Somewhere in Belgium yesterday, my latest purchase, a 1995 Vauxhall Cavalier, rolled passed 1000 miles in my care. The fact that I can’t remember precisely where it happened speaks volumes for this excellent little car – because, after picking it up and giving it an all-round service with Mike Humble (I did make some tea while he did the cambelt), I find myself driving it without a care in the world.
That’s possibly a little bit of an exaggeration – mind you, given the combination of this car’s simplicity and ease of servicing and the fact that we’ve put on so much new stuff recently, I’d be surprised if it did anything any less reliable than your average three year old Volkswagen Golf. However, as wiser people than me say, fail to prepare, and prepare to fail.
Regular readers will know why I bought this car – I was looking for a new car to take on the commute and, after a little deliberation, bought this 1995 Vauxhall Cavalier 1.8i LS (the ‘i’ is for important, by the way) on a bit of a whim. It looked very tidy and cared for, wasn’t ravaged by a high mileage and, most importantly, had not a speck of rust anywhere (exceptionally rare for one of these). If any car was built for a typical British A-road/Motorway commute, it was this one.
So, building on the great all-round condition of this car (and I’ll be honest, I didn’t pay bargain money for it), in order to make it a proper turn-key car, I fitted a new battery, new front tyres (surprisingly hard to find over the counter), changed the oil, filter, plugs, coolant, cambelt and… windscreen wipers. Taking into account everything, I could have been rolling in a grander, more interesting car for the money – but, as I have a Citroen XM and Lancia Integrale on the key and in the fleet, what I needed was an unpretentious work horse.
This one fits the bill perfectly.
Indeed, to show my confidence in it, I decided to take it on a bit of an impromptu road trip. So, with P&O Tickets bought (including that all-important Club Lounge entry), passport in glovebox, I crossed the Channel and headed East for Germany. I’d been looking to catch up with AROnline’s Deputy Editor, Alexander Boucke, for some time – and, although I usually hang out with him at the Techno-Classica Essen show every year, I wanted to spend some time not faced with the pressures of deadlines.
The miles down to Dover slipped by reasonably effortlessly – I hit some nasty queues near Cambridge, which gave the cooling system a bit of a work-out (the fan cuts in at an indicated 100 degrees, which seems high to me) and, in the heat of the day (the Cavalier has an external temperature gauge that works!), I soon learned that the ventilation is excellent and the tilt-slide sunroof that no self-respecting 1990s rep would have done without was also very effective.
This overall story of efficiency and effortless mile munching continued on the other side of the Channel, even at the higher continental speed limits. There’s not much to report dynamically – the steering is aloof and vague, but other than that, it’s light, airy, quiet at speed and slips along easily thanks to long-legged gearing. Once into a Belgium, its noisier and less smooth road surface had a bit of an effect, but nothing to be alarmed about – even with tired rear dampers.
After fiddling with the bass, treble, balance and fader controls, even the Grundig sound system was more than acceptable – even with my ageing mix tapes, recorded back in the 1980s.
We rolled into Germany, after many boring motorway miles, in the mid-afternoon, and there was absolutely nothing to report. A quick run up to its maximum speed (116mph, at an indicated 132mph, by the way!), before dropping down into Aachen saw the end of a relaxing day of driving. The dear old car didn’t put a foot wrong, drank fuel reasonably parsimoniously and left me impressed at just how good a mile muncher Vauxhall actually put out of Luton in its tens of thousands.
I did spend a day in the Belgian Ardennes with the Cavalier, driving some absolutely majestic roads in and around the Spa-Francorchamps circuit area. We won’t talk too much about that, though – as the dynamics and steering of this car weren’t really up to scratch. It wasn’t that the Cavalier wasn’t competent – it grips and corners reasonably well – but there’s no subtlety or feel in the controls and little to be had in enjoyment.
In this score, at least, a Peugeot 405 or Nissan Primera (two of its best contemporaries, pre-Mondeo) would leave a Cavalier for dead.
However, going back to the whole reasoning behind owning this car, after driving the return trip back home yesterday, I’ve come away understanding why so many people loved this car back in the day. It’s roomy, the seating is good, the engine hushed, there’s little in the way of wind noise, the stereo sounds good, it’s long-legged on the motorway, seems to be relatively economical, and – the context of its age – is excellent at shrinking motorways.
It’s still very much a sub-prime banger that can be bought for peanuts and has a bit of a joke reputation (thanks, fellow Vauxhall owners for buying so many England flags for your cars), but look beyond that and find a good rust-free one, then look after it, and you could enjoy painless retro-car driving without breaking the bank, or your nerves. It’s not a classic, and it’ll be a few years before it is – but the Cavalier Mk3 was a way of life in the late-1980s and into the ’90s, just as its predecessors will – and that means nostalgia will play its part in making it one.
Anyway, for now, I’m just enjoying painless, inoffensive and efficient driving. Long may it continue.
Thanks to: P&O Ferries