Unsung Heroes : Vauxhall Cavalier 1.6LD

Once again, Mike Humble takes a drive down the roads of yesterday and celebrate the cars that littered the highways and byways of Britain that now are virtually all gone in this popular series of classic clunkers.

Going the distance… eventually


You know, I’m sitting here right now thumbing through one of my many collected brochures from yesteryear thinking to myself ‘where the hell does time go’. It’s easy to think of iconic petrol cars from my youth like the Audi quattro or Rover SD1. Both still head turning cars yet both very much associated with petrol engines like the awesome German five-pot turbo and the rumbling Rover V8. Looking back, it also seems that Vauxhall had the world at its fingertips – quickly transforming its range of very average tin such as the Viva or Victor to serious cutting edge stuff.

Cars like the Astra and Cavalier stole a march from bangers such as the Austin Allegro and Morris Ital. For what seemed an eternity, the lines of Ellesmere Port and Luton produced the aforementioned with pride. Think of ‘classic Astra’ and the GTE pops up and the Cavalier? Well, it simply has to be the SRi. And yet for me, I think of Cavaliers in a different form – thanks to my childhood exposure to what became the ’80s minicab favourite (from an era when Octavia was still an Ostrich that featured in Pipkins). Of course… it’s the Cavalier 1.6LD.

When I was younger, and still living at home, our quiet cul-de-sac road featured a pair of diesel Cavs. One belonged to a transport manager called John Gibson and the other, a Carmine Red five-door that was a 1-A-B taxi driven by Alan Atherton. In point of fact, it was the taxi Cavalier that carved a fond and distinctive memory in my mind with crystal clarity. I recall journeys home from the train station in the back of a Cavalier. Who remembers watching with wonder as the meter ticks over with a warm red LED glow in 10p increments, while a two way radio babbles away up front?

A car with as much top end power as a nine volt battery, the diesel Cav made up for that by having seemingly monumental torque. I used to wonder if cab drivers went to a special training college to be able to drive across town using just third and fourth gear. Looking under the bonnet gave a view of the ‘GM Family II’ 1.6-litre engine – only the huge plenum chamber and air filter housing gave any clue of the heavy fuel it used. The basic instruments even featured what looked like a choke knob which was in fact nothing more than a fast idle control device to stop you vibrating out of your seat during cold starts.

It was this under bonnet view that set the Cavalier a world apart from other homespun offerings. Austin Rover had the Montego (no diesel until 1989) which had three engine sizes, each being a completely different engine design. Here, Vauxhall had an ideally-sized diesel designed from the same plant as the rest of the engine family, as the advertising slogan claimed it really was ‘better by design’. Simple strut suspension up front with a twist beam featuring clever space-saving minibloc rear coils gave the Cavalier safe, if not exciting roadholding. Should excitement be on the list your local Vauxhall-Opel dealer could sell you the SRi.

No fancy common rail rubbish, no fly by wire throttle, just an under-stressed non-turbo indirect injection diesel – simply amazing when you think this was all introduced in 1982. And, when they got older, and refused to start, all you needed was a good battery and a can of Bradex clanking around in the boot. They went on forever too. Early petrol Cavaliers had camshafts and followers forged from liquorice. Often they smoked like a two-stroke moped and knocked so loudly even Dave Edmunds would complain. But the diesel versions were simply known for truly staggering mileages, without as much as a spanner with the exception of routine servicing.

Initially only offered in L trim level, the diesel Cavalier was offered in hatch, saloon, and estate – and ended up selling in terrific numbers. They were the darling of the company car fleet managers too, with hydraulic tappets, self bleeding fuel system, and a clutch that could be stripped out and replaced in around an hour. The brakes were generous in size, being equally easy – and quick – to replace all in the name of minimum downtime. Later five-speed examples made long distance travel less of a chore and returned in excess of 50mpg – a figure still acceptable in today’s world.

Early Cavs were not the best built of motors, but by the ’87 facelift, the Cavalier was a sorted machine, It was no more problematic than its the European rivals. Vauxhall always made sure the car was cost effective and cheap to buy and this simple factor ensured the Cavalier sold in big numbers right up to model’s demise in 1988.  So far as reliability was concerned, it presented no real issues besides noisy CV joints, and corrosion-prone steel brake pipes. Nearly every Cavalier Mk2 failed its first MoT on rusty brake pipes!

The other real fly in the ointment was the Cavalier’s general rust and paint problems – an issue never fully cured until the ’88 model arrived. Uncared for examples could quickly go scabby, and red cars would change to a worrying shade of pink. Neglected models in metallic colours would peel its lacquer to look even more repulsive than Michael Gambon in the Singing Detective. With barely 60bhp under your right foot, it was no ball of fire, but in the early- to mid-’80s if you wanted a no-frills family diesel that was practical, roomy and – above all – reliable, with a dealer on every street corner, the Cavalier almost certainly the one to have.


Mike Humble


  1. “A car with as much top end power as a nine volt battery”

    More power than the equivalent Sierra 2.3D then…

  2. Another reason to tune into “AROnline”. I remember the Cavalier MK2 very well and used to drive a company 1.6 petrol Estate. However I cant recall the diesel versions until the MK3. Thanks again Mike.

  3. Looking at contemporary road tests, it wasnt too tardy for a diesel – 0-60 around 15secs and well over 90mph top speed!

  4. I’ve seen a few Mk2 Cavaliers used as minicabs in 1980s TV shows.

    I’m still surprised how they went from being easy to see on the roads in 1995 to hard to spot only 5-6 years later, even quicker than the earlier Sierras.

  5. You aren’t wrong about the red paint turning pink- Vauxhall paint quality was god-awful. Compare and contrast most Japanese cars- the red paintwork often looks almost like new even when over 15 years old! Vauxhall yellow was also very suspect.

    Runout versions of the Mk2, especially in dark blue metallic with anthracite wheel trims turned a not very attractive car into quite a handsome beast.

    Did these come with the imfamous Vauxhall non-springloaded wing mirrors that were later to be found on Astras and the Mk1 Vectra?

  6. Hmm I don’t mean to upset Mr Humble but I have only had 2 experiences with this engine (Pair of Mk1 Astra Vans) and sadly both ended in disaster, At around 70k one van just refused to start despite being addicted to Easy Start and even keeping the glow plugs lit, (I don’t recall a problem with Compression Test?).

    When the head was removed the Gasket was ok as were the Heater Plugs, The Head was sent away for Skimming, which was revealed to have had a major Crack! (We never noticed it). Back then a reconditioned Head was I think around £500? which was ordered and then fitted.

    Although I had the job of removing the Heads and bolting them back together, My Boss who knew a thing or two (allegedly) took over to fit the Camshaft Box and time up these engines, I stood back and watched in amazement as He tried to fired it up when it shot the floating Cam Followers out the top of the Cam cover, (to this day I’m not sure what went wrong).

    A new Camshaft was ordered from Brown Brothers (Are they still going?) Again I stood back and watched only this time the engine turned over for some time before it briefly started then Bang.. The New Camshaft had snapped in 3 places !

    Whilst that van sat at the corner of the Workshop shortly after at around the same mileage the other Van stopped working, we fitted a petrol 1.3 OHC engine for around £100 from the Breakers, not sure what happened to the 1st Van.

    Sadly I’m not a big Vauxhall fan and always thought the Ford 1.6D was the better engine, they could take some abuse !

    • My Father in law replaced a 1978 Cavalier 1.6 GL with a high mileage 1984 1.6 D hatchback. Updated to a 1991 Citroën BX 1.7 TGD but kept the Cavalier 1.6D on. The BX was comfortable, had amazing brakes and it was a bit quieter. A great car that gave no problems. However, the Cavalier, now 7 years old and very high mileage, had a bigger boot, lighter steering, a nicer gear change and seemed to pull equally as well 5 up with luggage as it did empty. It was no ball of fire but it kept you warm and dry and didn’t break and felt like a wipe with an oily rag would fuel ⛽ it for a fortnight.

  7. Oddly enough Renault had a problem with the red paint. Used to go about 3 shades paler and aquire a finish like 1000 grit sandpaper. I never did figure out why it did. The R5 I inherited never seemed to suffer that for some reason, but anything in red was at risk..

  8. Always liked the Mk2 Cav – my Dad had two as company cars in the 80s and my uncle had three, including an estate which he owned from new in ’86 until its demise in 2001 and a Cabrio in the late 90s.

    I well remember my last ride in a diesel Mk2 – it was a taxi which took me to the airport in 1995. It was clearly on its last legs then, but still much loved by its driver who said he was putting off replacing it for a long as possible.

  9. The Vauxhall red paint seems to have continued its metamorphosis into Salmon pink well into the 90s on Corsas and mk1 Vectras.

    A non-common rail lazy old diesel engine that goes on forever would be just the ticket now, the XUD was similarly unstressed.

    Unfortunately in the pursuit of petrol-like performance and emissions strangling, they’ve became overly complicated with injectors, DPFs, DMFs, FAPs, EGRs all being a headache.

  10. A friend had one of these in Red. It was slow, noisy, and unreliable. The engine issues surprised me as it was of an era when Diesels ought to be reliable, but it gave constant problems. The Red was fading but hadn’t turned pink – this was back in the mid-90’s.

  11. Forgot to say, the photo of the maroon D reg (base or L)Cav saloon looks quite good. I recall the final versions with colour coded grilles.

  12. Non-metallic red paint is well known for weathering to pink. My red Punto from 1996 went very pale after a few years. Blue pigments (phthaloycyanines) are the most stable organic pigments, whereas quinacridones used in car paint (CI Pigment Red 122 for example) are far less environmentally stable. I’ve also seen quite a few cars where the lacquer coating has peeled off metallic paints, having said that modern car finishes seem to be pretty good (so they should be!).

  13. The Mk2 Cavalier was a great car. My Dad’s firm had a range of pool cars from the usual suspects (Cortina-Sierra, Cav, Montego, later Pug 405). My Dad hated the Sierra (he was fond of the Cortina – hed did like the XR4x4 he drove once though!) but he loved the Cav Mk2. They had some 1.6 petrols with big mileages on without them causing too many problems.

  14. I’ve got about 100,000 miles on Mk2 Cavaliers but not a yard on a Diesel version. The firm I worked for could not see the point of saving a few quid on fuel at extra cost of purchase, and I think this was the clincher, they were SLOWER. In the computer service trade of the 1980s we were always under pressure to get to the customer fast, or at least to look as if we had hurried when we got there so most of our service team cars were SRIs. “Mine” not, I went down a trim level and spent the difference on automatic transmission and the new thing in car radios, one with digital tuning! It maxxed at 113mph indicated when brand new and exactly the same the last time I drove it 90,000 miles later.
    Another drawback of the diesel was more frequent servicing, I think the Diesel had to go in every 6000 miles whereas petrol Cavalier Mk2s were good for 9000 miles between stops. At 1200 miles a week, 33% extra servicing would have been a real nuisance.
    When the cars were “in” sometimes I got to use a 1.3 base model Mk2. It was a bit basic but it was definitely the sweetest handling of all the Cavaliers I drove. Nowhere near the grip of the SRI but so much easier to steer; not just lighter steering, better steering. Less weight on the front wheels I suppose.

  15. If I remember rightly, they had to have an oil change every 4.5k and service every 9. I used to drive one of these diesels in an astra with a 4 speed box. They were driven everywhere flat out – and averaged 45mpg – with diesel at less than £2 a gallon – they were seriously cheap – although after many motorway miles your ears did ring !!.

  16. My Dad’s 1st Mk2 Cavalier was a 1.6L which was mostly OK over the 3 year he had it, apart from the time it started burning oil after a couple of years & had to spend a few days at the menders. At least this gave us the chance to take my Mum’s Metro to Blackpool, about the longest journey it ever did!

    My Dad later had a 1.8CD which was good for the time spec-wise, though the alternator packed up a few weeks before it was due to be handed back.

  17. I did 65,000 in an Astra Mk1 1600D and another 55,000 in a Cavalier Mk3 1.7LD. Never had any trouble with either engine other than a frozen fuel filter (winter of ’84) on the Astra. I drove the Astra everywhere flat out or until I reached 80mph (the joys of youth and few speed cameras) and it did 43mpg. The Cavalier I drove much more sedately as I paid for my own diesel by then. The would do over 60mpg if driven sensibly (i.e. at 60mph) on the motorway. On several occasions I managed over 63 mpg fill to fill. This from a proper 5 seat hatchback over 20 years ago.

    On the down side, the non-turbo D was just a bit too slow and I finally chopped the Cav in on a Mk2 Golf GTD.

    The non-turbo D was supposed to get an oil change every 4.5k miles and service every 9k, but the firm I worked for fitted a full flow oil filter and only changed the oil every 12 months (30k miles for me 😉 ). That said, they never seemed to have any significant engine problems with their Vauxhall fleet of about 70 Astras and Cavs.

  18. I saw a ’02’ plate red corsa today with this paint problem, very pink in places, i thought this issue had been solved a long time ago but apparently not, by the way I have been reading this website for a long while now and hats off to the contributors, it keeps me entertained and is very interesting, keep up the good work guys

  19. The days when diesels were simple, the fuel was cheap and 55 mpg and an engines lasting 200,000 miles was a tempting combination. However, the Cav was never quite up there with Peugeot Citroen who developed diesels that as well as being reliable and economical weren’t a chore to drive.
    Also the comments about camshafts on petrol Cavs is true as my dad had to replace one that was misbehaving on a seven year old example, although after that it never caused a problem and the next owner kept it until it was 13 years old. Mine, however, died at ten years old after a few years of decent service when the oil pump seized and wrecked the engine.

  20. Not only Vauxhall, a friend had a Volvo of the same era in Red, purchased the car new and
    the paint turned matt and then eroded away (it did not peel) ,until the white primer was visible.

    At the time Volvo had a lifetime warranty with very stringent conditions, you could not miss a service by even a day or the warranty was lost for good. Nearly 30 years later, Vauxhall too offer such warranties

  21. My red 98 Astra went pink – I started T-cutting a panel at a time, by the time I got to the other end I had to start again! It also put a leg out of bed (snapped a conrod) at 105,000 – though mine was a petrol.

  22. The London Fire Brigade managed to lose one of their appliances, driven out on a multiple call out, the crews came back in whatever they could climb in, it was lost for about two years, when it was found it had turned pink!

    I bet that took some explaining to the powers above.

    Losing a Fire Engine!!!!

  23. my dad had one for appox 6 months till he swapped it for a petrol one as wanted more power for towing …. otherwise i would of got it as my first car and not a 1.6 petrol Gl , both where Y reg.
    the diesel had a 5 speed box and was fairly smooth on the inside as i recall , the petrol was only a 4 speed

  24. In the early 90s a minicab firm I briefly worked for had a cav 1.6LD on the fleet. It was an utterly hateful machine with no power at all, but it never gave up despite everyone who drove it trying to kill it and did astronomical mpg. My steed of choice was one of the sapphire 2.3 diesels,They felt faster, were comfier and generally more refined.

  25. One thing that could be said about eighties diesels was while they were often short on power and very dull to drive, they were indestructible and delivered excellent economy for the time. I can remember being in a Sierra 2.3 LD taxi in 1984, when diesels were still quite rare, and the driver saying it had the same performance as the 1.6, which meant 100 mph flat out probably, but could return 45 mpg and was far more reliable.

  26. The Cavalier diesel came good with the Mark 3 that had an Isuzu 1.7 turbo that was another engine known for its durability, but was light years ahead of the old 1.6 diesel and better for high speed driving. I still see one locally that is a bit of a shed, but is still providing bangernomics motoring for the owner.

  27. These were quite common as minicabs, as many operators were probably still a little wary of buying a Peugoet or one of the Japanese brands in the 1980s, & couldn’t afford a Mercedes.

  28. Had a 1.6 diesel for five years. Pretty much bomb proof – once you got them started. This was their big weakness after the first flush of youth and nobody seemed to know why. Once they finally rattled into life on a cold winter’s morning they were good for the rest of the day.

  29. Then along came the British built Peugeot 405 and its XUD engine, which proved diesels didn’t have to be slow and rough, and while the engine on the Cavalier was quite durable, the XUD was capable of 200,000 miles if the service schedule was adhered to. Also fleet managers with a British only policy now had a better alternative to the Cavalier, Montego and Sierra.
    I think Peugeot Citroen set the benchmark for diesels as they caught on in popularity in the eighties and once they added a turbocharger, you could buy a 1.9 diesel with the same performance as a 2 litre petrol car, but with far better economy. Indeed so good were their diesel engines, that Ford and Rover started using them.

      • When the Cortinas were replaced, most local taxi firms went for Mark 2 Cavaliers as they were more economical and better to drive than Sierras. The 405 diesels became more popular in the nineties, as well as British built Japanese cars for their reliability and Mark 3 Cavaliers with their Isuzu turbodiesels. One firm had a fleet of Hyundai Stellars as they were the cheapest family car on the market and quite reliable.

        • The Stellar was a reshelled Cortina; the suspension seemed better sorted. I rode in one from Cardiff to Liverpool and back, I would have had a nwm bwm in a Cortina!

          • The Stellar was advertised as being the heir to the Cortina and was the first Hyundai to sell in large numbers over here. It was a rather tinny car and not very exciting to drive, but for people like taxi drivers wanting a cheap 1600 cc family car, it was ideal. Also the Proton 1300/1500 started to appear not long after, and was even cheaper, and had the benefit of almost unbreakable Mitsubishi drivetrains. Again some taxi firms in places like Sheffield were won over.

  30. This takes me back We had one as family transport for about 8 or 9 years. My brother and i learned to drive in it.
    It was an 87E plate , in a distinctly uncool beige colour. Like the Marina it replaced, it was one of dads ‘ bargins’ – a sales reps car that had come up for disposal at his firm.
    Performance was dire, 85 max on the flat or you could nudge it over 90 downhill with a tail wind. With a couple of passengers on board , trucks and buses would out accelerate it. Nor would it run in top gear into a moderate headwind.
    On the other hand it was incredibly cheap to run with over 60mpg possible. And the lack of speed probably kept us teens out of trouble. Was fairly smooth and comfortable at steady speeds too
    It lasted us until ’99 by which time it needed ‘easystart’ as a matter of routine when the motor was cold – still went ok one you got it going. Emmisions were its downfall in the end when no amount of screwing down the diesel pump could get it through the MOT. The body was fairly ratty by that time too

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.