Why we love the… Vauxhall Cavalier SRi

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Proof again that great cars are not always super cars. The first in a brand new section of AROnline favourite everyday cars from an era when everything was alright with the world.

Mike Humble kicks off with an essay on one his many childhood and adolescent sweethearts…


Flying from Luton

The Cavalier SRi in original 1983 guise - The ultimate Mk2 Cav? We reckon so.

In the modern world, your typical sales rep has the pick of the bunch when it comes to choosing the company smoker. Once upon a time, it was a genuine perk to run a fleet car, and standing on a footbridge of the M1 circa 1982 would confirm that 9.5 cars out of 10 that passed beneath you, would be a company owned Rosso Red Ford Cortina 1.6GL. Back then, a hint of Rostyle wheel with rim embellisher, allied with a soupçon of mock wood appliqué to the dashboard, was all your commercial traveller would need. No doubt, a promotion would incur a Ghia model with exiting extras such as a rev counter and some snappy alloys wheels – oh bring back those wonderful times again please.

But then Vauxhall with new found mojo and massive investment from GM blew the company car market apart with its Mk2 Cavalier in 1981. Ford retaliated with the Sierra, but its sleek futuristic shape initially alienated both retail and fleet buyers, thus giving GM a free reign of the UK family/fleet car market. With its mix of bang up to date engineering and ultra low downtime in the service bays, the Cavalier was a riproaring success from day one. With front wheel drive, superb fuel efficiency, stunning performance and a model to match pretty much every budget, Vauxhall nudged Austin Rover into the number three spot in 1985, leaving a two horse race for both retail and fleet markets: Ford and Vauxhall.

As the ’80s progressed, the Cavalier range also did; and fuel injected engines joined the range thus launching a model that featured an iconic yet simple three letter moniker – SRi. Vauxhall was clever enough to realise that fleet custom also creates retail footfall in the showroom and by the mid-’80s offered a fuel injected option with every Cavalier 1.8 model. Its ‘Family Two’ range offered a credible 115bhp in Bosch fuel injection 1.8-litre format while still offering outstanding fuel economy and strong performance – but it was the sporting SRi that became the ultimate ‘Cav’ to own. Available in saloon or hatchback, the Cavalier SRi became a strong-selling car partly thanks to good value for money, but also down to one simple fact – it was a good car.

Looking plain by modern standards, the SRi interior was well thought out and superb to drive.

Impressive behind the wheel

It drove really well too, a strong gutsy engine and body hugging front seats made for a real driver’s car. Cornering was eager, owing to a lowered sporting suspension and quicker steering rack, making the car almost as pin sharp as the drivers suit hanging on the rear grab handle behind. On the outside, it was equally smart with two tone paintwork and nice touches like headlamp wipers and subtle boot spoiler made of squidgy black rubber. Sales of sporting GM products including the Astra GTE soared as Vauxhall-Opel Motor Sport knocked up various class wins in National and International rally events. In next to no time, the Cavalier SRi was seen as a cool car to have and in my own case – a bedroom wall poster pin up girl… I adored them!

For sure the SRi had its home grown rivals too. The MG Montego came along in 1984 offering an engine so gutsy you could almost rip out tree stumps, but it lacked the raw feeling of the Cavalier. Ford introduced the now almost forgotten 2.0iS Sierra, but again, it lacked any real involvement or talent and the 2.0-litre injected ‘Pinto’ engine was reluctant to rev hard. For the same level of performance coupled with ease of ownership, you needed to go Swedish or German but you paid for that luxury. Value for money and a dealer on every street corner were they key factors in the Cavalier rise to success, but there was a whole host of talent under the skin too which saved owners a small fortune over time.

Better by design made it better on the books

GM engineers designed the car to be built and repaired with minimal fuss, a prime example of this came in form of the clutch installation. Whereby your average saloon car required anywhere between two-to-four hours on a ramp, the Cavalier had a clever inspection plate in the gearbox bellhousing and a main shaft that could be wound out from the gearbox with a spline tool.

Replacing a clutch on the Cavalier had a book time of just 45 minutes with no need to even remove the gear box either. All the other service items including timing belt and brakes were designed to be removed or replaced with the absolute minimum of downtime, maybe the key factor in why it became the darling of the fleet manager.

Shortly after a minor revamp, the 1.8 SRi was complimented with a larger model – the 2.0 SRi 130 using an enlarged version of the established Family Two engine range. Notable by the deep front spoiler and alloy wheels, the SRi 130 was met with similar acclaim to the 1.8-litre version. By the late 80’s the Cavalier was soon to be replaced with a re-engineered version, but not before perhaps the ultimate sporting Cavalier – the Calibre, bedecked in an Irmscher body kit with custom exhaust, lavish interior refinements and underpinnings based on the SRi-130, just 500 models were produced.

Cavalier Mk2 production ceased in 1988 and though the SRi moniker stayed with the new model, it never carried the same clout or kudos!

The Tickford built and Irmscher styled Cavalier SRi Calibre - Just 500 produced.

Mike Humble

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade.

Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

44 Comments

  1. When the Cav MK2 was launched, the top model was the 1.6SR with 90bhp like the rest of them. It wasnt long after, that the 1.8SRi replaced the SR. Appearence was the same.

    I always thought of the Cavalier SRi being a more modern day VX4/90 replacement… more powerful though. Also preferred the look of the original MK2 design rather than subsequent facelifts.

  2. I also like the Cavalier, the SRI and the CDi in hatchback form, we had a lot of Cavaliers in the Met Police, we had a brown 1.3L auto saloon, once got going nice car to drive, and its was a nice size. The Met has a now long assoication with Vauxhall and ongoing.Regards Mark

  3. I always loved the SRi, I had a Cavalier 1.6 with the SRi wheels. Couldn’t afford to insure a real one at the time! Not sure about the gold colour of the one in the picture though, very eighties!

  4. I had a 1.8 injection SRi and it was a real stormer with massive torque and power. At the time, I lived in a hilly district but I could still accelerate and change UP the gears whilst going up some steep inclines.

    It had one weakness which the piece doesn’t mention….a ferocious torque-steer. If you hit the accelerator very hard you could never be certain which way the front wheels would decide to point.

    But they ruined it with that final Calibre version….that is the ultimate boy-racer plastic stick-on disaster.

  5. My uncle replaced his Fiat Super Miafiori with a basic Cavalier MK2, then used it for Taxing, and when he replaced it for a Carlton my Aunt had the car. Only prob had was usual wear and tear and a new gearbox, but it was still running 6 years ago when my Aunt replaced it with a Corsa, as she need a car with PAS. The hot versions always looked good but Vauxhall always seemed to offer underpowered versions which looked the same and devalued them against its rivals.

  6. Like KC I had a 1.8 saloon, C reg and it was one of the best performing cars I have owned.

    5th gear overtaking (and QUICK overtaking at that) was a dawdle. One of my bosses went from a 1.8 to a 2 litre and said it was a backward step

  7. I used to buy and sell cheap cars back in the mid-Nineties and had the pleasure of experiencing a 1982 X reg Cavalier SR saloon in white back in 1994 (the SRi’s 1.6 carb-fed predecessor – looked exactly the same as the early SRi pictured above and had the same excellent Recaro seats). I only paid £320 for it from Bradford (the home of chepies in those days). I drove it back to Barnsley and I couldn’t believe how solid it was to drive and how quick it was. It went straight through the MoT, the only repair I had to do was to affix the (presumably aftermarket) manual choke more securely to the dashboard. Took the fancy aftermarket Pioneer pullout stereo out to put it in my 205 GTi and sold the SR easily for £500 a week later. The only downside was that the fancy alloys (as seen on the first SRi) were missing their centre caps, but all those style of alloys seemed to be missing their centre caps in those days – they were unavailable from Vauxhall even then.

    I wish I’d have kept it…

  8. Experienced a few of these as a young passenger between 1981 and 1990. 1.6D = slow. 1.3 = Good. 1.6 = Great. 1.8 = Epic. No room in the back and bloody awful ride/handling showed it’s failings against the Montego. But briskness, reliability (sorry AR) and deep pockets to provide discounts ensured its popularity. As an aside we had one of the first Pea Green 1.3 2 door saloons in 1980! Ooh the SRI were but a dream….

  9. Don’t forget that the Cavalier had a NA version and also a good seller in the USA. They competed quite well with the Ford Escort, Dodge/Plymouth Omni/Horizon and even Nissan and Toyota models.
    Due to our pollution controls, auto transmission, a/c and despite 1.6 L engines, they were slow, but they were solid sellers for GM with Chevorlet. They also made versions in Pontaic, Oldsmobile, Buick and all the way up to a Cadallic version !.

  10. I had not quite an SRI, it was a e reg. 1.8li – a run out fleet model, on 1.6 brakes, suspension, skinny 165 tyres, and standard gearbox. It made quite a good “sleeper” with the i badges removed, it looked like a standard 1.3/1.6. Went like stink, but making it stop or go around corners was another matter. Great car to own at 19 years old. Kids now are lucky to own a 1.0 saxo.I managed to drive it without abs/pas/ebd/dtsc/airbags etc. How did we cope !!!

  11. My Dad bought a C SRI for my mum it was a boss ex compnay car, in the company he worked for. A good motor but I found it not very pleasent. Vey wallowy if the road surface was less than perfect when high speed crusing, say 75-80 MPH

  12. If only the Montego was half as appealing as the Cavalier Mk2. Edwardes’ much-vaunted product recovery stalled with the Maestro/Montego, and it was Vauxhall who benefitted.

  13. Somehow the mark three fell a bit short, the mark one and two had much better styling and where better built to boot.

  14. The MK3 suffered in steering too,the high mounted steering rack mounted high on the struts caused too much flexibility,far more than MK2 thus less feedback and understeer.

  15. It’s not an SRi, but I appear to have a Mk 2 Cavalier in my near future. Will rose-tinted glasses make me like an FWD Vauxhall?

  16. Strange to think that it came with a 1.3 option, when now a 1.3 would barely pull along a Corsa!
    And 1.8 as the sports option, when that would have been a base option Vectra (with a 2.5 twin turbo V6 as the sports option).
    The Irmscher bodykit looks very plasticy. (Not a fan of modern Irmscher grilles either, they look like someone has stolen the badge.)

  17. Keith: Probably because you know I’ll get bored with it in about five minutes and want to swap it for something impractical and impossible to repair (speaking of which, the NSU’s new owner has cut out a lot of rusty bits and is making progress putting non-rusty bits in – stuff I simply couldn’t do). I’ll probably go see it at some point this week, it sounds like it’s a 1.6 GL in pale blue on a C-plate. Hatchback. Been garaged since new…

    Whatever condition it’s in now, it can’t be worse than the Mercedes S500 Coupé I was considering swapping the Voyager for.

    • Richard,

      sounds like you are a really hopeless case when it comes to cars 😉

      I’ve never been a fan of this Ascona/Cavalier range. I even once drove one, but was not really impressed – mind you this was about 1988 and I was used to the still fairly new MG Maestro. However I agree that these cars, together with the FWD Kadett/Astra had been a significant step for GM Europe into modern times. When I did first see the Ascona C after launch it was a hatchback. Thought one: They copied the SD1. Thought two: Not so successful…

  18. Alex: The Cavalier will be #142. Or maybe 143. I forget.

    The excursion to look at some today was pretty much due to feeling I can’t maintain the Voyager properly – it’s too big for me to work on when injured – and I feel daft driving something with 7 seats when it’s just me. Figured a big Mercedes S500 Coupe would fit the bill as a nice all-purpose car – big boot, big sunroof, pillarless, one of my favourite engines of all time. Then I considered trading both my yellow SLK AND Voyager for a single, multi-purpose thing like a CLK 430 Cabrio.

    But they were so shabby, so broken, I jumped back in the Voyager, drove home, and looked at my surprisingly tidy 15 year old SLK, and can’t imagine being able to improve on it. Took the spare wheel out, the boot floor is perfect, the spare is perfect (need to get a genuine compressor) – it even has the bag for putting your flat tyre in. Just need some original genuine wheels, a cam magnet and a breather hose and it’ll be as close to perfect as possible.

    Shame the boot is so small when the roof is down, and the cabin so small when it isn’t…

    I think the Cavalier owes more to American thinking than the SD1 – and perhaps the Renault 16…

    • … the Austin Maxi of course, Richard! 😉

      BTW, this was the first time I heard someone calling a CLK a multi-purpose thing – I’d imagine a Zafira or C4 Picasso if someone would introduce a car this way.

  19. What sort of MPG does V’Ger get?
    My own septic Honda coupe gets just over 20.
    Considered weighing in for a diesel but then took maintenance costs into consideration.

  20. Will: Ilia’s economy is actually pretty good. With the front A/C on I’m getting an overall average of 28mpg in mixed use (damn US economy meter shows 23.8); on the motorway the best I’ve seen, good weather, normal speeds with cruise control has been just under 33mpg. Lots of in-town use and heavy throttle will push it to low-20s; I tend to drive ‘briskly’ but not overly aggressively. 2,500rpm, roughly, for motorway speeds, the 3.3 needs to be revved to get any performance but it’ll surprise people when you do boot it (and the economy meter drops to 4mpg, but so did my Jeep when I did that).

    Parts are quite cheap, too. The rattly front I have on mine is due to ARB bushes, £15 and two bolts to change over. Wheel bearings are £100-150 integrated hub types. Only expensive bit (relatively) is the need for six plugs of a suitably long-lasting, wasted-spark friendly type, at £60ish. (To change the spark plugs, first, undo the windscreen wipers). Very easy to work on.

    I’d recommend a 3.3 Voyager over the asthmatic 2.4 petrol and as an older, higher-mileage proposition over the CRD models, which as elderly dieseasels will be VERY expensive if they go wrong – the 3.3 is good old-fashioned suck-squeeze-bang-blow with OHV and simplicity built in.

  21. The Cavalier SRi wasn’t a bad old tool, but GM needed to fit a better camshaft, as they wore very quickly on all their OHC engines for some bizarre reason. I always thought the CDi was the better looker too, and it was almost as quick, and didn’t have the naff 2 tone paint, plus a plusher interior. It also looked better in hatchback form

  22. @Richard Kilpatrick – Not too bad for a big bus like yours! First time I’ve heard anyone give a tip to undo wipers to get at the spark plugs though 🙂

    Bringing it back to a GM theme, anyone remember the Sintra?

  23. Not only do I remember the shortcut-Chevy-Astro, I nearly bought one instead of the Voyager 😉

    (The wiper bit is because the rear bank of the V6 is under the scuttle panel – which can be removed, wiper mechanism and all, in about 20 minutes, but you have to take the plastic trim under the wipers off to undo it. Once removed, access is pretty impressive, some owners also remove the bonnet for longer jobs)

  24. @27 The problem with the cams was one type was chill cast and the other was induction hardened-you could not use chill cast cams with chill cast followers and same for induction hardened,also people never stripped or drained the hydraulic valve lifters and that caused hydraulic locking and would shear past the oil film that much you could see sparks between lifter and cam lobe!

  25. I’ve heard the 1.6 engine (not sure it’s based on the same block) could suffer from lazy tappets on high mileage units.

  26. @32 this could be attributed to poor maintainance or depending on engine family,i think family one had oil filter on front of block and family two a remote one (at rear of oil pump,so unfiltered oil had to travel further along a gallery as opposed to oil pump to filter.As i rember both families could be had in 1.6.

  27. The early ones – did have bad camshafts and conrods. The cars also rusted for fun. They improved them (hole through each lobe for oil), so by 1986/7 they were bulletproof 200k+ engines (and they got a lot of abuse).

  28. I had a couple of 1600 Cav’s. Utter dogs both, they had the scary understeer and the strut tops separated. Still great fun and I always wanted an SRi 130. Cav’s seem much rarer than Sierra’s now, probably reflecting the country’s love of fast Fords, although back in the late 90s Sierra’s always looked like they rusted much faster.

  29. Keith, Good to see my Calibre on your site. The red car is mine and is also pictured on our club website (www.cavalierandchevetteclub.co.uk). Only 27 genuine Calibre’s are belived to be on the road still (lots of fakes about and cars that have had 16V’s fitted and bigger wheels). Th rarest Mk2 is the Estate though, I think this might be down into single figures. When did you last see one?

  30. @36- KevinBricknall,

    I saw an Estate a few months ago in Gloucester, think it was a blue one. It did strike me that I haven’t seen many about (mind you they didn’t sell many in the first place so not altogether surprising).

    Seem to remember someone saying that the estates don’t go as well as the saloon/hatch because they use a Holden power unit. Is this true?

  31. I know the estates only came with 1.6 petrol & diesel units, but though only the rear panels were made by Holden.

    Even by the mid 1990s they seemed to be hard to see on the roads, I remember my local fire station in the late 1990s having one in the back yard for fire practice.

    I’m sure I saw a Chevrolet example when I was last in America, or at least a car that looked a lot like one.

  32. I have a SRi130 and a CDi mechanically converted to a 130 spec.

    They come from the era of cars that you had to know what you were doing to drive them really fast. As part of the ‘easy to steal’ generation they were the most stolen car in the 1980/90s. Two reasons why many ended up in ditches etc.

    In many ways they are a man’s car as 195 tyres, FWD and no power steering make it a real effort to park. Enormous fun to drive, fast and corners like a roller skate. There is a website for them at http://www.mk2cav.com

  33. @38 Richard… Right, there was a Chevvy Cavalier in the States and also a Pontiac J2000 version which looked really good – well I think so.

  34. They sold the Chevy Cavalier related to the mk2 Cav until the mid 90s.

    It had a 2 door coupe version and also a 2 door hatch that looked a bit like an Opel Monza.

    They sold the following generation in Japan too – you could buy a Toyota Cavalier!

    Replaced by the Cobalt which looked like an Astra saloon, and then the Chevy Cruze.

  35. hi i am looking for body panels for mk2 cav saloon if anybody can help me out. both quarter panels both wings and both sills and the clocks out of the sri model thanks

  36. Much better to drive than the mk1 cavalier. My legs were wrapped around the steering wheel on that one. My dad had the SRi as a company car and also just a “plain” SR as I remember. I loved them. Not just because they were great to drive, but also because of the free petrol and being on the company car insurance from 17 when I passed my test! Can you imagine that now?

    This was the first of what I would call the modern cars. Up to date dashboard, lightweight materials , good size and comfort to match. Really enjoyable to drive.

  37. I bought a white y plate saloon back in 1987 being only 4 years old it was near mint. I had to replace the valve stem seals and a starter motor in the 2 years I had it but it was a joy to drive and own spent every Sunday cleaning it. It had the black recaro’s seats and was very comfy. Today I own 5 mk2’s an Sr,Sri and 3 cd’s my Sri is the cleanest with only 45000 miles and being stored for the last 30 years is a car I can’t see selling ever.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*