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Vauxhall Cavalier

Published: 22nd Aug 2014 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Vauxhall Cavalier
Vauxhall Cavalier
Vauxhall Cavalier
Vauxhall Cavalier
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The Cavalier was more than a new model for Vauxhall, it saved the British brand albeit at the expense of Luton’s independence. But it was a price worth paying recalls Andrew Roberts

In autumn of 1975 patrons of the Southampton ABC Cinema in Above Bar Street were treated to an advertisement even more thrilling than the proclamation that Butterkiss and Kia-Ora were readily available in the Foyer.

A very mid-1970’s funk soundtrack implied that here was one utterly happening car, for the new Cavalier made the Ford Cortina look as dated as a repeat as of The Persuaders, the Hillman Hunter a relic from a time of £.s.d. and Dansette record players and the Morris Marina something that had escaped from the Ark.

As the commercial ended no red-blooded Sotonian motorist would not have wanted to visit their local Vauxhall dealer as soon as possible. Or at least after watching a revival of Carry On Dick.

The advertisement heavily emphasised the Cavalier’s frontal treatment lest anyone note a rather marked resemblance to the Opel Ascona B. GM’s German products had officially been sold in the UK from 1967 and some older readers may remember how even the most modest entry level car from Rüsselsheim seemed to have a slightly more upmarket image than a Luton or Ellesmere Port equivalent. However, thirty nine years ago the two marques would have little connection to the average British motorist.


The HA Viva of 1963 was clearly heavily influenced by the 1962 Opel Kadett and the 1972 FE Series Victor/ Ventora shared a floorpan with the 1971 Series D Rekord but in the main GM’s two European operations had completely separate identities.

Unfortunately for Vauxhall part of its brand image in the mind of too many customers was of rampant tin-worm and to add to the challenges, Vauxhall’s early ‘Seventies line-up of HC Viva and FE Victor left a large mid-sector gulf that was arguably filled by the Ford Cortina Mk.III and the Hillman Hunter.

The origins of the Cavalier dated back to the beginning of the decade when Vauxhall was planning an eventual Viva replacement in the form of Project HD, a larger car that would compete in the Cortina/Hunter bracket and be badged either as the Cavalier or the Chevelle.

However, the HC Viva had proved so disastrous in terms of reliability in Vauxhall’s vital Canadian export market – both it and the FE were actually designed to primarily appeal to motorists of that country – that GM decided that Luton would now have to work more closely with Rüsselsheim in order to survive. The planned HD
was dropped by the end of 1973 and by February of 1974 it was decided that Vauxhall would make a modified version of Opel’s soon to be launched Ascona B saloon. The need for a mid-market saloon for the lucrative fleet market was urgent and the Cavalier was due to be launched at the 1975 London Motor Show.

One early plan was a complete re-body of the ‘B’ but there was neither the time nor the funds for such a radical overhaul and besides, Henry Haga’s styling for the Opel was extremely smart and contemporary.

Vauxhall’s design chief Wayne Cherry then made the masterly decision to combine the Ascona’s styling with the nose treatment of the soon to be launched Manta B and one which aped the earlier Vauxhall Chevette, itself a re-worked Opel.

In a 1979 interview in Autocar magazine Cherry remarked that “People remember other people’s faces more than they remember other features. It’s the same with cars” and his very effective design changes to the Opel altered fleet and private buyers alike to a new type of Vauxhall. When compared with the Cavalier the Anglo- American lines of the HC Viva and FE VX2300GLS (formerly Victor) now seemed redolent of the recent past.

The Cavalier not only provided a critical new model for Vauxhall, it also raised the company’s quality and image. At the time of its introduction, Vauxhall build quality was becoming poor and cheap looking. In contrast, Opel was seen as a sub BMW brand in Germany that was easily as good as any Audi of that era.


The Cavalier’s trim levels were initially restricted to L (not a lot as standard) or GL (sports wheels and illuminated front ashtray) and the social gulf between a 1600L two-door with its hounds tooth check upholstery and the GL, with its velour trim bearing out Vauxhall’s claim that the letters “certainly stands for Grand Luxury”, was as vast as the difference between a Little Chef and the Berni Steakhouse. Like all German cars at the time it was functional rather than flashy but above all else smacked of quality.

Power was from Opel’s 1.6-litre and 1.9-litre engines and body choices varied from a saloon to the flagship 1.9 Coupé.

The latter was a British interpretation of the recently launched Manta B that would apparently “make you want to take the long way home” but a Cavalier estate was never offered despite Vauxhall producing some interesting prototypes. GM decreed that the Chevette and forthcoming Carlton station wagons (the latter a ‘Vauxhalled’ Opel Rekord, would cover this market despite the number of British (Cortina, Hunter and Marina) and foreign (Datsun Bluebird, Fiat 131, Toyota Carina) medium sized estates during the late 1970s.

Domestic motorists found the Cavalier to be versatile and capacious – the boot on the saloon is a vast 25cuft. – and Motor magazine described it as “an excellent car”. In larger engine form it also drove as well
as it looked. What was not widely known at the time amongst the Great British Motoring Public was that the early Cavaliers were imported from Opel’s Antwerp plant – they would be the first ever full built cars that Vauxhall would import.

It would not be until 26th August 1977 that the first British built models would leave Luton production line, initially powered by the Viva’s 1256cc unit, although larger engine versions would soon follow.

For drivers with more exacting performance requirements the Coupé had been promoted to GLS trim level (with plastic ‘Rosewood’ door cappings) in 1976 and two years later the 1.9-litre engine was replaced by a 100bhp 1979cc unit and there was now the option of the Sports Hatch. Vauxhall modestly claimed that “A hatchback designed within the Cavalier ethos is no ordinary car” and in fact Luton has been considering a three-door sporting car since the late 1960s.

The Sports Hatch was available in 1.6-litre and 2.0-litre forms and the latter appealed to Capri drivers in a way that the Firenza and Magnum Coupes were never quite able to. The latest Cavalier worked so well aesthetically and practically that the Vauxhall design was used as the inspiration for a similar version of the Manta although at one point Opel actually envisaged its version as a three-door family car to rival the Volkswagen Passat.

1979 saw the Coupé being phased out in favour of the sportshatch shape but not before it provided the base for the short lived but very attractive Cavalier Centaur; a five- seater convertible sold via Vauxhall dealers and developed by Crayford Engineering.

The all new front-wheel drive Cavalier Mk.2 debuted in late 1981 but unlike its predecessor there was very little British input into the design. Six years earlier an Autocar article claimed that the Chevette clearly demonstrated that “Vauxhall is going to maintain its own identity on the car side and not become a licence building offshoot of Opel” but the last wholly Luton design, the Viva HC, ceased production in 1979. Towards the end of that year Vauxhall began winding down its sales operations in 11 European countries and in 1981 all Opels, barring the Manta which would be available until 1988, ceased to be marketed in the UK.

Today, the original Cavalier is a car that deserves to be remembered as the Vauxhall that marked major change in the company’s identity. Before 1975 the marque had been largely associated with scaled down Americana for British and Commonwealth motorists but the Cavalier’s long nose and lithe profile brought a touch of the BMW to outer suburbia. And it played a crucial part in saving GM’s British operations.

Ironically, if there was a loser out of all this it was Opel because as Vauxhall buyers got a great new deal, the quality and exclusivity which made Opels once so appealing seemed to slip to Vauxhall levels and ultimately became tarred by the same brush.

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