The good-looking Vauxhall Victor FE Series went on sale in 1972 and was met by indifference from the motoring press. But a programme of constant improvements saw it become increasingly competitive towards the end of its life.
Keith Adams tells the story of the ambitiously-named Transcontinental models.
Vauxhall Victor FE: Always the bridesmaid
By the turn of the 1970s, Vauxhall’s position in the UK car market as the solid number three behind British Leyland and Ford had been cemented. The firm’s image had taken a battering thanks to the widely-publicised corrosion issues that especially affected the original F-Series Victor, and its recovery was taking time.
However, with the arrival of the Viva HA in 1963, and a model policy that centred on frequent model updates, the picture was beginning to look brighter for the Luton-based concern. By the end of 1967, and literally months into the FD’s production run, first thoughts were given to the next-generation FE. It was originally conceived to sit on the same platform as the FD. Management sign-off for the FE programme was given in January 1968, and design work on what was known as the 94000 began in earnest, with an projected launch date of late 1970.
Given that the FD was praised for its good looks, especially the successful adoption of the US-inspired ‘Coke Bottle’ look (years before Ford took the baton and ran with it for the Cortina Mk3), it came as no shock that when the first designs started to emerge from Vauxhall’s impressive Design Studio in Luton in January 1968 (below), they would have the same dipped shoulder line and even more flamboyant proportions.
Design and engineering changes
Throughout 1968 the FE’s design began to really take shape under the leadership of Leo Pruneau. There were two main design directions – the first a more formal approach, with quite a sober-looking set of clothes that weren’t a million miles away from the later Opel Admiral and Kapitan. It was the second – a continuation of the FD that really gained momentum, though.
The Detroit styling influences would win through and, as 1968 progressed, the essential character of the FE really started to take shape, with the dipped waistline, bold grille and tapered boot cementing the personality of the FE. It was already emerging as a good-looking car, and one which promised to be a strong contender in the upper-middle ground of the UK market, epitomised by the Ford Corsair. Little did Vauxhall executives know at the time that this line would end in 1970…
While the overall shape of the FE was approved by Detroit in the summer of that year, there were seismic changes taking place in the future model plans. In that long summer, the replacement for the Cresta and Viscount PC-series was pulled for budgetary reasons after brief consideration had been given developing a UK version of the Opel Admiral and Kapitan. However, more relevantly for the Victor FE, the decision was taken to drop plans to use the FD’s platform and, instead, use the Opel-designed V72 platform, which was currently taking shape for the Rekord.
The Opel-Vauxhall commonisation programme
The 1960s were a time of huge change for the US-owned manufacturers in the UK. Chrysler was forging new model plans for the Rootes Group (and we all know how that ended), while Ford of Great Britain was moving closer to Ford of Germany, with the pan-European Escort and Capri emerging in 1968 and 1969 respectively.
For Vauxhall, this process had been going on for just as long (if not longer), but with less overt results. As far as the customer was concerned, Vauxhall and Opel’s model ranges were independent of each other, with different model names, engines and designs. The Viva HA and Opel Kadett A were both designed to use the same platform, even if they did differ in many ways, and had very little in terms of parts commonality.
In the summer of 1968, the Vauxhall-Opel commonisation programme was introduced to the Victor FE’s development, which stipulated that it would use the forthcoming Rekord’s platform, front and rear bulkheads, front door assemblies and windscreen structure among other parts. Although the FD and V72 were similar in size, there were enough differences to push the development programme back by months, and the anticipated launch date into 1971.
Maintaining the British style
This delay in the programme was considered essential for Vauxhall, which did not want all of its work on the FE to go waste in favour of a badge-engineered Opel. By January 1969, the bodyshape had been altered to accommodate the V72’s longer wheelbase, wider track and width, and was looking very good indeed. It was at this time that the style for the estate version was also set.
However, the model line was far from set. In March 1969, the proposed line-up would look like this – Victor 1800, Victor 2300, VX4/90, Ventora and Viscount V8. The VX4/90 and Ventora would feature a different body design, which featured a lower roofline (rather like a four-door Coupé version of the Rover P5) while the Viscount V8 would have more stately front- and rear-end styling and a Holden-sourced 4.2-litre V8 engine.
As appealing as these models were, neither of these bodyshapes were signed off for production by the Vauxhall Product Policy Committee, and failed to see the light of day. The VX 4/90 would make it into production, with the standard bodyshape, as would the Ventora, which would use the outgoing Cresta’s 3.3-litre straight-six engine. This decision might have proven to be the correct one given the strength of the opposition, but it would go on to limit the FE’s market appeal, while significantly weakening Vauxhall’s presence in the executive car market.
And on to launch
Maintaining the FE’s UK character, the Victor would retain the FD’s excellent slant-four engine. It was designed to use upgraded versions of this engine – so the older car’s 1599cc entry-level model was increased to 1759cc, while the outgoing model’s 1975cc unit would also be upgunned to 2279cc. Although the FE wasn’t significantly larger than the FD, it was heavier, and Vauxhall also wanted to give its new model better performance.
However, big changes were happening to the Ford Cortina. The Mk3 made its debut at the 1970 Earls Court Motor Show and, although it wasn’t that much larger than the outgoing Mk2, it was shifting further upmarket, with a longer wheelbase, and the range had grown to 2.0-litres to incorporate the old Corsair range, which was the Victor’s most direct rival. This shift in Ford marketing would have a significant impact on the market, especially once the Granada Mk1 hit the market in 1972.
In theory, the Victor should have been a direct rival for the 1.6- and 2.0-litre Cortina Mk3 but, with the larger engines installed, it would end up straddling that model and the entry-level Consul Granadas. Moreover, with the loss of a separate executive model in the range, the Ventora would end up struggling against the sterner challenge posed by the Granada Mk1. Vauxhall wasn’t, of course, the only carmaker to be wrong-footed by Ford’s growing Cortina, but it would have a serious affect on the firm’s UK independence.
Enter the Victor and Ventora
The Victor was announced to the public on 25 February 1972 to much ballyhoo, as the car that benefited from the most thorough testing and development programme at the firm’s recently-opened Millbrook facility in Bedfordshire. Its German counterpart, the Opel Rekord, beat it to the market by a month, and that would lead to inevitable comparisons.
Much work went into the ride and handling, especially, which adopted the FD’s layout but with many detailed changes. This meant wishbones at the front, a coil-sprung live axle at the rear, with rack and pinion steering keeping it all on the road. It was tuned for ride comfort over handling precision, which led to some unfavourable comparisons with its rivals.
The model range incorporated saloon and estate versions of the Victor in 1800 (DeLuxe and SL) and 2300 (SL) forms, the VX4/90 in 2.3-litre form only and the Ventora (below). The Victor’s 1.8-litre engine boasted 77bhp, while the 2.3-litre made 100bhp – these compared with the Cortina 1.6-litre and 2.0-litre’s 75 and 100bhp. For the VX4/90, the larger four-pot was treated to the twin-carburettor treatment for 110bhp, while the big-six in the Ventora produced 123bhp.
However, it soon became clear that the press wasn’t enamoured. The media launch was a big-budget affair in Portugal, but this was not enough to help swing opinions. CAR magazine concluded its first drive in its April 1972 issue by saying, ‘…it’s tolerably good without setting any new standards. That, really, is the trouble. The new Vauxhalls are good when compared with the cars they supersede, but turn grey and uninteresting when seen in the light of their international competitors.’
It went on: ‘Perhaps it was a Belgian motoring journalist who had the final say. He drove one of the new cars for a few miles in Portugal, declared it a non-event and went home again, 48 hours ahead of schedule!’
Transcontinental: badly aimed, badly timed
The biggest issue was with the marketing hype, which set unreasonably high expectations and played on the international nature of the FE range by referring to them as the ‘Transcontinentals’. As Chrysler found with the even less popular rival, the 180 and 2 Litre, sold as the ‘American in Paris’, this message didn’t really land because it failed to nail it as a ‘home’ product. This was also the case in Luton, where its latest product had a distinctly American look about it.
However, this was far from a new design direction. Pretty much every Victor, with the notable exception of the with David Jones-styled FB, was designed with a short shelf life in mind and largely influenced by GM’s US output to some degree or another. Maybe it was more about how the FE lacked the FD’s effortless good looks, while the Ford Cortina Mk3 more successfully evolved the Coke Bottle style for UK consumption.
Either way, the rather grandiose Trancontinentals failed to inspire. At its launch, CAR magazine was scathing about its styling: ‘Of course, it has been improved over the FD, but it lacks the flair that has gone into its cross-channel stablemate, the Opel Rekord, despite commonality of some body parts. The so-called Victor shape covers not only Victor, but also VX4/90 and Ventora, all with various options and alternatives to swell the customer choice.
‘The Ventora and VX4/90 get four-lamp configurations, whereas the Victor has a pair of rectangular lamps mounted inboard to give it a curiously surprised look, almost as if it has been rushed from behind by a randy polecat.’
Not exactly quick off the mark
Using the Opel Rekord platform meant that the FE Victor had better interior space than the FD, while slant-four engines were smooth and refined. They weren’t over-endowed with top-end power, but they were easy to drive on their torque curve, while being well suited to the long gearing of the four-speed manual and three-speed auto. And while the Victor and Ventora hardly set the press alight, the sportier VX4/90 picked up decent reviews.
However, the 1800 DeLuxe failed to impress – especially against the stronger offering from Ford. In its first drive, CAR concluded: ‘On the motorway we were able to coax a steady 100mph out of the Victor but it took its time getting there and was saved from a bad attack of breathlessness by the optional overdrive.’
What Car? said of the 1800’s performance in its November 1973 issue, when it lined up against the Ford Cortina, Hillman Hunter, Austin Maxi and Morris Marina: ‘The slowest car in the group is the Vauxhall Victor 1800. Its 77bhp engine has a good deal of sheet metal to push through the air. It takes no less than 16 seconds to reach 60mph and 22 seconds to reach 70mph.’
‘However, the Victor engine is designed to be a low-revving unit which relies on torque to move it through the traffic and, although it is the slowest in acceleration from a standstill, it almost matches the Marina 1800 in its ability in overtaking from medium speeds. If taken to high revs, the Victor engine objects most strongly by becoming very harsh and causing severe booming throughout the body/chassis unit.’
Comfortable, but not comforting
Although the suspension was soft, its dynamics weren’t terribly impressive. At its launch, CAR said: ‘The ride over the often uneven surface of the motorway was just okay as was the noise level and the directional stability. The suspension kept the wheels pointing in pretty much the right direction most of the time and the braking was tolerably effective without setting any new standards.’
A year later and What Car? magazine had found little material improvement, despite the running changes Vauxhall had introduced. ‘The suspension is soft and this gives a good ride on most surfaces, but bad bumps cause it to bottom quite sharply. There is also a good deal of body boom and vibration through the gear lever which spoils the car.’
Outclassed by the opposition
In the end, the motoring press’s verdict on the Victor was pretty damning, with the Cortina easily outclassing it. Compared with its rivals, What Car? placed it near the bottom of the class. ‘The Victor is a big, roomy car with lots of glass, which gives the passengers a fine view. Equipment in the 1800 DeLuxe is somewhat spartan, and colour combinations are sometimes incongruous.’
The problem wasn’t limited to the Victor either. The Ventora struggled, too, as it found itself competing with the bigger Ford Granada. The toughest verdict came from CAR, which compared the six-cylinder Vauxhall with a top-end Cortina, a Granada and the Opel Commodore (a six-cylinder version of the Rekord).
CAR’s test concluded: ‘The choice here must lie between the Commodore and the Granada, for the standard of ride and handling of the Ventora is not really good enough for this class of car. It does not need a lot of development to get it right, but it doesn’t match the other two. It’s not really worth over £250 more than the VX4/90 with the four-cylinder 2.3-litre engine which feels a better balanced car overall.
‘In other words if roadability is your requirement, then it has to be the Commodore. Should your need be maximum comfort, then the Granada is the obvious choice, specially since it has so much equipment thrown in as standard. It is very good value for money on that score, but we prefer the Opel by a narrow margin.’
Imagine how well that verdict would have gone down at the top floor in Luton – and perhaps it accelerated the move towards a more wholesale adoption of Opel’s models for Vauxhall’s future range.
So, it would appear that FE had missed the mark on both counts.
On to a facelift… and oblivion
Although the arrival of the Vauxhall Cavalier Mk1 in 1975 should have made life easier for the FE range, it really didn’t, and sales fell sharply. The new car not only strengthened the firm’s representation in the middle market, but also offered a convincing alternative to the Cortina – which, by the mid-1970s, was running away with the UK car market – in a way the Victor had plainly failed to do.
However, that didn’t stop Vauxhall working on, and improving, the FE range. Even by the autumn of 1973 and the announcement of the 1974 model year updates, it was becoming more competitive thanks to a raft of small changes and equipment changes to bring it in line with the opposition. But the ‘FE75’ programme, as it was known internally, would end up putting right a lot of the original car’s wrongs, even if the market had stopped caring.
Launched in February 1976, and from then on known as the VX-Series, the FE received a whole raft of changes to improve the way it drove and looked. Power for the 1800 was uprated to 88bhp, and 108bhp for the 2300. It received big equipment upgrades, too, a vastly improved interior and a blink-and-you’ll-miss it facelift that successfully tidied up the front-end styling, especially at the lower end of the range.
Saving the best ’til last – the VX 490
Although the arrival of the VX-Series looked like a non-event, a great deal of behind the scenes work had been done on extending the range upwards. These included developing a more convincing sporting model to replace the VX4/90, the first of which was the fuel-injected VX/E.
This looked very promising indeed, but ultimately, it didn’t make it into production as the FE programme began to be scaled back as budgets were squeezed. However, some of the changes developed for this car were incorporated in a new twin-carburettor VX 490 (note the altered name), such as its close-ratio five-speed Getrag gearbox. Although its power output was quoted as the same 116bhp as its predecessor, it actually had around 10bhp more thanks to its redesigned cylinder head. It would make its public debut in March 1977, going on sale a few months later in June. A total of 943 were made.
What is even more fascinating is that the incoming President of Vauxhall, Bob Price, green-lighted the development of a top-line version of the FE series to take over from where the Cresta PC dropped out in 1973. Various longer wheelbase, V8-powered Ventora proposals were cooked up, reigniting memories of the earlier ill-fated Viscount V8 – but the Panther Westwinds-built FE Prestige (below) looks the most interesting. Two examples were built before the plug was pulled in 1976 on the basis that it couldn’t be put into production and sold at a competitive cost.
As for the VX range, it went off sale in 1978, largely unmourned, and was replaced by the Carlton. This was much more closely based on the Opel Rekord and, was more than a match for its rivals from Ford. The Carlton Mk1 would be built in Luton, but the facelifted Mk2 moved to Germany in 1982 – a strategy that had done Ford no harm at all when it replaced the Zephyr/Zodiac Mk4 with the Granada Mk1.
Conclusions – the end of the line
The Victor FE Series was a car that, like so many from the UK motor industry at the time, was rather under-developed at launch. As a consequence it suffered at the hands of Ford (which also had problems with the Cortina Mk3, but seemed to put them right much more quickly) and never met its undoubted potential.
It was uncompetitive, poorly targeted at its rivals, and most damningly of all, not as good as its Opel sister car. Its failure to impress probably accelerated the complete merging of Opel and Vauxhall’s model ranges in the 1980s as much as the success of the Chevette and Cavalier Mk1, and the end of Luton’s design autonomy as a carmaker – and yet, it should not be viewed as a complete failure.
Of the FE models, the facelifted VX range from 1976 was a substantial improvement over the original Victor and Ventora of 1972, and today it’s these cars that make for an interesting classic car that’s better to drive than its reputation would have you believe. It looks great in retrospect and, in later models at least, its upgraded and more powerful slant-four engine ended up being a bit of a peach.
As a post-script, it’s worth saying that the FE Series lived on in India as the Hindustan Contessa – a more upmarket sister car to the much-loved Ambassador – and would remain in production all the way through until 2002.
Written with reference to the brilliant Vauxpedia website. A detailed account of the FE’s design evolution can be found here, with many more sketches, concepts and clay models.
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