Considering Vauxhall was part of the largest manufacturing concern in the world and was its flag bearer in the UK market, the company spent the 1960s and early 1970s with a very limited range, essentially just two models. CC has previously looked at the chronology of the Vauxhall Victor, but what of its smaller and higher volume stable mate, the Viva, a car with a more complex back story and greater world wide impact than many in Britain fully understood at the time?
From 1963 to 1979, there were three distinct versions of the Viva, one with a German link, one with an Australian link and one with North American and South African adventures. But first, some background.
In 1959, Vauxhall were evaluating an expansion of their range, as part of GM’s growth strategy for Europe. The Victor had been successfully launched two years earlier and was doing good business, including exports to North America, both as a Vauxhall and under the Envoy brand. The Victor was the last Vauxhall to be sold in the US, by Pontiac dealers.
Although the BMC Mini was on the market, it was not yet selling in large numbers. What was selling well was the Ford Anglia 109E (complete with reverse rake rear window and tail fins), and the Morris Minor was still doing good business as were the Austin A40 and Triumph Herald. Vauxhall concluded that if volume was to come, it had to come in this area of the market.
The first ideas were for a transverse-engine front wheel drive two box saloon, known as XP-714. This car was a wholly Vauxhall project in terms of engineering, and started in early 1960, just months after the BMC Mini came into the public domain, and the styling ideas were prepared by GM’s Advanced Design Center in Detroit. The ideas ranged from the challenging to the wild, although a reasonable design was eventually presented by the end of 1960, assuming a Corvair like front was to be accepted.
Meanwhile, back in Luton, Vauxhall were having issues convincing GM that the FWD-automatic transmission layout was going to be practical and affordable for the car. GM’s Overseas Operations’ directors therefore determined in October 1960 that Vauxhall should follow a twin strategy – one option based around the British front wheel drive proposal and an alternative around a car based on the the upcoming 1962 Opel Kadett A. The first result was known in late 1961 as the Vauxhall Heron.
Sharing all of the primary mechanical and structural aspects of the Kadett seem like an obvious one now, but looking back 55 years, such collaboration was a novel suggestion, as Vauxhall and Opel still saw themselves as something of competitors on the market, at least outside of their home countries.
There was a deliberate hush-hush campaign associated with this decision, which left a lot of folks in the UK convinced that the Viva was a genuine homegrown development rather than a Kadettt with a new suit. Within ten years, though, the larger Victor would share its floor pan with the Opel Rekord D and within twelve years Vauxhall as a separate entity was essentially over. With hindsight, may be it is also possible to see the XP-714 adventure as a defensive action by Vauxhall against such a direction, which didn’t work.
Vauxhall secured the concession of unique exterior styling from the Opel, although both cars would sit on the same 91.5 inch wheelbase, and much of the Kadett’s inner body structure was shared, along with the whole floorpan. Suspension was by a transverse front leaf spring with semi-elliptic leaf springs and telescopic dampers at the rear. Steering was rack and pinion. The Opel 993cc 40hp engine was adopted, in a slightly larger 1057cc form for the Viva, with 44 bhp. The body engineering was to be done by Fisher in Detroit, and there was a focus on reducing the panel count to aid CKD assembly overseas.
Production began in September 1963 in Luton, Vauxhall’s real home town, and from June 1964 production for the Viva was centered
on Ellesmere Port, across the River Mersey from Liverpool in north west England.
Like the Rootes factory in Linwood, which was gearing up on the Hillman Imp at the same time, its location was partly driven by the availability of government funding. Production was off to a great start, with the 100,000 being built in the first ten months.
The first cars were pretty basic – a temperature gauge was a dealer accessory and the heater was only standard on the more expensive Deluxe model, along with screen wash, opening rear quarter windows and interior courtesy lights. Such equipment levels may look sparse, but it was comparable with the Anglia, if less luxurious than the ADO16.
The Viva made it to Canada, as the Envoy Epic sold by Chevrolet and Oldsmobile dealers and as the Viva from Pontiac and Buick dealers. It was never sold in the US, unlike the Kadett.
In 1965, a luxury SL version was added, with exterior embellishments and triple round taillights. A high compression 60 bhp version, known as the 90 (as in 90mph) was added, with servo front discs. The biggest issue was probably corrosion, with the Viva (and contemporary Victors) getting Vauxhall a reputation for corrosion that took years to shake off.
There was a van version, sold under the Bedford brand, that lasted until 1984 and which was used in bulk by the utility companies, notably British Telecom, where it replaced generations of Morris Minor vans.
The Viva was an export success for Vauxhall, not just in Canada, but Australia where it was assembled by Holden and also in northern Europe, sometimes under the Vauxhall Epic moniker.
All in, over 300,000 had been built by the autumn of 1966, when it was replaced by the Viva HB.
It may seem puzzling now, especially as Ford was starting to consolidate its European operations into one organisation, but after the convergence of the Viva HA and Kadett A, Vauxhall and Opel’s successor cars diverged somewhat. The Kadett was replaced in 1965 by the Kadett B, and in 1966 Vauxhall got the Viva HB.
The Viva HB started as early as July 1963, before the formal launch of the Viva HA, as an evolution of the HA, just as the Kadett B was an evolution of the Kadett A, and which gained a few inches all round, and a wider range of bodywork. The Viva grew by four inches in wheelbase and six in overall length, to 96 inches and 162 inches, with a commensurate increase in interior and boot space.
The first mock ups were completed as early as late 1963, and the upright look of the HA and Kadett A was visibly carried through, into a car that carried many contemporary Victor FC and Cresta PC cues. Although it was a clear step upmarket from the HA, it was not as a great an advance as Vauxhall had wanted, especially internally. The decision was then taken to build the car on a new floorpan, and with a fully contemporary suspension arrangement. At the front, there were double-wishbones and coil springs and at the rear trailing arms and coil springs, with a Panhard rod for lateral location. Anti roll (sway) bars were fitted to some models and in a reversal of earlier exchanges, this rear suspension was also adopted by the Kadett B in 1967.
Although the Kadett stuck with a somewhat more functional style, Vauxhall wanted some more style. In late spring 1964, Vauxhall took their mock up to Detroit, for review and hopefully approval by Bill Mitchell, who pronounced it not good enough. Leo Pruneau, an Australian on Mitchell’s staff, was given the job of developing the final design, and went to Luton for six months to do it. After staying six years, he returned to Australia as design chief for Holden.
By late 1966 the Viva HB was on the market, with a 1159cc 56 bhp version of the HA engine offering a little more power and with a lower final drive to offset the inevitable increase in weight.
Vauxhall now had big plans for the Viva; there was a “90” version again, now with 69 bhp and power assisted disc brakes, and an SL, with a divided twin bucket style rear seat and wood effect dashboard trim.
The variations started coming. In February 1967, a Borg-Warner 35 (always a popular choice for a British car) automatic transmission was offered; in June 1967 the estate version, with an early take on the style rather than volume rear profile, was added. There was no van version this time, as the HA was still selling well but there were other developments instead.
In early 1968, Vauxhall added the OHC slant 4 engine, planned nominally for the 1968 Victor FD, initially in 1599cc size in a version badged Viva 1600, and also in 1975cc form in the Viva GT, complete with the black bonnet and stripes required at the time.
This version is scarce, even by Viva standards, now.
Early slant 4 engine versions had badging to denote the overhead cam engine, just as badges are used for a turbocharger or BlueTec now.
The Viva 1600 effectively took over from a tuned version of the 1159cc (or Viva 1200) car, warmed over and named by three times Grand Prix world champion, Australian Sir Jack Brabham, who was by then running a racing team and tuning house based in the UK.
The Viva Brabham 1159cc engine changes consisted of high camshaft, twin Stromberg carburettors, higher compression ratio and a revised inlet manifold was a dealer fit option for £37 10s. Both Vauxhall and Holden used Brabham extensively in the advertising.
In September 1968, there was a four door option and a gentle set of revisions to the interior, and a brand new competitor – the Ford Escort.
Which was preferable is a pretty subjective choice – the Vauxhall had a better suspension setup, the Escort a greater range and a more practical estate, the Vauxhall was arguably better looking and the Ford had more dealers. Your call. By 1969, the Escort was selling at around 90,0000 a year, against closer to 60,000 Anglias, and a lot of this gain was conquest sales from the Viva, whose UK sales dropped from 25% from 1967 to 1970.
In four years, Vauxhall sold over 560,000 Viva HBs, including cars sold in Canada under the Envoy Epic and Vauxhall Viva names, depending on the dealer it came from.
For 1970, the Vauxhall Viva became the Viva by General Motors. The Vauxhall name was not a selling point, it would seem.
The HB also had a strong career in Australia. From 1964, the HA had been assembled in Australia by Holden and sold as a Vauxhall. The HB was also assembled in Australia, but with minor trim revisions, and was sold as the first Holden Torana.
The first cars, to 1969, were directly comparable to the Viva, with 1200 and 1600 engines, but in 1969 (ahead of the launch of the Viva HC) Holden developed and launched the LC series Torana.
The LC was derived directly from the HB but with an extension ahead of the firewall to take a six cylinder engine, and styling that was seemingly a mix of Viva, Peugeot 504 and Hillman Avenger (Plymouth Cricket).
The Torana LC lasted, with some changes, to 1974, fitted with up to and including V8 engines.
In 1970, Vauxhall launched the Viva HC, based on the same platform as the HB but with an increase in wheelbase, length and width, and a fresh and contemporary body re-style.
Whilst looks are always subjective, the HC had lost something compared with the HB. The body style some how did not look strong, and with the wheels seemingly tucked under the arches, looked narrow tracked.
Size wise, it now against the Avenger and Marina, larger than the Kadett and splitting the difference between the Escort and Cortina. Thus, it was also closing the gap on the ever growing Vauxhall Victor, and the car was now sold at a different point in the market to the first Vivas, tackling the Hillman Avenger, Morris Marina and low model Cortinas as well as the Escort.
The other factor undoubtedly influencing the style was the plan to sell the Viva in greater volumes in Canada, through the Pontiac dealer chain. Vauxhall’s other export markets were Cyprus, Greece, Malta and a few outposts in Europe, but the UK and Canada were the main markets. The Viva, whilst not directly mimicking a Pontiac, certainly had a transatlantic feel and with the prominent jutting nose a definite Pontiac vibe. Two and four door saloons and a three door estate, again with a striking sloping rear profile, were initially offered.
Mechanically, the cars were little changed from the HB. There were changes in the suspension to improve the ride, and a dual circuit brake system was added. Work was also done to reduce vibrations in the transmission, the wheels went up to 13 inch and the 1159cc engine was tweaked for a little more power and torque. The 1600cc slant 4 engine was again offered, but in reality only gave more low speed torque in return for a steep increase in fuel consumption. The automatic was now a GM Strasbourg unit and in 1971, the 1159cc engine grew to 1256cc.
The Canadian market had a strong influence on the interior of the car; features like a collapsible steering column, padded visors, breakaway interior mirror and few interior intrusions were all added to comply with Canadian regulations, as were anti-burst door locks and the split circuit brakes. Vauxhall made much of these features in UK advertising, in an almost Volvo-like way. The dash, similarly to the HB, was designed so that the instrument module, of which there were many variations from strip speedo to full sets of seven instruments, could be swapped with glovebox lids.
Vauxhall had another variation of the Viva, which came onto the British market in the spring of 1971, under the Firenza badge. This was a two door coupe version of the Viva, using the Viva body up to the B pillars, the doors from the two door saloon and with a rear roofline that to European eyes looked very North American. Many Viva details were retained, including most of the interior and the mechanical make-up.
Remarkably, even the strip speedo made it into some of the premium priced coupes. Against a Ford Capri, it looked as contemporary but had much less showroom appeal, through a combination of stark interior, close relationship to the saloon and the arguably awkward styling.
Canadian sales of all three body shapes were under the Firenza by General Motors label, at Pontiac-Firenza dealers, with Canadian specific trims and finishes. The estate in particular was distinctive, with a set of roof rails that were among the first in this class and ahead of any in Europe.
Sales started in Canada in the 1971 model year with the 1975cc slant 4 engine exclusively, emasculated by emissions equipment to 77bhp, and poor driveability. Misfires, oil leaks, electrical faults and cold running engines struggling to achieve 20mpg were just some of the faults, which with poor performance and paint and trim issues left the Pontiac dealers having to cannibalise new cars to keep customers’ cars on the road, as parts supply from the UK could not keep up.
At the end of the 1972 model year, GM called it a day and the Firenza was withdrawn from Canada. It took until 1980 for all the resulting legal cases to be concluded. The 1972 Victor FE, also styled and sized to fit with Canadian tastes, never made it to Canada, and Vauxhall were left selling, in Europe only and predominantly in the UK, cars that were the wrong size, awkwardly styled and with engines, now at 1800 and 2300cc and large for four cylinders, that were out of step with the competition.
Any ideas Vauxhall had for a Viva HD died at this time, and the full integration of Vauxhall into the GM T car and U car programmes (Opel Kadett C) became the future.
The Firenza as a coupe fared little better in its home market. It was initially offered with the 1256cc, 1600cc and 2000cc engines in a range of trim options from basic spartan strip speedo to full sports effect with seven dial instrumentation, but in 1973 the naming policy was changed.
The 1256c versions became the Viva coupe, and the 1800 and 2300 versions were now to be sold under the Vauxhall Magnum label, alongside saloons and estates. If you like, the Viva family was now split in two by engine size rather body style.
Vauxhall kept the marketing effort up, even using James Hunt, before he was F1 World Champion to promote the Viva, and later as World Champion to promote the Chevette. Listen to his excellent pronunciation and read between the lines if you wish….
Incidentally, Hunt may have had the ultimate racing driver’s “lock up daughters” reputation but after his retirement from racing carved out a career as perhaps the best and most knowledgeable motor racing summarisers around, covering Grand Prix for the BBC, and is still sorely missed.
To differentiate the Magnum, Vauxhall did some trim and finish changes which effectively identified the car from the Viva. Rostyle wheels, black grilles, side stripes, chrome strips and plusher interiors all worked very effectively, and the car had a very different presence to the basic Viva. All three bodystyles were offered, but the Coupe died in 1975 when the Cavalier (U car) came on stream.
The Magnum was perhaps more aimed at the Triumph Dolomite than at the Cortina or Escort, but with sales of 20,000 over four years it cannot be considered a great commercial success.
Meanwhile, the HC Viva was having a South African adventure, being the basis for the Chevrolet Firenza saloon and later the Chevrolet 1300 and 1900 saloon and hatchback.
The saloon was a Viva with minor trim differences and the option of a Chevrolet 153 cu in (2507 cc) four cylinder engine.
The hatchback was a Viva with the rear overhang cut back by ten inches and a very Chevette like rear added. An Opel Ascona A like front clip completed the transformation. Ultimately, GMSA offered a V8 version of this car with 302in V8, albeit in very limited quantities.
But perhaps the best remembered variation of the Viva HC family was the Vauxhall HP Firenza, known to so many as the Droop Snoot. The HP (for High Performance) element came from a reworked version of the Vauxhall slant-4 2300 cc engine.
Larger valves, a high lift cam and 9.2:1 compression ratio took the power up to 130bhp and torque to 114lbft. A five speed Getrag gearbox (from a Bedford van), some items like the clutch and front brakes came from the six cylinder Victor based Vauxhall Ventora, and the suspension was lowered to create a car that was a credible Ford Escort RS2000 Mk1 competitor. However, success was elusive – just 200 examples were sold after it was launched in late 1973, bang into an oil crisis.
The HP Firenza (or HPF) did have some competition success, in rallying and circuit racing, but it was playing second fiddle at best to Ford in such competitions. Vauxhall put the droop snoot onto the estate as well for another low volume variation under the Magnum name.
Of course the droop snoot look became Vauxhall’s family face from the 1975 Chevette onwards.
The HC Viva, aside from the HP Firenza, saw next to no development during the 1970s. By 1976, it was clear that Vauxhall’s future was now completely with Opel, and the last Viva was built in 1979.
In total, around 1.5 million had been built, and many British families had one. Sales reached 9% of the UK market in the late 1960s, a rate that deserves some respect. But to see any Viva on the road now is rare, and away from car shows in the Luton area, like the ones in this feature, car show sightings are few as well. It is one of a generation of cars, like the Marina, Avenger and even the Cortina that are seemingly disappearing completely.
It was not a great car, but arguably it was a significant car in some ways, for many years at least class competitive, was influential in some aspects, and Vauxhall certainly made a go of it within the GM organisation only to be let down, or let themselves down by the execution, and to have been constrained by the size requirements of the potential export markets.
The Viva name is now back, closely related to the Chevrolet Spark, and Ellesmere Port is the lead factory in Europe for the Vauxhall/Opel Astra, Europe’s latest Car of the Year.