David Milloy writes: numerical disadvantage

If you’re interested in old cars (we’ll save the ‘what is a classic car?’ debate for another day) then you should be familiar with How Many Left. If, however, you’re one of the three people yet to sample its wonders then here’s what you need to know: How Many Left provides easy to access statistical data – marque by marque*, model by model – on the number of cars, motorcycles and commercial vehicles licensed and SORNd in the UK. The data it holds goes back to 1995 and comes from the DVLA, so it’s both deep and reliable. Well, as reliable as government data ever gets…

It’s easy to lose hours poring through the data on How Many Left. After all, you do want to know how many Renault 5 Le Cars remained on UK roads in 2003, don’t you? Yup, thought so.

But be warned: surfing the site can be a bittersweet experience, for in many cases its bald statistics plot a model’s inexorable plunge towards the abyss, and it can be hard not to feel a little guilty at having passed up the chance to buy that rough but saveable Peugeot 304 SL a few years ago.

On the other hand, how many left provides early warning of a model’s potential demise. So if you’re offered, say, a Volvo 262C then you’ll know that now is very much the time to buy. Leave it too long and, well, you know the rest…

So with that in mind, let’s have a look at a few cars that are in danger of vanishing from UK roads. Indeed, one already has.

We’ll start with the Lancia Trevi. You remember the Trevi, don’t you? Of course you do, you read PetrolBlog. It was essentially a booted Beta with a Swiss cheese style dashboard. It wasn’t exactly pretty, but nonetheless had just about enough going for it to make it interesting. Needless to say, the car-buying masses in the UK avoided it like the plague.

Lancia Trevi VX

Still, you might be forgiven for entertaining the thought that the Trevi now enjoys a new lease of life as a left-field classic. It’s a nice idea, but the reality is much grimmer: a single, solitary, sole example is taxed in the UK. And it’s been that way since 2008. (One of the cars listed as SORN is for sale on Auto Trader and I’m in love with the dashboard – Ed.)

Bad though that is, the Alfa Romeo Arna (yes, I know it was a truly ghastly car but many cars that enjoyed much greater success were just as poor) has fared even worse: no Arnas have been licensed in the UK since 2007. And don’t hold your breath in anticipation of a change in that – there are currently just two Arnas on SORN. (A good example of why the data isn’t always reliable: I believe this one is still on the road – Ed.)

But it’s not just Italian cars that are an endangered species on our roads.

Consider the Vauxhall Belmont. In 1995, tens of thousands of the Astra’s rather ungainly looking sister could be found on British roads**. And it’s a similar story now. Minus the thousands, that is. As of the third quarter of 2016, only 29 Belmonts were taxed, with a further 62 SORNd. That’s bad enough, but the figures show that 11 Belmonts disappeared from UK roads between the third quarter of 2015 and the corresponding period a year later, an attrition rate of 27.5%.

Vauxhall Belmont

The Belmont may not have been the last word in, well, anything, but it performed a valuable if unglamorous role as a hack for thousands of families up and down the land. Call me sentimental, but it surely deserves a better fate than the unlamented extinction that it is seemingly headed for.

Much the same can be said of the Talbot (née Chrysler) Alpine. In its Simca 1307 guise it was European Car of the Year in 1976. And until age and lack of development caught up with it, it sold well on both sides of the channel. Indeed, the Alpine was the 11th best selling car in the UK in 1977, with over 33,000 examples being registered that year. But with only 21 examples surviving on UK roads***, it now finds itself on the critical list.

It’s joined there by another Gallic offering, the Renault 25. To those that remember it, the R25 was one of the more attractive barges of the 1980s (yes, Renault once sold large cars in the UK…) In spite of a cringeworthy TV advertising campaign featuring a charismatically by-passed couple, the R25 sold well in the UK. And deservedly so – it was well equipped, spacious, comfortable and, in its Turbo and Baccara guises, offered generous portions of pace and style.

Renault 25 GTX

Yet for all its brilliance, the R25 hasn’t gone on to enjoy a second life as a sought-after classic. Only 69 remain taxed in the UK, down from almost 45,500 in 1995. And every year a few more are taken off the road, probably never to return.

And to round off this somewhat sobering piece, here’s a blast from the past: the Matra Rancho. Much as it pains me to say it, the Rancho was a triumph of form over function. As an off-roader, it was limited by having only two wheel drive. And it wasn’t much better on the road: it was slow, noisy and couldn’t carry the payload of a large estate. But, hey, it looked great.

Matra-Simca Rancho

It sold well too, almost displacing the Volvo 240 estate as the antique dealer’s conveyance of choice. But while the Rancho owner wafted around stylishly, the hidden underpinnings of his car were slowly but surely being eaten away by the moist British climate. And just as surely, the number of Ranchos on UK roads crumbled along with their chassis. A few remain in the hands of enthusiasts (five are licensed as of the third quarter of 2016), but don’t expect to see your local antique dealer at the wheel of one.

There are many more cars whose numbers have declined to near extinction level. And while not all of them can be said to have been good cars back in days of yore, it would be nice to think that we can collectively find room for all of them in our hearts… and on our roads. We know what needs to be done, so let’s get to it.

Best move quickly, though. Time, tide and tinworm never sleep.

* There are some curious omissions from the DVLA database and, consequently, this is also true of How Many Left.
** In 1995, there were 49,900 Belmonts licensed in the UK.
*** The figure includes the Chrysler and Talbot badged models but not the Alpine’s booted variant, the Solara.

Images © Renault, Lancia, Vauxhall and Matra

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ABOUT AUTHOR
David Milloy
Freelance writer and all-round good guy (it says here). Loves cars with character, movies, history and the offbeat.

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