Curbside Capsule: 1969 Vauxhall Ventora (FD Series) – Trying To Adapt, With Difficulty

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In retrospect, the automotive marketplace in Britain in the early 1960s was a straightforward place. There were small cars, medium sized family cars, large family cars, luxury cars, sports cars and Rolls-Royces. For Vauxhall, that meant the Viva (1200cc, wheelbase 92in), the Victor (1600cc, wheelbase 100 in) and the Cresta (2600 or 3300cc, wheelbase 107 in). Ford matched this, model for model, as did Rootes apart from the smallest car. From 1962, this all started to change.

Ventora FD advert 1968

First, in 1962, came the Ford Cortina. Technically, very conservative and priced to compete with the BMC ADO16 Morris 1100, but crucially more commodious for people and luggage, or salesman’s samples, and with a healthy dose of style and a range of engines and options BMC just didn’t offer.

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And in 1963, Rover and Triumph both launched new cars, smaller than the Vauxhall Cresta and Ford Zephyr, both named 2000, and both aimed at the same, new spot in the market. A car sized to match the Cortina and Victor, but with upscale branding to present a new option for the buyer of the Zephyr and Cresta (and Rootes’ big Humbers and BMC’s largest Austins and Wolseleys). The reasoning was that just because you could afford a Cresta, you might not need the space and you would be more than happy to accept a more compact and perfectly practical version of the Rover 3 Litre, Humber Super Snipe or Austin A110.

The modern compact executive class of car was born, and the rest is history.

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But how did Ford, Rootes and Vauxhall compete? Ford offered the 1966 Corsair 2000E and the 1967 Cortina 1600E, with all the luxury trimmings, Cortina GT engine and same compact size. Rootes turned the Super Minx into the 1963 Humber Sceptre, with a twin carburettor engine planned for a Sunbeam Rapier and Vauxhall created a luxury derivative of the Victor FD, marketed as the Ventora, in early 1968.

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The problem for Vauxhall was that the only available engine to use was the 3300cc from the larger Cresta. Power was up compared with the highest power 2 litre, the VX4/90, but so was the weight for the car, with an additional 200lb all over the front wheels. Transmission was either a four speed manual or a two speed Powerglide (very unusual in Europe) and the gearing was very low, so acceleration was sharp and cruising was louder than you might expect.

Ventora interior

The car was visibly distinguished by a different grille, close to the style used on the US market Envoy by General Motors, a vinyl roof (officially optional), coach lines and wheel trims. Inside, full instrumentation and a luxury interior (heated rear window and rear door courtesy lights, but no reclining seats!) completed the deal.

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Later cars, from 1970, had three speed automatics, power steering and a revised dashboard (and reclining seats!), but were still using the same engine, which was too large compared with its competitors, too heavy and without any sporting nature at all. It was after all a much altered derivative of the engine fitted to the E Series Cresta of 1952 and used extensively in Bedford vans also. Vauxhall produced a 2.6 litre version of this engine for some European markets, but the performance benefit over the Victor 2000 would have been minimal.

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The Ventora, even with the 1970 modifications, was in reality rendered all but superfluous by the Victor’s sports derivative, the 2 litre, twin carburettor VX4/90, which cost 10% less and came with standard overdrive, a £75 option on the Ventora. The VX4/90 also missed out on some of the understeer that came as standard on the Ventora, as a consequence of the extra weight of the six cylinder engine over the front wheels.

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Perhaps the best datum for a summary of the Ventora would be the Triumph 2000 and 2500 saloons, which had most of the image and position in the market Vauxhall were looking for. The 2000 was less powerful but cost £100 (around 10%) more; the 2500PI (with Lucas fuel injection) had more power, more prestige, better performance, economy (the Ventora struggled to get 20mpg) and handling for a small cost difference.

Ventora FE advert 1974

The Ventora concept was repeated in 1972 in the new, larger FE Series Victor, but that car soon found itself completely outsmarted by a pincer manoeuvre the Ford Cortina 2000E and the 1972 Ford Granada Ghia, truly Europe’s Brougham.

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Over 8 years and two generations, Vauxhall sold 25,000 Ventoras, but it was replaced in 1976 by a Vauxhall VX2300GLS, with just equipment differences to the entry level cars. The performance gap was that close.

And we had the choice of an Audi 80 or BMW 320i as well.