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Vauxhall’s Viva was the best car in its class yet it needed German Opel to save The Griffin only a decade later
‘66 World Cup hero George Cohen had a Brabham Viva!
By definition a classic car is a standard setter, rather like today’s Ford Focus. In which case the Vauxhall Viva HB was the Ford Focus of its day! After the indifferent, weird handling boxy looking HA, one road test went so far to as say that the new Viva was such a transformation (understandable, given that only the engine and running gear were carried over) that it deserved a new name.
But Viva it remained, and the sleek-styled HB was one of the best Vauxhalls ever, even though it could never match its arch rival Ford Escort for sheer sales success.
You had to be there, as they say, back in September 1966 to witness Vauxhall’s cheesy TV advert which ushered in the new Viva. On appearances alone it was a winner, but the best bit was when you slipped behind the wheel to discover that the HB drove as good as it looked.
Small wonder it was voted the ‘Most improved car of ‘66’ by Autocar. Like the Focus, the HB Viva rewrote the rule books on how small, cheap family cars could perform and what was expected of them. Handling, said the weekly, bettered that of many sports cars and, with its ultra-light controls and sharp rack-and-pinion steering, the Vauxhall was acclaimed as one of the easiest cars ever to drive, as well as one of the nicest. The SL (Super Luxury) trim, with its sculptured seats and quality look, had shades of Rover 2000 about it and all for £700, too.
Compared to the Ford Anglia 105E that it competed against, the Vauxhall was from another age – just like the Focus was three decades later. It spelt great things for the Luton car and van manufacturer.
Ford caught up when the mechanically inferior Escort was launched in ’68, but by then Vauxhall had moved the game on with a shapely high style estate, a family friendly fourdoor and the option of a bigengined ‘1600’, taken from the equally good looking Victor FD.
In actual fact, this was the worse model of the massive range, as the infamous juicy (due to overvalving of the smaller engine it is said) lugging unit rarely bettered 25mpg. In fact a Motor road test failed to make 20mpg!
The cute HB was replaced in late 1970 by the square cut HC range. For many it seemed a retrograde step, although the plainer new body was about as spacious as the old FB Victor a decade earlier, plus the jiggly, over fi rm, if sporty ride of the HB was smoothed out rather better.
The HC was a far more grown up car than the HB, although this had a detrimental effect on the old 1159cc engine, which, even if supplied in sporty ‘90’ tune, was always hard pressed. A rebore to 1256cc helped, but the Viva was never as vivacious as it used to be.
The move up to 1.6 and then 1.8-litre Victor ohc power in 1972 wasn’t exactly a satisfactory answer because, what the larger units gave in more go, they sorely lacked in economy and refi nement over the normal engine.
Despite the Viva’s continued sales success, by the mid 70s Vauxhall was in trouble and salvation only came in the form of Opel, with the Chevette and the Cavalier. The Victor was fi nally replaced by re-badged Opels in ‘78. This left the old HC Viva out on a limb and it soon slipped from hero to zero with customers, despite Vauxhall launching the upper crust Magnum spin offs for ’74, and even trying to compete with Ford’s Capri with the oddly-styled Firenza coupe (and emphatically failing).
The long suffering HC was put out of its misery in 1980, after a ten year run, and, with that, Vauxhall’s independence also died. However, the Viva’s engine survived in the Chevette.
I’M NOT ALL RIGHT JACK…
The Viva was always a worthy sporty little car that never truly enjoyed the success it should have done. This was in part due to Vauxhall’s poor reputation concerning body issues and Luton’s products were labelled as ‘rot boxes’ during the 1960s and ‘70s, despite undersealing of the cars from new.
Another reason people bought Escorts and BMC 1300s was down to Vauxhall’s frumpy image. After the tragic death of its drivers during a recce for the 1964 Monte Carlo rally, Vauxhall withdrew from motorsport, just when it was the new perfect marketing tool (just ask Ford!).
Even the then Formula One World Campion Jack Brabham couldn’t raise Vauxhall’s image with his lovely zoom striped. twin-carb Brabham conversion in 1967; surely a grown up Mini Cooper for growing families with a similar Formula One lineage and pedigree?
Vauxhall’s own Victor 2000-powered GT, with twin carbs, appeared a year later and was fast but too rough and boy-racer like in appearance, not surprising given its four exhaust pipes and gaudy matt black rally-style bonnet treatment! Vauxhall read the market horribly wrong, but ironically the toned down, re-engineered ‘70 revamp was deemed so good by one magazine that it likened the GT to a cut price BMW 2002! Alas, the car’s reputation had already been sullied, plus Ford had its brilliant hot Escorts to offer enthusiasts like the GT, Mexico and the RS1600.
Thankfully the brilliant Dutch engineer Bill Blydenstein, with the equally gifted Gerry Marshall as driver, forced Vauxhall to re-enter motorsport due to their sheer success on race tracks, while Lotus deemed the GT’s 2-litre engine good enough to use it as the basis for a unit that was to power Colin Chapman’s Elites and Esprits right through the 1980s.
Yes, there’s still a fair number of Vivas around on the classic scene but few are really top notch.
Patchy parts supply and lack of interest ensures that, while you can certainly keep one mobile and healthy, spares and specialist support like that afforded to Ford and Triumph fans simply isn’t there (our editor owned a rare and delightful Blydenstein-tuned Brabham and he can vouch for that) and you can rarely make one concours lime the GT in these pics. But it will be bloody good fun trying don’t you think?
When The Car Was The Star
A rare HC E (E for economy) Coupe (which was actually the old Firenza from ‘71) may have answered Travis’s burning question of why did it always rain on him but the real star of fi lm and TV remains the HB. In pale green de luxe form it nearly wiped out an entire family in the public information fi lm “Kids Watch Us Cross” – ‘It was my dad! In a new car!’, Det-Sgt. Carter’s white four-door SL was destroyed by lowlifes in the fi rst ‘Sweeney’ spin off fi lm but the HB’s iconic screen moment was in the 1970s series “Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads”; that second-hand blue two-door de luxe (was it a 1600?) represented the now respectable Bob’s (Rodney Bewes) growing distance from his childhood friend Terry.… Celeb Viva fans included World Cup hero George Cohen, with his Brabham Viva, bought on his £1000 World Cup winnings, and Murray Walker who had a GT. Was it faaaanntaaaasstic as Murray would say?