Back in 1980, if you wanted the best business tool on wheels, you were given a Ford Cortina. Vauxhall and Talbot didn’t necessarily agree, offering the Cavalier and Solara instead.
But which was best then and now, the Ford Cortina 1.6L, Vauxhall Cavalier 1600GL or Talbot Solara 1.6LS? Keith Adams decides…
Best 1980s saloons: Introduction
The passage of time is a very scary thing. Take 1980 for instance – as years go, it was a bad one, very much akin to a groggy New Year’s Day post-party hangover. Thatcher’s era had yet to kick-in fully and, to those who suffered the full brunt of the embattled 1970s, the beginning of a new decade seemed like the perfect opportunity turn a new leaf, put past times behind them and look forward to a new and exciting period of their lives.
In truth, it wasn’t going to happen just yet – we were entering a new oil-shock recession that would take five years to emerge from, and anyone in the market for a new car was thinking small. Granada buyers were turning to Cortinas; Princess owners were trading in for Allegros; and everyone loved the Austin miniMetro…
One constant in all of this was the Ford Cortina. Companies swore by them, and mid-career path professionals gauged their worth by them. Junior reps tooled around in 1.3Ls, area managers plied the motorways in their 1.6GLs; and divisional heads sashayed from one meeting to another in their 2.0 or 2.3 Ghias. Oh, how simple life was back then, and how it seemed like everyone loved the Cortina. This was a very, very long time ago.
In 1980, and despite a very effective 1979 facelift, the Cortina ’80 was beginning to show its age. The dashboard had been largely unchanged since 1970, the engine line-up was equally aged; and the suspension set-up must have looked antediluvian compared with the best European opposition. But it was still an effective car, and the opposition was as keen as mustard to get a slice of the fleet market pie.
The most effective Cortina rival in the UK was the Vauxhall Cavalier Mk1. When it arrived on the scene in 1975, the car, which combined the Opel Ascona B’s body with the Manta B’s droopsnoot nosecone, heralded the beginning of the end of Luton’s design autonomy. However, it also represented the strongest challenge to Ford’s mighty Cortina. By 1980, it was a solid Top Ten seller in the UK, but still only sold at a third of the level of its Dagenham rival.
Talbot-née-Chrysler was still seen as a UK player in 1980, thanks to its Rootes Group ancestry and significant British production presence in Coventry and Linwood. And the Solara – a saloon version of the Chrysler Alpine launched in 1980 – was seen by its makers as a significant threat to the Cortina. Unlike the two main players, it was front-wheel drive, had big plastic bumpers, and offered an optional trip computer, which at the time made it seem a whole lot more modern. Of course, what Talbot wouldn’t tell you is that it was almost pure Simca 1100 under the skin.
Question is – which was best then back then? And which would you rather live with now?
Best 1980s saloons: Character
The overbearing character trait of these cars should be of overbearing dullness. They were all developed to cover motorway miles quickly, effectively and comfortably – and, as their target demographic was the go-getting businessman, they needed to be reliable, cheap to service and suffused with just enough equipment to keep the man in a hurry occupied. But nostalgia is a funny thing, because if you sat in any of them today, you’d find the experience absolutely captivating. Why? Because they’re so different to their modern equivalents.
All have airy interiors, thin pillars and low-line basic dashboards. And in modern traffic, they just feel petite and small. And wieldy. Strange when you think that, back in 1980, they were full-sized family saloons with all the room you’d need. Have we – as a species – really all grown that much in the past 40-plus years? It seems so.
All three would have cost around £4500 when new, and today the Cavalier and the Cortina are worth more than that – the Solara is a little less due to its obscurity and lack of a cult following. Sling a pair of rear seatbelts in, shod them with modern rubber, and all three are very capable of being used as dailies – go on then, live the 1980 repmobile dream.
Clearly being the most popular when new, most people will say that the Cortina’s the most charismatic of the trio. And it has to be said that, when you pull up outside your local newsagent or petrol station, you’re going to end up answering questions from inquisitive strangers – as well as listen to their tales of family members having them when new. But once the attention’s past, you’ll be back in a mid-line Cortina.
The Cavalier and Solara are a bit more low-profile and, as a result, you’ll get more of a ‘what is that?’ reaction from the inquisitive. There’s a bit of an air of German coldness about the Cavalier that makes it a little harder to love, while the soft, comfy and plasticky Solara will just feel alien – and French.
So, it’s a win to the Cortina by popular vote, even if the AROnline established favourite is actually the Cavalier.
Best 1980s saloons: Performance
It’s here where the yawning gulf between modern and classic is most evident. The Cortina and Cavalier both develop 75bhp, while the Solara makes to with 72bhp in LS form – to think that, when they had their businessmen owners behind the wheel, they’d be hustled along the ‘fast lane’ of the motorway at 85mph, more than 90% of their all-out capability.
Of the three, the Talbot feels the most lumpen, and its 0-60mph time of 14.6 seconds only goes some of the way of explaining away just how strained and unpleasant ringing the neck of a 1.6-litre Solara is. In absolute tip-top mechanical form, the old pushrod Simca engine sounds rattly, harsh and nasty. But get it up to motorway speed, and relatively long gearing tames it to the point of acceptance – and you soon find yourself covering miles effortlessly enough.
The Cortina’s Pinto 1.6-litre overhead cam power unit is far more refined, and seems built to cover miles with the minimum of fuss. Again, it doesn’t like being revved, and you’ll find yourself changing up (through the sweet-shifting four-speeder) early and relying on the acceptable amounts of torque. And again, once you’re on the motorway, 70mph is easy enough, as long as you don’t mind too much wind noise. 0-60mph comes up in 13.0 seconds and the maximum speed is 93mph. More than enough on the UK’s choked roads.
The Cavalier is a smidgeon quicker, hitting 60mph in 12.6 seconds and powering on to 96mph. Back in 1980, that was an important advantage that would have won its driver significant bar room bragging rights. However, in reality, it doesn’t translate into an on-road advantage, especially as its cam-in-head engine is just a little less refined than the Ford’s. It’s forté is on the motorway, though, and a long-legged fourth will see speeds gently rise without the driver really being aware of it.
Best brakes, gearchange and clutch action – the Cortina, by a country mile. The Solara’s by comparison are rubbish; while the Cavalier’s are acceptable.
Best 1980s saloons: Handling and ride
It’s here that there’s clear blue water between the three cars. And that means the driver has a genuine choice – he or she can choose a car that majors on precise handling, a soft loping ride, or a choppy compromise.
Unsurprisingly, the soft option is the Talbot. It’s a French car built and designed in an era when its cars were built to deal with rutted cambered country roads. The torsion-bar suspension set-up majors on delivering straight line ride comfort, and it does so in spades. After a ride in a modern car, jumping into the Solara really is a revelation, and you’ll glide along any typical English A-road without a care in the world.
Get to the B-roads and you’ll start to struggle, though – because the Solara’s long-winded (4.6 turns from lock to lock) steering and lack of roll resistance will leave you doorhandling every corner, and twirling the heavy steering in a most unrewarding way. Not good, not good at all… But it is safe, and if you end up sliding (and why would you?), back off the throttle and watch it all sort itself out, safely.
The rear-wheel-drive Cortina isn’t much better. The steering is marginally quicker, and certainly lighter, but the soft suspension is inadequately damped, and that rear axle isn’t terribly well-behaved – especially if the voided bushes are on the way out. If it’s wet, your Cortina will be as dependable as a stray mutt on a lead, and don’t even think about attacking corners at any sort of speed. Just don’t.
The clear cut victory here goes to the well-developed, rear-wheel-drive Cavalier, which tracks corners accurately, feels tight and composed at speed, and steers faithfully (even if its unassisted set-up is far from sporting at 4.0 turns from lock-to-lock). You just know this car has been developed for the autobahn, and not 70mph constrained England – even if you’ll never legitimately get anywhere near 100mph in it.
It is worth noting that all three cars smother lumps and humps in a way that a bony modern car won’t come close to. Even the averagely indifferent Cortina feels cosseting and lardy by today’s standards, and that’s going to come as a surprise to many unused to classic cars. They won’t corner or brake anywhere near contemporary standards, but you soon learn to adopt a healthy attitude to stopping distances and corners (especially in the wet) in any of these cars.
Best 1980s saloons: Cabin and controls
In 1980, the Solara felt the most modern; the Cavalier the most spartan and aged, with the Cortina a finely developed theme first seen in the facelifted Mk3 from 1973. Equipment levels are basic – you’ll get wind-up windows, manual locking, a cigar lighter, MW/LW radio, heated rear window and, er, that’s about it. Don’t despair, though, because you soon learn not to miss things like a rev counter or power steering, and revel in the charm of minimalism. Maybe…
All three will seat four, and aside from the Cavalier’s strangely low-slung driving position (which leaves shorter drivers wondering where the end of the car is), and reclined gearstick, won’t intimidate you in any way, shape or form. The airiest of the three is the Talbot, which really is quite a pleasant place to sit, as long as you like your seats set to maximum soft and don’t mind sitting high.
The most effective at covering distances is the Cavalier, as long as you don’t mind getting a sore right knee if you’re over 5ft10in. But the Cortina is the car that you’ll least mind spending lots of time in – especially as the post-1979 seats are superb, and come with built-in head restraints, unlike the rather mean-spirited Cavalier.
Best 1980s saloons: Running costs
Fuel consumption in the Solara is the least unimpressive – you’ll happily average 32mpg, whereas the Cortina and Cavalier will struggle to beat 28mpg. In both cases, the far more potent 2.0-litre versions are preferable, because you’ll get similar fuel consumption while benefiting from the joy of conducting 100bhp with your right foot.
However, it’s in servicing where you’ll once again find the Cortina has an advantage, as its parts are just a little more readily available. Surprisingly, none of the three cars are terribly easy to buy parts for, a function of their age, but thanks to the Cortina and Cavalier’s commonality with the Sierra and Opel Manta, you can make do with newer parts in many instances. With the Solara, you’re basically screwed unless you’re friends with the Simca Club UK.
In short though, it’s an easy win for the Cortina.
Best 1980s saloons: Verdict
Back in 1980, the clear winner for keen drivers was the Cavalier. But fleet managers would also rest easy in their reps’ choice of the Anglo-German car from Luton, because it was pretty much as cheap to run and service as the Cortina, and enjoyed slightly stronger residuals at the same time. The Solara’s insubstantial interior and uninspiring performance were always going to put it at a disadvantage against the big two in the market place, but in terms of showroom appeal and apparent modernity, it looked a good choice.
Today, the situation is far less clear-cut. And that’s the joy of old cars – you buy with your heart and not your head. So, while the Solara would appear to have little going for it, there are plenty of people who’d love to own one now, because of its rarity and lack of ‘tribal’ image, myself included. However, with any form of rationality applied, it can’t be anything other than third place here. Had it been a hatchback Alpine – especially in SX form with 85bhp and trip computer – the story could have been different.
That leaves us to choose a winner between the Cortina and Cavalier.
And clearly although AROnline‘s settled position is that the Cavalier Mk1 is a brilliant car, which easily shades the Cortina on the road, in 1600GL form (velour seats, mock-Rostyles and all), it can’t win this encounter – on logical or illogical grounds. The Cortina is more recognisably a classic; it’s easier to run, to fix and drive, and it’s also going to be a lot easier to sell, come the time you need to cash in your chips.
Having said that, you won’t thank me for not making a personal decision – and, in that case, it’s the Cavalier for me. Sorry, Ford fans…
[Original photo, thanks to What Car? magazine]