Mike Humble ponders once again over another car which once seemed commonplace but now languishes in penny numbers.
This time we applaud the executive saloon which defied the ‘class without kudos’ tag… The Vauxhall Senator B.
Being a true petrolhead, you get to understand that cars are not all simply thrash, power on understeer and living on the edge handling – though a fast blast along a dark lane in a Cortina with floating rear lower void bushes, was living on the edge, and would give even the late Tony Pond the ‘thrupennies’ I can tell you. Sometimes it’s all about the journey rather than the involvement. In this modern, sterile world we live in, the volume manufacturers seemed to have retrenched from that one time category of the ‘Executive Saloon’ – our own Rover is now worm food, Ford will sell you a Mondeo and Vauxhall can sell you an Insignia but neither can be called an executive car or claim to be a true aspiring purchase for the up and coming.
That lovely cosy era of what we would call ‘Managers’ Cars’ are seemingly light years behind us now. Great motors such as the Ford Granada Mk2, Rover 3500, Vauxhall Carlton and Volvo 760 still linger in the mind of many as being the ideal mode of transport for those who ran your local bank, but not costly enough to break it either. Back in the 1980s, Vauxhall-Opel was going through a transformation here in the UK. Once known for fairly bland and rusty cars, it seemed to embrace modern technology with cars like the Astra and Cavalier. At the top end of the line up, you had the Opel engineered Carlton and Senator, offering conservative engineering, proven drivelines and a seemingly rugged build quality.
When you ponder to think about executive saloons, many I guess would not utter the word Senator as first choice in this class, but they were in fact, really great cars. A possible blunder by GM, was the decision to drop the Opel name in the UK, maybe the UK perception of the Opel brand was a lesser example of what Audi was to VW. Sales of the earlier Senator took a bomb-dive as they became branded a Vauxhall product. We simply did not view Vauxhall as a maker of high class executive cars, this continued right up to the last decade when Vauxhall introduced the Signum and Antara 4×4 – the public pretty much ignored them, and in the case of the aforementioned Signum, slightly unfairly perhaps.
The original Senator saw its demise as far back as 1987 along with the Manta, Monza and the UK Opel brand. A great shame, as the Manta was a class leading rally car making the McRae family a household name, and the Monza was a genuine cut price long distance luxury coupe, offering an almost Jaguar type ability to shrink Journeys at a fraction of the cost. GM replaced the Senator with a new model using similar drivelines in a sleek curved body that was easy on the eye. Its Two engines were based on the long serving CIH (cam in head) straight six in 2.5- or 3.0-litre offerings. There was nothing too exiting about the driveline engineering, front engine rear drive continued, as did the long travel all round independent suspension – why ruin a proven formula?
GM originally planned to produce the new Senator in modest numbers, but rather quickly, the car became an instant hit with the buying public in both retail and fleet markets. What made the Senator so special however, was the way it performed its tasks. Even though the antiquated engines may have seemed archaic compared to rivals such as the Honda powered Rover 825, or as free spinning as Ford’s even older Cologne V6 – thanks to superb body engineering and over the top sound insulation, the Senator was remarkably refined. That sleek aerodynamic shape with aggressive looking ‘chip cutter’ grille cut a clean dash through the air, giving the car credible fuel economy and impressive performance even in base 150bhp 2.5-lite form.
Build quality was pretty impressive also, with close fitting panels and flush glazing all round contributing towards the cars excellent interior ambiance. Plastics that felt good to the touch, huge armchair seats, a dash of walnut on the CD models, big chunky switches and an ultra smooth changing electronic auto gearbox option made the new Senator so easy to pilot, you could almost drive it wearing boxing gloves. It seemed that the lack of badge prestige no longer mattered as sales of the car took Vauxhall by surprise, with many older sleepy family dealers who relied on a sprinkling of Astra or Nova sales, now catered for a serious market with a seriously good car. Vauxhall continued to develop the Senator into a true driver’s car with capable road manners.
Following the launch of a new 207bhp 24v 3.0-litre model, still based on the outgoing engines pedigree, the 24v Senator became one of the finest traffic division Police cars available. Officers appreciated the stable chassis, blistering straight line speed and comfortable cabin. In a similar situation to forces stockpiling the SD1 3500 upon notice of the models demise, various constabularies also stockpiled the Senator – forces of note being Leicester and Durham. Both continued to operate the model for some years after the deletion and subsequent introduction of the Omega range in 1993. It was quite an impressive sight to witness one of these in your rear view mirror, appearing out of nowhere akin to the shopkeeper in the cartoon Mr Benn.
The entry model 2.5 engine was phased out with a new 2.6 litre 24v dual ram power unit featuring the same technical attributes of the 3.0 but featuring more power, and importantly, more fuel economy. The dual ram system re-routed the intake airflow at lower engine speeds resulting in a more even torque curve while at the same time, improving the engines high speed flexibility – a problem with more traditional in line sixes. Top spec models also featured new generation in LCD dashboard technology with a circular style rev counter which looked less of a gimmick of previous types, though traditional dials could be ordered if required. Even the entry model was lavishly equipped with sumptuous upholstery and plenty of buttons.
On the whole, the Senator was a fine car offering a solid build quality, decent visual appeal and a talented chassis, but maybe the cars mass market appeal was the models ultimate downfall – all going back to that one stigma, brand value. Being a Vauxhall, the Senator was not exactly known for holding value and quickly became regarded as a cut price luxury banger on the used market. Good examples fell into the hands of people who just wanted bells and whistles rather than kudos or image, resulting in many models being run into the ground. Later Dual Ram plants were not quite as bomb proof as the earlier 12v engines, so as they gave problems, tight fisted owners would either blow them up or simply scrap them off.
In summary, the Senator was a class act with no class and was killed off in 1993 following the launch of the Omega which never quite had the same feeling to it. The Omega has also gone the same way, being very much another cut price bargain barge with plenty of talent but no kudos or image either – such a shame as both the Senator and its successor, the Omega were truly capable cars in almost every sense!