Most of us would probably acknowledge that, in its earliest incarnation, the Vauxhall Vectra failed by a country mile to capture the hearts and souls of the British motorist. It was by no means a flop – in fact, it sold rather well – but no one could ever describe it as dynamic as say the Ford Mondeo or as sweet to pilot on a billion mile non-stop journey as the Peugeot 406.
Where Vauxhall dropped the clanger, so to speak, was by dropping the Cavalier name which had earned GM so much respect since the mid-1970s. Advertised on the TV with some vivid, expensive and sadly now forgotten commercials, it was hailed almost akin the second coming of Christ.
In practice, the Vectra just wasn’t as revolutionary as GM attempted to make us believe and, in the face of some very good competition such as the new Passat and the aforementioned offerings from Ford and Peugeot, it quickly joined the ranks of the cut price sales rep ‘also ran’ fleet special. I will go on record and say that I found the Vectra a good grafter, bereft of any style, substance or class; but a well-serviced and cared for 1.8 will plod on with the same determination and dogged stamina of a 10 year old Clydesdale.
The last Vectra I owned was a 2001 Club 1.8 that I took as a trade-in during my time peddling new Vauxhalls. It racked up the thick end of 9000 miles in little under three months with ‘er indoors commuting between Durham and Sussex just prior to our re-location. The damn thing was bought for shirt buttons and didn’t put a bloody foot wrong but, sadly, Vectras often fall into the hands of the miserly driver, who will keep driving them ’til they simply conk out and die. As a consequence, even the facelifted Vectra from 2002 onwards are as desirable, nay valuable, as today’s newspaper – but I digress.
I remember receiving a ‘phone call from a ‘rival’ mobile mechanic – a rare turn of events – in Yarm (about eight miles away) and he enquired if I wished to take on one of his jobs at short notice as he had decided to call it a day and pack up his tools. After chatting for while, it became rather obvious that, if he had a brain, he’d be classed as a liability and the job involved was a head gasket on a 1999 Vectra GLS. He suggested that the customer should contact me directly and, owing to my workload being a touch sparse, I agreed and awaited a ‘phone call from a Mrs. Hurst.
Well, as sure as the sunrise, the ‘phone went off a short while later and I chatted to a lovely sounding lady who described the symptoms over the line which did not tally with a blown head gasket. She also let slip that her husband thought mechanic ‘A’ was nothing short of useless and was tempted to find someone else – oh dear. Luckily, she worked in Darlington and could leave the car with me and hitch a ride home with a colleague so I could take (within reason) as long as I needed. Arriving home from a nearby job the morning after, an immaculate Vectra was sitting on the drive – game on!
After checking the oil and water, there was no sign of any head issue and this was confirmed again after completing a pressure test on this average mileage yet cracking-looking car. After coming off the ‘phone the previous day, I had kind of diagnosed the fault mentally with a 95% certainty but the aforementioned purely acted as a precautionary measure. Running my finger behind the alloy exhaust manifold heat deflector plate of the cooling engine, grey sooty deposits were left on my paws and many of you in reader land with a touch of knowledge will be saying to your screen ‘ahh – cracked manifold’ – which it was.
However, for those of you who don’t already know, the 1.8-litre Ecotec engine features a part which we in the trade call a ‘manicat’ whereby the catalytic converter and exhaust manifold are all in one. This engine is very prone to the cracking of said component between the branches – that’s, in part, thanks to intense heat and poor quality castings.
Some cars can develop the fault by ploughing through water at speed whereas others simply develop the crack without warning. Either way, the symptoms are a rough-sounding engine with a spitting or machine gun-like noise from the extreme front of the engine which quietens down quickly as the manifold heats through.
I contacted the lady to get the go ahead on a strip down and, in next to no time, the downpipe was detached and the exhaust manifold came off with no nasty sheared threads or rounded nuts. There, for all to see between the branches of cylinders one and two, was a hairline crack about an inch long and quite accessible, too. Mind you, my subsequent ‘phone calls to various Motor Factors nearly caused me to faint with the cost of a pattern fit replacement – it was a hell of a lot of money even with 15% trade discount – but, in one of those ‘don’t tell anyone I told you so’ conversations with one factor chap, a solution was found.
Armed with a nice bit of inside track knowledge, I called some chap who fabricated and welded from a small unit on a local trading estate who asked if he could see the manifold. About 20 minutes later my Corsavan took me to what at first seemed like the original ‘Black hole of Calcutta’ where a dirty man in burned overalls gracefully slid out from underneath a Leyland Roadrunner on a home made crawler board. Removing his goggles to reveal the only white skin on his person, he re-lit his roll up, looked at the manifold and told me to clean up the crack, drill two roots and come back with £15 – and back under the truck he went.
Again, for those not blessed in the art of cobbling a solution or fettling, drilling a root refers to drilling a tiny hole at either end of the crack so when it is welded thoroughly, the crack won,t run. My trusty Dremel ground back the surface crud, two holes were drilled into the iron manifold and, within that very hour, I handed over what was required and wombled off to grab a plastic cup of tea from a nearby greasy spoon. I must have been gone all of 20 minutes and when I returned the guy was again, back under the truck welding away. He just bellowed from my feet over there on the bench and that was it – transaction completed.
Asked what the life expectancy of the repair would be, he snorted ‘longer than the f*****g car pal’ and I kind of went along with his ‘hewn from stone’ warranty and sourced a couple of gaskets to commence the replacement of the manifold.
Just in time for Countdown (the late afternoon televisual treat for the self-employed) the Vectra was perfect and the customer was duly contacted, nicely surprised and slightly taken aback considering the original mechanic has quoted in the region of £600 – my bill came in at a round £125. Mrs. Hurst collected the car that evening, but what happened two days later did make me smile!
The ‘phone rang and it was the aforementioned dead-headed spanner man asking how I got on. I gave him the rundown to which his reply was something like: ‘You jammy **** – if I’d have known that I’d still have charged for a head job’ – then the line just went dead.
I never tried to call him back!