusiasts forget about. It isn't a Cosworth and it isn't a Capri. So while they're rare beasts, prices are surprisingly low. But forget the baggage and look at the XR4 afresh: what you get is a woofly V6, rear drive and classic 80s styling in a car that's simple and easy to own in the way that a Cosworth quite often isn't.

Expect to pay: from £5,000 for a solid, presentable car

Alfa 33

Old Alfas are a patchy affair. Often, of course, quite literally. And none more so than the 33. Mention the Alfasud and you'll be greeted with many stories of brilliant but fragile family motoring. Raise the spectre of the 33, however, and conversation will most likely quickly turn onto something else.

The 33, like the XR4, suffers by comparison. It's not an Alfasud.

Except it sort of is, because beneath the boxier bodywork lies the running gear and chassis of the Sud.

And that's why you want one. There are less than 60 Alfasuds left in the UK and values are climbing. So get into the next best thing - and in some ways, the much better thing: a 33. The heavier metalwork might blunt the handling a little but the 33 still has those peppy Boxer engines and it's still much more engaging than a VW Golf.

It's also more comfortable too, which makes it more practical to use. The 1.7 fuel injected versions are also faster. Seek out a rare Q4 four wheel drive version and you've got a junior Delta Integrale.

The 33 is even rarer than the Alfasud. But that hasn't - yet - translated into inflated prices. Find one and enjoy one of Alfa's best small hatchbacks.

Expect to pay: from £3,000 for a solid, useable car

Scimitar GTE

Yes, yes she did. And she still does.

DeLorean may have had Marty McFly, but the plastic Tamworth sports estate had Princess Anne. And that, quite probably, is why it's on this list. Back to the Future? Still pretty cool. Princess Anne? Well lets just say cool isn't exactly the word that springs to mind.

But lets not pin the blame for the Scimitar's oft-overlooked status entirely on a minor Royal. The car and the company made quite a good fist of finishing off the job themselves. The Scimitar did look good, but it was badly built and the interior looked pretty awful. Then there was the other output from the Tamworth factory, the one with the 25% shortage of wheels. Nobody really wanted a posh-ish sports car from the firm that separated striking miners from their redundancy packages and put them in brand new Rialtos.

And all of that is quite a shame. Because shorn of all that baggage - and I admit, that's not an easy set of mental gymnastics - the Scimitar makes a great classic car. It doesn't rust. The oily bits are all off the shelf, commonly available stuff. And every time you take it to a classic car show there's a ready made conversation starter...

Expect to pay: from £4,000 for a solid, useable car

Jaguar XJ

It shouldn't really be like this. Jaguar's greatest ever saloon car, the one that moved the saloon car goalposts so far forward that the firm was able to keep making exactly the same car for over 25 years, is still one of the classic car world's most overlooked classics.

Yes, we all love them. Yes, we all know how great they are, particularly the superlative V12 versions. But do we want one? A big fat no.

There are very good reasons for that. Jaguar made a lot of XJs for a very long time, so there are plenty about. They also refused, consistently, to make them very well. None of which stopped people wanting them when they were new because nothing from Mercedes, BMW or Audi came close to delivery the sheer waftability of a big Jag saloon.

The XJ looks good. It rides better than a Rolls Royce. The V12 is astonishingly good. And that's why we should all buy one. Yes, they're unreliable and they rust, but those risks can be ironed out by buying carefully.

Do that and you'll get a Jag saloon that costs a quarter of a Mk2 but is so much better.

Expect to pay: from £2,000 for a roadworthy example

Dolomite Sprint

Before the BMW 3 Series there was the Dolomite Sprint, a sedately styled saloon car that oozed quality and went like stink.

Well, sometimes. In a manner that will be familiar to devotees of British Leyland, Triumph could never quite master the knack of building the clever 16 valve engine properly. The signs were there at the start had the firm bothered to look: the Sprint was meant to be called the Dolomite 135, to reflect the car's power output, but an inability to build factory engines consistently with 135 bhp output meant the name was changed to Sprint.

Then there was the Sprint's target market. Most Triumph saloon buyers tended to pick up their cars on the way to getting their flat caps fitted - new fangled, multi-valve trickery wasn't really on their car buying agenda. Over 7 years less than 23,000 were built. In the same time VW sold 450,000 Golf GTIs.

The Sprint has become an interesting footnote in motoring history, a car that had it all but delivered rather less. That it was out of step with the hot hatch trend hasn't helped. So it tends to be overlooked and forgotten. Which is a shame, because a well sorted Sprint is a rare and wonderful thing: neatly styled with a nice interior and decent handling.

Expect to pay: from £4,500 for a respectable, roadworthy example


There are many more overlooked classics. Let us know the ones we've missed in the Comments.

Graham Eason, Great Driving Days. 01527 893733

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