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
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.
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!