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Vauxhall Viva

Living La Viva Loca Published: 14th Oct 2013 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Vauxhall Viva
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Worthy alternative to an Escort, Vivas are just as good to drive with lively nature and good handling but ohcengined versions are thirsty. Cheaper than Escorts but spares more scarce Vauxhall’s rival to the Escort is 50 this year and although it was highly regarded in its day has always been given the back seat to the evergreen Escort. Ironically it’s the values and interest in Mk1 and Mk2 Fords that’s pushing up Viva values so the time to buy one is now as a 50th birthday treat.


1963 Viva was Vauxhall’s first ‘small’ car since the war and competed directly against the Anglia 105E and the advanced BMC 1100. But the Viva, apart from its transverse leaf front suspension and rack and pinion steering, was utterly conventional, being based upon a similar Opel called Kadett. Powering the newcomer was a fresh but German- derived 1057cc ohv engine driving through a four-speed gearbox in basic or deluxe trims. Costing from £528, Vauxhall had a jump on Ford by offering servo disc brakes for just £15 extra. 1964 Detail improvements all round including a revised steering ratio were dialled-in, plus estate and van versions were launched under the Bedford banner. Incidentally, these vans carried well on after the Viva was discontinued and while it remained essentially the same HA design, it did gain larger engines along the lines of the passenger cars. 1965 A mid-term refresh saw the introduction of a luxurious (up to Triumph levels) SL trim (identified by the contrasting stripe on the body and VX 4/90-like wheel trims) along with a new ‘90’ engine option to fall in line with the VX4/90. Thanks to improved breathing, a larger valved head and a hairier camshaft, it hoiked power from 44bhp to 54bhp and gave it better performance than the Victor 101 at the time, plus was nippier than other established sporty saloons around back then, such as the Herald 12/50 (identically priced at £648) and the Wolseley 1500. Front disc brakes with a servo were standard as were special profile tyres.

1966 It was all change that September when the super stylish HB range breezed in. Retaining the majority of the running gear but with a completely new chassis and (coil spring) suspension, it was such a transformation that Autocar reckoned the car should have been given a new name. But Viva it rightly remained and now fully lived up to its zesty badge, now aided by a larger 1159cc engine which in SL90 tune was a lively sporty car. 1967 The range really started to widen with the launch of a lovely looking estate, an automatic option and a super sporty Brabham Viva. In effect it was Vauxhall’s answer to the Lotus Cortina but much milder, of course. The Brabham was a series of tunes relating to the 59bhp 90 engine which, in top GTO form, was as fast as the Lotus Cortina and Cooper S but most centred on a simple 69bhp twin carb conversion, with zany ‘zoom’ stripes on the bonnet and front wings. These are highly prized now. 1968 The Viva family was growing rapidly. Four-door saloons were introduced and, if the 90 engine wasn’t enough, there were now Victor-powered offerings. The 1600 yielded 72bhp while the 2000 was solely for the new GT. Contrary to popular opinion, this wasn’t a replacement for the Brabham but Luton’s attempt at a Twin Cam Escort rival. Power from the twin carb unit was 112bhp and the mechanicals were mostly beefed up Victor items. A potentially good car, it was spoiled by garish and an OTT boy racer look as well as being only half developed. A revised toned down model arrived in 1970 but the car had already gained a bad reputation by then. 1970 It wouldn’t have lasted anyway because that October the HC range arrived, based on a stretched platform that made this more sober suited Viva as big as the FB Victor. There wasn’t a GT, this arrived in the shape of the Firenza coupe range in 1971, which was a heavily restyled Viva. Top model was the 2000SL, essentially Viva GT-powered. The 1159cc engine was upped to 1256cc the same year but also detuned for more torque.

1972 With the advent of the new Victor FE, the big-engined Vivas fell in line with their 1800 and 2300cc engines and also gained an improved interior, especially the excellent 2300 SL. A year later the range was revised yet again where the 90 tune was virtually reinstated on the 1256cc engine. The Victor-powered Vivas became Magnums which were more refined and upmarket.

Apart from detail changes and new trim designations, the Viva remained largely untouched from then on in until it was dropped in 1980, making way for the new Astra, with vans lasting until 1984.


Viva lives up to its name with a nippy, zesty character that was something else back in the mid 60s. The HB was deemed so good that it was really the Ford Focus of its day and Autocar thought that the replacement for the indifferent HA was so transformed that it really deserved another name, to distance itself from that boxy, ill-handling saloon. The weekly went on to say that the HB’s handling was now better than many sports car of the time (Midget, MGB, Spitfire TRs…) and it was the “most improved car of 1966”. The penalty was a very buckety ride that, while improved on the HC, was still not ideal. It was better on the heavier ohc models, but that’s one of the few benefits for the original 1600, which was lethargic and barely any zippier than the 90 and a lot thirstier – Motor recording under 20mpg on an estate while Autocar wrung a paltry 22.5mpg from a saloon!

The 1759cc upgrade with resultant higher gearing was better and completely transformed in 1975 when it was tuned to be not far short of 2300 performance levels and pretty good on fuel, too – a bit too late in the day though.

The 2.3 Vivas (and Firenzas) have astonishing modern diesel-like torque for outstanding top gear pull (better than a Ferrari Dino Vauxhall boasted in its adverts) but all ohc engines feel unrefined in the smaller Viva body, which was only partially corrected in the plusher Magnums. In terms of smoothness, the Viva was always best served in ohv guise and 90 models feel sprightly, especially a good Brabham that’s had its carbs overhauled.

Generally the press spoke warmly of the Viva. The weeklies reckoned that it was the best small car on the market (before the Escort came along). Apart from comments about the heating and ventilation “the rest of the car is quite outstanding” said Autocar, adding that it was “the pacemaker in its class” while the same mag said that the mildly tuned Brabham put the driver “in excellent spirits simply because it is such great fun”.

The ohc models weren’t as well liked and indeed the original GT was criticised on many fronts, not least its boy racer look. However, Motor really went a bundle on the ‘70 revamp “which comes much closer to being a poor man’s BMW 2002 than we dared hoped.” In ‘74 it commented that the revamped Magnums “is now a pleasant almost totally viceless car” although the advent of the Cavalier a year later put the ageing Viva into perspective.


Soaring values of Escorts is having a knock on effect with Vivas, although typically they sell for about half the price. It’s only the sporty stuff like the GT, Brabham and the Sport SL Firenza which command close to five figure sums, if exceptional and we know of a Crayford convertible owner who turned down £20,000!

Typically you’re looking at £2500-£4000 for a mainstream model and this includes Magnums and projects around a grand depending upon condition.


While not in Escort class, there’s still a lot you can do to a Viva, as the legendary late great Bill Blydenstein proved. The HA is becoming popular with young enthusiasts, although the handling is always wayward.

HB/HC already handle well, mods include better dampers and springs plus replacing the rear axle void bushes with a sportier alternative. Blydenstein used to market negative front wishbones to counter understeer; these are rare finds now but you can gain a similar effect by fitting Victor FD items (as was used on the HP Firenza).

Ditto the brakes can be uprated with Victor/ Ventora types or use EBC discs and pads.

The engines respond well to tuning because they are so strangled at the factory, especially the ohcs. The Weber 28/36 carb works a treat on all engines as does a better exhaust manifold (90 ones are almost extinct now). There’s still a fair amount of Blydenstein gear around – get one of his big valve heads if you can as they particularly make a 2000/2300 fly. Or you can fit a Lotus Elite/Jensen-Healey 16 valve unit in, as Lotus did when developing the engine for the Elite and Jensen-Healey.

The small bore Viva engines can be made to deliver around 80-85bhp by way of conventional tuning and the 1256 block can be taken out to 1358cc. The ignition is notoriously inefficient so fit an electronic set up. Ford cross-flow and now Pinto engines are popular fits.

What To Look For


  • There are far less Vivas around than Escorts and their lack of popularity and specialist support means parts (especially good trim) are harder to come by, making it virtually impossible to carry out a full restoration to concours standards.
  • Don’t be too fussy over type of car as condition counts above all else. Mechanically much is interchangeable but HA suspension is specific and harder to obtain parts for.
  • There’s no such thing as a fake Brabham! It was a kit devised between Jack Brabham and Vauxhall, fitted either by a main dealer, Brabham, or by owners, so don’t pay over the odds for an ‘official’ car unless personally Sir Jack (or Ron Dennis who worked there) fitted it himself!


  • Vauxhalls used to have a terrible reputation for rot so Vivas were undersealed from new. But we’re talking of vehicles over 30 years old now so check everywhere, especially inner wings, inner sills, floors A and B posts, suspension turrets and the bonnet hinges, which pull away. Flitch plates used to be available but like most other body parts are now scarce. Anything you obtain will probably be from a salvaged car.
  • More cosmetic are front wing rot by the headlamps, sills, doors, bonnet and boot, valance panels, spare wheel well etc. Parts are not that easy to obtain so be prepared to hunt around. Floor rot can be due to rotten windscreen rubbers which are hard to obtain.


  • Two types are fitted with the ohc models utilising the Victor ‘box and the GT’s filled with Cresta ratios. Common to all is the characteristic Vauxhall ‘whine’ although it should be unduly noisy. There are no real traits to be aware of other than leaks – from the tailshaft. Ohv cars have the best ‘change but if the ohc one isn’t good then it could be worn or mal-adjusted linkages. Axles become noisy.
  • Clutch cable breakages are not uncommon, with the HA suffering the worst. Getting to the locating nut on the bulkhead means bending yourself into two; many cut a hole by the fuse box to gain better access.
  • Autos are Borg Warner then for ‘70 GM’s own superior box. All are reliable if the fluid is changed on time and any problems stem from the bands losing adjustment (you can still find official workshop manuals giving full details on how to do this at home).


  • Ohv engines are durable but can sound like a bag of nails due to tappets and timing chain wear. It’s an engine prone to oil sludging so a milky substance in the rocker cover needn’t mean head gasket failure. HA and HB 90 exhaust manifolds almost extinct now; Late HC don’t usually fit due to their ducting.
  • Post 73 engines used high compression engine that could pink – Vauxhall made thicker head gasket to drop ratio. On all small Viva engines, the distributor is probably worn and results in timing scatter and poor running. An overhaul will work wonders.
  • Ohc engines equally robust. Clatter from cold is due to oil pump location or wear – up to eight seconds was okay by Vauxhall. Engines prone to oil leaks from cam box cover.
  • On ohc units, if the belt breaks it won’t wreck engines. Just the usual checks apply here but some bits are becoming hard to track down. Many early cars are already uprated to 1800/2300cc power.

Three Of A Kind

Launched a year after the similarly-styled Mk1, it was not half as sophisticated but comprehensively outsold the Griffi n. An utterly straightforward car, they are nice to drive and the sporting ones are great fun, which is why prices have gone through the roof lately. Parts supply is generally excellent as is club support.
The butt of many jokes now but the Marina was warmly welcomed back in ‘71 for what it was – a modernised Morris Minor. Handling was always criticised but the 1.8 and the TC are almost as quick as an MGB. Later Ital tart up did the car little favours and the later ohc engines are no advance; Go ohv for ease of parts and DIY work.
Launched just before the HC Viva came along, the Avenger was reckoned to be one of the best in its class when new. Conventionally designed with a Viva-like rear suspension, they ride and handle neatly. 1250/1300 a bit sluggish, go for 1500/1600 or a GT. Rarity means you may have to take what you can get – they ran up to 1981.


Well, what about a Viva then? They’re as good as an Escort, significantly cheaper, have a better suspension and can be improved. It pays to buy the best car you can find because spares are not Escort easy, which is the only downer on the car.

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