There’s an adage in the car industry – if a car is good enough, it’ll sell. It’s not the only way to successfully sell a car, of course, or even critically necessary sometimes, but it’s a good start. Nothing shows this more simply or better than the Vauxhall Cavalier.
By the end of the 1960s, GMs European ops Vauxhall in the UK and Opel in Germany was at a crossroads; to continue as two separate, nationally based organizations, or to consolidate into one Europe-wide entity, as Ford was doing. If the former, would GM allow one entity to effectively subsume the other? GM wouldn’t say publicly, but the answer became clear in 1975.
The turn of 60s to the 70s was not a happy time for Vauxhall – volumes were too low, quality was inadequate and, probably worst of all, the product was wrong and losing in the marketplace. The Viva was perhaps the best Vauxhall had, but the range was limited – when you consider the engine options were 1250cc, 1800cc and 2300cc compared with the Ford Escort’s 1100cc, 1300c, 1600cc and 2000cc (for the RS version) and that the car was a bit larger than an Escort but smaller than the 1970 Ford Cortina Mk3 you can begin to understand the issues.
Larger than the Viva and larger than the Cortina was the Victor FD – a 1968 car with very transatlantic styling, a limited range of 4 door saloon and estate and 1600 or 2000 engines. This was replaced in 1972 by the FE series – larger again, on a 105” wheelbase, 4” longer than the Cortina but shorter than the Ford Granada and now with 1800cc and 2300cc engines. The styling was again very American influenced, and the estate particularly was an acquired taste. Both these cars failed to take the battle to Ford, by then the UK’s undisputed market leader in volume and defining the market as well.
In 1975, Vauxhall offered the Chevette – a version of the GM T car but initially offered only as a hatchback. That, plus the Vauxhall specific engine, from the Viva, as well as UK assembly helped us forget its Germanic roots as the Opel Kadett C. The Chevette was the first product that Vauxhall openly admitted to be sharing much with an Opel. (The first to significantly share engineering with an Opel was actually the Victor FE – it shared its floor pan with the Opel Rekord D).
Still, GM were vulnerable in the UK to Ford in the mid market; GM did not have a viable competitor to the Ford Cortina which was the UK’s market leader right through the 1970s. The Chevette was too small, seen as more compact than the Escort, the Viva too old and smaller than the Cortina, the Victor as too large and, frankly, inadequate.
The UK was only major European market in which Ford outsold GM, and GM had a UK brand and a significant local manufacturing presence. The big six cylinder Cresta had faded to nothing by 1972; Vauxhall had nothing to compete with the new, modern (independent rear suspension!) Ford Granada by 1972. Worse, Vauxhall hadn’t, and never had had, a competitor for the Ford Capri, which was doing great things for Ford in the showroom, and by the projection of its image. Think Ford in the US with no Mustang and no Mercury, Galaxie or LTD either.
GM had an answer – and it was Opel. In late 1975, Vauxhall adapted the new Ascona B by the adding a different nose panel and headlights–and nothing else–to create the Cavalier. It was an exact Cortina competitor; in almost every respect, it matched the Cortina within inches: two inches in wheelbase, rear wheel drive, modern European styling and interior, OHC engines of 1600cc and 1900cc, and solid quality.
There was one significant difference though – it was a much better driver’s car than the Cortina was or ever would be, and better also for the passengers. This quality as much as any other helped establish the Cavalier as a product to watch, from a company that was no longer willing to accept “also ran” status in the UK. Very quickly, the Cavalier was picked up by the press as the better car, even if the Ford’s market position kept Uncle Henry ahead. The following from What Car? was typical “As far as driver appeal is concerned, the Cavalier must be one of the best – perhaps the best – conventional saloon at the price. Its steering is accurate and responsive at all times, and it is not too heavy at parking speeds. Its cornering ability on smooth roads is excellent, although the well-located rear axle can hop about if the surface is poor. The ride may be a little firm for some tastes, but the ride/handling compromise is near perfect.”
Near perfect might have been a bit strong, but the step up from the Cortina (the 1970 Mk3 was then nearing the end of its run) was clear – Britain had a conventional family car that was better than the ubiquitous Cortina, easier to live with than a BLMC Princess or Maxi, and streets ahead of the Morris Marina or Hillman Hunter. Given the long standing appeal of the underdog to the British, the Cavalier was set for a strong showing.
The nose profile of the Cavalier saloon also made an impression, by being perceived to be “modern”, compared with its competitors and especially the Viva and Victor, as well as distinctive.
That nose profile was also shared with a Coupe version, known to Vauxhall as the Cavalier Coupe and to Opel as the Manta, which had otherwise different, more edgy styling, which was typical of GM’s coupes and hatchbacks of the time. Either made the Ford Capri look familiar and dated, and the Cavalier/Manta proved to be the better driver’s car again. This shot shows a 1972 Manta A alongside a 1977 Manta B, identical to the Cavalier Coupe except for the addition of the slots in the front panel. The Cavalier Coupe shared the saloon’s front panel.
In 1977, production of the Cavalier saloon came home to Luton, north of London, rather than being imported from Belgium, and a 1250cc version of the saloon was introduced to complete the transformation from the Viva to a Chevette and Cavalier- based range of small and medium cars. In 1978 the 1900cc went to a full 2 litres, and with some additional higher trim levels, taking the Cortina head on. It was clear to all that GM meant business in terms of volume in the UK, and was using Opel as a basis to do it.
In 1979, the withdrawal of the Vauxhall brand from all markets except the UK began, whilst Opel dealers in the UK were brought into a Vauxhall-Opel network. For a few years, the cars were sold under both brands on the same premises, but crucially, manufacturing was now being organised on a Europe–wide basis. Vauxhall became a subsidiary of Adam Opel Gmbh
Nothing demonstrated this transformation of Vauxhall from a maker of American-influenced, style conscious vehicles with some plodding engineering underneath than the 1978 Vauxhall Cavalier Sportshatch – a three door hatchback or lift back version of the Coupe and probably still one the best looking three-door hatchback coupes made.
Vauxhalls’s styling link to America was still there – the Sportshatch looks very much like a 1975 Chevrolet Monza that hasn’t been allowed to wilt in the sun, but the rest of the car was a complete step change from anything Vauxhall had offered previously.
It was offered with 1600cc (not enough really) or 1900cc and later 2000cc engines, and met with the Ford Capri in a similar way to which the saloon met the Cortina. In the words of one salesman, “they go out of the door as soon as they come in”. Even now, looking at it, you can believe that.
The sales volume of the Cavalier Mk1 in the UK was actually relatively modest – a total of around 250,000 were sold in six years. Not Cortina numbers, but a significant step in the right direction, and the car did a lot of work in re-building Vauxhall’s reputation.
This yellow car is actually one of the original UK press demonstrators, and I saw it and the Sportshatch at the recent (and appropriate) Luton Festival of Transport. The Cavalier was followed up by Vauxhall Carlton in 1978, a version of the Opel Rekord E but with Cavalier or Chevette style nose, the Viceroy based on the six cylinder Commodore, and Royale based on the larger Senator and Monza shown here. In three years, GM had replaced the entire Vauxhall range with Opel products, and the market responded.
The Cavalier Mk 1 and Ascona B were replaced in 1981 by the Cavalier Mk2 and Ascona C – GM’s first mid size front wheel drive cars and part of the J car programme, and a car which, by 1984 was outselling the Cortina’s successor, the Sierra in the UK, and setting the standard for that part of the market. That car was also sold as a Chevrolet Monza in Latin America, from 1982 all the way to 1996.
But the most desirable Cavalier was always the Sportshatch. I’ll admit it; I want one, even now. You do as well, don’t you?