Drive Story : Cavalier – then and now…

Keith Adams enjoys a week in Vauxhall’s very own Cavalier Mk1. But it does get him thinking about the past and present.

And asking the obvious question.

Cavalier progress

I’ve already introduced Vauxhall Heritage’s timewarp Cavalier 2000GLS. And you already know just how important this car was to the overall health of the British arm of the General back in the 1970s. You may also have worked out that being my first ‘proper’ car, and one that I had all sorts of teenaged adventures in, that there’s a Jupiter-sized place in my heart for the frog-eyed repmobile. So you’re probably already bracing yourself for yet another glowing write-up of the car…

I might be soft on Cavaliers, and the opportunity to drive one for a week has presented me with all sorts of driving possibilities. But for me, it’s difficult not to associate this car with the era it was designed in, the 1970s – it’s one of the functions of coming from a decade which had such memorable fashions, terrifying global events, and dark times back in the UK. And as I point its wedge-shaped nose up the A14 and towards the M1 north, it’s time to ruminate on all of the changes we’ve enjoyed since what was actually a grimy chapter in our history.

Yorkshire is our destination, and if anywhere typifies the huge leaps we’ve made in living standards since the time that we were handed Green Shield stamps with our copper ‘n’ silver coins that constituted the change we got from a tenner’s fill-up, it’s 21st century Yorkshire. Back in January 1980 when our 2000GLS rolled off the line in Luton, petrol prices were rapidly rising. We were in the throes of the second oil shock of the ’70s – a consequence of the war in the Gulf between Iran (the bad guys) and Iraq (the good guys).

At the start of the previous year, a gallon of four-star (the Cavalier’s favoured tipple) was 75p, but as Christmas – and the Winter of Discontent – approached, it had been heading rapidly towards £1.00. If that sounds like a bargain, consider that the middle-ranking area manager who drove a car like this would have been on £100 per week, and his fleet manager would have shelled out £5363 before discount.

Even in 1980, this Cavalier 2000GLS would have looked shockingly stark. Yes, it’s nicely trimmed in velour, its seats boast front headrests, and there’s a few luxury touches such as full-length armrests in the doors and an excellent six-pack instrument cluster, but because the controls are all positioned around the instrument binnacle, and there’s no centre console, it still looks like a basic conveyance. But the build quality is excellent, and – dare I admit this? – there’s a whiff of German efficiency about it all. And that’s before we all became obsessed by that country’s products.

But this lack of luxury chimed well with the times – post-Winter of Discontent 1980 was all about austerity. And hardship. Up north, you could buy a very nice semi-detatched house for £20,000 at the time, but with unemployment becoming a real concern, rising from around 700,000 in the mid-’70s to approaching 2,000,000 at the start of the new decade, there were precious few buyers.

But enough scene-setting, what of the Cavalier itself? In context, it really was at or near the head of the repmobile pack – the Insignia biturbo of its day. In 2-litre form it was capable of 105mph and 0-60mph in 10.0secs (although its average owner would happily wind it round to an indicated 120mph on steeper downhill stretches of motorway) and would average 25mpg. Its principal rival, the Cortina, in recently-revised 1980 form was pretty much as quick (it also had 100bhp), had more showroom appeal thanks to warmer interiors, more modern fixtures and fittings, but on the road, the more Germanic Cavalier was the better steer. And like most of its more popular rivals, the Cavalier was saddled with a four-speed gearbox that resulted in the 80mph cruise being a 4000rpm thrash.

On the motorway, it’s easy to criticise it in modern terms for being undergeared, but to my ears, used to – shall we say – noisier older cars, it settles down calmly enough at the legal limit, and it’s easy to imagine the 2000GLS trading punches with the best of them. For its era, the Cavalier’s also impressively stable, suffering from minimal wallow and wander, and only the bow-waves from the largest HGVs unsettling it as we steam past.

All of this makes the run up the M1 – the Cavalier’s home turf – painless. The inclines marking Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire on the way to Sheffield, and the gateway of the north, pose little problem at all, and we plough onwards at 70mph where a dear old Chevette or Allegro might be down to 55mph.

At first glance, the Cavalier driver of 1980 wouldn’t recognise today’s Sheffield as he hummed northwards past Junction 34. The vast Meadow Hall shopping complex which greets today’s travellers (and sees 3,000,000 visitors a year) was still a decade away, and his first main sighting on the Lower Don Valley would have been the city’s vast steel works, which had been in terminal decline since the early 1970s. There was beauty in these giant brick buildings, darkly stained as a result of decades of steel production, but their hastening demise would have cast a gloomy shadow across the M1 and the valley below. Today’s low-cloud, insistent drizzle, and a desaturated lack of vibrancy, is perfect for reflecting upon the wanton act of de-industrialisation.

We continue north, heading for the former coal mining region of West Yorkshire, as typified by Wakefield, Pontefract and Castleford. Dropping off the M1 and seeking out some A-road action is always a good passtime. Especially in a car that promises to be as good a drive as this Cavalier. With 33,000 miles on the clock (five-digits as was the way back then), and maintained lovingly by the boys at Vauxhall Heritage, there’s no reason not to look forward to this.

But before heading for the best Airdale has to offer, we need to stop. Usually 150 miles holds no problem for me, but I’ve developed ‘Vauxhall leg’, an affliction I remember from my formative years. It’s down to the low driving position and weirdly-positioned throttle, which leaves my right leg adopting an uncomfortable angle. Five minutes’ stroll always quells it…

We push on. The Cavalier’s unassisted steering should be laborious at four turns from lock-to-lock, but its responsive enough around the centre position, and on the twisting A-roads we’re now on, does an excellent job of communicating the road in these slippery conditions. As for the handling – it’s a safe understeerer, and the Cavalier will only kick out its tail if you hit a corner too quickly (no chance, I am babying this one), or mash the throttle in wet bends (see above). It’s fun – and although limits are low in modern terms, on 2012’s clogged roads that run far more slowly than they did in 1980, the Cavalier more than holds its own through the valleys.

Castleford in 2012. It's not all like this...Rolling into Castleford (right) is both interesting and depressing in equal measure. The vast and soulless out-of-town retail park does its best to make amends for the departure of the town’s factories and mines, but it has devastated the town centre. In 1980, it would have been a thronging retail area, dominated by local businesses – butchers, bakers, candlestick makers – but today, it’s run-down dilapidated in places, and in the retail units that remain are dominated by mobile ‘phone stores, national chain retailers, and charity shops staffed by gloomy volunteers. Only the central arcade puts on a brave face against decades of  neglect. It’s typified by the pavement-style cafe – one pensioner’s nursing a cold cup of tea.

As we jump back into the Cavalier’s bright interior, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that in some ways, life really was better back in 1980. Heading back towards the outskirts of town, passing through the bright new retail park, it’s clear there’s money here – that there wasn’t before – but little sense of community. Here, in the valley of the megastores, labels are king.

But it’s not all grim up north. Far from it, in fact. As we head for neighbouring town Pontefract, it’s clear that there’s still room for town-centre vibrancy. People seem friendlier, and the shops more fully stocked with local produce, and the pedestrianised zone, nicely manicured. And despite the greyness of the day, still busy. The master butcher is the custodian of a bustling business – the shop-made pies irresistible to look at, and impossible not to buy. Yum.

Visiting Pontefract certainly undid the feeling of despondency that had descended upon me in Castleford. And I certainly needed uplifting. And this place – surprisingly – had the desired effect on me. For my 1980 counterpart, driving his Cavalier into this market town, the effect after running through a dying Sheffield and Castleford might well have been the same. I’d had Ghost Town by The Specials running through my head – a song written in 1980, and one that so beautifully captured the sense of malaise that was engulfing the nation at the time.

The group’s keyboardist Jerry Dammers said about the anthem of disaffection: ‘The overall sense I wanted to convey was impending doom. It’s hard to explain how powerful it sounded. We had almost been written off and then ‘Ghost Town‘ came out of the blue.’

Back on the road, and  you’re going to find this quite predictable, but I’m really loving this Cavalier now. It’s hard to explain why, other than it simply fits me, and makes me feel good (‘Vauxhall leg’, aside). I suspect that for the area manager driving this car when it was new, it would have been in the same position. He might have found navigating around these small mining towns a whole lot more difficult, as the logical network of bypasses linking them to the trans-Pennine M62 were yet to be built. But then, all he had to listen to was Simon Bates’ new morning feature, Our Tune. I have my iPod, and 30 days of continuous listening…

I decide it’s time to head back south, and run down the A1 instead. Again, it’s easy to marvel at how this road’s been improved during the past 30 years – wider lanes, eliminated roundabouts, and large, clean service stations. And yet, I bet my average speed is down on my 1980 counterpart because of the traffic density. We’re struggling to get up to 70mph between pockets of congestion. But I don’t mind – I’m in no hurry to get back home, such is my enjoyment of the Cavalier. Yes, it’s buzzing along too loudly, the driving position’s not perfect, and its simple interior reminds us how far we’ve come in 30 years. They were simpler times, but were they better? That’s the question that constantly tasks me…

And after spending a week ambling round in this Vauxhall Cavalier 2000GLS, I’m still not entirely sure I know the answer to that question.


Keith Adams


  1. That car does look so good. It’s astonishing that in 1980 a chap could buy this, or a Cortina and have a lot of style and reliabilty on his drive….what could BL really offer during this time?

    There seems to be an elegance, a sort of ‘gentlemanly saloon’ that is just lacking in family cars today

    (of course my Grandad would have been saying that back in 1980 looking at the new Cavalier)

    I think back then cars were part of the family, I wonder if people think that today about their new car?

  2. Nice story, and shows how far we’ve come, in some respects at least. That was the top-of-the-range Cavalier, yet the quipment levels were meagre by today’s standards. I remember Renault putting central locking and electric windows on 14s and 18s, and thinking what a sybaritic level of luxury that was! I guess the main improvements are in terms of safety, and refinement, but in the process I think we’ve lost some intimacy with the driving experience – noise replaced by no noise, steering feel replaced by no feel, bumps replaced by fewer bumps. Good and bad changes in 30 years.

  3. I had one of these for a couple of years in the late 70s and it was a superb driving car. Those interior photos bring back a lot of memories – I’d forgotten how basic they were inside. I also at various times had two Opel Mantas which had an identical interior, so I was very familiar with the layout.

    Mine had an even more minimal interior than this – it was about 4 years old and the previous owner had taken the radio so I just had a gaping hole. Would anybody these days own a car for two years with no radio/CD etc?

    I also ha

  4. “That car does look so good. It’s astonishing that in 1980 a chap could buy this, or a Cortina and have a lot of style and reliabilty on his drive….what could BL really offer during this time?”

    A Mini Metro.

  5. That’s a real timewarp! Closest I got was an Opel Ascona Berlinetta (or was it a Berlina?) that passed through my hands in 1990ish, in a lovely metallic blue colour. That instrument panel is an object lesson in clarity which many modern cars should take note of. Would I have driven one when they were new in 1980? Quite possibly, although I probably would have succumbed to the temptations of the newly facelifted Cortina Ghia, especially with the optional ‘S’ pack!

  6. BL had the SD1 and the Princess – and Cavalier Man’s BL choice would almost certainly have been between a Maxi 2 or a Princess; the latter being a mostly sophisticated, stylish and attractive car. Where BL lacked any credible hardware was against the more basic Cavalier and the Chevette/Escort – the Marina/Ital being woeful AND unattractive, the Allegro being a bit of a joke and again, not visually appealing.

    But the Princess was a much better car conceptually than it really gets credit for.

    Had the Dolomite been refreshed and reskinned… well. Then there could have been rivals for the smaller Cavalier. The branding exercises came too late; the Dolly should have received the budget for refresh and the Marina been sacrificed in 1977, replaced by this revised Triumph as their RWD saloon. A 1500, more modern dash without wood, but moving towards 5-speed boxes, the OHC engine… ah, hindsight again.

    It would still have left the Escort/Chevette class empty, but as we know that group was due to be revolutionised, and the Maestro was a good offering perhaps unfairly blighted by memories of Allegros, Marinas and Itals. Which had only one of those been forced to solider on (and again, I don’t think the skirted and spoilered Allegro 3 was an awful looking car in context) may well have been very different.

  7. Being a Castleford resident, although a Barnet boy I don’t know if I recognise the ‘Cas’ you are talking about, The town centre to me always betters ‘Ponte’ and is usually full of people. Yep we have a few iffy back streets as do most towns. Anyway I digress, I found the my 1.6 Cavvy a capable mile muncher but had forgotten all about that dead leg it used to give me too.

  8. @Jason1.8TC

    “There seems to be an elegance, a sort of ‘gentlemanly saloon’ that is just lacking in family cars today ”

    Agreed. These days they’re likely to be agressive fronted teutonic cars with fairy lights and goatee grilles, or tonka-like SUVs.

    In my opinion (certainly in the suburbs) cars are no longer thought of as part of the family, but like everything else displayed as a disposable measure of your income and credit rating.

  9. I think the country today is even more grimey than it was in the 70s. Bring back MK1 Cavaliers for me – especially the GLS Coupe!

    By the way, I still have a late 1970s Vauxhall brochure – they described those armrests as “Continental style door armrests” The Cav Coupe was described as “the car that outsmarts them all”

    • I thought I was the only one who remembered ‘Continental style door armrests’! I honestly thought I was going made but there’s two of us now!!

  10. That cavalier mk1 is keep next to the mk2(GLS I think) and mk3 V6 CDX models at the Vauxhall Heritage and its worth seeing them together.
    I am surprised the heritage center let you drive it so far and back. Also the latter two cavaliers would make a good side by side comparison.

  11. Wonder if the name “Princess” hampered the success of BL’s offering in the testosterone-filled fleet car parks of 1970s Britain.

  12. Coor blimey I forgot how bad the colour schemes of interiors were in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Never liked the Mk1 always thought it looked cheap against the Cortina and the Princess, but the Mk2 was a different story. My Uncle had one as his first Taxi, and when he got a Carlton my Aunt got rid of he Aggro (she had two and they were both did not give any Aggro!) and kept the Cavalier. She only got rid of it later in life as it did not has PAS (showing age now) and replaced it with a Corsa (which was rubbish). The old Cavalier had over 300,000 miles on the clock when it went, and it is still being run around now as I saw a few weekends back!

  13. Oh – also forgot to say that if you love the red velour seating and want it now you can get it as a cost option in a Citreon C1! One of the students at my college has one – why I don’t know.

  14. An interesting thought if the names princess put hairy chested 70’s men off the car. Today the name would be a special edition Ford KA in pink…..”powered by Princess dust” as a lot of false eyelashed orange girls have stuck on the back of their Corsa’s in MK….ooooh bitchy!

  15. The Cavalier is referred to as more Germanic than the Cortina. Lets not forget that by the late 70s the Cortina was a rebadged German Taunus. Car magazines then as now only cared about handling and ride so rated the Cavalier over the Cortina. I always felt though that the Cortina seemed to offer more car for the money. A trick Ford pulled off throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s.

  16. Don’t forget that for the first two years it was sold in Britain the Cavalier was a Belgian Opel and the Cortina was made in Dagenham, which could have put off some patriotic car buyers. I still think Vauxhall would have revived a lot faster in Britain if the underwhelming Victor FE( barring the VX 4/90) versions were zapped in 1975 and Luton switched to Cavaliers.

  17. Your comments about the dash struck a chord. Well stocked instrument binnacle aside, the dash introduced with the facelift of the Mark 3 Cortina was a masterpiece of design which didn’t really date over the best part of a decade’s use, especially with the introduction of the centre console in the Cortina 80.

    Regarding five speed ‘boxes, these were standard on 1600 Fiat 131s although you couldn’t get a two litre four door until the Mark 3. By which time, the car was over the hill and the reliability was never upto the levels of the Cav’ and the ‘tina even if equipment levels and price, or rather lack of it, surpassed them. Didn’t stop my dad and my Grandpa having two apiece mind.

  18. Great article, thanks! I had a V-reg Cavalier 2000 GLS between June 1983 and October 1984, bought with 13,000 miles on the clock, although 3 years old. It was totally reliable apart from needing a few bulbs and giving a knock from the rear differential sometimes when changing gear. I’d manage 22mpg round town and 28mpg on a weekly 260 mile round trip on A-roads and motorway (where I once braved 110mph, at which it was perfectly stable with more to give, though as I badly needed to keep my driving licence, I backed off). The main minus point was the lack of a 5th gear, and while the ventilation and heating weren’t great, the standard push-button radio, tinted glass, graded windscreen tint-band (if that’s what it’s actually called), and velour seats with front headrests all gave an impression of luxury in the absence the of power steering, central locking and air-con, all of which were still a few years away. Final sobering thought is that as a 21-year old with no no-claims bonus, my first year’s insurance premium was £260; even adjusted for inflation, that’s an absolute bargain by today’s rates!

  19. Keith, I know Castleford very, very well, and used to be a market trader in the town, and the photo you took has been identical for several years. It is a town that is all but dead.

  20. Hi Keith I know this particular Cavalier very well I took this in as a PX back in 1996 from a retired couple from Kent who purchased a new Rover from me.This car was going to be sent to the auction for disposal, but I called the people at the Vauxhall Heritage centre and explained that I had this car and what great condition it was in and asked if they alresdy had one in the museium which they surprisingly replied they had not.They asked to come down the next few days to view,on arrival they were surprised how good condition the car was in a took the car back with them, if my memory serves me well I think they paid £1800.00 to me for it.So good to see the car again would of been a shame for it to be used as a general run around.

  21. If it hadn’t been for your actions Malcolm, it would have probably been baked bean tins or a fridge by now. Pat yourself on the back

  22. Oh, that’s a lovely motor! That six clock instrument cluster is a lesson for modern manufacturers in simplicity and clarity. Everything you need to know in one pack. I much regret the passing of a full set of instruments like this.

    As for the minimalist interior, it’s not that different from a modern BMW 3 series which is also quite minimalist. With a 5 speed box I am certain that the Cav would be able to hold its own in modern motoring.

    I never owned a Mk 1 and was limited to the odd spin in my brother’s 1600 GL but it was an impressive car in the early 80s and still looks good today. I only wish that the modern Vauxhall Insignia was as nice.

  23. For a gallon of petrol to be one-hundreth of the driver’s weekly wages – as you say it was in the fuel crisis – would make it a bargain these days. Petrol is now 6.30 per gallon (1.40 per litre) so only those on below £630pw (about £33000 pa) will feel that fuel would be more expensive if it were now priced at the pro rata 1970s rate.

  24. A really enjoyable read there. I agree regarding the Germanic feel of the interior – those door panel armrests are almost identical to the ones in my Audi 80 B2!

  25. Without wanting to be too political, lets not forget that the reason the towns up North are the way they are now is a direct consequence of Government policy during the 1980s. Great car though. I do think that it was Vauxhall that turned the UK car market into German lovers. Selling what where effectively German cars with a British badge and without the slightly quirky image and inflated prices associated with VW at the time. We all ended up wanting firm seats and minimalist dashboards provided by Vauxhal then and Audi now.

  26. These always remind me of a time when I knew nothing of cars.. I used to have a lift to school in one. Although I am pretty sure that one was a 1600.. but it had the rev counter. One of the other boys father had just got a new Cavlier 2000 (don’t recall the letters) this must have been about 1979 and was telling us how it had reached 90 on the M4 and I felt quiet envious. Dad picked me up later that day in his S1.5 E-type Roadster.. whcih was just an old car in my mind

  27. @34 – I think it was only Cavalier GLS models that got rev counters in those days. The L/GL in 1600-1900-2000 forms didn’t. The first Cavaliers to be badged as GLS were the coupe, then Sportshatch. The saloon followed later.

  28. I remember some friends of the family had a Mk1 Cavalier well into the 1980s which had an aftermarket rev counter oddly fitted hanging off the bottom of the dash, just in front of the gear lever.

    Even as a 7 year old I thought that was an odd place.

  29. I loved my 1979 1600 GL – White, Black vinyl roof, Red interior (the lower half of the dash was black though). Excellent car, with an awful automatic choke that left me getting about 24mpg! My first car, and all the girls at college loved it, ’cause everyone else was screaming around in 1100 Fiestas and the like, whereas I was comfortably cruising around in my Cav. Shame you couldn’t fit a decent stereo in it though – the hole wasn’t deep enough!

  30. Thanks Paul, by 76 Cavaliers were as German as the Tina, Opels were always stark-to say the least- compared to Fords. I really like the front end on Cavalier, looking better than Asconas’ and it’s true 5th gear would help reduce both noise and mpg. Just need to find a derelict Manta 1,8 for transplant..

  31. We had a number of these including the GLS coupe and the Manta versions! They were great cars but the driving position was as suggested in the article really poor. We even had one that survived a fire!

    We had a Coupe GLS that has a great anti theft device, a handbrake combination lock! Great times and a real drivers car.

  32. “Up north, you could buy a very nice semi-detatched house for £20,000 at the time”. But it apparently had no roof!

  33. The Cortina might have had a better appointed interior in Ghia form, but the 2 litre Cavalier was slightly more powerful and rode better.
    I can just imagine the driver of this Cavalier in 1980 listening to Jimmy Young while racing along quieter parts of the M6 with one eye on the rear view mirror for the dreaded Granada jam sandwich. However, no speed cameras then and if you were careful, you could drive at 90 mph all day with little protest from the unstressed and smooth Cavalier engine.

  34. A pity the original MK1 Cavaliers didn’t get the shorter stubby gearstick that the final 1980’s Manta’s did. In those days, I think the Cortina & Capri had a better gearchange feel.

  35. Lovely Cavalier, Vauxhall had been known for their sparse interiors, I own both a MK2 Cavalier and a MK1 Sierra, both 1984 models, and it’s interesting to have both cars on my drive to compare, the Sierra is undoubtedly a more comfortable car to sit in, it’s interior in GL trim is better appointed than the Cavalier, with it being an L model, but that said I have had a Cavalier GL in the past and the Sierra has the edge there, but on the road, the Cavalier is definately the car of choice, despite the two having their drive wheels on opposite ends, the Cavalier is a 1.6 , the Sierra is a 2.0, and the Cavalier feels punchier, more responsive and generally better to drive than the Sierra, both cars have still in their first 30,000 miles so neither of them are worn in any way, but the Sierra definately doesn’t have the same sort of raw sportiness the Cavalier has, I like them both but the Cavalier definately drives better and it’s easy to see why it was such a runaway success back in it’s time, it was top of it’s market sector from 84 to 86, and the Sierra eventually beat it when Ford refreshed the Sierra, as by 1987 the Cavalier MK2 was beginning to look tired.

  36. Britain in 1980 was a fairly grim place, we’d just gone into a huge recession, there was the threat of nuclear war and petrol prices had gone through the roof. The problems that had dogged the seventies- industrial unrest, high inflation and rising unemployment- seemed to multiply and a lot of Northern towns have never really recovered from the 1980-81 recession. I’m not a big Labour supporter, but Maggie and her successors never really had the answers to deindustrialisation. A shiny retail park might look nicer than a steelworks, but they tend to employ fewer workers on worse wages and then we have all the other nasty after effects of deindustrialisation such as drug abuse, poor job opportunities, the so called chav culture and violent crime.

  37. Comments about Simon Bates Our Tune in the article make me feel nostalgic, probably with queasiness. This shameless name dropper( I think I spotted Paul Mc Cartney outside Harrods) had an ego that made Chris Evans look tame, his show never seemed to change in the 15 years it was broadcast and he nearly caused a strike at the BBC when he punched a technician in a queue for a phone. His sickly, name dropping and boring show only was popular because there wasn’t an alternative if you wanted pop music. Myself I far preferred Jimmy Young on Radio 2, which would have been popular with older drivers in their Mark 2 Cavaliers.

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