The cars : Sporting Vauxhalls – Part 1
Ken Strachan recounts the rarely told story of the sporting saloons which emerged from Luton. A fine line of VX4/90s and big-engined Victors entertained generations of drivers – now it’s your turn.
When Vauxhall’s FB Victor was launched in 1961, middle England breathed two sighs of relief. The first because it had never really taken to the ‘downsized ’57 Chevy’ looks of the F-type Victor; the second because, in a country which hated embarrassment (see Fawlty Towers), trying to part exchange a three-year old car whose boot floor had completely rusted away was seen as rather tiresome.
The FB Victor was slightly wider than the F and 2.5 inches lower – but, more crucially, it was 170lb lighter, with much improved torsional stiffness. This allowed Vauxhall to increase the appeal of the Victor by developing the first VX4/90; a faster saloon model offering increased performance, distinctive appearance and more luxurious trim.
The first VX4/90 is unveiled
The engine featured twin Zenith carbs, a big valve aluminium head, a compression ratio raised from 8.1 to 9.3 to one and a hotter camshaft – with 71bhp, this gave 44 per cent more power and 7 per cent more torque than the Victor. As a final flourish, the VX engine was painted red.
The clutch was 10 per cent bigger, and “four on the floor” with a floor-mounted handbrake replaced the “three on the tree” and umbrella handbrake on the Victor. Front and rear springs were stiffened by 33 per cent and 35 per cent respectively, while 10.5 inch front disc brakes (assisted by a remote servo) replaced 8in front drums. The Victor’s 13in, four-stud wheels and hubcaps were replaced by 14in, five-stud Cresta wheels and full wheel covers. All this meant a lot more go – top speed was up from 76 to 90mph, 0-60 fell from 22.6 to 16.4 seconds and fuel economy improved from 28 to 29 mpg in magazine road tests.
Faster, more luxurious
The interior was much improved, with individual front seats where the Victor had a bench; wooden door cappings and dashboard trim; and a six-dial instrument pack with a cable driven revcounter and a trip odometer.
External styling changes included a slimmer radiator grille with vertical bars; a spear of contrasting paint along each body side; vertical tail lights and full wheel covers. Most of these parts came from a Canadian market Victor, called the Envoy.
The VX4/90 (four cylinders, 90mph) was a sales success; about 31,000 (or 9.5 per cent of FB volume) being produced, including exports to 80 countries. The engine was enlarged from 1508 to 1594cc in 1963. The VX4/90 was well received by press and public, and was successfully raced by Bill Blydenstein, among other drivers.
On to the FC- and FD-generation VXs
The FC VX4/90 followed in 1964. Smaller disc brakes allowed 13 inch wheels to be standardised. The FC body had more room inside and in the boot, and a more powerful heater. The author recalls, ‘I remember riding in an FC VX4/90 about 1970, and being impressed by the room, comfort and trim – especially by the transmission tunnel, which seemed to be lower than that in our FWD MG 1300! I concluded that the VX was an underrated car.’
Victor FC sales were down by a third compared to the FB, while VX sales were down 57 per cent. US exports were well down by this time, while the Ford Cortina and Hillman Hunter offered strong competition at home.
The FD Victor was launched in 1967. Apart from the gearboxes, this was an all-new car, with a longer, Coke-bottle style body, rear suspension with coil springs and a Panhard rod, rack and pinion steering and a new overhead camshaft engine in 1600 and 2000cc versions – for the first time, you could get two engine sizes in a Victor.
The 2000SL (Super Luxury) offered 94bhp and 94mph, 0-60 in 14 seconds and about 24mpg. The VX4/90, which was launched two years after the Victor, offered only 10 per cent more power; but with an overdrive gearbox, Rostyle wheels and low profile tyres; a more distinctive white cross grille and white/chrome tail strip; a painted coachline down each side; and bright metal stone chip protectors ahead of the rear wheel arches; it was well upmarket from any Victor.
It was the same story inside, with better seats and door trims, more instruments, and a two-spoke alloy steering wheel with a leather-wrapped rim. This model was seen as a credible competitor to the Rover and Triumph 2000s, as well as the Cortina GT and GXL.
A particularly distinctive customized VX was resident in Derby in the early 1980s; it had a 2300 engine, Extra Dark Wine (deep purple) paint and a white vinyl roof, alloy wheels, and a Vauxhall Royale grille and lights grafted onto the front end. This car was rescued from Albert Looms’ scrapyard, and enjoyed a “second life” before being scrapped for good.
It should have been a Ventora
Vauxhall did not originally intend to build an FD VX4/90 – it had styled an FD coupe, and intended this to be the sports model, carrying the name Ventora. But it wanted to use up radiator grilles and twin carb’ sets from the cancelled Envoy export programme, so the VX came back from the dead.
The Ventora was launched in March 1968, as a four-door saloon using the 3294cc six from the Cresta. There were many ironies here – the 3.3 was a pushrod engine, as opposed to the OHC 2.0-litre. It was a tight fit – the rocker cover extended back under the heater plenum chamber, which was impossible to remove (properly) with the engine in place.
The engine was 200lb heavier than the four; while it was more reliable, more powerful (123bhp, 172lb ft of torque) and smoother, the altered weight distribution led to epic understeer – especially on the early cars, which had crossply tyres as standard. Even on my radial-shod car, the steering wheel was only fitted to make suggestions. Another little surprise came with the thermal breaker, which would extinguish the headlights if they were taking too much current.
Overdrive was optional on the Ventora, but standard on the VX, while the six used Victor wheels (4.5J), but the VX had 5Js. We must conclude that despite the slogan ‘iron fist in a velvet glove’, the Ventora was primarily a luxury car. The VX was more balanced and therefore more sporting.
Ventora FDs were built in two series; the Series II had reclining seats and instruments spread across the dash; but the Series I had a Cresta gearbox, which was much stronger than the Victor boxes, and had closer ratios. There was a six-cylinder estate, badged and trimmed as a Victor 3300SL, but fitted with the Ventora’s ‘harmonica’ grille; it was a rare model.
All FD Ventoras had brake discs twice as thick as on Victors, and bigger front calipers – the pads were double the Victor size. Cast wishbones were used instead of pressed parts, but ball joint life was still an issue on rough roads. The single Zenith carburettor on the long intake manifold was inferior to the Strombergs fitted to the VX – and, from 1970, on the Victor 2000.
Mixed success for the big Vauxhalls
The British police bought Ventoras, as the power-per-pound ratio was unbeatable; but the public were more wary, fearing disastrous fuel consumption, especially with the popular two-speed autobox used from 1968. Ventoras were well known as boy racer cars in their later years, when fuel consumption got even worse as automatic chokes stuck on and vacuum advance/retard stuck off.
Figures as low as 8mpg were bandied about, but a well-driven Series II with overdrive would return 26mpg. The OHC engines had other problems, many to do with oil. They often oiled up number four plug, which was awkward to reach up by the bulkhead.
As the distributor was above the oil pump on an auxiliary drive, oil would creep up the driveshaft and spray around the inside of the dizzy cap, causing misfiring – often during brave overtaking moves. Vauxhall described the timing belt as ‘indestructible’, but it wasn’t.
The brave Transcontinentals
Back to the model history: Vauxhall had a change of heart with the FE Series, launching the VX4/90 and Ventora along with the Victors as the Transcontinentals. The Victors had small, bland rectangular headlights and large indicators filling the recess in the body – a pressed steel grille and 13in, four-stud wheels.
The VX and Ventora had twin square lights, separate side/indicator units under the bumper, and 14in, five-stud wheels – Rostyles on the VXs, pie plate hubcaps with VAUXHALL MOTORS LIMITED lettering on the Ventoras.
Both upscale models had black plastic egg crate grilles, with a white cross on the VXs and a griffin holding a flag – the Vauxhall emblem – on the Ventoras, which often had vinyl roofs. The Victors were handsome cars, but the VX and Ventora were much classier.
The VX had 110bhp – 10 more than the Victor, but only 13 less than the Ventora, which now had PAS as standard. That and a 200lb weight increase (lots more glass and a taller roof) blunted Ventora performance and feel. 693 Victor FE 3300 estates were built before a Ventora estate replaced it in late 1973.
Slant-four issues continue
From its initial launch in 1967, the Vauxhall slant four engine suffered from shielding of the exhaust valves, due to the shape of the combustion chamber. This was finally remedied in 1975, when the Victors were replaced by the VX series.
Power outputs went up from 77 to 88bhp for the 1800, and from 100 to 108bhp for the 2300. The 1800 top speed went up from 89 to 100mph – contemporary road tests described the Victor 2300 as slow, and the 1800 as very slow – but the VX was a revelation, with the 1800 described as fast, and the 2300 as very fast!
The increased efficiency of combustion improved fuel economy by some 10 per cent, and electronic ignition became standard. Although this got over the problem of points closing up, it was not totally reliable; for some reason, VX1800/2300 front wings also rusted faster than those on Victors.
VX Series changes
Larger rectangular headlights and an egg crate grille freshened up the front end but, by now, the Cavalier was in Vauxhall showrooms, offering internal competition. The VX4/90 was also refreshed, but was export only from 1976 to 1978.
It had a 116bhp engine and fog lamps under the bumper, but was a rare car in the UK. It also featured a five-speed Getrag gearbox with direct top gear – this could also be fitted to lesser VXs if you asked the salesman nicely.
The decline of the Ventora into a pure luxury car was confirmed by its replacement by the VX2300GLS, which had the same 108bhp engine as the VX2300; and was only available as a saloon. With twin square lights, the Ventora grille, chrome rim embellishers and a vinyl roof, it was a very smart car – one of the major engineering companies in Derby ran one as a chauffeur-driven hospitality car for directors and business visitors.
And to the end
The VX Series was succeeded by the Carlton, which was an excellent car; but by no means sporting. It offered a 1979cc carb-fed four, 2.2-litre injection and a 2.5-litre six in the Viceroy version, both offering 115bhp; but neither really replaced the VX4/90 and Ventora.
The Cavalier SRi was FWD, smaller and flimsier; the Senators, especially the later 24-valves with 204bhp, were much loved by the police, but bigger and more luxurious than their British-designed predecessors. The 1999 Vectra SRi and (overpowered, but cheap) V6 came closest to the 4/90 and Ventora heritage; but the Senators and Omegas were more like latter-day Veloxes and Crestas.
Although the slant four engine was designed to sire a four-cylinder diesel and both petrol and diesel V8s, none of these developments took place, as design and development steadily moved to Germany. Plans for road-going Ventoras powered by 4.2- and 5.0-litre Holden V8s were dropped after the 1973 fuel crisis; but Gerry Marshall raced a 5.0-litre V8 Ventora called Big Bertha (below).
She didn’t handle well; when Gerry wrote it off, Dealer Team Vauxhall transferred its power train into the even more spectacular droop snoot Firenza-based Baby Bertha. Firenzas – now that’s a story for another day…
- Thanks are due to Vauxpedia for much data. Other sources include Ken Strachan’s library of books and brochures, my memories and assorted anecdotes.