First, a disclaimer – for ten years, I worked for General Motors. I had good times and bad, and had the inside track on quite a lot of the development of the vehicle featured, but notwithstanding (or, perhaps, because of) my knowledge of its gestation, I genuinely believe it to be an incredible British success story, and one that doesn’t get the limelight it deserves.
When you read about the resurgence of the British Motor Industry in the newspapers or the motoring press, chances are it’s headlined by Jaguar Land Rover. That, of course, is fantastic news for Great Britain PLC, and I have no desire at all to take anything away from their many achievements under Tata ownership. But let’s consider, for a moment, the humble Vauxhall Vivaro…
The Ford Transit may claim to be the ‘Backbone of Britain’, and 50 years of Transit vanism have no doubt propped up much of Britain’s entrepreneurism through good times and bad, but the Vivaro, at least today, is singularly more British – not least because it’s built in Luton.
Luton has been through some tough times in recent years. In 2002, car production there came to an end after almost 100 years. Much like Longbridge, in the space of one business decision, generations of families found themselves without the support that the car manufacturing plant had offered them over the years, and it’s fair to say that what was once a car town suddenly had to diversify and prop up thousands of displaced workers. The difference to Longbridge, though, is that Luton folk seemed to dust themselves off much more quickly – no doubt because the burgeoning economy in the South East of England offered more opportunities in service industries.
However, beneath all that, manufacturing was still a key part of Luton’s, and Vauxhall’s, future. In 2001, Vauxhall replaced the not-very-good Arena (a rebadged Renault Trafic) with the Vivaro. The tie-in with Renault, which started with a rebadging exercise to replace the Isuzu-sourced Midi, would go on to be pivotal in the future of Vauxhall Commercial Vehicles.
While much of the design of the Vivaro (aka Renault Trafic and Nissan Primastar, after the Renault-Nissan Alliance was formed in 2002) was carried out by the French firm, the majority of the development and engineering was carried out by Vauxhall at Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire. From 2001, it went into production, with all low-roof variants (the mainstay of the range) being built at Luton, in what was the former K-block of the car production plant. Sheet metal pressing, in its own bodyshop, was also carried out in Luton, and many of the pressed panels were exported to Spain, where the high troof versions for all three brands were produced.
The original Vivaro was a great van. Pivotal in the move to make vans so much more car-like in the way they drove, as prior to its introduction even the Transit was agricultural by comparison. With a super-smooth ride, six-speed gearbox as standard and an immensely practical load bay, the Vivaro won many fans across all areas of industry. When production ceased last year, after 13 full years of production, the Vivaro still felt modern, and even looked it, too, thanks to its avant-garde bubble roof and pointed-nose styling.
The 2014 replacement had a hard act to follow. I was there back at the time the Luton plant was negotiating to build it and know for a fact that tireless work went on within Vauxhall’s top brass to attain the build contract. I witnessed negotiations and campaigning from the Vauxhall Public Policy Team working in conjunction with the East of England Development Agency and was there when an agreement was reached to build the new van at Luton, retaining production at the plant for an entire new generation of van manufacturing – no small feat when you consider the European economic situation at the time, and the fact that the UK was mired in recession.
I’d left GM by the time the van hit the production line, so what I wasn’t prepared for was how good the new van actually was. I haven’t worked for the company for over a year, but I share the pride of many workers, from the factory floor to the boardroom, for making it happen – a feeling bolstered by the fact that, two weeks ago, during the course of my current employment, I was tasked with driving a Vivaro over 1,000 miles across Europe.
I could have hired any van, and most of them are good these days, but the Vivaro is a genuine accomplishment. Powered by a 1.6-litre twin-turbo diesel engine, it meets Euro6 requirements by a country mile, yet still delivers effortless power (enough to hit over 100mph on German Autobahns, as we had to in order to meet our travel connections) with car-like refinement. Moreover, even though the previous Vivaro had excellent ride comfort, the new one (with 600kg of TV camera equipment in the load bay) rode even better – I can genuinely compare the way in which it soaks up road imperfections with my Jaguar XJ6, and say so with a straight face. As vans go, the latest Vivaro is up there with, if not, the absolute best.
That’s why, whilst the motoring press bangs on about how great the Jaguar XE and Land Rover Discovery Sport are (and, indeed, I believe they are), we should pause for a moment and concentrate on exactly how good the Vivaro is, and how, despite all the issues around the cessation of car production in Luton 12 years ago, one of Britain’s traditional ‘car towns’ is still manufacturing a genuinely world-class vehicle against all odds. That’s without even mentioning Ellesmere Port, ‘Home of the Astra’. More of that one later… Vauxhall is a great producer of world-class vehicles, right here in Britain and, with all the hype focused on Coventry and the Midlands, let’s not forget that. Because Vauxhall will be manufacturing vehicles in the UK for many years to come, and has been for 112 years – nobody else can even come close…