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.