The Vauxhall Cavalier Mk3 (or Opel Vectra A for our European readers) was a completely different animal to the popular car that it replaced… well, it was to look at.
Mike Humble tells the story of GM’s streamlined Ford Sierra fighter.
The streamliner that everybody loved
Towards the latter part of the 1980s, the Ford Sierra had become a socially acceptable shape of car to own. Though it had taken time to build momentum, the Sierra was now a runaway success in the sales chart. The Cavalier in Mk2 guise had its best years in 1985-’86 where it sat secondin the top 10 behind the all-conquering Escort. As the ’80s progressed, the Cavalier slowly started losing ground to its rival makers.
For instance, sales of the Cavalier estate were nothing short of disappointing, where it was expected to score well – and it was here that the stylish Montego estate pretty much had the market to itself.
The Cavalier had a minor makeover in 1985, which comprised of a skilfully applied boot-width reflector panel between the rear lights, new wheel and seat trims, and some special editions such as the Commander, Antibes and Club models. What was obvious though, was its angular boxy styling was dating quickly in the wake of Ford’s aerodynamic Sierra. It was still a good driver’s car with perky engines and keen handling, but the Cavalier lacked real build quality and style. It remained a firm fleet favourite, but retail customers were wandering elsewhere.
In its last full year of production (1987) the Sierra outsold the Cavalier on a ratio of 2:1.
The new for 1989 (but launched in October ’88 at the Birmingham Motorshow) Cavalier Mk3 was designed to be the best of both worlds – aerodynamic like a Sierra, but bristling with Mk2 front-wheel drive appeal. Slightly larger than its predecessor and much curvier looking, the new Cavalier could now go head-to-head not only with cars such as the Sierra, but also the sleek new Ryton-built Peugeot 405 and the Washington-made Nissan Bluebird, which was racking up some impressive sales figures.
Vauxhall also took the opportunity to revamp its corporate look and distance itself from the existing staid Vauxhall–Opel–GM brand image. Now was the time to stamp Vauxhall as strong a standalone marque within the General Motors stable. Advertising for the new Cavalier (and its stronger marque image) was everywhere from magazines to television. The latter used a cover version of Derek & The Dominos’ track Layla, with the tagline ‘Once Driven Forever Smitten’. In short, simple but effective media usage.
Sleepy family retail Vauxhall dealers that once survived happily taking in your Chevette in part exchange for a base Nova were asked to shape up or ship out – Vauxhall was coming back, and back with a bang.
The new Cavalier, though, was underpinned by engineering lifted from its predecessor. But it proved to be a much more finely-honed product. There was evidence of real engineering prowess and impressive safety features right across the range. Where the Mk2 always had a feeling of lightness and cost cutting in its build, the Mk3 was a solid machine made with high quality materials. It sported a good-looking functional padded dashboard, and you instantly knew this car was screwed together well.
Put the Montego 1.6 head-to-head with the Mk3 Cavalier 1600, and you knew the difference before you had settled down in the driver’s seat. It was with the launch of this new Vauxhall that time quickly ran out for the rapidly ageing, but still incredibly capable, old Austin. You only had to look at both maker’s entry models to see the difference. The Montego had a 69bhp pushrod 1.3-litre A+ engine mated to a four-speed gearbox, which was about as pleasant as placing your hand into a food mixer. The Vauxhall, on the other hand, had an overhead cam 1.4-litre with 75 bhp and a standard five-speed transmission.
Powertrains were updated versions of previous engines. Petrol units at launch comprised of 1400, 1600, 1800, and 2000 in 8v or 16-valve form. The latter two had the all-important option of Bosch fuel injection – and a little ‘i’ badge on the boot lid. GM engineers were careful to ensure the previous cars reputation for ease of servicing and you could still replace a clutch on the Cavalier in well under an hour, without the need of its gearbox to be removed. Diesel drivers were offered a 60bhp GM 1.7-litre, but a similarly-sized Isuzu TD followed on three years later.
Parts were plentiful and cheap, and there was a dealer in every major town and city too, this car was making an awful lot of common sense.
Careful attention to panel fit, finish and paint was evident, the outgoing car was known in the trade for indifferent paint and rust problems, things were much improved in this area. The Cavalier was offered in two body styles, a four-door saloon and a five-door hatchback – gone was the two-door saloon and estates of old. The lack of an estates option was taken because Vauxhall still had a popular hold-all in its range – in the shape of the Carlton.
For the 1992 model year, there was raft of improvements and updates for the Cavalier. The Turbo 4×4 was ushered in to replace both the two- and four-wheel drive GSI 2000. A new state of the art 16-valve engine known as EcoTec joined the fray, as well as a new 2.5-litre V6. The addition of anti lock brakes, airbags and subtle front and rear styling updates also helped keep the car fresh looking.
The leather-clad Diplomat (which was behind the CDX and Turbo in the pecking order) was a surprisingly popular car, as the sales family saloon cars tend to peak in the mid spec versions. Also for the sporty owner, came the Calibra – a latter day Manta that was touted as the most aerodynamic production car you could buy, boasting a drag co-efficient of 0.26. It would be fair to say that the early to mid 1990s was Vauxhall’s honeymoon period in the UK, and this really was mainly down to the popularity of the Cavalier Mk3, a real people’s champion.
The final Cavalier was a well regarded car – it drove and looked well, performed brilliantly on the motorway and gave its tired dealer network a well needed shot in the arm. One interesting fact is that not once at Luton during production of the Mk3 Cavalier did the workforce go out on strike – and this car kept a lot of people happy. The Vauxhall Cavalier continued to be a steady seller right to the end of its production in 1995 and was subsequently replaced with the Vectra…
And that’s where things started to go wrong.