The cars : Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2 development story

When the Cavalier Mk2 was launched in August 1981, Vauxhall hoped that it would increase its market share in the UK. It didn’t just manage to do that – it smashed all expectations and caught both Ford and Austin Rover napping.

The conservative-looking Mk2 was what every rep wanted – it looked good, drove well and could hold its own in the outside lane of the M1…

Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2

Vauxhall’s new pragmatism

Few would have predicted Vauxhall’s stunning turn-around in fortunes during the mid-1980s. A mere dozen years before the launch of the Cavalier Mk2 in August 1981, the UK’s iconic GM division had a shocking reputation in its home market for producing rusting cars that just didn’t stack up against the opposition from Ford and BMC.

Its reputation for rust was well-founded, though, as the UK-designed products churned out of Luton really did seem to dissolve upon contact with the atmosphere – and, as Lancia in the UK will confirm, once this kind of negative reputation gets into the public consciousness, it’s almost impossible to shift.

Despite that, the company fought on, and into the 1970s, Vauxhall’s started to recover strongly. The Viva proved a usefully popular Escort alternative and the Victor, now in Transcontinental FE guise and sharing a considerable amount of hardware with its German counterpart, the Opel Rekord, was developed into an excellent driver’s car – especially in VX4/90 guise.

Taking aim at the Cortina

However, like BL, GM needed a car to fight the Cortina head-on in the marketplace, and the FE-Series just seemed a little too large for that task. In 1975, and for Vauxhall traditionalists, the unthinkable happened: the Chevette and Cavalier Mk1 were announced, which despite their individual front-end styling, were little more than badge-engineered Opels.

But both cars were built (or assembled, as was initially the case for the Cavalier) in the UK, and featured UK power in the form of the Viva’s 1256cc overhead valve four-pot. That was enough to convince less dogmatic buyers that the cars were all-British.

Throughout the rest of the 1970s, the rest of the UK Vauxhall range was swept aside by re-branded Opels, and sales continued to rise. Although Ford’s Cortina and Escort had an unassailable lead at the beginning of the 1980s, and accounted for the Blue Oval’s 30 per cent share of the UK market, BL’s declining second place looked like an attainable target with a following wind.

From small acorns

The next phase in the Opelisation of Vauxhall kicked off in March 1980 with the UK arrival of the T80-series Vauxhall Astra. Unlike previous Vauxhall-Opel hybrids, the new FWD hatchback was a re-badged Kadett D, with absolutely no panel or engineering changes at all.

It hadn’t always been that way, with a number of Vauxhall-designed styling schemes being devised (above) at the Luton-based Styling Studio led by Wayne Cherry. However, in the months leading up to its launch, these ideas were rejected, as part of the plan to centralise General Motors’ European operations in Rüsselsheim.

Unlike in Germany, where the new hatchback Kadett would replace the outgoing RWD car, the Astra would end up sitting alongside the Chevette at the bottom of Vauxhall’s range until the older car was phased out in 1984. The Astra initially was powered by a brand-new overhead cam 1.3-litre engine, dubbed the GM Family Two. It delivered excellent performance and economy, thanks to its efficient design and high power output of 75bhp.

The new car was the perfect starting for the replacement of Vauxhall’s most important car – the Cavalier.

Enter the J Car

J Car styling was deliberately conservative
J Car styling was deliberately conservative

Opel Tech-1 from 1980 pointed at J Car styling... and beyond
Opel Tech-1 from 1980 pointed at J Car styling… and beyond

In late 1980, GM’s two separate dealer networks and model ranges was were combined (and therefore strengthened) in the UK in readiness for the arrival of the new car. From then on, all dealerships would be rebranded Vauxhall-Opel. Wherever possible, competing Opels would no longer be imported.

The Kadett D was quietly dropped, leaving just the Monza/Senator and Manta on the books – a controversial decision, but one based on logic, given the merging of the two dealer networks.

Obviously, GM had been watching what had gone on before over at BMC…

In development since 1977

The J Car project was kicked off in 1977 and, from the outset, had been designed as a world car. It was agreed at Board level to design it with as much parts interchangeability as possible – such as engines and transmissions – and the responsibility of putting the programme together was placed with two ‘Design Centres’, the GM Tech Centre in Detroit and Opel in Germany.

Both worked on the basic platform, with the directive being that there should be minimal difference between their two products. As a result, the European and RoW J-Cars ended up being largely – but not entirely – the same in size. The European-designed four-door was a couple of inches longer in the boot, while the fastback cars were three-door for the USA and five-door for Europe, and the rest of the world.

Gordon Brown, Opel’s Director of Design, commented in August 1981, that although it isn’t a true world car, there are enough similarities between all models to make the venture more than worthwhile. And he had extensive experience of the Chevrolet programme before moving the Rüsselsheim to work at Opel.

Rolling out to the world

For GM, the J Car ended up being rolled-out across the globe, and remained in production until 2005. For the UK, it was clear that the J Car (or J82) in Opel form would not be sold, leaving the way clear for Vauxhall to attack the fleet market unhindered by internal rivalries.

In terms of engineering, the J Car amounted to little more than an enlarged Opel Kadett D/Vauxhall Astra Mk1 (known as the T80 internally). It shared the smaller car’s transverse front-wheel-drive layout, a very similar two-shaft gearbox, and near-identical suspension and steering set-ups.

What that did mean was that the new Cavalier would be much larger inside than the old car – its wheelbase was 2.2in longer, and that was despite being 3.6in shorter overall. Initially, the European J Car was to be offered with two engine options: 1.3-litre 75bhp (which matched the 1.6-litre Cortina) and 1.6-litre 90bhp.

The larger engine was talked up as a replacement for the old 2.0-litre cam-in-head power unit used in the Mk1, but larger options were in the pipeline. All were designed with ease of servicing in mind, with adjustment-free hydraulic tappets and a low-maintenance GM Varajet II carburettor.

Styled for conservative fleet managers

J-Car coupe was developed, but only saw production in South America
J Car coupe was developed, but only saw production in South America

As for the styling, it was a conservative effort. The old droopsnoot front end was dropped, although a shovelnose, used on both the Opel and Vauxhall versions clearly showed that the Rüsselsheim engineering team favoured Wayne Cherry’s frontal styling for the Cavalier Mk1 over that of the Ascona B.

Aerodynamics were adequate by 1981 standards, with a drag co-efficient of 0.38 being achieved at the Pininfarina windtunnel (compare that with the 1982 Sierra’s 0.34). The five-door hatchback was a radical departure for Vauxhall, and a clever one, too. For the first time, Vauxhall was able to offer its buyers a choice of two-, four- and five-door body options, and that gave it an advantage over Ford with its outgoing Cortina.

Vauxhall, it seemed, finally had the armoury to take on, and beat, Ford at its own game.

The Cavalier arrives

Fleet car buyers embraced the sportier-looking five-door model, proving that saloons were falling out of favour in the UK market.
Fleet car buyers embraced the sportier-looking five-door model, proving that saloons were falling out of favour in the UK market

Saloon was classically styled to fight the Cortina.
Saloon was classically styled to fight the Cortina

The first Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2 rolled off the line at Luton on 17 August 1981. Always at the back of the minds of GM executives in the UK, was the perception that fleet managers continued to harbour an ongoing distrust of front-wheel-drive cars. Talbot’s marketing team made no bones of its disappointment in the Solara‘s lack of market penetration, and attributed it not to product weakness, but to its transmission layout.

However, with the unified dealer network and a large 15-car model range, Vauxhall was confident that the new car would make inroads into the Cortina market – especially as it was no secret that production was running down in preparation for the Sierra (due for launch in September 1982), and that word had already escaped that Ford’s upcoming mid-range car was going to be a radical-looking hatchback. In hindsight, GM’s confidence in the Cavalier’s ability for make hay in Ford’s one-year vacuum, was looking incredibly astute.

The press reception was certainly positive, with both Autocar and Motor magazines getting in early first drives, and pronouncing the new car more than fit for purpose. Of course, driving the cars in the confines of Millbrook was one thing, but actually pitching it against the market leaders on UK roads was something else entirely.

What the papers said

What Car? magazine pitched a Cavalier 1600GL against an Alfa Romeo Giuletta, Audi 80, Talbot Solara – and, most importantly, a Ford Cortina 2.0GL in its November 1981 issue. Given the Ford’s engine capacity advantage, it should have been an easy ride for the Dagenham car, but on the test track, the Cavalier was able to identically match its 10.7 second 0-60mph run, while outpacing it at the top end – 105mph against 101.

On the road, the Cavalier scored well again: ‘it has a tendency towards understeer, but is rapid nevertheless. The Cortina, on the other hand, is outclassed. Its live rear axle gives it a smooth ride that degenerates into lumpy, uneasy motions of the body once the roads are less than billiard smooth.’

‘Considered in relation to its immediate opponents, the Cavalier emerges in a highly favourable light and in any objective contest, it must come top.’ – Autocar

In summing up, the magazine said: ‘Considered in relation to its immediate opponents, the Cavalier emerges in a highly favourable light and in any objective contest, it must come top. It is reasonably fast, reasonably comfortable and reasonably enjoyable to drive. It is also reasonably priced, a factor which may be instrumental in taking sales from the Cortina.’

It went on: ‘GM has proved that it can build a car which is convincingly better than the Cortina. It is not an outstanding, exciting or particularly attractive vehicle, but these are not the qualities that sell cars to fleet buyers.

‘All GM now has to do is convince the buyers of the quality of the organisation as well as those of the car. Only then will the Luton Cavalier plant be able to go into double-shift working and expand on its surprisingly modest planned output level as the current Ford Cortina’s market share begins to decline.’

The instant sales success

The 1983 arrival of the CD 1800i cemented the Cavalier's position as the pushy rep's favourite car...
The 1983 arrival of the CD 1800i cemented the Cavalier’s position as the pushy rep’s favourite car…

A mere year later, we’d find out how it would do against the Sierra. Once again, it was down to What Car? magazine to give a clear indication of the Cavalier’s ability against its closest rivals on UK soil, comparing the Ford in 1.6GL form, alongside the Cavalier 1.6GL, Volkswagen Passat CL and Austin Ambassador 1.7HL.

And it made the call in the Ford’s favour: ‘As for the Sierra’s rivals, they are beginning to look a bit ordinary. The Cavalier is the car that comes the closest, its excellent mechanical design spoiled by a depressing anonymity of design.’

However, despite What Car? outpointing the Cavalier in favour of the Sierra, buyers decided that they couldn’t stomach the styling of the new Ford, preferring the Vauxhall’s calculated conservatism. The sales war that followed proved bloody – and, although the Sierra won the first round of sales in 1983, the Cavalier was making up ground rapidly. In 1981, it had sold a mere 33,361 to take seventh in the UK best seller’s chart, but by 1983, that had risen to 127,509. Impressive, given this was the Sierra’s honeymoon year.

Top of the pops

Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2 production was soon ramped up to meet demand...
Cavalier production was soon ramped up to meet demand…

In 1983, the Top Ten sellers chart looked like this:

  1. Ford Escort: 174,490
  2. Ford Sierra: 159,119
  3. Austin Metro: 137,303
  4. Vauxhall Cavalier: 127,509
  5. Ford Fiesta: 119,602
  6. Austin Maestro: 65,328
  7. Vauxhall Astra: 62,570
  8. Triumph Acclaim: 38,406
  9. Datsun Sunny: 36,781
  10. Volvo 300 Series: 36,753

The following year, though, things had moved seriously in Vauxhall’s favour:

  1. Ford Escort: 157,340
  2. Vauxhall Cavalier: 132,149
  3. Ford Fiesta: 125,851
  4. Austin Metro: 117,442
  5. Ford Sierra: 113,071
  6. Austin Maestro: 83,072
  7. Vauxhall Astra: 56,511
  8. Vauxhall Nova: 55,442
  9. Ford Orion: 51,026
  10. Volvo 300 Series: 35,034

Which would you choose? The UK buying public voted with its feet, and went for the Vauxhall in huge numbers (Picture: Autocar magazine)
Which would you choose? The UK buying public voted with its feet, and went for the Vauxhall in huge numbers (Picture: Autocar magazine)

The sales also reflect just how hard Vauxhall was working to maintain the Cavalier’s appeal. In October 1983, the range was expanded in a couple of ways – firstly, a 1.8-litre fuel-injected engine option was added to the range. Although the 115bhp option was initially reserved for the SRi, CDi and GLSi models, it clearly cemented the Cavalier’s reputation for being the outside lane warrior’s weapon of choice.

These new variants were able to top 115mph and dash from 0-60mph in well under nine seconds. Also added to the range was an interesting five-door estate, which used imported Holden Camira panels (the Australian J Car) to create a cavernous rival to the popular Sierra Estate, and the 54bhp 1.6-litre diesel, the less said of which the better.

Running changes

Estate version was cavernous, but failed to sell in the numbers anticipated of it.
Estate version was cavernous, but failed to sell in the numbers anticipated of it

1985 facelift saw the introduction of a boldly styled grille and various other changes.
1985 facelift saw the introduction of a boldly-styled grille and various other changes

Vauxhall continued to fight hard to keep the Cavalier on top and, for the 1985 model year, it received a facelift, which added a more aggressive chip-cutter style grille, modified rear lamp clusters, new steering wheels, upgraded equipment levels, new upholstery options and updated instrument graphics added across the range.

Sadly, for Vauxhall, Ford was fighting harder to improve the Sierra and, in 1986, the newer car once again seized the sales lead, thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign and model realignment. As for the Montego, it was out of the running in reality, making the UK fleet market a two-horse race, after years of it being shared more evenly between the ‘Big Three’.

The two-door saloon was quietly dropped from the range, although it would form the basis of the later convertible version.

Robert Jankel of Panther created this concept convertible version in 1982 - it looked remarkably similar to the factory open-topped car when it appeared in 1985.
Robert Jankel of Panther created this concept convertible version in 1982 – it looked remarkably similar to the factory open-topped car when it appeared in 1985

And for its final facelift in 1987, the Cavalier was given a smoother front-end.
And for its final facelift in 1987, the Cavalier was given a smoother front-end

Further revisions in 1987 saw the introduction of another, smoother-looking grille and rear lamp clusters, as well as the arrival of a wider range of trim levels for the 1.8-litre engine, as it was now a tax-break point favourable for company car drivers.

Badge appeal

Following Ford’s introduction of the ostensibly more sporting looking Sierra LX models, Vauxhall followed suit with its own two-tone alloy-wheeled Cavalier LX and LXi models, boosting showroom appeal considerably. In addition, the range-topping model was now powered by a 2.0-litre version of the GM Family Two engine, now boasting 130bhp, and giving the Cavalier SRi 130 125mph capability and a 0-60mph time of eight seconds – enough to see it nearly keep pace with the Sierra XR4x4 and MG Montego Turbo.

The appeal of the Cavalier had been on the wane since 1986, and certainly since the Sapphire revision of the Sierra, which took that car’s outlandishness away, leaving a stylish and progressive looking product. The arrival of impressive newcomers such as the Peugeot 405 and Renault 21 made the Cavalier look prematurely aged – a revolution was going on in European car design, with clean, aerodynamic design now leading the way. And in this climate, the Sierra had grown into its market sector perfectly, demonstrating just how far ahead of its time Patrick Le Quement’s styling actually was.

However, as the lights faded on the Cavalier Mk2, its development continued at a rapid pace. As well as that, it was also proving a production success for Vauxhall in the UK. The company commenced exporting cars in LHD form to other European countries, badged as Opels, which was a commitment to the UK factory, and proof that quality levels matched those of the Belgian and German factories. In November 1987, the then head of Vauxhall, John Bagshaw, told CAR Magazine that European buyers, ‘…can’t tell them from the German ones.’

The Cavalier Calibre was a Tickford produced run-out model, still highly regarded today.

The Cavalier Mk2’s swansong came in 1988, when the Calibre special edition (above) was introduced. It was based on the SRi 130 in saloon form only, and featured a Tickford-designed bodykit comprising of skirts, bumpers, door panels and rear spoiler, which was built by GM tuning specialists, Irmscher.

As well as the obvious cosmetic updates, the Calibre also sported sports suspension and a uprated exhaust system. It might have looked tacky in comparison to the opposition, but it proved popular, and the limited run of 500 soon sold out.

The rule-changing Vauxhall

Today, the Cavalier’s profile is low, and it has yet to pick up the classic following that some of its less popular (when new) rivals have secured. Seeing examples of this once-popular piece of street furniture are rare, but there is a small and enthusiastic following for these cars – and it’s one that’s growing.

The scale of the Cavalier’s achievements when new should never be underestimated – it was responsible for Vauxhall’s initial huge growth in the UK between 1980 and 1983 and took the company to number two behind Ford.

Although the Cavalier dated far more quickly than the Sierra, it was clearly the right car for the time, and Vauxhall’s success was profound – during its six-year production run, it sold 807,624 in the UK. It was a story of good luck, great timing and hard work – and one that carried Vauxhall confidently into the 1990s as the UK’s number two.

Keith Adams


  1. I had a Cavalier SRi Mk2 in the mid-1980s – amazing power and torque, but little control over it!. Press the accelerator hard and the front wheels would scrabble all over the road whilst just occasionally continuing to point in my intended direction of travel!

  2. Why did Opel not offer the estate as Vauxhall did? Surely the Holden panels would be fairly RHD/LHD agnostic?

    Was it still a case whereby the Germans saw estate cars as utilitarian and not for their fleet cars?

    Was this still the case with the Cavalier Mk3/Vectra A, which didn’t have an estate either?

  3. My company had an 1985 Cavalier 1.6 estate which was very fast even when loaded with kit (90bhp). The success of the FWD Cavalier Mk2 built on that of the Mk1 but, overall, I still preferred the look of the Mk1 – especially the Coupe and Sportshatch.

  4. I remember the one big advantage which the Cavalier had over the Sierra in the early 1980s was that it had a Radio Cassette as standard! The standard fitment of that crackly £25 unit really did influence company car drivers’ decisions.

  5. Well said, David – when Vauxhall later put plastic covers over steel wheels on the SRi it was a backward step.

    Actually, thinking back to the 1970s and 1980s, it was a big event when new cars like the Cavalier Mk1 and Mk2 were launched. There wasn’t as much speculation about the cars and spy photos etc. so, when they arrived in showrooms and in adverts, it was something to look forward to.

    Nowadays, there are so many pre-launch leaks and advance images that the eventual launches are not as exciting. Anyone agree?

    • I agree completely both about the Cavaliers, and at you say about modern car launches. Also I think that new cars just don’t have the character of the older cars, which takes away from the excitement of the launches.

      • Thanks James R. I must be showing my age in my preference for cars of the 60s & 70s. The current trend of Crossovers & SUV’s doesn’t excite me. I will no doubt be changing my car sometime soon but there’s nothing out there that appeals – yet.

  6. I owned a couple of cheap and distinctly sub-prime examples of the Cavalier Mk2 during an impecunious phase in the early/mid 1990s – a 1984 1.6GL hatch in China Blue and, later, a 1985 Commander hatch which seemed to be everywhere at the time.

    The GL was my first properly ‘modern’ car with 5-speeds, OHC, electronic ignition and even electrically operated and heated door mirrors. Spacious, comfortable and good at long distance trips, it also introduced me to Vauxhall’s notorious ‘chocolate camshaft’ (actually the followers seemed to lose their hardened faces first) and the need to replace cam belts – as I discovered at the roadside one day. I could have lived without the auto-choke though, although the later Commander model had reverted to manual if I remember rightly.

    The Cavalier Mk2 was an important car which, with the Sierra, re-defined the rep-mobile segment. It was a shame that the Montego and its makers could not keep up since, despite decent Monty sales and considerable success with the later and smaller R8 200/400, they were never really serious players in that market again.

  7. I think that basing this car on the Astra/Kadett was a good move. An alternative plan to downsize the Chevrolet Citation was mercifully dropped. The US Cadillac Cimarron – a four-door Cavalier with an injected 1.8-litre engine and five on the floor – was no more successful than the later Cadillac Catera version of the Omega. The brand wouldn’t stretch that far.

  8. I’m another former Cavalier SRi Mk2 owner – mine was a C plate (facelift) saloon with the “chip cutter” grille.

    I just remember that, whilst it was so much quicker in a straight line than the cars my mates had at the time, the front tyres simply gave up if you had the audacity to apply power with any degree of steering lock on or if there was a sniff of damp on the road surface. Driving it hard, particularly in the wet, required a degree of restraint and forward planning that would seem outrageous compared to today’s modern cars, but it could be made to cover ground very quickly if you were prepared to adjust your driving style.

    The lack of traction was laughable though. Floor it in second from 30mph, and the first time the tyres hit a manhole cover or a patch of water, the wheels would just spin up, and all accelerative effort would cease.

    Anyway, despite all manner of abuse, my SRi never really gave me any bother. That said, I still don’t know how I didn’t crash it. I absolutely loved that car.

  9. I’ve just seen a B reg Cavalier 1.6 GL saloon in “Caramel Brown” near my workplace. The car looked tatty – not in restored condition – but the body looked solid enough and a good clean and repainting the wheels would have helped. Having said that, it’s 26 years old so what can you expect?

  10. They had a horrible habit of the rear top strut mounts parting company with the shell. It was common to pull the carpet back from the sides of the boot, and see daylight around the shock top mount. My SRi was starting to go here.
    An uninsured driver in a Granada on the wrong side of the road took care of the car before I needed to worry about it too much though 🙁

  11. I had a 4-Door facelift chip grille `85 MY and it was excellent. The gear ratios were changed on that year to close ratio so the acceleration was extremley urgent. Thought the colour scheme of tinted bronze windows and Parchment over Antracite really set the car off well. The car had been attacked by the bean counters for 85MY including simplified instrument pack missing the earlier oil and battery gauges, cheaper recaro seats and steel wheels. The performance was greater than friends MG Montego Efi’s

  12. Here in Australia the J car was the Holden Camira as mentioned in the article. I remember my mechanic mate pointing out to me that its biggest shortcoming was the engine design in certain models in that it had a propensity to start blowing smoke and using copious quantities of oil early on in its life. There were carb fed 1.6 and 1.8 litre models and fuel injected 1.8 and 2 litre versions depending on year and spec. I was told definitely not to waste my money buying one! Mind you, in Australia everyone drove big cars (6 and 8 cylinder Holden Commodores and Ford Falcons) because petrol was cheap.

  13. Had a sri 130. A car that I adored . A Nutcase on acceleration. Reliable as time and supriseingly ecconomical. Then came the mark 3 Red Top 150 BHP. WOWWWWW

  14. My Grandfather gave me a two year old Mk 2 cavalier when he changed his cavalier for a new one. I was 19 it was 1985 to me it was like driving a space ship as it seemed so sophisticated compared to my mk3 cortina I previously owned. This was an Iconic car of the 80s and brought front wheel drive cars and fuel ingection engines with the later SRi models to the mass middle class drivers.

  15. The Holden Camira version of these things was truly diabolically awful. It was slow, ugly and had all the appeal of a dead canary. Buyers here downunder avoided them in huge numbers and mercifully, they are all but extinct today.

  16. My neighbour had a brand new 1.8SRi in about 1983 and used to bore anyone who would listen at just how economical it was, how fast. However his previous benchmark was a Talbot Alpine…
    I must have been inspired by him as 1994 saw me buying D338KKG a 1.8 GLSi which was a harsh engined but quick beastie with a knackered gearbox and de-laminated screen. This was followed a while later by A157NKL (I think) a tired 1.8 CDi. Both lovely and capable cars.

  17. Later Holden Camiras look like a cross between a Cavalier and a facelift Sierra.

    There was a US version estate on a film the other half was watching, the time traveller’s preachers’ wife

    Looks good with the US grille, but the side is unmistakable J car.

  18. The US versions of th J car were indeed called Cadillac Cimarron, Chevvy Cavalier & Pontiac J2000. The Pontiac was my favourite looking one. I still have a copy of “Car & Driver” with launch pictures.

  19. The Pontiac J2000 was in the Hotwheels range during the 1980’s and I have three of them.

    One mint and boxed and two play worn I have a plan to make the last two into mk2 Vauxhall Cavaliers.

    This is the closed making them miniature scale as both Opel/Vauxhall types are available in 1:43 scale by many model manufactures.

  20. Very interesting Will-101. I think I preferred the look of the Pontiac, then Vauxhall – Opel versions over the Chevvy. A while ago I discovered a TV commercial for the Pontiac on U tube. Maybe you’ve seen it.

  21. Would have been nice to have received the J-body Coupe here in the UK either along the lines of the 3-door fastback Brazilian-built Chevrolet Monza Coupe or the 2-door American-built Pontiac Sunbird Coupe / Sunbird GT (as a sort of pre-Calibra), placed beneath the rwd Manta as the latter received more powerful engines.

  22. My first car and, in spite of its love of oil and some nasty rust around the wheelarches, always started( even in six foot of snow one morning), did 35-40 mpg, was very comfortable and as long as I kept five litres of oil in the boot in case the oil warning light came on, was good for long journeys, though people on the A1 were keen to get past because of the blue smoke belching out at speed. My sister had three, which proved generally reliable, and my stepdad had one which did 130,000 miles and apart from the camshaft giving up at 90,000 miles, was a good car.
    Nowadays the Insignia is just a heavy, unreliable gas guzzler and the Vectra that preceded it was about as reliable as an FSO, my sister replaced her last Cav with a Vectra and it was nothing but trouble.

  23. The Pontiac version was called J2000 at launch, it lost the “J” for ’83, became the “2000 Sunbird” in ’84 and finally just Pontiac Sunbird…(and then Sunfire in 1995 when the rounded-body model came out).

    The picture Will M posted is a 1984-87 Chevy Cavalier, and the angle really shows off the panel line between the hood and front fenders and the nosecone – all US J-bodies had an Endura plastic nosecone to allow the stylists more freedom to develop five different versions (closer to 10 once facelifts are accounted for) with the same hood and fenders.

  24. Some of the US J car coupes, such as the Sunbird, look quite Manta-ish.
    Could’ve been early Calibras….

  25. My dad acquired a light blue 1.6 estate which I drove with enthusiasm.
    It was a lovely car except for the seats. Being tall I used to get back ache, though the seats in the MK3 were worse.
    I never did find out how fast it could go but flat out the speedo needle just kept creeping up and up and up.
    Ah, the days before radar guns and speed cameras. Manchester Airport in 22 mins, I won’t tell you where from but this car loved speed.

    I do recall that after a two years rust appeared on the wheel arches.

  26. The car that really revived Vauxhall in Britain and took the fight to Ford, whose Cortina seemed ancient in comparison and the Sierra that replaced it too radical. OK the camshafts were weak, it could burn oil as it got older, but the Mark 2 Cavalier gave its buyers what they wanted, good performance, reasonable reliability( apart from the cam), loads of space, economy and a huge range of models.

  27. after owning many cars i found most cars are good for what they were designed for,, how ever Vauxhall cars were generally quite good all rounder.. not the best cars but good over all. depending what a driver or owner expects out of a car…a 72 victor goes good with a 186 holden motor so does a 75 vivi two door with a 6 cylinder holden..but where do you stop.. perhaps leave the car standard.. happy motoring,, car nut from nz

  28. South Africa got a version of the Opel Ascona in 1982, saloon and hatchback, dropped four years later to make way for the Opel Monza, which was actually the Opel Kadett saloon. (To confuse matters further, the first Opel Astra hatchback was called the Kadett while the saloon and estate were just branded as Astras.) GM in South Africa have abandoned that segment of the market – neither the Vectra nor the Insignia have ever been sold there.

    There was an Isuzu version of the J Car, known as the Aska in Japan, and in export markets as the JJ. In New Zealand it was sold as the Holden JJ Camira, although the estate version of the JD Camira from Australia was sold alongside it. (Demand for mid-sized estates in NZ has traditionally been stronger than in Australia, which is why the Cortina wagon lasted until 1984 when it was replaced by the Sierra.)

    A very small number of Opel Asconas were sold in NZ, along with Kadetts and Senators, alongside Holdens. So small, in fact, that I was surprised to see a 1987 model Ascona – it was RHD, and while many Opels in NZ have been used imports from Japan, Asconas weren’t sold in Japan.

    • I never understood why GMNZ imported Opels in the 1980s – the prices were stratospheric compared with Japanese alternatives to the Kadett or the Holden Calais compared with the bigger Opels

  29. I once had the CD 1800i up to an indicated 125mph on the M1 (not my car!) at which point the owner leaned over and sniffed saying “I’ve had 132 on the clock”! This was the later one with the chip cutter grille and never had asny cam problems with it.

    The company I worked for in those days had a fleet of Cavalier 1.6Ls and GLs for the managers. They had very few problems with the Cav Mk2 despite racking up some big mileages. The Mk2 was pretty popular in the management team although, to be fair, the Mk1 Cav was pretty good too.

    Must admit that I thought the 5 door Cav hatch was miles better than the Sierra in virtually every department, especially looks. I had an Astra at the time in which I covered 63,000 miles in 22 months without any problems.

    One of our neighbours recently got rid of a Y reg brown 1.6L 4 door saloon which she had owned for many years. An iconic 80s car for me!

    I would be tempted to have another one as a useable classic if I could find a decent one.

  30. My Dad had a Y reg L & a C reg CD as company cars.

    They both were normally good, but the 1st started burning oil, & the 2nd had the alternator fail just before it was due to be replaced!

  31. I had an 86 c plate cavalier commander 1.6 hatch in 1993 (replaced my triumph acclaim). A great car. Swapped the very basic instruments for an SRi’s with rev counter etc – all I needed to do was change the speedo cable. Worked like a charm. Burnt a bit of oil from the valve seals I think, but we swapped the engine for another with better seals. Once left the oil cap on top of the engine after topping up before a big trip. Got to Birmingham from south Wales before the oil light came on. Opened the bonnet and there was the cap, still sitting where I left it, on top of the rocker cover! Great car, Shame about the rust in the rear wheel arches and the back valance.

  32. I was workshop foreman at our local vauxhall dealer at the time,remember seeing our first ‘secret’ unlaunched as yet cars,
    I saw ALL their problems,but they were an easy fix,change the cam within an hour20mns for a clutch,valve stem oil seals without the head coming off & who remembers the dizzy caps exploding when the dist vac capsule ruptured-changed lots of those!
    Noisey gearbox? Only a couple of hours & a few bearings!
    Happy times,good cars & a good honest genuine bunch of lads to be proud to work with

  33. I could never understand why GM europe continued to produce the the Manta after the Ascona B/Cavalier Mk1 (on which the Manta was based) was replaced by the J car. Take a look at an early brazilian Chevrolet Monza coupe (a 3 door version of the cavalier 5 door hatchback),then imagine a Cavalier SR/SRi with the same body. I cannot believe this wouldn’t have been a better car than the outdated Manta, and a better seller too, and could have been manufactured on the same production lines as the standard car.

  34. i have a pair of helious blue doors no glass but solid no rust from a mk2 convertable also have the little windows at the rear they can go too, decent offer and come and get them but they are in scotland i have an opel ascona c mk2 1800i cavi in other words, mot july tax sadly cant be transferred but may swap or get a decent offer oh forgot to add its an auto 41,000 plus miles cos im using it every day also spare engine and auto box if required

  35. Great article. Any chance of more article on Vauxhalls, particularly the pre WW2 and 1950s models? Similarities to their American cousins are quite interesting……

  36. My family bought an ex CID Mark 2 1.6 GL for £ 1000 in 1993. Apart from a few unusual holes in the dash, the spec was the same as a civilian GL with velour seats, electric mirrors, radio/cassette( probably the DI who drove it needed some entertainment between jobs) and tinted glass. Even though it had done 100,000 miles when we bought it, the Cavalier had been meticulously maintained and gave us no trouble until the head gasket went at ten years old and the rust took hold. Also it seemed to accelerate faster than the 1.6 L that preceded it, suggesting the police had tweaked the engine.

  37. So we have had an article on the Sierra, now the Cavalier. Is the Sunderland built Nissan Bluebird going to be next?

  38. My dad had an SRI 130 as his 1st company car, which he ran for 18 months. Even now, after all these years, he laments it as it was a hooligan on wheels! It was a 5 door in white with white wheels and go-faster stripes.

    For me, I loved the car as it was the fastest thing I had ever been in at the time and it also had a digital radio cassette #novel

    Looking on the DVLA tax query site (E721 KFR), it lasted until 2001 – not bad for an old Vauxhall!

    Great article!

  39. The J-cars were very important in the NA market for GM. GM needed to make up for the Vega disaster small car, the Chevette was too small, had serious structural issues in hard use, underpowered and RWD. They beat Ford’s Escort by a year with a FWD car and caught up with Chrysler’s Plymouth Horizon/Dodge Omni FWD ‘world car’ that came out in 1978 model year. As noted, they were ‘badge engineered’ beyond Chevrolet for Buick, Pontiac, Oldsmobile and even Cadillac. Most were 4 doors, but 3 door hatches, estate/station wagon and even convertibles were made. The base of the J-cars continued to the 1994 model year. They were solid sellers in the market, popular with rental care fleets. Yes, they did have flaws as to cams, cam belts and could rust if not properly maintained. Some early models were short on power due to the need to meet increasing pollution standards as well as jacked up fuel prices just as they came out. Later models were a bit better as to power and efficiency. They were a good car for GM here.

    • The Chevrolet Cavalier et al were introduced in the States in the fall of 1980 as 1981 models, same as the front wheel drive Escort.

      The Cavalier was an active and significant part of the collapse of the Chevrolet brand as a top level passenger car brand in the US. In 1978, Chevrolet sold about 2.4 million vehicles in a booming market. By 1985, Chevrolet sold about 1.6 million vehicles in a *larger* market.

  40. My first decent car – no leaks and no rust. I sold it to my brother – he sold it in 1996 with over 140k on the clock – still on original camshaft and sills. 3000 mile oil changes would see them run forever.

  41. My family bought a seven year old Cavalier 1600 L for £ 1000 in Newcastle in 1991. Apart from needing a new camshaft at 90,000 miles, which we obtained from a scrapyard, the car was generally reliable and had 110,000 miles on the clock when we sold it. Unlike the thirsty, none too powerful 1.6 Sierras of this era, the Cavalier was a brilliant motorway car and could return 35-40 mpg in everyday use, a fifth gear making it an economical and fairly quiet car. Also the body showed few signs of rust, which was another Cavalier bonus.
    Quite possibly it was the Mark 2 Cavalier that saved Vauxhall in Britain as it proved the company could make cars as well as Opel in Germany and it was light years ahead of the Sierra, which might have looked futuristic, but was lumbered with rwd and elderly technology from the Cortina.

      • And -early Sierras had the Pinto Engine used in the Cortina and many other Ford’s, but that was it. The rest of Sierra was a clean sheet design riding on a new platform.

  42. I had a 1.8 SRi in red and black as a company car “fantastic” I was so impressed with it that I bought it from the company for my wife to drive. I wish I still had it. Although such was my love affair with the car I was in a position to influence the sales teams choice and would always suggest the cavalier due to it’s quality build and reliability over the montego and sierra. I am currently rebuilding a 1.8 cavalier convertible for my sins.

  43. Just a wee point about the FE Victor being “an excellent driver’s car”. My dad had two of these. A Victor 1800 estate and a VX2300 saloon. Was too young to drive when he ran the Victor but had passed the test when the VX was our family transport. I was inexperienced obviously but the VX didn’t strike me as a driver’s car.If I recall it accurately, steering was light and low geared, handling a bit rolly-polly, and the gear change had a long throw and was a bit notchy. It could shift a bit though

  44. In the 1984 new shape MArk2 Astra I can see the advanced treatment of the Opel Tech 1 styling, but none of the style in the Cavaliers which followed What happened to the stylist of the Tech 1 and the 1984 Asra?

  45. When the Cavalier MK1 ceased production and the MK2 arrived, the Opel Manta lived on for a while (1986?) in Coupe & Sporthatch bodies. The chrome bumpers were replaced by polycarb ones though. I still think it was a nice looking car in its twilight years

    • I think the Manta survived until 1988 and was the last of a decent line of sporting Opels that included the Monza, a seriously underrated BMW 6 series rival that could do everything a BMW 633 could do for less money. Also the Manta was a fine alternative to the smaller engined Capris.

      • At various times in the 80s and 90s I had two Opel Manta 1900s. Superb cars for their time, excellent handling and performance. I always regarded them as the thinking man’s Capri.

  46. If the Manta (Cav MK1 style) survived till around 1988, it would be about the same time as Cav MK3 was launched. Not a bad innings. Okay so they didn’t have all the tech and safety as built into todays cars but seemed to have more individual character.

    Going from memory (I may be wrong) but I think the run out Manta was a 1.8 GT Sporthatch

  47. One big selling point for the Cavalier from 1984 onwards was the excellent radio/cassette fitted as standard from the L upwards ,a three band tuner with digital tuning and a cassette player mated to two powerful speakers( four in top of the range cars). I’m sure lesser Ford Sierras were still lumbered with a two band radio in the mid eighties playing out of a dash mounted speaker.

    • No my 1984 Sierra 1.6L had 4 speakers and a joystick to control balance and fade. From mid-80s onward most Fords got the ESRT 32 PS unit with digital display and all mod-cons.

  48. The engines on the Cavalier were far better than their Ford equivalents. Thanks to the Cavalier, Vauxhall were approaching their high point in the UK.

    Further up, a caption to a picture of the J car coupe says that it only saw production in South America. Not correct. It also saw production in North America as the Chevrolet Cavalier, Oldsmobile Firenza, Buick Skyhawk.

    • These pics of the US versions of the J car coupe remind me of the British Cavalier MK1 SportsHatch (one of my favourites). My favourite US J car was the Pontiac J2000 saloon

  49. It is rather unusual how US versions of the J platform mk2 Vauxhall Cavalier were equipped with General Motors 60-degree V6 engines, did wonder if 4×4 variants were investigated or if the GM2900 platform used in the mk3 Cavalier/Vectra was a development of the J platform (similar to how the Corsa B and mk3-mk4 Astra were victims of severe cost cutting).

    The lack of a V6 was probably the only thing the mk2 Vauxhall Cavalier lacked in its arsenal to take on the Ford Sierra, although one can understand why they did not pursue such an idea until the mk3 Cavalier.

    Yet the full integration of Vauxhall and Opel (thanks to Vauxhall’s own problems accelerating the process) seemingly denied an opportunity for Vauxhall to adapt the 60-degree V6 and make it into its own (similar to the 2.5-3.0-litre SAIC-GM units), both to allow it to take on the Ford Cologne V6 powered Sierra (with mk2 Cavalier) and Granada/Scorpio (with Carlton/Senator) as well as be a more FWD-compatible alternative to the Opel CiH Straight-Six.

    • @ Nate, the Mark 2 Cavalier only had a 1.8 as its biggest engine for most of its life, but the argument was this engine was powerful enough to take on a V6 Sierra and far more economical, the Cavalier didn’t really need a bigger engine. Only with the bigger Mark 3 was a V6 introduced, and this was a real flying nachine.

      • If memory serves me, The 1.8 injected engine produced 115 bhp, then a later model called SRi 130 put out 130 bhp. As Glenn says, bigger engines arrived on the MKIII

      • Am more noting the J platform was capable of featuring a V6 to begin with, the same could be said with the 150-165 hp 1.8-2.0-litre Turbocharged versions of the Family II engines in the 1984-1986 later 1987-1991 Pontiac Sunbird / Buick Skyhawk.

  50. On top of the 1981 J Car amounting to little more than an enlarged version of the 1979 GM T Car, much of the J Car itself would also be carried over to the 1987 GM L Car and 1984 GM N Car.

  51. My first 2 cars were 18 with a C reg MK2 1.6GL in beige with a brown interior absolutely hideous thinking about it now, followed by probably the only car after selling was a little upset and I thought by buying a 14 months old Audi A4 1.8T I was going up in the world, my 2 years old when I bought it.GS12000 4×4 absolutely adored it bought it with 38,000 sold it with over 90,000 much better car than the A4 I certainly never gelled with the Audi like the GSi.

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