Keith Adams continues AROnline‘s series devoted to celebrating the great and the good that used to be familiar UK street furniture.
Who remembers the Astra Mk1, a blisteringly capable, fun-to-drive small car that redefined Vauxhall’s standing in the small car field? We do, and we love ’em!
A quantum leap
The Astra was a landmark car for Vauxhall. It was a new entrant into the front-wheel drive VW Golf sector – a fast-growing area of the market – and went straight to the head of the class when it was launched in early 1980, replacing the ageing Viva HC in the process. Sales success quickly followed and, within no time, the conservatively styled two-box from Vauxhall has a familiar sight in the UK.
In August 1979, when the Opel Kadett D first appeared, the common assumption was that a Vauxhall version would subsequently appear with alternative styling, to replace the Chevette. This had been the pattern established with the T-Car Chevette/Kadett C Carlton/Rekord and Cavalier Mk1/Ascona, which remained visually quite distinctive, and it was assumed that for GM’s first FWD car, we’d get British production, UK-sourced engines and a droop-snoot front-end. In the end, the UK Astra was all-but identical to its Opel cousin and was sold alongside both the Chevette and the Kadett in British showrooms.
In sales terms, the Astra started off slowly, initially available only in relatively plush 1300S GL hatchback and 1300S L estate car forms. If you’re wondering what the S meant, it was nothing more than the state of tune its 1.3-litre overhead cam engine was in – S for 75bhp. The E version with 60bhp would follow, but not until 1981, once production was fully up to speed at the Ellesmere Port factory. Despite the slow model start and relatively high list price (£4602 against £4533 for a VW Golf 1.5GLS), sales started strongly – meeting demand from an appreciative audience in the market vacuum that existed prior to the launch of the Ford Escort MkIII later that year.
With each passing month, further additions were made to the Astra range – first the 1.2-litre overhead valve models, then the L and SR models of 1981. The 90bhp 1.6-litre arrived on the scene in January 1982, turning the Astra into a near GTI rival in cooking form. However, by the following April, that ‘nearly’ car, the two-tone 1600SR, had been replaced by the 115bhp 1.8-litre fuel injected GTE. This is when the Astra – for many people today – got interesting and really unleashed the potential of the tidy-handling chassis and sharp-looking square-rigged styling.
Mind you, it wasn’t perfect – the gearing was too long (fifth was a leisurely 25mph/1000rpm more suited to the Cavalier) – and it wasn’t until 1984, that it was dropped, thus turning the GTE into a genuine Golf GTI rival (and Escort XR3i killer). Ironically, within months of the optimum GTE being unhatched, it was replaced by the aerodynamic Mk2 – an entirely different proposition.
So why do we consider the Astra Mk1 too be an unsung hero? After all, it sold well and helped radically change perceptions of Vauxhall (alongside 1981’s Cavalier Mk2) but also indoctrinated fleet managers across the land to the idea of reliable front-wheel drive company cars. Quite simply because there are so few left today and this fine car seems to have been forgotten, except by a handful of enthusiasts. As we’ve already said, the Astra range started off slowly, but soon expanded – you could buy it with that wide range of engines already discussed, as well as in two-, three-, four-, and five door saloon/hatchback form, as well as a three- or five-door estate. For the early 1980s, this level of choice was truly heady stuff!
The magazines loved the Astra, too. They praised it to the hilt for its crisp and potent engines (75bhp from 1.3-litres was really quite an achievement), flat and stable handling and high overall levels of practicality. The wrap-around dashboard might look dour and boring today but, back then, it was the height of big-car sophistication, giving reps and family men a real sense that they were driving something that had been conceived with ‘drivers’ in mind. What Car? magazine didn’t hang around waiting for the model range to broaden, awarding the Astra 1300S GL its Car of The Year in its April 1980 issue.
When the Escort MkIII arrived in September 1980, it was assumed that the Astra’s reign at the top of the Golf-class tree would be toppled – but, as it happened, Project Erika wasn’t quite developed enough and its ride/damping set-up was so badly tuned for UK roads that it totally compromised the car’s critical reception, sending the boys at Dunton back to their proving ground in order to dial in some ride quality. They never quite managed it. Not that this mattered one iota, as the Escort had masses of appeal elsewhere and soon usurped the Cortina as the UK’s best-selling car.
The Astra therefore remained a front-runner in its class pretty much to the point it was replaced by its (strangely unappealing) successor, the aero-bodied Astra Mk2. Its chief rivals in the UK, aside from the Escort, were the VW Golf (a bit player at this time, due to high prices and a small dealer network), Talbot Horizon, and (from 1983) Austin Maestro. It could be argued – certainly for keen drivers – that the Vauxhall’s appeal transcended them all.
Its decent into bangerdom, though, was quick and painful. Rust was a killer, as were toffee camshafts (in the overhead cam models), gearboxes and driveshafts. By the late 1990s, numbers were thinning alarmingly – and today, it’s nearly extinct. That’s why now is, perhaps, as good a time as any to declare the Astra an unsung hero, bemoaning the fact that it seems that none of its (very capable) British-built successors seemed to recapture the magic of the 1980 original.
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