1994 Vauxhall Cavalier 2.0 CDi – “Come Inside Mr Ford, The General Needs To Talk”

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Ray was a sales representative (a rep in common parlance) in the 1970s and 1980s. His employer issued him a car to drive on business and for his personal use. He had a choice of car from a selection, colour and some of the options to go with it. Like most of his breed, his car was almost more important than anything, not least for what it said about him.

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Known as a ”user chooser”, his choice and the financial offer behind it to his employer were crucial to the fleet market of the time, as were the bulk buys for higher volume fleets. By 1976 in the UK, Ford had a tight grip on this market, with the Escort, Cortina and Granada. BL tried to compete, with the Allegro, Marina, Princess and Rover SD1. Chrysler and Vauxhall (GM) were not as strong, and imports were not favoured by British industrial users, to say the least. Private buyers were different, but much less numerous. Ford Cortina mk3..1JPG

Ford had defined the product format in all the volume areas for the UK market from the early 1960s. Few cars have defined their market place as comprehensively as the 1970-76 Ford Cortna Mk3 (above). Others, such as BMC, had tried to define it  in other ways but those formats had gained industry traction only slowly, and then only with significant changes from the first draft presented by BMC. But by 1980, the standard set by Ford for the previous 20 years was moving.

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In 1980, Ford conceded to the compact family hatchback template defined by the VW Golf, Renault 14 and Fiat Ritmo/Strada, with the first front wheel drive Escort, following the 1976 Fiesta supermini, which also conformed to market standards. But the conservative rear wheel drive, live rear axle Cortina (now in its last form as the Cortina 80 or Mk V, above) remained.

GM’s British brand remained even further adrift. Not only did it resist the convergence to the front wheel drive template for the Golf class car until 1979, Vauxhall was as far out of step from the Ford and the market, with the oddly sized Viva and Victor ranges, both of which were also hampered (in the UK) by the very American styling, poor quality, a reputation for corrosion and ill matched engine sizes compared to the Ford standard. CC has looked before at the history of the Victor, and how it ended up between the Cortina and Granada in size and engine specifications.

The upshot of this is that the UK was the only major market in Europe in which GM trailed Ford in volume, and GM had a team “playing at home” as well. You just know that that hurt.

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GM had a plan – after the early 1970s Viva/Firenza disaster in Canada, Vauxhall had its wings trimmed. Without the North American sales, the volume was not enough for GM to fund two European model ranges. Vauxhall came under Opel’s wing after the 1972 Victor; indeed this last Victor shared a floorpan with the 1972 Opel Rekord D. From the 1975 Chevette (T car) onward, Vauxhalls fitted much more closely to the GM defaults. By 1979, the whole UK developed Vauxhall range had been replaced by cars shared directly with Opel, give or take grilles and badges. Opel stopped selling in the UK; Vauxhall sold only in the UK.

The first generation Cavalier, based on the Opel Ascona B, was the first car with a UK badge to truly take the fight to the nation’s favourite and best seller – the Ford Cortina. This was a car that showed up the Ford’s inadequacies clearly, in ride and handling principally. But, still the Ford led the market by volume.

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In 1981, the rear drive Cavalier was replaced by a front wheel drive car on the GM J car platform, with MacPherson struts and a torsion beam rear axle. Here was a car that not only took the fight to the Cortina  but knocked it over on almost any relevant criteria. And unlike BLMC’s attempts to compete, it was unashamedly aimed directly at the Cortina. GM were going for Ford’s jugular.

I spent the summer of 1983 on an internship with an industrial boiler manufacturer in Yorkshire, for part of which I was assigned to the company’s on-the-road sales representative, Ray. Ray was a classic rep, doing probably four days a week on the road. To be fair to him, he was more than a pure sales guy, doing all the follow up, maintaining the link whilst the equipment was built and preparing the customer for the installation and commissioning. So this is a bit of caricature – a friendly one, as he taught me some things I still use day to day. Though arranging customer meetings in breweries just before lunch is not one of them….

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Ray was very keen for me to know that his car (well, the Company’s car, given to him to use and chosen by him) was a Cavalier 1.6GL, not a 1.3, and a GL, so it had a rev counter, tinted glass and velour upholstery. Most specifically, it was not the “L” someone had tried to get him to accept, and I needed to know that. He’d had more than one Cortina, of various sorts for many years, and then a (disappointing) Chrysler Alpine. Also, his Cavalier 1.6GL was more powerful than the Cortina 1600, and faster from 0-60 mph. Important when you’re selling boiler equipment to potato chip factories and hospitals, apparently.

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The Cavalier J car was offered in saloon, hatchback and later estate forms, which used body panel pressings imported from Holden in Australia. The hatchback was something else the Cortina did not offer, but quickly took the majority of sales. Engines were, initially at least, 1.3 and 1.6 four cylinder OHC Opel engines. A diesel was added in 1983, as was the Cavalier’s strongest engine, the 1.8 litre fuel injected version of the 1.6 engine. Here was a 1.8 litre engine that out pointed the Ford 2.0 litre in just about every way, and set the bar at a level the 1984 Austin Montego would be challenged to reach. Ray would have studied the brochures quickly and worked out a justification for a 1.8 on his next car.

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Vauxhall had another advantage, which played well in two ways. The car came in 1981, a year before the Ford Sierra, when the Cortina was showing its age in many ways, in engineering and in achievement. Europe was also waking up to what a modern family saloon could be like, and it wasn’t a rear drive saloon car with a live rear axle.

Cavalier mk 2 hatchThe second is that the Cavalier came as a saloon or a five door hatchback, with strong Chevrolet Citation or even Rover 3500SD1 overtones. Ford could not match that, even with the new Sierra, which had its own issues.

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Of these, the largest were the hatchback only configuration, which didn’t match Ford’s customers’ experience, the styling which was felt to be too radical and some surprising technical features, such as four speed only gearboxes. The market did not take to the Sierra, as seen here by kurztos on the CC Cohort, very quickly or very convincingly, whilst Vauxhall made specification enhancements to the Cavalier. The 1.8 litre with fuel injection came in 1983, used initially on the luxury CD and the sports SRi versions. The CD was able to compete with the Sierra 2.0 Ghia with all Ford’s well honed luxury features, and the SRi (and 1.6SR before it, like the green and grey 1982 feature car above) were great image builders for the Cavalier, and Vauxhall. I can only begin to imagine how excited Ray would have been about one of these.

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In 1983 and 1984, the Cavalier outsold the Ford Sierra in the UK – the market leader’s key new mid- market product had been outshone by an upstart from a brand that five years before was almost at also-ran status. And, although this was not a major influence, the Cavalier was built in Luton, so could claim to be British.

In 1985 and 1987 Vauxhall gave the Cavalier some visual tweaks and additional equipment, and then added another image builder – the SRi130, with a 130bhp 2.0 litre engine and 125mph capability – here was a car almost as fast as the range topping 2.9 litre Sierra XR4x4. If he’d got a good order from a chip factory or brewery, Ray would have made a case for an 2.0 litre Sri.

Ford responded with the 1987 Sierra – visually a complete rework of the existing car to tone down the aerodynamic nature of the styling, and added a four door saloon as well. Fianlly, the Sierra outsold the Cavalier in Britain.

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In 1988, Vauxhall launched the Mk3 Cavalier, on the GM2900 platform, paired with the Opel Vectra A. The style was a professional mix of conservative and fashionable – looking more modern than the old car ever did but not too modern as the original Sierra did. It was a car that was again genuinely fully competitive in an ever improving class; in some areas, it was the class leader, particularly in the performance of the 2.0 litre version. Here was a car for Ray that was faster than a Golf GTi, yet could carry all you wanted in the boot and give away no signs of excess. He’d have worked hard on his letters to HR and have made a persuasive case.

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Vauxhall again structured the range carefully, from L to GL to GLS to SRi to CD. Ray would soon learn the key points to spot – a base model had grey bumpers, the L had body colour ones, the GL had headlamp wipers, the SRi added black trim and red badges, the CD added some chrome effect. Ray wouldn’t have been satisfied with less than a GL 2.0i; merely thinking about his likely state of mind at this point worries me.

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The Cavalier was now one of the motorway cars of choice – it was admirably quiet and stable at speed, interior space was good and there was a motorsport connection as well. The Cavalier performed strongly in the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) which in the early 1990s got made some very entertaining television. With popular drivers who had pretty tolerant views on what a non-contact motorsport should be like, the Cavalier made an impression and Vauxhall won some the team championships with it. It was the base for the Calibra Coupe as well.

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The feature car is a 1994 Cavalier 2.0 CDi – close to the top of the range, and a daily driver.

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This car took the fight back to Ford – from 1990 to 1993 it again outsold the Sierra to lead the market sector. Ray was again watching the new trime levels and options, and eyeing up a GSi 2000, with all that Vauxhall could add to it, including a 16 valve head and four wheel drive. Failing that, a Diplomat with leather trim might do.

Ray knew the company wouldn’t stretch to a 2.5litre V6, and that his consequent tax bill would be too high anyway. This had the 167bhp engine from the larger Opel/Vauxhall Omega. Airbags and ABS were now standard on all but the base models.

The Cavalier and Vectra A were succeeded in 1995 by the Vauxhall Vectra (Opel Vectra B), also marketed under Holden and Chevrolet names in other markets. This was built on the same GM2900 platform and carried evolutionary styling, but somehow lacked the Cavalier’s appeal. It was not a bad car; rather it was overlooked in favour of the front wheel drive Ford Mondeo, Renault Laguna and Citroen Zantia in the corporate car park pecking order.

Ray wasn’t keen; he’d heard about the new VW Passat (B5) coming to the UK in early 1997 and knew about the tax advantages he could claim for its 1.9 litre turbo diesel. That seemed more befitting, now, than a Vauxhall. Maybe, if the right contracts came in, he might even be able to make a case for an Audi A4.

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And the largest evidential fact that the Cavalier affected Ford? Since the 1993 Ford Mondeo, every new Ford in Europe has been at or close to best in class. You couldn’t say that in 1981.