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.
Vauxhall’s failing fortunes: a solution was needed
By 1972, the situation was so bad, General Motors decided that drastic measures were needed, and the best way of effecting them would be 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. 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. But this was in-hand, again thanks to Opel.
In September 1975, Opel rolled out its updated Ascona (below) 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 (Opel Safety Vehicle, above).
Opel Ascona – the car to take the fight to the Cortina
Larger windows were the main evolution of the Ascona B, and once again, the Ascona and its coupe cousin, the Manta were treated to wildly different styling. The Manta coupe received a dramatic droop snoot front end, which gave it a modern, aggressive, Capri-baiting look… Little did we know that Wayne Cherry, Vauxhall’s incoming Director of Design, would adopt this front end treatment almost unchanged for the upcoming Cavalier.
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 ohv 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.
Opel turns to Vauxhall
And so it proved in the UK, too. In 1972, Vauxhall’s management knew that the Opel U-car would make the great basis for a new mid-sized saloon, and in the interests of range rationalisation began working on an Anglicised version. The Cortina Mk3, which had been launched in 1970, had defined its market perfectly, with its 100in wheelbase, and a full range of engines from 1.3- to 2.0-litres. Vauxhall knew the Ascona could match the Cortina inch-by-inch in dimensions and engineering, although the top 1.9-litre cam-in-head Opel engine was down on power by 10bhp compared with Ford’s Pinto unit.
Development in the UK was a two-pronged affair. Design chief Wayne Cherry was tasked with giving the new car a British style all of its own, while the chassis and engineering teams hit Vauxhall’s test track at Millbrook to make it ride and handle UK roads well. On the styling front, initially, Cherry’s team wanted to give the car an all-new body as had happened with the Victor FE, but management soon vetoed that plan, strictly containing budgets. Given that Vauxhall’s star Designer was a lover of all things wedge shaped, having penned the stunning 1970 SRV concept as well as the droopsnoot Firenzas, this must have been a blow.
But the arrival of the Manta proved a godsend, allowing him to use that car’s front-end styling, therefore adopting a pragmatic approach. 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 would prove rather striking come launch date.
In engineering terms, the Cavalier was almost pure Ascona/Manta. The UK was spared the entry-level 1.2-litre ohv also used in the Kadett, leaving the initial launch line-up down to the two larger engines. 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 ohv unit used in the Viva and (later) Chevette would be developed to fit into the Cavalier, creating a much more UK-flavoured car.
Cavalier Mk1 goes on sale
When the wraps came off the Cavalier at the 1975 London Motor Show at Earls Court, 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. What Car? magazine was certainly complimentary, and in a group test alongside the 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 he 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 10-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.’
The Sportshatch was a good-looking and adaptable coupe, which also proved the basis for a couple of very different themes. The first was the very coupé-based convertible, known as the Centaur (below). 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-litre 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. Given this was a variant included in the Ascona range, it’s surprising a five-door never made the showroom, despite being an actively pursued model on the drawing board.
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. 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 Cavalier 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.
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.