Vauxhall’s roots were not, as was often the case with early car companies, in the bicycle, sewing machine or carriage trades, but on the Thames in the form of steam engines for tugboats and Admiralty pinnaces (fast communications launches for use in harbour). The Vauxhall Iron Works had been founded by Alexander Wilson in 1857 on a riverside site in the Vauxhall area of South London, now a Sainsbury’s supermarket. In receivership by 1895 (Wilson left a year earlier), the potential in the company obviously impressed the receiver as he joined the board when it was revived the following year as the Vauxhall Iron Works Company Limited. The current Company was formed in 1907. The move to internal combustion engines occurred at the turn of the century when a petrol engine was trialled in a river launch. The first Vauxhall car was built in 1903 when F. W. Hodges and J. H. Chambers produced a simple single cylinder machine which proved to be economical in use and sturdy in construction.
The company had already adopted its trademark Griffin badge, the heraldic arms of a Plantagenet knight, Fulk Le Breant, who had originally held the land and manor on which the factory stood. Fulk’s Hall had over time been corrupted to Vauxhall and the Iron Works had taken the name of its location into its title together with Fulk’s evocative coat of arms. By historical coincidence, when the company moved to Luton in 1905 because of a chronic lack of space in London, it was discovered that Fulk had also held the manor of Luton, making the use of the badge doubly appropriate. It almost certainly makes today’s Vauxhall badge the oldest in the industry by several centuries.
The early single cylinder cars were quickly followed by less successful threes and fours and even a stab at a luxury six. It was at this time that the famous Vauxhall “flutes” appeared along the bonnet sides. The inspiration for this device, which every schoolboy would use to identify a Vauxhall for the next forty years or so, was apparently F. W. Hodge’s bedroom wardrobe, although others claim they were the work of one of the motor industries early engineering geniuses, Laurence Pomeroy, who joined Vauxhall in 1905. Aided and abetted by a board that saw motor competition as the way to create sales, he produced a series of ground breaking designs, starting appropriately enough with the four cylinder 20HP A-Type which with its monobloc engine and pressure fed bearings pioneered a new breed of “high speed” engines. It was developed from a prototype built specifically to meet the requirements of the RAC 2000 mile trial of 1908, in which it duly won its class, recording the least number of stoppages of all cars in the event. It was reputedly designed by the precocious 24 year old while Chief Engineer Hodges was on holiday in Egypt. What Hodges said on his return can only be imagined, but the fact remains that the A-Type laid the foundation for the great sporting Vauxhalls of the twenties. It begat the C-Type with its distinctive V-shaped radiator, widely recognised as the World’s first true sports car and later known as the Prince Henry following Vauxhall successes in the Prince Henry of Prussia Trial. Its workaday cousin, the rugged flat fronted D-Type tourer became the standard officer’s staff car of the First World War and the seminal E-Type was a production development of a customer commission for a hill climb car based on the C-Type. Better known as the legendary 30-98, E-Types were driven in competition by the Company’s directors, Percy Kidner and A. J. Hancock, as well as enthusiastic sporting owners and proved almost unbeatable in sprints, hill climbs and reliability trials. The name spread, with agents appointed all over the World, including a Vauxhall manned site in Russia as the Tsar was a noted Vauxhall fan.
Pomeroy left Vauxhall in 1919 and was succeeded as Chief Engineer by C. E. King. He re-engineered the, by then, outdated Edwardian engineered D and E-Types with overhead valves, creating the OD (23-60) and the OE, respectively.
As the twenties wore on, the writing was already on the wall for makers of large and expensive sporting and luxury cars. Vauxhall responded with a beautifully engineered smaller model, the C. E. King designed 14-40, but this was neither small enough nor cheap enough to turn the tide. Front wheel brakes appeared progressively on all models but these were of limited effectiveness and Vauxhall’s engineering leadership was gradually eroded and sales toiled in the teeth of the gathering economic depression. There were also a number of costly diversions: the 1922 TT race cars, a shaft drive motorcycle and the colossal sleeve valve S-Type, intended as a serious Rolls Royce competitor.
By 1925 Vauxhall was ripe for either takeover or the kind of lingering death that befell many of its competitors. General Motors, on its way to becoming the World’s largest car maker, had set out to establish itself in Europe. The UK was particularly important because it gave access to the huge markets of the British Empire. Rebuffed by Herbert Austin and somewhat on the rebound, GM completed the quick purchase of Vauxhall for two and a half million dollars. In truth they had bought little more than a respected brand name and the potential to build cars in the UK and thus penetrate the lucrative Empire market. The range they inherited was magnificently engineered and comprised cars that we look back on today as representing the epitome of vintage motoring. But in reality, they were already outmoded in the contemporary market and GM wanted to replicate its mass production success and experience from the US. This would take time and investment, so an interim single model strategy was pursued with the solid C. E. King designed six cylinder R and T-Type 20-60 models. GM also introduced the Chevrolet light truck range into the UK, the foundations of the hugely successful Bedford truck and van operation, launched under that name in 1931. The first “English Chevrolet” car was the 1931 Cadet, a good looking model with contemporary American lines, which started to improve sales and by dropping the horse power designation in favour of a name, signalled the closing of the chapter on the pre-General Motors era.
The real sales breakthrough came in 1933 with the launch of the A-Type Light Six models, closely followed by their B-Type Big Six elder brothers (even the model designations started again). With production of around 2000 units a year in the late twenties, by 1935 it had grown to over 22,000, putting Vauxhall firmly in the “Big Six” of the UK motor industry league. During the thirties the Light and Big Sixes were progressively improved and restyled. US influence was evident in the speeding up and content of styling changes, the creation of a “styling department” and the adoption of the “model year” concept. Engineering innovation came thick and fast courtesy of GM’s massive research capacity: synchromesh transmission (Cadet), “no draft ventilation” (A-Type), independent front suspension (D-Type), dual circuit brakes (G-Type) and unitary construction (H-Type). The 1937 H-Type was Vauxhall’s first four of the new era and took them into the small, 10HP market. The car’s unitary construction allowed for a light but strong design which when mated to a very modern engine gave performance and fuel consumption figures that are hard to match today.
Meanwhile the Bedford truck range had expanded into car derived vans, tippers and passenger coach chassis and was earning its future tag line, “You see them everywhere”, by becoming the mainstay of the UK transport fleet and generating export sales to every corner of the Empire. Vauxhall cars were also popular in the Empire and beyond, with major markets in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Europe and South America where a branch of Harrods had once sold 30-98s to the Anglophile residents of Buenos Aires. When the Second World War effectively stopped car production, the Vauxhall range comprised the 10HP H- Type, its 12HP sister the I-Type, the 14HP J-Type and the 25HP G-Type luxury models and was poised to overtake Standard to become number five in the UK market with annual sales of 35,000 units.
During the War, production was turned over to Bedford trucks, Jerry cans, precision components for rockets and shells, dies for aircraft engines, tin hats and two significant Vauxhall engineering achievements, the Churchill tank and the first jet engines. Even the styling department got into the act, producing a range of inflatable decoy trucks and tanks to mislead enemy raiders.
wartime range of flat fronted Bedford trucks was the mainstay of the British army throughout the war and intense design and development activity added the first Bedford 4x4, the QL. A quarter of a million trucks had been produced by The the end of the war. Following the withdrawal of the army from Dunkirk in 1940 and the consequent loss of its heavy equipment, Britain had less than 100 tanks to defend itself. Vauxhall answered the call for a new 38 ton tank design and took it from the drawing board to the production line in an amazing 11 months. Nearly 6000 were built and 3000 rebuilt after action, a remarkable achievement. Because of its high reputation for precision work, Vauxhall was chosen to play a major part in the top secret production of Britain’s first jet aircraft engines, 95% of the work on the first 12 being completed at Luton. With all this war activity it was no surprise that Luton was a target for German bombers, despite the considerable efforts of the styling department to camouflage the plant. On August 30th 1940 it took a number of direct hits resulting in 39 deaths and 40 injuries but, such was the “can do” spirit at Vauxhall, only a short interruption occurred to vital war production. In 1942 a new facility, the first expansion outside of Luton, was opened in Boscombe Road Dunstable to build tank engines and repair damaged Churchills.
Between 1940 and 1946 only around 100 passenger cars were built, all for War Department use. When it was time to return to civilian car and truck production it was natural to turn to the excellent immediate pre-war range which was rationalised into K, M and O truck and bus models and H, I and J car models. The 10HP H-Type was dropped in 1947 because of car tax changes. It was 1948 before the first new post-war Vauxhalls appeared although, under the skin, they owed much to their predecessors. History repeated itself in the adoption of a one model strategy, the L-Type, albeit with two engine choices, the four cylinder Wyvern, erroneously named after the Vauxhall badge (see Griffin Gallery) and the six cylinder Velox, a name borrowed from the twenties in-house 30-98 tourer body. The styling was a clear transition from the pre-war “sit up and beg” to the full width look of the fifties.
At the 1950 Commercial Show, Bedford launched the S-Type 7 ton truck range and the OB had become the best selling coach chassis ever, founding hundreds of independent coach companies, ferrying millions of children to school and people on holiday. In 1952 Bedford launched the CA model delivery van. A sensational design, it featured sliding doors for ease of entry in narrow spaces and the lively Vauxhall petrol engine from the Wyvern. That it remained in successful production for 17 years, during which 370,000 were produced, speaks volumes for the farsightedness of the Bedford design team.
By the early fifties Vauxhall was entering a new era of confidence and prosperity. Enlightened leadership and forward thinking labour relations policies produced a virtually strike free environment, in stark contrast to the troubled Midlands manufacturers. In 1951 the new E-Type Wyvern and Velox models were launched, joined by the more luxurious Cresta in 1954. Styled in the fashion of the contemporary Chevrolet range, they were enthusiastically received by a market still starved of new cars, let alone ones as desirable and economical as these. Vauxhall was now entering the age of conspicuous consumption as wartime rationing was withdrawn and annual styling changes were employed to keep demand refreshed. By the time of Vauxhall’s Golden Jubilee in 1953, annual production had exceeded 100,000 for the first time and reached a million units in total. In 1954 work started on a new Bedford truck plant on the Boscombe road site.
The E-Type got progressively more garish as the fifties progressed, but plans were afoot for an even more dramatic assault on the UK market. It was decided to offer two separate models to better cover the medium and large market segments. By now, the styling department under David Jones was as important as the engineering input as new models were designed. In the early history of Vauxhall, the engineers such as Pomeroy and King reigned supreme but, from the fifties onwards, it was the stylists led by Jones and (Wayne) Cherry that grabbed the headlines. The new two model strategy, with introduction dates just a few months apart, placed too much strain on Vauxhall’s resources, so design of the smaller four cylinder F-Type was shared with Detroit while the larger six cylinder P models remained in-house. The F-type Victor was launched in 1957 to a mixed reception, its heavy US styling cues looking rather overpowering when miniaturised for UK roads. The “3 window” PA also exhibited dramatic US influenced styling, but it looked a lot better balanced on these larger Velox and Cresta models. The new transatlantic styling caused a sensation, particularly as a very bright interior and exterior colour palette was chosen to highlight the lines. If styling appeared king, engineering had not been forgotten and the underpinnings featured all the old Vauxhall virtues of toughness and reliability. Unfortunately, the same attention to detail had not gone into the body design and construction and both models latterly gained a justified reputation for premature corrosion. The 1959 model year face lift to the PA models saw another Vauxhall milestone pass as the Vauxhall flutes disappeared, although some might argue they briefly reappeared on the FE range in the 1970s.
In 1960 Bedford once again stunned the truck world when it launched the TK forward control range with the driver sitting ahead of the engine. This beautifully executed design made every other truck on the road outdated overnight and it set the design parameters for middle weight trucks for years to come, becoming the UK’s best selling truck and one of the most exported trucks ever. In 1962 Bedford did it again with the introduction of the revolutionary VAL “twin steer” coach chassis. This used four steered wheels and small 16inch wheels all round to give a low ride height while still keeping within the tyre loading requirements. A rarity today, it was typical of the free thinking Bedford engineering ethos that regrettably was slowly consumed by the advance of globalisation and corporate indecision.
Expansion was very much the theme at Vauxhall too. A new small car was in the pipeline to once again give Vauxhall a three model line up. In 1963 the slab sided but cute one litre HA model Viva hit the market and helped the company reach its highest ever total annual production of 342,873 units in 1964. To cope with demand and under Government pressure to locate to an area where traditional industries were in decline, a new plant was built on Merseyside on the disused Hooton airfield at Ellesmere Port, considerably extending supply lines and communications within the company. Opening in 1964 it took over HA production and its successor HB and HC models. The pretty HB range featured the fashionable GM “coke bottle” styling and saw the introduction of a factory built estate and a 2 litre Victor engined twin carburettor model called the Viva GT. Regrettably it was somewhat spoilt for the enthusiast by dubious “sports” styling features such as a matt black bonnet and four exhaust outlets, but it was an honest performer under it all and sparked a renewed interest in Vauxhalls as competition cars. Later versions of the big engined Viva models took the macho Magnum name.
For 1971 a short lived 2-door coupe was created out of the HC. Called the Firenza, it never really survived its launch at the Kingsway Hall, Dunstable, a long, long way from Florence! This troubled body style eventually found its place in history, if not in sales volumes, when it was restyled by Wayne Cherry and re-engineered as the “droop snoot” HP model Firenza, which became the backbone of the newly created Dealer Team Vauxhall (DTV) racing team, its zenith being “Old Nail” which in the hands of Gerry Marshall became the most successful club racer of all time.
The Victor range passed through FB, FC, FD and FE models, taking it into the seventies. The FB was a crisply styled car and did much to win back those people who had left the fold when confronted with the rampant US styling of the original F-Type (note, never FA). With FB, a twin carburettor VX 4/90 model was added with a name designed to evoke the pre-war sporting heritage. Unfortunately it somewhat missed the point of pre-war naming protocol (RAC horse power/brake horsepower), but it sounded nice just the same. The FC was called the Victor 101 and featured curved door glass which gave much improved shoulder room, but it did not have the same visual appeal as its predecessor. With the introduction of the FD range came “coke bottle” styling which worked really well on this larger model and a new “slant four” range of overhead cam engines. Another cross-range hybrid appeared by shoehorning the 3.3 litre Cresta power unit into the FD model to produce the oft misspelled Ventora. The shoehorning was actually not as dramatic as it might have been as the FD was designed with the possibility of a V8 in mind, created from the marriage of two slant fours on a common crankcase. With a V8 it might have succeeded but with the old six it grew weeds in the Luton storage yards. The FE was a handsome car with a hint of the Vauxhall flutes on the bonnet panel. The square cut lines and upright grille gave the range a very upmarket look, particularly when equipped with “Rostyle” wheels and a vinyl roof cover. However, most Vauxhalls of this era were typified by good design but indifferent execution. Rust, water leaks and various mechanical conditions vied with the new model development programme for engineering time and attention. Too often the new model won and customer satisfaction was sacrificed which inevitably led to future sales problems. Labour unrest also became an unfamiliar problem for Vauxhall, particularly at Ellesmere Port, giving rise to delivery time and further quality issues.
The Cresta too moved on, through PB and PC models, the Velox name being lost along the way, with six cylinder engines which progressively grew from 2.2 litres to 3.3 litres. The 3.3 litre PB was something of a road rocket and as conservatively styled as it predecessor had been outlandish. The PC got the “coke bottle” look, but strangely it failed to come off on what had become a very large car indeed. The final hurrah of the P cars was the PC based and lavishly equipped Viscount.
1975 saw the start of the final phase of Vauxhall’s development to date, as it moved from a stand alone car manufacturer, albeit wholly owned by General Motors, to a brand within a fully integrated General Motors Europe. The reason was the introduction of the Opel designed Chevette which was a European version of the General Motors T “World car” concept. Introduced into Ellesmere Port, it was built alongside the Viva until 1979 when the Viva was finally phased out. The highly successful Chevette was the first major production car with the now ubiquitous hatchback body style, but had the dubious honour of being the last Vauxhall to use a Vauxhall designed and manufactured engine. To differentiate it from its sister car in Europe, the Opel Kadett, Chevette sported a perky new nose that was reminiscent of the HP Firenza and Viva Sports Hatch. By now the “drop snoot” was design chief Wayne Cherry’s signature look and gave all Vauxhalls of the day identifiable “down the road graphics”, much as the flutes had done in a bygone age. Grafted onto its predecessors, with Chevette it was an integrated sheet metal change and very nice it looked too compared to the flat fronted Opel. Wayne Cherry had conducted a long running experiment with the Vauxhall frontal treatment via a series of special cars based on Vivas and Chevettes, giving them press friendly names such as Black Magic and Silver Bullet.
Chevette also got the performance treatment with the big engined homologation special HS and HSR versions. The fact that GM controlled Vauxhall was willing to build a car purely as the basis for motor sport was indicative of the success which had been achieved by DTV and the Chevette acquitted itself well in International rallying while increasingly exotic Firenza and even FE based special saloon cars dominated UK club racing.
Another step along the path of integration with Opel was the introduction, also in 1975, of the first Cavalier model which was another Opel with Cherry’s integrated Vauxhall droop snoot nose-job. The neat Cavalier appealed to the emerging UK fleet market and solid foundations were laid which would propel its front wheel drive successors to the top of the sales charts. The beautifully proportioned Cavalier Coupe, effectively an Opel Manta, remains for many people one of the best looking Vauxhalls of all time. The Cavalier saloon might have been 95% Opel but at least in was built in Luton, unlike the final act of “Opelisation”, the introduction of the Carlton to replace the F range in 1978. The Carlton was a droop snoot equipped Opel Rekord built in Germany and shipped into the UK. It was complemented by two six-cylinder models called Royale and Royale Coupe, but these did not even benefit from the Vauxhall nose, being re-badged Senators and Monzas respectively. To differentiate the models from Opels, which were sold in the UK through a separate dealer network, they were generally less well equipped. The final step down the six cylinder road was the desperate 1981 Viceroy, essentially a six cylinder Rekord using a carburetted version of the injected Opel 2.5 litre six. Once again cars grew weeds, this time at the ports.
As the seventies drew to a close, Vauxhall was again going down the slippery slope of sales decline. Losses were incurred every year of the decade except 1978 and costs were continually cut in an effort to turn the company round. New projects, particularly those that were needed to keep the Bedford truck range up to date, were cancelled or deferred. Quality had been a problem for some time and now customers were voting with their feet. In 1980, a tough Australian called John Bagshaw was “parachuted” into Vauxhall by GM on a fix it or close it mission. In 1981 “Bags” introduced further draconian measures, including the overnight merging of the separate Vauxhall and Opel dealer networks, announced to a stunned audience of dealers of both franchises at the NEC. At least this was destined to get the pointless and expensive duplication and differentiation of models out of the forward product programme. Bagshaw’s task of getting Vauxhall fit again was made immeasurably easier with the launch of two of the most important cars ever to leave the UK plants, the front wheel drive Astra and Cavalier Mark 2. Astra arrived in 1980 and was Vauxhall’s first front wheel drive car, albeit a totally Opel engineered T-car variant. Gone was the Vauxhall nose and in came an even larger version of the trusty old Griffin to identify Vauxhall from Opel. Not that it would matter much longer, because after a short period when dealers sold both products, Vauxhall became the only brand marketed in the UK and exports to Europe, where Opel was the GM brand of choice, ceased. The only place where they came face to face was in Ireland where the North was Vauxhall territory and the Republic Opel. (For another perspective on this and information on the Opel designed products, see From Olympia to Monza - Opel in the UK).
Launched in 1981 the new Cavalier was also an Opel designed GM World Car, the front wheel drive J-car. An instant hit, the Luton plant was unable to cope with demand from retail and fleet customers alike. With the entire model line-up virtually totally renewed in just three years, sales volumes and market share improved. But sadly, not all was well at Bedford. New products were introduced but somehow the magic wasn’t there anymore. The CF van was a poor quality replacement for the mould breaking CA and one wonders, looking at the large gap between F and A, if the task of designing the successor to a legend had proved too much for too long. It also found itself with massive competition in the form of the ubiquitous Ford Transit. Equally difficult to replace was the TK and when the TL eventually arrived it was a timid exercise in me-too engineering. Big trucks had never been Bedford’s forte and this was further demonstrated by the introduction of the KM and TM ranges, both using the GM “Detroit” 2-stroke diesel power unit. Admirably suited to the open highways of the USA it proved thirsty and difficult to operate in Europe. Perhaps if Bedford had been allowed to concentrate on its strengths and with a different strategy from GM, it might have survived. Instead GM desperately sought a partner or a buyer for Bedford. They were eventually successful with the van plant and Bedford lives on as the B in IBC, who now manufacture the highly successful Renault designed Vauxhall Vivaro range along with its many cousins under the Opel, Renault and Nissan brands. But civilian truck production was progressively phased out at the Dunstable plant from late 1986, the military production eventually becoming AWD when the plant and product rights were sold. The name lived on for a few years on the car derived vans but eventually they were sensibly badged as Vauxhalls and happily Vauxhall vans are now a formidable force in the UK market.
If Bedford had come to an ignominious end, at least things were looking up at Vauxhall. By 1983 the quarter millionth J-Cavalier was produced, helped no doubt by people recoiling in horror when they saw Ford’s rear wheel drive Sierra “jelly mould”, launched in 1982. Market share was increasing (reaching a high of 16.6% in1985) but the financial position was still poor. The next leap forward was Vauxhall’s new entry into the small car market. As the previous small cars from all manufacturers got progressively bigger over the years, the T-car in GM’s case, there was now an opening for another line of small cars. The GM S-car was built at a state-of-the-art new plant in Spain which perhaps makes the name Nova a surprising choice. Introduced in 1983 as a hatchback it had cute styling and nimble handling and quickly became another runaway success with a sporty GTE model added later in its life. It featured heavily over the years in motor sport and even today most of the top 10 places in the 1400cc class on National rallies are Novas.
In 1984 it was the Astra’s turn for the new model treatment when the rather bulbous styling of the flush glazed Mark 2 variant appeared. It too received the motor sport treatment, this time under the colours of GM Dealer Sport when it won the British Touring Car Championship and competed successfully in UK rallies. Infinitely less successful was the Belmont. Although plainly an Astra saloon, it was given its own, rather grand, name and advertising campaign. Unsurprisingly, it merely proved the old adage that you can fool some of the people some of the time etc.
In 1986, the newly upgraded Carlton range won the Car of the Year award. But this model will always be remembered for the lusty 6 cylinder 24 valve GSi variants and the totally over-the-top 1990 Vauxhall Lotus Carlton. This twin turbo 3.6 litre projectile, a joint venture between GM Europe and Lotus Engineering, remained for years the fastest 4 door, 4 seat car in the world, with a top speed in the region of 180mph and acceleration and handling to match.
In 1987 Vauxhall Motors Ltd returned to profit. After losses in 18 of the previous 19 years, General Motors were finally rewarded for sticking with the men of Luton and Ellesmere Port. With the runaway success of the Cavalier, it was vital that its successor was up to continuing the job. The Mark 3, introduced in 1988 certainly was and once again Vauxhall was forming orderly queues of customers. The smooth styling was the work of a team led by Wayne Cherry, now based in Germany. GSi sports variants were to follow, including a factory built 4x4 engineered by Steyr of Austria and powerful turbocharged engines. With John Cleland at the wheel, Cavalier was a dominant force in the British Touring Car Championship. With a solid mainstream product line-up in place, GM Europe now embarked on a Golden Age of model expansion, starting with the beautiful Calibra coupe. Launched in 1989 and based on a Cavalier floor pan, mechanicals and interior, it was one of Wayne Cherry’s greatest designs and one which has stood the test of time by still looking fresh and svelte to this day. By using the underpinnings of a volume production car, Vauxhall was able to offer dream car looks at an affordable price.
In 1990 Vauxhall opened its new Corporate Headquarters in Luton which was named Griffin House in honour of Fulk’s armorial bearings. Although this was a cause for celebration, it also brought to a final close the engineering and styling of cars and trucks at Luton, because Griffin House was the refurbished Luton Technical Centre.
In 1991 Vauxhall went off-road and introduced an affordable 4x4 in the form of the Isuzu based Frontera. Made in Luton and available in short wheelbase Sport and long wheelbase Estate versions, it unlocked a huge market and kicked off the UK demand for sports utility vehicles that is such a major part of today’s market. 1991 also saw the first showing of the Mark 3 Astra which was launched to dealers with Frontera at a dual event in the newly opened Birmingham Exhibition Centre. The Mark 3 was a logical development from the Mark 2 and broke little new ground. Unfortunately its model life was extended because of cut backs in the new model programme and despite an effective mid-term face lift, it was found wanting in its later years. This model looked by far its best in sports GSi guise when it could give the dominant “hot hatch”, the VW Golf GTi, a good run for its money.
In 1993 another new name joined the Vauxhall lexicon, Corsa. The replacement for the square cut Nova, the Corsa was beautifully proportioned and played a major role in expanding Vauxhall’s market with the younger buyer. In sporty GSi form it both looked and performed like a proper hot hatch. The following year, the Carlton and Senator were replaced by the Omega range, again built in Germany. These were excellent cars, much loved by the UK police, but always underrated in the market because of the volume associations of the Vauxhall brand, a far cry from the 1920s when the opposite situation applied. The launch of the Omega also introduced a new range of V6 engines made at a new facility in Ellesmere Port and which would go on be fitted to Cavalier, Calibra and Vectra models producing some fine high performance variants.
Displaying admirable design flair, GME put their 1993 Frankfurt Show styling exercise into production, virtually unchanged, as the Tigra. Following the same route as the Calibra, this perky little coupe with the glass hatch was based on the humble Corsa. Something of a triumph of style over substance, it none the less moved the company forward in its quest to conquer more of the youth and female markets.
With Vauxhall once again well placed in the market it was time to consider the future. Managing Director Paul Tosch wanted to re-establish a visual Vauxhall identity like the flutes or the droop snoot. The answer was the V-shaped motif (which was modelled on a fifties ashtray made for the executive offices by the Luton apprentice school!) which has appeared in the grille of every Vauxhall from the launch of Vectra in 1995 up to today. It was crucial that Vectra, as replacement for the Cavalier which had accounted for 1,678,368 units in its life, hit the sweet spot from day one. Although in design terms it was really the Cavalier Mark 4, Vauxhall fell in line with the rest of Europe by adopting the existing European J-car name, Vectra. In retrospect, the change of name allied to the futuristic tone of the advertising set the car up to be something it wasn’t. TV journalist Jeremy Clarkson famously assassinated it on Top Gear. Against tough competition from Ford and the Japanese, the design conservatism that was once the strength of the Cavalier progressively became the Achilles heel of Vauxhall’s biggest seller. Indeed the rest of this decade and the first years of the 21st century were typified by falling volumes across Europe and consequent financial problems for Vauxhall and GME which resulted in cut backs and in some cases the delay or even cancellation of urgently required new models. No replacements were sanctioned for Calibra, Tigra or Frontera, the Astra replacement was delayed and other projects retimed. It’s a testimony to Wayne Cherry’s original design that Calibra’s life was effectively prolonged by the longest series of “special edition” models the industry had ever seen, even if the new V-grille sat uneasily in its narrow air intake. Unfortunately the cut backs and retiming made selling the number of cars required to get back into profit even more difficult and it is only recently that Vauxhall has once again got a first class model line-up with bold and expressive designs such as the current Astra, the new Tigra and rumours of a new Corsa and SUV range in the pipe line.
But not all was doom and gloom on the product front. When the delayed new Astra arrived it sold well in the business market, albeit it had little in the way of innovation to attract back the increasingly brand driven retail customer. Special performance editions of the Vectra such as the Super Touring gave their mainly fleet based standard siblings an image boost. A new Corsa was launched to public, if not press, acclaim. After this diet of worthy but unexciting fare it was a breath of fresh air to welcome a breakthrough product in the old Vauxhall tradition in the form of the seven seat Zafira MPV. Based on the Astra floor plan and mechanicals, it was a technical tour de force that packaged seven permanent seats into a compact shape. The so called Flex 7 seat design still leads the market today. Less relevant in terms of sales, but an important statement for the Vauxhall brand, was the VX220. Another joint venture with Lotus Engineering, a modified Elise chassis was fitted with Vauxhall’s latest ECOTEC engine and clothed in a sharp sports two-seater body whose style predicted the much more expressive styling era around the corner for Astra and Vectra.
A highly regrettable victim of the GME and GM financial difficulties was car production at Luton. Although Frontera remained in limited production at Luton for a while and the IBC plant was and is still fighting to keep up with demand for vans, car production ceased in the spring of 2002 following a dignified and controlled run-down in 2001. This was the end of nearly 97 years of uninterrupted production on the Luton site which had produced 7,415,045 cars. Understandably, emotions ran high.
This devastating development overshadowed the preparations for the Vauxhall centenary celebrations of 2003. The main external event was a re-creation of the 1000 mile RAC Trials that were the main competitive events for cars in the early part of the 20th century and in which Vauxhall had performed so well in 1908 with the Laurence Pomeroy designed A-Type. Coordinated by the VBOA, over sixty cars covering the 100 years of production were assembled from all over the world and travelled around the UK retracing the exploits of the early pioneers, covering well over 1000 miles in the process.
A Centenary is always a time when one looks to the future as well as the past. Vauxhall has undoubtedly seen and will no doubt see again, many difficulties in maintaining its place in the market. But it has always been the people of Vauxhall who have had the spirit and determination to see things through. Hopefully, whatever challenges lie ahead, that will never change.
© Ian Coomber 2006
Postscript: In a hurried journey through over 100 years of history one inevitably has to leave out a huge amount of detail. Apologies go to some of the models and variants that have knowingly been ignored. Many of these are quite rightfully the objects of desire for those in the many Vauxhall and Bedford owners’ clubs. To fill in the many gaps, the following books are recommended:
Vauxhall, A Century in Motion, David Burgess-Wise.
Vauxhall, Stuart Fergus Broach. ISBN 0-7509-1561-7
Blitzing Vauxhall, Owen Hardisty. ISBN 1-903747-62-7
Vauxhall Motors and the Luton Economy, Len Holden. ISBN 0-85155-068-2
The Vauxhall File, Eric Dymock. ISBN 9-9534142-1-3
Vauxhall, The Postwar years, Trevor Alder. ISBN 0-85429-746-4
Vauxhall, Michael Sedgwick. Out of print.
The Griffin Story, published by Vauxhall Public Affairs Department.
Vauxhall Motors Ltd
Graham Price Photographic, www.grahamprice.co.uk