Blog : Whither Vauxhall?

Vauxhall Cavalier Sports Hatch

Ohhh… I was out and about this weekend, and found myself giving chase to a gorgeous Bright Copper Metallic Vauxhall Cavalier Mk1 Sports Hatch (like the one above) on the motorway just to get a closer look. When I managed to draw alongside, I gave the driver a broad smile and a thumbs-up – just to show her my appreciation of her handsome devil of a car. She must have thought I was nuts, looked at me piteously and roared off in a cloud of unburnt hydrocarbons. Lovely…

I’ve owned two near-identical models, both in Bright Copper Metallic like this one (the second of which is pictured below), and they figure highly on the list of the all-time favourite cars I’ve owned. I mean, look at it – what a handsome devil it is. Believe it or not, I do identify myself as a classic Vauxhall fan, with cars in the marque’s back catalogue really tugging at my heartstrings.

A Chevette was one of my very first cars, and a Cavalier saloon run on a shoestring just after passing my driving test taught me a thing or two about driving and car maintenance. But for me, something went badly wrong for Vauxhall along the way. Writing this blog now is probably the first time I’ve really considered when it was that the company’s products lost it, and it’s actually quite easy to nail that down.

Keith Adams' Vauxhall Cavalier Sportshatch

I know that, for many people, Vauxhall lost it when it replaced the Cavalier Mk3 with the Vectra. I can see why they’d think that, but I’m not entirely sure I agree. I would blame a lot of this perception on a certain Mr Clarkson, who did a phenomenal job of rubbishing the car on Top Gear. To this day, I know certain ex-senior Vauxhall people who are still seething about the programme’s handling of the Vauxhall Vectra – and I can understand why. If you’re too young to remember, his review is still there in all its glory on YouTube (see below).

However, I guess the company has itself to blame by giving it an all-new (to the UK) name and backing it up with a glitzy advertising campaign. It set expectations too high. Had they called it the Cavalier Mk4, I suspect things might not have been that bad – it felt like a sensible update of the Mk3. Instead, the company ditched all the goodwill built up around that name and set about attacking the repmobile market with an all-new franchise.

For me, I reckon that Vauxhall lost it with the launch of the Astra Mk3 in 1991. I still remember the utter disappointment when I first drove one after it went on sale, with a squidgy throttle and wobbly dynamics to match. After the sharpness of the Mk1 and the progressiveness of the Mk2, the third-generation was a blobby disappointment.

That, followed by the dismal first-generation Corsa, the pointless Tigra and the underwhelming Omega all set Vauxhall on the wrong path well before the arrival of the Vectra. It was that car that merely drew everyone’s attention to how unappealing GM’s UK arm was becoming in the 1990s. It would get worse. There were bad cars. Who remembers the Sintra? Or the Adam? Or the Viva? Or the Agila? And then there were ones that were actually okay, but no-one cared about, such as the Cascada (below) or the Signum.

And it’s a shame, because in that sea of mundanity Vauxhall continued to build genuinely good cars. All Astras from 1997 have been sharp drivers, and the Insignia was a genuinely good large family car. As good as the Cavalier was back in the day. But by then, no-one cared.

Vauxhall Cascada

There is some good news coming down the line, though, and Vauxhall’s era of dismalness is finally ending. The current Peugeot-based model range is vastly more appealing and better to drive than its GM-engineered ancestors and, with its very latest offerings, I reckon Vauxhall has rediscovered its design mojo at long last.

There’s even talk about bringing back the Manta nameplate, attached to a nice-looking electric coupé – and I could get even more excited about that idea if the execs were brave enough to call it the Calibra Mk2. Or maybe even Cavalier Sports Hatch, to appeal to this former fanboy of the marque.

Keith Adams

36 Comments

  1. Having driven quite a few Mk1 Vectras, I can say they were hideous to drive. They walloped all over the road but crashed into every pothole. The drivers seat was not comfortable and other than the great 2.2 engine were asthmatic. And dint remind me about traffic master, which in every ventral I drove you couldn’t turn it off! The Mk4 Astra though was a joy to drive, and not far off the Focus (which I owned at the time) but was just a bit bland to look at unless it had been fully colour coded.

    The problem for Vauxhall was that Ford and VW moved their game on in the 90s, and the Vectra just seemed rubbish against the Mondeo and the Passat, which with a different badge on the nose would have been premium products.

    I think GM had held back Europe, much like it did in the US, with blandness and basic engineering seen as selling cars. Ford thought the same until the sales started falling off, and the reaction was the Mondeo and Focus.

  2. I was a Vauxhall fan in the 70s and 80s and had several. My first ever car was a Viva HC; basic but it did the job and I kept it for 2 years.

    I later had a Mk1 Cavalier 1900 which was a revelation at the time (early 80s). I’d never driven a car which handled and drove so well; it was miles ahead of anything else I’d known.

    I then had 2 x Opel Manta Coupes (Cavalier Coupe with a different front end) which were equally good to drive – and look at.

    My last Vauxhall was a Mk3 Cavalier SRi; very fast but with massive torque steer if you weren’t prepared for it.

    On the downside I also had an early Mk2 Astra which was incredibly dull and slow; I got rid of it as soon as I could, but that was the only blemish.

    In those days Vauxhall were at the peak of their game; I always preferred them to anything Ford could turn out.

  3. The Vectra MK1 was launched best part of 30 years ago so I would think Opel/Vauxhall have had plenty of time to recover from that! I think this article is really bemoaning the shift from traditional family cars to crossovers/SUV etc, this has of course impacted all manufacturers not just Opel/Vauxhall. Opel/Vauxhall are actually in a far better position than they have been for years. Being part of Stallantis they are solidly profitable and able to benefit from the huge economies of scale of being part of a Euro centric multi-national rather than a US off shoot. They may not trouble the best seller charts as much as they did – although the Corsa is often right up there – but selling lots of cars is hardly a sustainable position if your not making any money.

    • I’m afraid that being part of Stellantis doesn’t mean that Vauxhall is solidly profitable – any more than being part of BMW (or indeed BAe) made Rover Group solidly profitable. It just means that that have a big owner whose patience they may be testing.
      I cannot see the logic in Stellantis maintaining this vast stable of overlapping brands. It seems inevitable that some must be for the knife. It would be quite the coincidence if Peugeot ended up terminating Vauxhall in the same way they did Rootes/Chrysler/Talbot forty years earlier.

      • For sure the Vauxhall brand name will disappear as really only used in the UK, likely in the next 4-5 years. Stellantis will likely keep the Opel name for Germany, Eastern EU markets but will just be rebadged Pugs.

      • But Vauxhall are now solidly profitable as a matter of fact. Something that was never achieved when they where part of GM. As for overlapping brands VAG have been at it for years.

        • I wonder what will happen to Alfa Romeo, whose sales are a fraction of 20 years ago, and in the UK, are even being outsold by Bentley. It would be a shame a brand with so much heritage ends up being a brand confined to Italy like what happened to Lancia. Surely launching a new version of the Sud with electric and hybrid powertrains, the same fun quotient of the original and keen pricing could see this great brand rise again.

  4. Vauxhall’s golden era was definitely from the mid seventies to the early nineties, even if the cars were really Opels. Everything they made was a hit, was good to drive, and reliable by the standards of the day. Also the old reputation for making rust prone cars fell away as the rust protection was improved on each new generation of cars. We had a Mark 1 Astra, which was a big leap forward from the Mark 2 Escort it replaced in terms of fuel economy, comfort and refinement and, barring a starter motor which gave up at seven years old, never went wrong. Also my stepdad’s two mark 2 Cavaliers, while they were high mileage and a bit ragged, were generally reliable and excellent motorway cars. The second Cav managed to do 120k miles before it needed any work done on the engine, which was very good for a mid eighties car, and even then, the head gasket was easy to replace.

  5. My Dad had a few Vauxalls over the years & liked them all part from an N reg Omega with a penny pinching low spec & other shortcomings. The V reg one which replaced it was a bit better being a high spec, but once he retired from full time work he stayed away from Vauxhalls.

    My brother had an ex-demo Mk4 Astra which was OK until it developed at fault in the engine management system which caused it to overheat when driven long distances.

  6. I can’t really see why Stellantis keeps Vauxhall / Opel going as brands when they are just reskinned Peugeots, it’s kinda like the bad old days of BMC/BL badge engineering…

    They really need to focus on their core brands rather than having such a proliferation of competing brands that steal sales from each other rather than from the Korean and German brands.

    The last Vauxhalls I had much experience of were the Senators, several of our business partners had them and they went nicely, specially the 24V 3 Litre!!

    Far better to drive than a Rover 800 of any kind, Senators were considered a good alternative to a BMW 728 or a Volvo 960.

  7. FWIW I don’t think the problem was just GM Europe. Big Car on Youtube has just released a fascinating video showing how market shares in the US changed over the years and GM got absolutely hammered by Toyota from an original position of market dominance. I think basically they lost sight of what customers actually wanted.

  8. Vauxhall did come back to an extent with the Mark 4 Astra, which was a big improvement over the Mark 3, and the Zafira, a people carrier based on the Astra, but the Vectra never gained the popularity of the Cavalier, due to a terrible start, and models like the Sintra are best forgotten. If anything, the best Vauxhalls now are the vans, which are among the best in class and the only Vauxhalls made in the UK these days.

  9. Not directly replacing the Senator must have cost them some UK kudos, as all those police Senators bombing down the motorway did give the brand some cred. Ditto when the Omega, which at least was a proper exec car, was replaced by the bizarre Signum.

    The mediocre Vectra (B) came just at the time when Ford and VW had stepped up their game, and the “premium badged” mid rangers were starting to become mainstream.

    • @maestrowoff, the Senator really was a good car and was built like a Mercedes. The Omega was a reasonable replacement for both the Carlton and the Senator, but it lacked presence and came at a time when large cars from non premium brands were starting to go out of fashion. As for the Signum, who actually bought one as it was like a stretched Astra and was none too reliable.
      In recent years, Vauxhall, like Ford, has become a make I’m completely indifferent to and buyers have been very lukewarm to cars like the new Viva and the Adam.

  10. The Cavalier was a harbinger of what was to come for Vauxhall,the Chevette was the company’s take on GM’s T-Car with a new hatchback body with a Vauxhall engine,the Cavalier took it even further by just putting a shovel nose on an Opel body and building it in Belgium.After the last HC Viva/Magnum rolled down the line in 1979 that was the last Vauxhall designed car built in the UK. Since then most of the Vauxhall’s sold here have been Opel’s with a Vauxhall badge,Since then Vauxhall badges have been screwed on the Chevrolet,Holden.Isuzu & Suzuki products and last year Stellantis ended production of the Astra at Ellesmere Port,yet the company still describes it’s products as “Vauxhall A Great British Brand” something that it’s certainly not now!!

  11. @ Ian Parker, using Opel designs and Opel drivetrains on later cars was what saved Vauxhall. The Cavalier and Chevette marked a move away from Americanised styling to a more European look, conveniently at the same time the Mark 4 Cortina was launched. Engines like the Opel CIH and the Family 2 were a revelation to anyone used to the 1256 Viva engine or the 1.8 and 2.3 slant fours on the FEs. People began seeing Vauxhall as a contender again at the start of the eighties and for all many of the cars were now made in Belgium and Germany, the British factories benefited from a big rise in popularity of Vauxhall and production was stepped up at Ellesmere Port and Luton in the eighties.

    • I also agree that 1970s & 80s were good years for Vauxhall, starting with the Chevette then the Cavalier MK1 (long time favourites!). OK so they were Opel derived but still part of GM. Nowadays, I look at Vauxhalls and think what French car is that based on?

  12. The Vauxhall vans along with their Renault siblings were a real disaster, plenty of self employed plumbers plasterers and couriers learned to hate them… A Vivaro driven gently might make it to 80K miles before the intermediate shaft bearings in the gearbox failed , driven vigorously or used for towing the gearbox would turn itself to a bag of total uselessness in 50K miles.

    If you bought one of these rather than leasing it,you were then faced with pitiful trade in value when you came to get a new van after 18 months.

    This horrorshow drove plenty of sole traders into buying or leasing Sprinters.

    ‘Built in Britain’ stickers on the back of current Vauxhall vans is a warning not a recommendation.

    And let’s not forget the Frontera. A wannabe competitor to the LR Discovery but which was horrible.

    Vauxhall’s down market imports sold as Chevrolets further impoverished the brand image… Nobody these days really wants to buy a Vauxhall.

  13. To me, Vauxhalls had RWD and muscular, if temperamental, engines. The Manta GTE was a peach, but didn’t last long; and it was an Opel. The FWD Cavalier and Astra were efficient, but under damped, and did not handle in an entertaining way – unless you enjoyed fighting torque steer. I moved to Rovers, then a Jag X type, now a Mondeo. I tried a ’98 Astra – very bland – and a ’95 Omega – hugely overrated, very heavy with dead steering. Nothing in the current Vauxhall range appeals one bit.

  14. GM NZ blew it, too. After the disastrous Australian JB Camira, replaced by a rebadged version of the Isuzu Aska, came the Luton built Vectra, first U.K. Vauxhall sold in NZ for well over a decade, though badged Opel, initially, then Holden. A national ad campaign saw a plastic key delivered to households – if your key fits, it wins. Far more keys than budgeted for fit and instead of just handing over a few extra cars to attendant glowing local publicity benefiting local dealers, inept management refused, prompting hugely negative national PR. In a sea of good Japanese competition, much of it locally assembled and fettled to Kiwi market taste, the Vectra never sold as well as expected.

  15. I was working for one of the large leasing companies through the ’90s and received sales briefings from most of the manufacturers launching new models. But the Vectra briefing sticks in my mind due to the Vauxhall sales guys being clearly under-whelmed themselves and trying to find some good stuff to tell us. The little gadget under the fuel flap for removing the tyre dust caps was about the only highlight. They even tried to ‘sell’ the lack of adjustable steering column as a benefit due to the airbag being a standard fitment !

  16. As mentioned by others, the B5 Passat launched in ‘96 really moved things on in the D sector. The build quality, the interior & the diesels were all ahead of the pack. Some group tests at the time said this car should really be in the compact exec class, unlike the subsequent Golf platform Passat, this one was fundamentally an Audi A4.

    When the MK3 Mondeo & Vectra C were launched it was clear they’d learnt heavily from this car in many ways.

  17. The B5 Passat was a big leap forward from the odd looking 1988 Passat and looked a lot more upmarket. I’ve been a passenger in one twice and the lilac dashboard illumination, upmarket fittings and near silence of the 1.8 engine were very impressive. While the original Mondeo was a decent car, the 2000 model took things further with much more attractive styling, a classier interior and a relaxed driving experience. Possibly Ford owning Jaguar and Volvo rubbed off on their noughties cars as they seemed better made and didn’t seem built to a price.

  18. Having owned a Viva HC and my Dad owning 2 Vauxhalls before that, I regard the HC & the Victor FE series as the last of the “true” British Vauxhalls. I agree that the Cavalier MK1 range probably saved Vauxhall in the mid 1970s onwards and sadly nowadays Vauxhall’s are just rebadged Peugeots… as they were Opel’s beforehand

    For me, the Cavalier Sportshatch & Coupe MK1 are two of the best looking Vauxhalls of all time despite originating in Belgium. I spent much time admiring them in showrooms and on the road, 1976 -81.

  19. Vauxhall aren’t doing badly at the moment….at least with one model.

    According to figures in Autocar, the Corsa is the second best selling car in the UK so far this year with 23,751 sold. That is second only to the Ford Puma, and just ahead of the Quashqai.

  20. I think the demise for Vauxhall/Opel was the introduction of the Ecotec engines in the 1990’s and loss of aspirant designs like the Manta, Firenza, Royale (much earlier admittedly) and the faster versions of the Carlton and Senator, cavalier SRi. They were something to be desired. Before then their engines were generally well regarded (camshaft issues aside). The red top 16V was a legend and even the Mk1 Astra 1300S was a mover in its day, far more than an equivalent Escort. The Ecotec was over complex, didn’t want to rev, and dealers couldn’t fix the electronic issues. I had a ’95 2.0 16V Astra, bought at 2 years old and it had idling issues, constantly cut out. In 6 months it spent nearly 4 back at the dealer and had 2 crankshaft speed sensors, a cam shaft speed sensor, new ECU, new engine wiring harness, 2 engine idle control valves and it still wouldn’t idle. I can still see that orange engine management light now.

  21. Prior to the merger of the Opel and Vauxhall ranges, Opel was seen as quite an aspirational German brand like Audi and considered a cut above Vauxhall. The Ascona Berlina( German equivalent of the Mark 1 Cavalier) was considered more upmarket than a Cavalier, and the Opel Rekord was classed as an Audi rival with a following better off motorists. Then, of course, was the Opel Monza, which not only looked fantastic, but was considered an alternative to a BMW 6 series.

  22. Loved the older Vauxhalls of the 1970s and 1980s: made Fords and Austins look pitiful…

    The MK3 Cavalier/Vectra A was a great car so long as it had power steering and a 1.8 or above petrol engine. The others were dogs with bloody hard ride and long gear understeering.

    As for the 1990s Clarkson merely found the Vectra boring, as opposed to bad. Those poor retired Vauxhall (PR?) managers had a harder time with the JD Power results, subsequent TV tests https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6u1UJSNhcok and the Vauxhall loyalists baying for their blood.

    Loved the Omega, and have forgotten what Vauxhall has done over the past 15 years but the current range looks great. Good luck to em 🙂

    • The 1981 Cavalier was a real game changer: it made mincemeat of the 1.6 Cortina and could easily keep up with the 2 litre, and the Sierra that arrived the following year alienated fleet buyers with its radical design and lack of a saloon version. Much as I like the Austin Ambassador for its fantastic ride quality and massive interior space, it was a bit of a tank and was lethargic in 1.7 form, so no real match for the Cavalier.

  23. MESSAGE FOR KEITH ADAMS: I tried to send you a direct e-mail but the computer said it wasn’t possible. I am therefore writing here.

    I used to be subscribed to your blog and would sometimes contribute to the articles. About a year ago, or possibly a bit longer than that, I stopped getting ARONLINE. It was not the end of the world for me, but I am wondering why I was cancelled. Was it a technical glitch or was it something I said?

    I re-registered just to ask the question of my cancellation. If you don’t want me on your list for whatever reason Feel free to let me know by e-mail.

    Thank you for your attention

  24. I really like old school Vauxhalls – the VX2300GLS and VX490 are my all time favourites, followed by the Firenza Drop Snoot, Sports Estate and the Royale…….but, let’s be honest, in the mid ‘70s, pre-Chevette and Cavalier, Vauxhall was somewhat down on its luck, and had lost considerable ground to Ford. The models were either outdated, or the wrong format for the intended market, the slant 4 engines, although gutsy, were old fashioned, and the larger cars (VX490 expected) desperately needed 5 speed gearboxes. It did mean that the cars could be bought secondhand for bargain prices – in fact we had 3 FE/VX estates because they were cheap to buy, but it wasn’t until GM brought all European cars under Opel development that we started to see some real impetus to go after the mighty Fords…….

  25. @ Simon Hodgetts, the FE models were good cars, the slant 4 giving them good performance and they were spacious and good looking, but they were too big to take on the Cortina and were quite thirsty. Sales were never good, coming at a third of the FD, and it wasn’t until the arrival of the Cavalier that Vauxhall could really take on the Cortina. Actually the arrival of the Cavalier did the FE models a favour as they became better equipped, more powerful and more economical without an increase in price. The VX1800 was probably a real bargain in 1976 if you wanted a bigger car,

  26. There is a green K reg Victor FE 1800 at the entrance of “The Great British Car Journey”. Looks good! Victor FD 2000SL with Rostyles also there…

    • Both generations of Victor are rare now and were never considered classic material until the few remaining ones in the nineties were saved. However, I do remember living in Coventry in 1990/91 and can remember a silver Ventora on the drive of a detached house in Earlsdon and a really neat metallic gold VX 4/90 in Lower Stoke, complete with an original Vauxhall two band radio. I would hope these have been saved.

  27. I don’t recall ever seeing A Ventora in silver (mostly white) like in Dept S. I do recall the VX4/90 in gold though… neat

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