Steve Sanderson, a portrait photo

Local Manchester Hero: Steve Sanderson, co-founder of Oi Polloi

Cars People

Steve Sanderson and Oi Polloi have become a fixture on the streets of Manchester’s Northern Quarter.

I set up Oi Polloi with my business partner Nigel, almost exactly 20 years ago. We’re a menswear retailer and now a brand in our own right – and through the people we’ve worked with, the situations we’ve created and the brands that we’ve collaborated with, we’ve come to define a certain kind of identity. It’s a working class identity with a magpie type aesthetic that’s synonymous with Manchester.

We take influence from here and there and blend it all together into something that’s unique to us, unique to this area. And while from the outset we’ve never sold cars, or been part of car culture, cars have always been an extension of who we are. And that’s why for us here at Oi Polloi, cars mean a lot. 

Right from the start of it all we were based here in the Northern Quarter of Manchester. Initially we were in Tib Street, which was always a bit of a ‘wrong’ area. When we started, it was just adult-only porn type shops. It was always an area stacked with character and despite how things have changed it still retains a lot of that texture. 

Steve Sanderson wearing a baseball cap and scarf

Layered with style: Oi Polloi co-founder Steve Sanderson helps define the look of the Rainy City.

Nigel and I had a bunch of mutual friends – and I think the first time we met we had the same shoes on. They were Clarks Wallabee Weavers. It was a shoe that didn’t really sell that well, and there were just certain people who bought them. It was just like a weird identifying thing and I guess we saw some kind of kindred spirit in our mutual love of ‘stuff’. We used to both collect shoes and sneakers and lots of other stuff, like outdoor kit and old vintage sportswear. At some point we were like, ‘why don’t we just open a shop doing the kind of stuff we are into?’  

Being deeply ‘into stuff’ is just something that we have grown up with. We have been in and around a certain kind of attitude or way of presenting ourselves. It means stuff to people that are bothered about it, but it doesn’t mean anything to a lot of people. But if you get it, you get it. We have always just been obsessed with the hard-to-get stuff that is not necessarily the big, super flash gear. The Manchester thing is a low-key take on things, with a hint of hard-to find, rare swagger. And our taste in cars is an extension of that.

That’s where our current obsession with the Fiat 131 Supermirafiori comes from. These cars are just amazing, rare, mental everyman classics. They were super cool for a brief moment – toward the end of the 1970s and early 80s, when we were coming into car and cool consciousness – and I suppose that weirdly exclusive package within a mass produced carmaker like Fiat, especially as it was at the time, was the thing that made these things so special. We feel the same, though, about RS Fords. There’s just this presence to them, a certain kind of blue collar style – that has always been fascinating to me.

A front-on view of a Fiat 131 Supermirafiori

 Supermirafiori: Torino style. Difficult to find. Easy to love.

For people like us, growing up in a working-class background, cars are like an extension of your identity.  It’s what you are into. People have different kinds of approaches, but for me and the stuff I obsess on, I kind of like the idea of stuff that is stylish, a little bit different, but which is still affordable. It reminds me of trainer culture. You look for something mass produced but with a limited run, or a slightly different colourway. It is all down to the finer tweaks.

My dad had a Capri 3.0 GXL – and that set the tone for me. I was always obsessed with them, looking at them. Especially growing up in the 70s and 80s, that was the era when the RS came into being, and sports cars, where they take a standard model and just tweak it and release it for the masses. Before Group B came along and changed everything, things like the Mexico, and the RS2000, including the colourways in yellow and green and the black lettering and the graphics – it all just struck such a chord.

These cars were produced at a time when working class people were struggling, but certain sections of that world were earning proper money for the first time, aspiring to be things they wouldn’t have dreamed – all that Thatcherite stuff that turned out to be a nightmare for many – but at the heart there was something that made these things magic – like the summer holiday and the massive rave – we see cars as part of the magic of what makes normal people wonder.

Ford Capri 3.0 GXL

Ford Capri 3.0 GXL. A step beyond the standard.

The first car I ever had was an Escort Mark 2 in yellow, it was a 1300 sport. It wasn’t anything that was going to go really fast, it was a bit shabby at the time as well. When you were driving it you kind of imagined you were driving a RS2000 or something.

I think it did the job, and it probably sowed the seeds as well, making you want the real thing. And that is something I did a bit later. That was when I started to really get into cars. 

A vintage and cool Escort

 From stock to souped up. The Escort was always an everyman hero.

Around the time we started Oi Polloi we also started a film project about RS Fords and we talked to loads of owners and enthusiasts – they were a fascinating bunch of people, a real definite kind of person who chime perfectly with what Oi Polloi is all about. 

We’ve got an itch to revisit it. Watch this space!

A couple of Ford Escorts parked in by the water

RS Ford: Almost accessible, and full of a ragged kind of swagger.