The Vauxhall Viva helped restore the fortunes of the Luton-based manufacturer, after several years of decline. It was a small saloon which went head-to-head with a number of British mainstays – and proved to be remarkably successful in the process.
Between 1963 and 1979, it sold 1.5-million examples – not a bad effort, and one that’s only really being appreciated, decades after it disappeared off the scene.
The watershed Vauxhall
Vauxhall’s first post-war small car was something of a late arrival to the party. It was a bold new start for Vauxhall – a baby car produced at an all-new factory at Ellesmere Port in Cheshire. But, by the time it was launched in 1963, rival small family cars such as the Austin A40, Ford Anglia 105E, Morris Minor and Triumph Herald were well established and selling like hot cakes to new drivers, getting into their first cars.
Despite the late entry, the Viva HA did well during its four-year production run, selling more than 300,000. The Viva owed a lot in terms of styling and design to its cousin, the Opel Kadett A, so it was very functional in appearance, lacking in some of the flair of the opposition. The mechanical package was spot on, though – with a four-speed all-synchromesh gearbox, rack-and-pinion steering and disc brakes up front as an option.
The range soon expands
It made a good impression at launch. Motor Sport magazine commented in its 1963 road test, ‘This General Motors’ inspired Vauxhall Viva is quite the most notable conventional-layout rear-drive, strip-steel suspended small car to be announced for a very long time. It is by no means a mini-car – indeed, in body width, seating space and luggage-boot size it will be acceptable to most families.
‘It can out-perform all its competitors and undercuts them on purchase price. Issigonis/Moulton-wise eyebrows can be raised over the suppleness of the suspension, but clearly the Vauxhall engineers have sought to combine reasonable roll-resistance with all-round riding comfort in a leaf-spring layout. They have very nearly succeeded.’ Praise indeed…
Vauxhall certainly saw that the demands of an increasingly affluent marketplace were met with frequent updates, and improvements in specifications. The more desirable variants – the De Luxe and the SL90 – boasted 54bhp from their 1057cc engines, but the Viva’s main claim to fame was in being the first Vauxhall to emerge from the Ellesmere Port plant near Liverpool.
The second-generation Viva was a vastly improved product over its predecessor. It’s not that the old car was particularly bad – just it lacked finesse and charisma, something that the Vauxhall designers worked very hard to inject into the HB.
Adding style to the undoubted function
So the HB received more attractive and trendy ‘Coke bottle’ styling when launched in 1966. It was also larger, and much more accommodating. Aside from the engine, an enlarged (to 1159cc) version of the HA unit, little was carried over from the previous model, which was quite a feat considering that car’s short four-year life span.
The main improvement was in the suspension, which was completely new and quite advanced, and this resulted in quite excellent handling. The Viva’s appeal was further widened with the arrival of the high compression 60bhp SL90 version.
Adding racing appeal
The Vauxhall Viva Brabham (above) was a short-lived model designed to add a little panache into the range – in the way that the Cooper did for Mini or Lotus did for the Cortina. Given that, you’d be expected to think that it was a fire-breathing homologation special capable of seeing off some serious machinery.
Not so – if anything, the Brabham was a bit of a dealer special in that it was all show and not enough go. It did receive a mildly-tuned version of its 1159cc engine. It featured twin Stromberg carburettors, reworked exhaust manifolds and an uprated camshaft, which delivered a very useful 68bhp.
The interior was upgraded and the bodywork treated to some nice stripes – but, in the end, it remained in production for a mere year before being ousted by the Viva 1600.
In 1968, the Viva GT (above) was added to the range, taking over from where the Brabham left off. It was powered by the 1975cc engine from the Victor, fitted with twin carburettors and mated with a close-ratio gearbox. With 104bhp, it was a genuine 100mph car, and a credible rival to the Cortina GT (if not quite the Lotus). It looked the part, too, with bonnet scoops, a black grille and contrasting bonnet.
It went well, too. Motor Sport magazine’s Bill Boddy said in his 1970 road test, ‘We found this so-called Grand Touring Viva a car which devoured the miles quite effortlessly. It is docile in top gear, yet accelerates very usefully from 50 to 80mph, for example, while at the British legal cruising speed of 70mph the 1975cc engine runs at well below 4000rpm. It says not to exceed 6250rpm on the tachometer, but there is seldom any need to go to anything like this extreme to extract very ample performance from this quick Vauxhall. Indeed, maximum power, 112bhp, is achieved at 5400rpm.’
He then concluded: ‘The engine, carburetted by twin variable-choke Zenith 175 CD-28s, started readily, idled rather frenziedly at 1000rpm and ran quietly unless really working – it has the toothed-belt drive to the single overhead camshaft and is inclined in the car at 45 degrees. In give-and-take driving, including a little motorway motoring, we obtained 28.1mpg, which is excellent for a high-output 2.0-litre. This Vauxhall Viva GT created a generally favourable impression and is the best of the current range of Lutonian products’
A new style for the ’70s
When the Viva HC arrived in 1970, few would have believed that it was to be the last of its line. However, the creeping integration between GM’s German and British operations would gather pace during the 1970s, and one victim on that was going to be the Viva – that, though, was yet to come.
In 1970, it arrived on the scene, with smart new styling, but underneath, it was little changed, with the engines and platform carried over from the HB, although the engine capacity of the base version was enlarged to 1256cc. However, the range was about to grow significantly – the Viva HC was available as a saloon, estates and as a coupé.
Coupe style with the Firenza
When the the Ford Capri exploded onto the scene in 1969, there were far reaching ramifications. For one, every rival manufacturer wanted to build an alternative and cash in on the craze for European Pony cars. The Firenza was Vauxhall’s attempt at a Capri rival, although its sales never came close to those of its Blue Oval rival.
It was launched in 1971 and clearly bore a family resemblance to the Viva HC it was based on. Effectively, it was just a Viva HC, but with a more swooping fastback roof – and yet it worked very well indeed.
Engines were shared with the Viva too – so that initially meant the 1159cc entry level model and a rather enjoyable 1975cc version. But changes that echoed those made to the Viva in 1972 meant 1256cc, 1759cc and 2279cc four-pots, with the largest of the lot developing a very lively 110bhp. In 1973, the Firenza name was dropped, with them becoming known as the Viva E (base model), and plusher Magnums instead.
The great droopsnoots
The Firenza HP – nicknamed the Droopsnoot – was the ultimate variation of the Viva HC theme. It was launched at the London Motor Show in 1973, and was developed as a more appealing version of the underwhelming Firenza. It combined an HC coupé body with a glassfibre nosecone designed by Wayne Cherry.
It was powered by a tweaked 2279cc slant-four that kicked out 131bhp and twin-Stromburg carburettors – and looked the way it did due to considerable aerodynamic work. In all, it was quite an advanced package, especially so with a dogleg five-speed ZF gearbox to add an air of sophistication.
The streamlined front was aerodynamically effective, giving the Firenza HP a maximum speed of more than 120mph. But due to its high cost, the HP wasn’t a success – a mere 204 had been built by the time it was dropped in 1975 – which didn’t compare well with Vauxhall’s target of 1000 per year.
Vauxhall used the left-over nose cones on 197 HC estates, to create the even more appealing HP Sportshatch, which was launched as a last-minute addition at the Earls Court Motor Show in 1974.
By the first facelift in 1973, a range of new engines was ushered in, with the old 1159cc entry-level unit being up-gunned to 1256cc. Also, the 1.6- and 2.0-litre cars were expanded to 1759cc and 2279cc. To make the higher-powered cars stand out, they were re-badged as Magnums, and the coupés became knows as Firenzas.
It was in entry-level form that the Viva soldiered on until 1979, when it was pensioned off in favour of the Vauxhall Astra.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.