Keith Adams recounts the Vauxhall Cavalier Mk1 development story – a tale of close ties with Opel in Germany, some interesting UK design tweaks and the beginnings of an impressive change in fortunes.
Built in Belgium and the UK, the Ford Cortina-rivalling Cavalier Mk1 ended up proving that Britain’s fleet managers didn’t necessarily need to buy British…
Vauxhall Cavalier Mk1: General’s turn-around
Vauxhall was in trouble in the early 1970s, and sales were taking a nosedive. The Escort-rivalling Viva might have been selling reasonably well in HC (1970-1979) form, but in the heart of the fleet car market where the Ford Cortina Mk3 was king, the larger FE-Series ‘Transcontinental’ Victor singularly failed to measure up to this.
At the time, it was starting to look like it could be the beginning of the end for General Motors’ UK outpost. Given how many people the company employed in Luton and Ellesmere Port, this would have been a disaster at a time when the British economy was generally considered to be in free-fall.
The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that Vauxhall’s name was mud, anyway, and had been since 1960s. Buyers have long memories, and reputations are easily soiled, and this was the case here – rampant rust in the company’s 1950s and ’60s cars, had created a ‘rot-box’ image that was proving extremely difficult to shift. A brighter future was in the offing, though, as the drawing board had been looking very exciting indeed since the late 1960s.
First attempt: Victor-based Cerian
The road to the Cavalier was a long one and actually started in 1970 with two competing projects. The first, known as the Vauxhall U-Car, was to build a Viva HC replacement based on a shortened version of the Victor FE platform, with a wheelbase reduced to around 100in (the hugely influential Ford Cortina Mk3 weighed in at 101.5in). It was called the Cerian and, by September 1971, a series of full-sized models were being evaluated by Vauxhall management.
As can be seen from the image above, first revealed by Vauxpedia, it was a sleek bustle-back that clearly had design connections with the existing Vauxhall models, especially around the rear, with its slim lamp clusters and blade-like bumpers. This styling scheme was approved for development in October 1971. The Cerian range was planned as a four- and two-door saloon as well as a three-door coupe and would have been powered by Vauxhall’s slant-four overhead cam in two engine capacities as well as the engine from ill-fated Viscount V8 for the Sports Hatch version.
When new Design Director Edward Taylor took over the project with Wayne Cherry as Assistant Design Director in November 1971, the Cerian four-door morphed into a five-door hatchback, but retained the same silhouette. This was a similar hatchback-disguising design theme that would end up being used by Volvo in the 343 and Ford for the Escort Mk3 years later.
Meanwhile, the Viva HD takes shape
In concurrent development with the Victor-based Cerian was the Viva HD, which was also conceived to expand Vauxhall’s appeal in the Cortina-class. This was based on the existing Viva platform logically upscaled with a slightly wider track and longer wheelbase, and a wider range of slant-four engines. Unusually, the HD was designed from the outset as a two- and four-door saloon as well as a three- and five-door hatchback (above) to compete with the later Volkswagen Passat and Chrysler Alpine.
Vauxhall’s failing fortunes: a solution was needed
However, by 1972, the financial situation for Vauxhall was so bad, General Motors decided that drastic measures were needed for its future. The conclusion was obvious and heartbreaking for the Design and Engineering staff in Luton – the best way improving efficiency was to rationalise its European operations with a long-term goal of combining Vauxhall’s and Opel’s model ranges. Although many in Luton would have argued with this, it was a logical conclusion, especially given how the UK and Europe were getting so much closer in so many ways following our entry into the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973.
Actually, the writing was probably on the wall for Vauxhall as an independent designer of cars with the arrival of the Victor FE in 1972. Although the style was very much from Luton, as were the engines and gearboxes, the floorpan and much of its hidden hardware were shared with the Opel Rekord. Additionally, it meant that Vauxhall’s all-important mid-size saloon had grown beyond the size of its natural rivals, hence the Cerian being conceived with a shorter wheelbase.
The implication for the continued development the Vauxhall Cerian and Viva HD projects was not good, though, and in October 1972, both programmes were halted. The word from the top was that Vauxhall was no longer going to be in the position of being able to design its own bespoke products. The FE programme had proven the shared platform strategy, even if sales were disappointing. The upshot was this collaborative design process, which had Vauxhall create its own styling and engines using an Opel platform, would extend across the rest of the range.
U-Car and Ascona get closer
In January 1973, the Vauxhall Cerian (U-Car) programme was merged with Russelsheim’s Ascona B (Project 1930), meaning that it would share its platform and some major structural elements, but would feature bespoke Luton styling as well as Vauxhall’s excellent slant-four engines. This design quickly gained momentum throughout 1973 and, although it used the Ascona B’s doors, its styling was very different with beautifully integrated bumpers and elegant looking light clusters, front and rear.
By mid-1973, and under Wayne Cherry’s guidance, the new Opel-based U-Car was emerging as a handsome looking saloon as evidenced in the images above. This basic concept was so right that over the next few months as it headed towards production, the slightest of changes were made, with the droopsnoot front and minimalist rear being honed to production reality. There would be two- and four-door saloon versions as well as three- and five-door hatchbacks.
By late 1973, the styling models were being referred to by the Magnum name, which clearly shows what Vauxhall’s ambitions were for the slant-four engined Vivas – these were Cortina challengers, as would be their U-Car replacements. But as the Vauxhall Magnum was taking shape, with a planned launch of 1976-1977, trouble was ahead from the boardroom.
Fortune favours those who rationalise…
The good news was that the U-Car Magnum was emerging as the right car for Vauxhall. The car it was being developed to fight, the Ford Cortina Mk3, had been launched in 1970 and, after a shaky start, had come to dominate the market. It had a full range of engines from 1.3- to 2.0-litres, was based on a 100in wheelbase, and had established itself as the UK’s best-selling car after British Leyland dropped the ball with the Austin Allegro and Morris Marina. It could match the Cortina inch-by-inch in dimensions and engineering.
However, by the beginning of 1974, Vauxhall was in deep trouble. Sales had been in free fall since 1972, with the Victor falling flat on its face in the market, Vauxhall’s hopes rested on the Viva, which was fighting a tough rearguard action from Ford and British Leyland in the small family car class.
In a nutshell, Vauxhall needed the U-Car and it needed it desperately. New Managing Director Bob Price had joined Vauxhall in January 1974 before taking overall control months later. The American boss knew that drastic action was needed, and faced the very real possibility that GM could close car-making operations in the UK, turning it over to commercial vehicles only.
Meanwhile, the U-Car was rapidly taking shape during 1974, but in April 1975, Bob Price dropped a bombshell. He told his team that he wanted to accelerate the U-Car programme, he wanted to reduce the cost, and he wanted it launching at that year’s British Motor Show! That decision would lead to the team using as much Opel componentry as possible, and taking the brave political decision to build the car – initially – in Belgium and selling it in the UK as a domestically-badged import.
Out went plans to use Vauxhall’s slant-four engines, and out went the unique interior and front and rear styling. But the development of the Opel Manta proved to be a godsend, allowing Wayne Cherry’s team to use that car’s front-end styling wholescale. The Manta’s front end was further cleaned up for UK saloon consumption, losing its nose slots and headlamp surrounds to create a clean and modern look that wasn’t a million miles from what Wayne Cherry had originally come up with, and would prove rather striking come launch date.
In engineering terms, the Cavalier was almost pure Ascona/Manta through necessity. The UK was spared the entry-level 1.2-litre overhead valve also used in the Kadett, leaving the initial launch line-up down to the two larger cam-in-head Opel engines developing 75 and 90bhp respectively. There would be a good reason for this – the Cavalier would initially be built in Opel’s Antwerp plant in Belgium, and it meant production simplification. However, the 1256cc overhead valve unit used in the Viva and (later) Chevette would be developed to fit into the Cavalier, creating a much more UK-flavoured car.
Opel Ascona B: the car to take the fight to the Cortina
In September 1975, Opel rolled out its updated Ascona and Manta B models. The new cars were clear evolutions of the 1970 original, and were solidly engineered. The styling was overseen by Henry Haga in Opel’s Design Studio in Rüsselsheim, and incorporated lessons learned from the 1973 OSV.
Larger windows and a lengthened wheelbase were the main evolution of the Ascona B over its predecessor and, once again, it came in two wildly different-looking versions encompassing two- and four-door saloons and a two-door Coupe. The Manta coupe received a dramatic droop snoot front end, which gave it a modern, aggressive, Capri-baiting look…
The rest of the engineering package remained pretty much as before – but refined and improved carefully. The suspension set-up incorporated a live rear axle located by short torque tube, trailing arms and Panhard Rod with coils springs and an anti-roll bar; and up-front, wishbones and coil springs with telescopic dampers. All very conservative, but nicely engineered.
As for engines, the Opels were powered by a 1.2-litre overhead valve Kadett engine, and a pair of cam-in heads of 1.6- and 1.9-litre capacities. Top of the tree was the fuel-injected 105bhp Manta GT/E (which we never saw in the UK) – and that was capable of 110mph. In summary, the Ascona was a solid, well engineered and nice-to-drive mid-sized saloon – perfect to take the fight to the Ford Taunus in mainland Europe. A solid and and fortuitous basis for the Vauxhall Britain’s GM management so desperately needed.
Cavalier Mk1 goes on sale
When the wraps came off the Cavalier at the 1975 London Motor Show at Earls Court, three months behind the Ascona, it was a genuine surprise, catching the media – and potential – buyers off guard. But the stylish saloon (above) and coupe (below) combination was soon attracting rave reviews, hitting the market in the dying days of the Cortina Mk3, when it was looking its weakest. Initial road tests were also complimentary. You could order one from November 1975 with prices ranging from £1975 for the 1600L to £2707 for the 1900GL Coupe.
What Car? magazine was certainly complimentary when it finally got its hands on the Cavalier. In its first group test alongside the Ford Cortina and Morris Marina (both of which the Cavalier trounced), it concluded, ‘Vauxhall’s version of the Opel Ascona has helped put the previously ailing Luton firm on the road to recovery – and it’s easy to see why. The Cavalier is a good handling, sporty saloon aimed directly at the Cortina…’
The magazine went on: ‘As far as driver appeal is concerned, the Cavalier must be one of the best – perhaps the best – conventional saloon at the price. Its steering is accurate and responsive at all times, and it is not too heavy at parking speeds. Its cornering ability on smooth roads is excellent, although the well-located rear axle can hop about if the surface is poor. The ride may be a little firm for some tastes, but the ride/handling compromise is near perfect.’
Buyers certainly liked it, but that caused problems itself. Early availability was poor, with dealers clamouring for stock, while the waiting list grew. With production limited to a shared factory in Belgium, this was always going to be the case, while production at Luton was prepared and the Victor FE (now known as the VX range) wound down.
UK-built Cavaliers arrive in 1977
In the end, the Luton plant came on stream in 1977, also seeing the arrival of the 1256cc car. Eric Fountain, Vauxhall’s Manufacturing Director, drove the first British Cavalier off the production line on 26 August 1977 (right) – and, immediately after, the supply problems eased. And this removed the Cavalier’s main barrier to mass-market success.
Fleet managers also liked the Cavalier, and its imported content dropped from 100% in 1976 to 64% in 1978, it established itself as the company’s bestseller during the late 1970s.
As for model evolution, the Cavalier Mk1 was tweaked rather than facelifted throughout its life. In April 1978, the 1.9-litre model was upgraded to 2.0-litres and 100bhp (and 110bhp for the equivalent Manta GT/E, which again we didn’t see in the UK until 1983), giving the Coupe a genuine 110mph potential top speed and a sub-ten second 0-60mph time.
Opening up the Cavalier’s appeal
Six months after the arrival of the 2.0-litre Cavalier, the innovative and stylish Sportshatch (above) joined the coupe, which put right the older car’s one shortcoming – its lack of a wide-opening tailgate, like the Ford Capri Mk2. The development of the Sportshatch deserves a story of its own, such is its complexity, and you can read all about that on the brilliant Vauxpedia site.
However, in a nutshell, Vauxhall’s Styling Department had been working on its own version of the Sportshatch, and the arrival of this model (also adopted by Opel for the Manta) was vindication of the concept’s appeal. At its launch, the Vauxhall Press Office issued an interesting image of the new car alongside Concept 2 (1973) and Concept 3 – a pair of three-door proposals in a series of models penned by Cherry and his team. These were considered during the development of the Sportshatch, and lined-up like this show an interesting timeline of how the idea was honed for production.
Concept 1 (purple car, above) was a clean sheet design dating back to 1973, while Concept 2 was a development of this, and Concept 3 incorporated the Cavalier’s front end styling and was a move towards the production version. The definitive Sportshatch also shared its doors with the existing Coupe, and is probably more visually appealing as a result.
Loving the Cavalier Sportshatch
Like the saloon, What Car? was impressed by the Sportshatch. In a group test pitching the Sportshatch in 1.6GL form against the Alfasud Sprint, Ford Capri and Renault Fuego, there were plenty of nice things said about Vauxhall’s seemingly less-than-soulful Cavalier. ‘Although its rear tends to go out if treated roughly on corners, there is not the same degree of sliding in wet weather as there is with the Capri. The steering is quite light, which means that any breakaway is easier to control, and during most driving, the Sportshatch is predictable and controllable’.
In summary, it said: ‘Coming past the post ahead of the Capri, the Cavalier looks good and has price on its side. However, it really does need a newer engine, and it you want an all-rounder, you really should go for the 2.0-litre model.’
There were a couple more expansions of the theme. The first was the Coupé-based convertible, known as the Centaur (below), and based on Vauxhall’s own plans for an open-topped Cavalier it never made. That car was developed by Magraw Engineering and built by Crayford Engineering. Rather like the Crayford Cortina, which was sold at the same time, the Centaur was sold through a number of Vauxhall dealers. It was well-engineered, but with a strengthened floorpan and Triumph Stag-like T-bar roof arrangement, it came at a cost. In mid-1980, a new Centaur would cost you £8502 – compared with £5230 for a standard 2000GLS Sportshatch. But then, what rivals did it have?
Silver Aero attracts the crowds
More exciting was the Silver Aero concept. This beauty was unveiled it at the 1980 British Motor Show in Birmingham, and followed on from 1974’s wonderful Silver Bullet. The one-off, which was based on the Sportshatch, featured a radical looking bodykit, a seriously upgraded interior and power by a 150bhp 2.4-litre turbocharged engine by WBB Racing and Turbo Torque Limited. Its most striking styling feature was undoubtedly the even sharper nose treatment, which maintained Cherry’s love for the droopsnoot. The press release that accompanied the car’s unveiling spoke of customer kits being made available – but they never subsequently appeared.
Across the range model development was limited to tweaking of trim levels. After the introduction of the 2.0-litre cars to replace the 1900cc cars in 1978, and the rebadging (from 1300, 1600 and 2000 to 1.3, 1.6 and 2.0), it was just a matter of improving trim packages along the way. In 1980, an interim LS model was introduced to bridge the gap between L and GL – this was hardly exciting stuff – and that was about it. The biggest omission was an estate model, which also held true in the Opel Ascona range.
So, the Silver Aero would prove to be the Cavalier’s swan-song – and that never made it beyond one-off status, even if aspects of the concept made it into the 1983 Manta facelift. The Cavalier Mk1 lasted six years, before being phased out in favour of the front-wheel-drive Mk2 in August 1981, and during this time proved a strong and steady seller.
Although it failed to threaten Ford in UK sales chart, along with the Chevette, there’s no doubt that the Cavalier helped save Vauxhall in the UK by restoring its respectability. As well as selling well and proving that fleet buyers could buy foreign cars, it also showed that Ford could be beaten at its own game in building a car that sales reps loved with all their hearts.
The Vauxhall Cavalier Mk1 also went a long way to rehabilitating the marque in the minds of retail buyers and washing away memories of rust Luton-built models from the consciousness of the UK car-buying public. Its sales achievements would subsequently be dwarfed by what came later with the Mk2 and Mk3, but the original Cavalier’s place in Vauxhall – and, therefore, UK – model history should never be underestimated. It really was the car that helped save Vauxhall’s bacon, even if ultimately it led to the end of Luton’s design and engineering autonomy.
- Written with reference to: Vauxhall’s U-Car on Vauxpedia and CAR, Autocar and What Car? magazines
- With thanks to the Cavalier and Chevette Club