When the MkV Supra launched in 2019, we all knew it was going wide-body within days of it leaving the showroom.
And when every new Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz is announced, it’s only a matter of time before they’re slammed on air suspension and tucking the latest three-piece wheels under their arches. Maybe a jazzy vinyl wrap if they’re lucky.
Modern car culture has all become a bit predictable. I’m not knocking the trend; these kind of cars have become easier to own than ever before with leasing and finance now commonplace, not to mention being fundamentally harder to modify beyond the typical bolt-on bits. So keen are manufacturers to take your money for optional extras that there’s no room left for customisation after.
But there’s always an antidote to this new car poison, one that represents everything we love about car culture. And as every year passes, it welcomes another year of cars within its little circle.
I’m talking about the Retro Rides Gathering.
Ten years ago, a car built in 1999 would’ve still been classified as quite modern. Now? It’s right on the cusp of cult classic status, and while it’ll still be one of the young guns in the Retro Rides show field, they’re not about to turn you away.
I love classic cars. In fact, I love all cars which have lived an interesting life. Some have been pampered for years, some have been crashed more than once. Some are now caged and ready for track, while others seem to be constantly under the knife.
Every dent, ding and mis-coloured body panel tells a story beyond ordering the latest set of wheels. They’re the result of many owners – good and bad – across multiple generations. It’s a bit like talking to an elderly person; break through that innocent exterior and you can guarantee some pretty wild stories will emerge.
Yet despite this love for all things retro, I’d never been to a Retro Rides Gathering before, even though I’ve lingered around the UK show scene since the early 2000s. Why? I can only assume it’s clashed with other ‘traditional’ shows or I’ve never had anything suitable worth taking. But not this year…
Within 10 minutes of arriving I saw exactly why this this event is praised so highly. I could name probably five or six of the cars surrounding me, none of which I’d seen at any other show bar Ryan’s AE86. It was a welcome breath of fresh air; rarely do you ever feel completely out of the loop with what’s going on around you. It was brilliant.
Shelsley Walsh, which has been the Gathering’s home since 2014, is without a doubt one of the UK’s best motorsport venues. As a hill climb it’s unashamedly small – just 910m (approximately 1,000 yards) in length. But as a venue there’s one road in and out; trying to navigate between pits and show field felt like dashing between tasks in the Crystal Maze. It feels authentic.
Fundamentally, it hasn’t changed in 116 years. Not only is Shelsley Walsh one of the world’s oldest motorsport venues, it’s actually the longest-running stage in the world (with the exception of two world wars which paused running slightly).
Despite its short length, the course rises 100m from start to finish with its steepest section being a 16% gradient. Oh, and it’s no wider than 12 feet (3.6m) at points. To put that into perspective, that’s the same width as a single motorway lane. A Lamborghini Aventador SVJ is over 6.5-feet wide.
The best bit about Shelsley’s hill climb? It’s non-stop action. With runs typically lasting 30 to 40 seconds, it means every competitor gets multiple goes up the hill. Track supervisor Ian Marsh told us that 2021 was a record year for the Retro Rides Gathering, with 150 cars making 538 separate runs over the course of the day.
There’s no VIP, ‘access all areas’ treatment here. If you’re running in the hill climb, you go left into the pits. Got a show or club car? You go straight on into the fields. Everyone is treated equal regardless of how rare or valuable their car is.
It’s something I feel a lot of UK shows have struggled with in recent years. As they grow in size and demand, so does their venue and that means higher ticket prices combined with an even larger trade area to claw back some of those costs. People expect more from their money, and if that means selling them a better show space so be it. But that doesn’t always leave the most interesting cars on display.
At Retro Rides Gathering, it feels like the opposite tactic is at play. Everyone is grouped in together; you feel compelled to walk around every obscure club stand to see what treasures can be unearthed. There’s no specific area for the ‘best in show'; they’re just dotted around with 1,500+ others on display.
And the more you explore, the more it exposes you to a whole host of weird and wacky cars you never knew existed.
That’s actually quite lethal. In fact, I guarantee if you monitored the eBay and Pistonheads traffic immediately after Retro Rides, you’d see an almighty spike in people frantically checking prices on seemingly cheap cars. I didn’t see a single Lamborghini here, nor Ferrari or McLaren. But a sea of Rover Metros? You bet.
Speaking of oddities – and fundamentally wanting to buy every car on display – I fell a bit in love with Mas’s Lancia Prisma. What you’re looking at here is essentially 8V Integrale running gear wrapped up in a four-door saloon. Pointless? Quite possibly, but if anything that makes it even better.
According to Mas, the Prisma has a strong following over in Europe but less so in the UK. It’d been converted before he bought it – albeit badly – so for the past few years he’s painstakingly rebuilt it from scratch. If you fancy it, you’ll need about £15K, but that does include a whole load of spares you’ll inevitably need at some point.
But the Prisma is just one of some 1,500 cars on display which all follow a similar story. Retro Rides started life as a forum back in 2004 – one which is still spookily active today which gives you an insight into the kind of following it has – and ever since then it’s existed as a safe haven for those who don’t conform to the traditional car enthusiast stereotype.
As the forum grew bigger, so did the demand for a real-life show to exhibit all the oddities and classics otherwise being digitally documented, and in 2008 the first Gathering took place at Gaydon.
The cars you see displayed here are a representation of the brilliant minds behind them. That’s why you see so many unique and interesting pairings appear.
What looks like a Sierra on Escort wheels isn’t YB-powered at all; this one’s got a K20A from a Civic Type R. But it’s longitudinally mounted and rear-wheel drive. Wrap your head around that…
How about a VW Beetle which appears to have reversed into an early 911? Don’t be fooled by the bodywork alone; nestled in the back is a six-cylinder air-cooled motor on carbs which sounds (and goes) even better than it looks.
It also happened to be one of the fastest cars heading up the hill, but we’ll go into a bit more detail on this particular car in a separate story next week.
You get a real feel that the Retro Rides brand is all about being true to yourself. It isn’t dialled into popular culture or trying to be the first; it’s a place free of judgement and fashion which celebrates every aspect of retro car culture.
Your car’s value and rarity aren’t topics of celebration here. But your ideas, ingenuity and execution most definitely are. And in just a few hours on a Sunday in Warwickshire, the Retro Rides Gathering has gone firmly to the top of my list as must-visit events on the UK calendar.
I’m not sure if it’s done intentionally, but the lack of any phone data means you can’t simply roam the fields ‘gramming every car on display, nor are you bombarded with uploads before you’ve even arrived. You have to be present and actually take it all in.
That’s something lost on many of us in 2021 – myself included – but it’s the perfect metaphor for what makes Retro Rides Gathering so good. Now to try and figure out a way to buy that Lancia Prisma…