(first posted 9/6/2013. For those that didn’t make the jump to Part 2 the other day) In 1980 my father’s autobiography was published under the title “An Addiction to Automobiles”. I remember my mother putting the book down and frowning at him. “You didn’t mention your family,” she said. “Not even once!”
“It’s a book about cars,” he told her, sounding puzzled. He was gentleman engineer who wore his jacket and tie everywhere, even while sitting with his wife and child on a beach. Also, as the book title clearly stated, he was a car addict. He didn’t feel qualified to write about human relationships.
He had started his career as Technical Editor of a British automobile magazine named “The Motor”. This allowed him to road-test all the great touring marques of the 1920s, when cars were still named after the founders of their companies. When I look at his old photo albums, I get the impression that he enjoyed a rakish life style.
I can imagine him saying to some fashionably dressed flapper girl from Chelsea, “I’ve got the new Lagonda, and I’m going to take it on a spin to Brighton over the weekend. We can stop for a pub lunch and a few gin-and-tonics on the way. Would you like to come along?” No DUIs on the British roads in those days. No speed limits, either, as soon as you were out of town.
My father joined Vauxhall in 1937, and two years later found himself helping to design the engine for the first Churchill tank. This was a rush job, as Britain owned hardly any tanks, and Winston Churchill had committed the country to fight Germany. The tank engine went “from drawing board to test bed in 89 days,” according to the scrap book that I inherited.
It was an opposed twelve cylinder “boxer”, displaced 21 liters, and developed 350 horsepower at 2100 RPM. The armor consisted of flat steel plates bolted by hand to a frame of welded angle. If you made your own tank in your back yard, it wouldn’t look much different.
After the war, Vauxhall was compelled to reinvent itself. GM was talking unashamedly about “dynamic obsolescence,” and Harley Earl plainly stated the corporate mission as being “longer and lower.” My father was amused by this styling ethos, because it must eventually lead to an infeasible end-point. If the cars became much lower, people wouldn’t be able to fit into them, and beyond a certain length, five yellow lights would have to be installed at the front of the roof because the vehicle would be reclassified as a truck.
Still, GM seriously believed that “longer and lower” was a recipe for greatness, and if it worked in Detroit, it should work in England. The Americans had helped the British to win the war, so now, everyone should want to drive cars that looked like American cars. It was a no-brainer.
When my father tried to explain that British people didn’t actually want larger cars, no one believed him. He had to wait for occasional, sporadic visits by US GM executives to the Vauxhall factory located in Luton, in the mostly rural county of Bedfordshire. My father would then take them for a drive along “the lanes” near the factory. These little roads snaked between massive hedgerows, so that oncoming traffic was hidden until the last possible moment. If a truck or bus came roaring into view, the passing clearance would be just a few inches.
Finally, the guys in Detroit began to get it. The British desire for undersized vehicles wasn’t just a perverse national neurosis. There were practical factors. So, okay, the cars had to be small–but they should still look American! Bill Mitchell insisted on it, and David Jones, the chief stylist at Vauxhall, was willing to oblige. Thus beginning in the latter 1950s Vauxhall marketed a series of vehicles which attempted to prove, unsuccessfully, that American designs were downwardly scalable.
The first Vauxhall with a truly postwar appearance was the 1957 Victor (CC here). It had a panoramic windshield and looked like a toy-sized Buick Century. The British press ridiculed it as being tasteless, flashy, and ugly–the same adjectives that British people generally applied to any product that came from (or was influenced by) the United States.
Next came a redesigned Vauxhall Cresta, which looked maybe like a child’s version of an Oldsmobile 88. It not only had a panoramic windshield, but boasted small tail fins and a two-tone paint job. Later, after I had moved out of my parents’ house, I bought a second-hand Cresta, which my friends referred to affectionately as a pimpmobile.
As always, GM exerted pressure on Vauxhall to get the model into production at a pace which British employees found unrealistic. The British didn’t quite share the American corporate zeal. They liked to spend a couple of days a week at home with their families. Therefore, to save time, Vauxhall accepted a design from Fisher Body in the United States.
This was a unibody design that used door sills fabricated from box-shaped longitudinal members to provide structural stiffness. Each sill was welded shut, but alas, sooner or later, water found a way in. Rain being almost a daily event in the UK, rust was the predictable result, and because it started on the inside, you only discovered its extent when most of the metal had been eaten away, leaving just a thin layer of paint. The phenomenon became affectionately known to Cresta owners as “body rot.”
The problem was quickly forgotten in the US, where perpetual changes were a fact of life. Fisher Body simply abandoned the design and moved on. In the UK, however, a Vauxhall model was expected to last without significant modifications for five years, and the company was stuck with its rotting door sills. Eventually it developed a technique to spray anti-rust coating inside the sills, leaving a hole open at either end to allow drainage, but Vauxhall’s reputation had been severely damaged. As my father always liked to say, styling was only more important than engineering in the short term.
Engineering and styling were two very different departments in the early 1960s. They shared the same building at Vauxhall, but the engineers were always trying to keep the stylists under control, and the stylists were always trying to do unscrupulous end-runs around the engineers.
Sometimes, on weekends, I would hear my father arguing patiently on the phone with his nemesis, David Jones. “You have to expect this kind of thing from a stylist,” he said to me afterward. “They’re artists. They’re unreasonable by nature.”
I enjoyed my Cresta, but when it accumulated about 45,000 miles, I ran into problems. My father confessed with some embarrassment that 40,000 was the unofficial design limit for most British brands, with the possible exception of Rolls Royce and Bentley. The combined land mass of England and Scotland measured only a bit more than 700 miles from end to end, so no one had much need to drive very far, and a typical car owner should really be ready to buy a new model by the time the odometer reached 40,000.
My Cresta became an oil-burner. It developed an unexplained vibration at high speeds. The engine acquired a habit of misfiring when water mysteriously penetrated the fuel system. A U-joint spontaneously disassembled itself (I will always remember the noise that the end of the drive shaft made, when it hit the road under the car). Most humiliating of all, the dreaded body rot finally appeared. When I pushed a door sill with my thumb, the pressure made a dent, and I heard a faint crunching sound from underneath.
I decided that I should put the car out of its misery. With some friends, I drove to a piece of empty land in Scotland, overlooking the River Forth. The land had been used for training troops during World War II, and had remained abandoned ever since. We pushed the car over a cliff–which was not as easy as it sounds, because after the front wheels went over, the underbody of the car stuck on the edge, and we had to rock it to get it free. Finally it slid away from us, turning as it fell, and landed on its roof with a sound like someone stomping on a big metal can.
We took a train back to London, where I was woken the next morning by two police officers on my doorstep. “What happened to your car?” they asked me. “We tried to hold it back,” I said. “But it just got away from us.”
When I revisited the crash site a year later, the dented body was still there, stripped clean of anything useful. Today, the land has been re-purposed as an upscale housing development, and my Cresta has been removed, presumably by the real-estate developers.
Part1: A Visit to GM Headquarters Part 3: Viva Russelsheim!
Charles Platt writes for Make magazine and is a former Senior Writer at Wired magazine. He is the author of “Make Electronics” (an introductory guide) and is gradually writing “The Encyclopedia of Electronic Components” (the first of three volumes are currently in print). He likes to explore the dirt roads of northern Arizona in a 4×4 Mitsubishi Montero Sport, and has been known to test the limits of his Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart turbo on I-40 across the Mojave desert–but still harbors a nostalgic yearning for an Olds 442.
I had to laugh about your used-car disposal system. I’d seen the same technique used in a little isolated town in Alaska where I spent a summer…camping out in the back of my Datsun pickup. Another Japanese truck appeared one morning off the water’s-edge road, down the rubble embankment, and half submerged in the sound. I got to the cannery where I worked and tried to raise the alarm.
I was told, patronizingly, that the local who owned the car had a breakdown the night before, coming home from the bar…and just rolled it over the edge. There it sat, all summer, at least…
Shetland, not too long ago.
Regarding tank development, it’s ironic that the more “capitalist” United States had the Army design its tanks & industry merely build them to print, whereas the more socialist Britain & Germany delegated basic design to contractors. The Churchill turned out to be pretty well-armored, though still badly undergunned because it, like all British tanks before the Centurion, had a small turret ring. It was an excellent hill-climber in Italy & continued to be used after the War.
I can answer that.
The Army didn’t trust industry – they suspected, with some justice, that the mentality of “planned obsolescence” would lead them to delivering an inferior product. The Army wanted control – and it was big enough, with enough specialists, that they could conceivably do a decent design, or contract for one.
The British army, by contrast, was of course much smaller; and much more focused on blowing things up and killing people. So, with not much of an engineering talent pool…there would be no choice but to farm out design work. Either the home motor industry, or those Yanks….
As an off-topic footnote: While the original jeep was designed in response to an invitation to bid by Karl Probst, the longest-lived of the Willys Jeeps, the CJ-5, was in fact designed by the American Army. It was done by private designers and paid for directly by the War Department. Willys put it into manufacture in 1951, as the M38A1…but it took four years for Willys to get government approval to sell it as a civilian product, as the CJ-5.
I’m not an expert on military equipment, but I don’t think that’s quite how it worked in Germany. The Nazis exerted increasing control of the industries; not by direct ownership, but by other means. During the war, all industries were under full control by the government in terms of what they built. So it really amounts to the same thing, effectively.
The Germans had a chaotic system for procurement right from day one. Hitler intentionally had several organisations competing for resources. For example, Goring controlled the “Four Year Plan,” while the army initially controlled all its procurement. This inter-organisational squabbling led to bottlenecks in the system. The Germans never really got good production until these bottlenecks were worked out by Fritz Todt and later Albert Speer.
A great irony was in fact, the industries in the democracies were actually much more productive that that of Nazi Germany. The Panther tank, for example, was a sublime fighting machine only around 5000 were ever produced, because they were built like heavy construction equipment, not on an assembly line. Until late 1943, for example, there was no night shift at the MAN plant in Berlin.
The Germans only really got going with relatively large production in the latter half of 1944, when relatively larger quantities of higher quality weapons became available. By that time it was too late and the Germans didn’t have the fuel to use many of them anyway.
Finally, the Germans squandered their meager resources on projects like the V-2, which soaked up enough materials, labour and fuel to produce and power something like 125,000 aircraft.
Very good points about the relative manufacturing capabilities of Nazi Germany vs its adversaries. I’d also add that Hitler didn’t put Germany’s economy on a total war footing until a few years into the war, probably for civilian morale purposes. The Germans also did not really get women into the factories, choosing instead to use conscripted and slave labor from the occupied territories. One would think this would not be conductive to quality control for weapons and munitions.
It was only after Stalingrad that it dawned on the Germans (and NOT just Hitler, there is plenty of blame to go around) that the war wasn’t going to be over quickly. On 18 February Goebbels gave his “total war” speech, which indicated that the war wasn’t going to end quickly. Most Germans saw this speech as the writing on the wall.
standardization was another thing they didn’t get the hang of until it was too late (for them)
For more on the screwed up German manufacturing system see Schindler’s List or read Schindler’s Ark. Per the movie and the book Schindler’s factory NEVER produced anything that was to spec.
Off-topic: why do I lose the CC home page as soon as these GM stories (very interesting by the way) appear ?
I can only go to other (older) blogs by first opening this one, only then I see the usual stuff. (recent comments etc.)
It can’t have anything to do just with these specific posts. Our site is a bit shaky, and we’re about to do a major upgrade that should help. Since you’re in Europe, you may not be getting some impact from that; ideally we’d have a server there too! You’re probably seeing some caching effects, etc…. sorry!
Thanks Paul, but as soon as the GM story part 1 was on the second page
(“older entries”) the problem was gone. And now with part 2 on the home page it’s back again.
I guess I’ll have to navigate a bit through the comments I see as soon as I opened this CC-blog.
I’ve experienced the exact same phenomenon, with only these posts, running IE10. All is normal on Chrome.
We currently run a pretty old WordPress theme (hasn’t been updated by the author in a long time), and we’re getting ready to update to a new, modern code theme. Hopefully that will correct some of the compatibility issues you’re seeing.
Very odd; just tried it with IE (which I don’t normally use) and it didn’t do it for me. Must be some weird quirk…
FWIW, the problem disappeared when I disabled Compatibility View in IE10.
Why bother with IE? It’s never been good. Google Chrome is much better.
Problem solved, went to Firefox.
Those of us that use Safari are perplexed by these phenomena. Everything works fine here in Happy Valley.
+10 I’ve never seen any of the problems people describe here. Even pictures were never an issue.
More off-topic, Paul; but has your brain trust considered the old BBS format? That sort of board/blogsite seems a bit more robust and less resource-intense than this WordPress setup.
If it can’t be done because of the host contract or for cost, I get it. Just tossing it out there…
Return to the web stone age? Do you think we could do proper stories with all of our pictures on that? And look professional? And what would we do with the thousands of post here already? Throw them away? No thanks; we’re not Luddites. We’re moving forward, and in fact will be doing a major site revision shortly, which will hopefully help.
…I figured I’d get bee-eye-itch slapped for saying that.
I can testify that migrating huge amounts of image-heavy (and internal linking-heavy) content is a claw-your-eyes-out-make-it-stop-make-it-stop proposition…
How about a pre-web BBS format mirror where we can dial into a Commodore64 long distance to Oregon via 2400bps modem and view ASCII representations of ’59 Oldsmobiles and Datsun F-10s? (kidding, obviously!)
Comment (or image) of the day!
Curbside ASCII Art!
Has the WordPress mobile option been disabled? I’m only getting the desktop view for the past couple of days.
Yes. We’re messing with a bunch of stuff under the hood trying to improve responsiveness, and our hosting service suggested disabling that plugin for now…
In that case I will see if I can post on my phone- never works normally
Thanks. Although it takes more scrolling to read everything, it is nice to see who is replying to whom in desktop view. That’s always been an issue in mobile.
That HA concept is an exciting car! Somewhere between an E-Type Jag and Fiat’s 850 Spyder, with a dash of fifties Corvette, all gorgeous cars. Imagine it as a ’66 Pontiac Banshee, with their OHC inline six….
While I am way too busy in Washington these days to peruse the web for anything but the most critical things, a friend who is a frequent reader/poster on this site informed me of this article.
I haven’t had time to adequately read it, but my quick scan of Part 1 & 2 brings a certain amount of nostalgia to me. While I was an Assistant Chief Engineer before I retired, the gentleman’s father occupied a higher position than myself overseas, many of the experiences were similar. Eagle eyes probably have taken notice that my avatar for some time has been the QE2, another recently departed grand dame of the seas which we fell in love with during similar cross continental trips between Europe in the mainland. During my European visits, I often scheduled a vacation immediately after the visit (which was common practice for many) which afforded me time to make a leisurely return or to spent additional time wherever I happened to be.
Over the last 22 years, we have crossed the Atlantic 9 times via ship, 6 on the QE2 and twice on the QM2. Even in what is equivalent to “coach”, the trip was first class. On the original QE and QM, there were true class divisions with restricted access to certain parts of the ship, much like it was portrayed in the movie “Titanic” although not quite as dramatic in regards to Third (or Tourist as it was known after WWII). By the time the QE2 was constructed and into the 1970s, social norms relaxed the strict divisions between the “classes” to the point that by the time the ship was retired in 2008, the only difference was the dining room that you were assigned to eat and certain cocktail lounges adjacent to the dining rooms for pre and post dinner treats. Otherwise it was an “open” ship. Still very formal in the evenings, tuxes were de rigeur for dinner and Cunard still employed gentleman hosts for the ladies until the very end.
While some of the executive types turned out to be real messes in their lives, the most enduring facet of life at GM back in the day was the concept of a “lifer.” Myself like many who started at the bottom spent their entire working lives at the company, which a small percentage rising to the top. For a poor boy living in a Quonset hut Puerto Rico, 41 years with GM gave me things I have never thought possible, and I am not talking about money or material goods either. It is difficult to imagine in today’s world of fast paced life, where the younger person of today may work for 5-10-or-15 organizations in their work life, where loyalty is only as good as the money flows. It is understandable people move on for opportunity, but for many, like myself, there were no real alternatives, especially 40+ years old.
There is a local gentleman located about 20 minutes from my North Carolina home who is a veteran of British Engineering, David Vizard, who spent his early career at various automotive companies in the UK and finally settled building performance engines in the United States. He is pushing 80 now, not sure if he worked with the Platt’s but I will have to ask.
> Eagle eyes probably have taken notice that my avatar for some time has been the QE2
When I saw the Queen Mary pic at the beginning or part I, I was briefly confused as to whether “Craig” was just a pen name and you were the author of the article.
The name Vizard is familiar to me. But, there were countless names floating around in my father’s everyday conversation, so I can’t remember who he is.
He wrote in many car and motorcycle magazines in the 70s and 80s in the UK.I remember him writing how to make the Kawasaki 750 2 stroke triple faster,just in case it wasn’t scary enough for you!
I rebuilt my 1980 Ford 2,3 Turbo engine using David Vizard’s book on rebuilding the Ford 4 cylinder motor back in 1981, I still have the book; a very informative and good read if you love motors. Although written towards the Ford 4 cylinder, his rebuilding techniques could be translated to any other engine. I’m glad he is till around.
Wonderful story telling by Mr Platt. I’m curious to know what kind of relationship Vauxhall had with Opel as their 1950’s designs seem closely aligned. Was there any kind of collaboration, or as the Opel Experimental GT and the Mako Shark Corvette took shape, they both were coincidental designs influenced by Mr Mitchell in Detroit?
Nowadays it seems like a lack of loyalty goes both ways Craig. I was recently made redundant after over 12 years with New Zealand’s largest beverage company. To be fair, they were really good about it, and now that I’ve got a new job I’m enjoying spending the redundancy payout on way overdue maintenance on my house. But in that industry and many others, there’s a rising emphasis on getting rid of staff who are perceived as staying too long without becoming senior managers. Loyalty and dedication are largely un-valued by large businesses, it seems like everyone has to have sky-high ambitions and be acting upon them. Solid, stable employees are often viewed as ‘stuck in the mud’, lacking the driving ambition seen as the be-all nowadays. This is a flawed view, as the higher you go up the ladder, the fewer roles there are. A constant injection of new staff does bring new ideas, but businesses run the risk of losing the strength of foundational knowledge they really need to understand where they’ve come from and what led them to where they are today. As for me? My 18 years FMCG experience and knowledge has now left the industry; I’m shortly to begin employment at an accountancy firm that’s 50 years old and values loyalty and dedication.
This is great, and thanks for including the link to Part 1, which I’d missed. What a pleasant surprise to find Mr. Platt writing here. I first came across his work 40 years ago, the graphic (in more ways than one) aleatoric story “Norman Vs. America,” which was equally entertaining and is the main reason why I still own the paperback anthology that includes it.
Wow! Aleatoric; of or pertaining to accidental causes; of luck or chance; unpredictable
Gotta work that into my next cocktail party. Wait, I live in Utah, we don’t have cocktail parties! Damn, I’ll have to figure out other ways. “My dear, our love child was purely aleatoric, and it’s all your fault!” Yah, that will work.
This is such a fine example of what’s good for GM isn’t always what’s good for the country, any country. Not understanding your market had to be one of the deadly sins of GM…. and who hasn’t had a car that they would have liked to dispose of in that exact same manor?
Great series. Eagerly awaiting future posts!
+1 These are great!
Wow, part ll so soon! I love it.
Fascinating story of the British car industry, and a lifespan of 40,000 miles explains a lot.
As to rolling a junker over a cliff, a friend used to do that. He lived in Times Beach, MO, and in 1969, he and I rolled a car into a deep hole alongside the Meramec River. One exception – this time, he STAYED in the car as I pushed it over the edge and he went down with it! Of course, the drop wasn’t too great, but it still took guts and we both cracked up over that stunt. In the hole, several other cars he pushed over quietly resided there already.
Near Eureka, MO along Hwy. 109, he rolled a 1953 Dodge down a very steep, 100-yard-long drop. My buddy and I hated to hear he did that because that car had a 392 hemi in it and he didn’t pull the good engine! Later, we used to roll boulders down that hill and watch them crash into the carcass of that car!
Ten years or so ago, my buddy actually went back to that stretch of road hoping to find that hemi! Needless to say it wasn’t there, long since discarded whenever they built a subdivision. Pleasant thoughts did race through our minds, hoping on one of our trips back to Missouri, I’d visit him and see that motor in some bomb he bought!
I recall reading about a guy that burned a valve on his Austin Healey only to have the shop pull the head and discover 7 of his engine’s 8 valves were exhaust valves. Three of them were installed in intake ports, so they weren’t technically exhaust valves, but they were the wrong size for their use. The BMC rep told the dealer and the customer, “Well, you got 40,000 miles out of it!” I suppose that in the UK rust would team up with the MOT to remove most cars from the roads before their short-lived mechanicals could be blamed.
The other thing to keep in mind is that England didn’t build its first motorway until something like 1959, so their entire transportation system at the time consisted of ‘A’ routes (to Americans, visualize a good secondary, two-lane road, sort of a PA56 or VA54 both of which I know well), and ‘B’ routes (which can best be described as county roads – in Virginia the equivalent would be county route 626 or 715, in Pennsylvania they’re called legislative routes and are marked in a manner that only makes sense to a PennDOT employee or a traffic engineer).
Which means you weren’t traveling much faster than 50mph ever. Then add the ‘taxable horsepower’ formula engines which guaranteed a small bore and long stroke. Not exactly a recipe for long distance and/or high speed running.
Then add in rust. It amazes me, given England’s propensity for rainy days, that their cars could be such rust monsters.
Wow, Syke, I hadn’t thought about PA’s “quadrant” routes in quite some time.
For the curious… http://www.pahighways.com/state/
Four-digit roads and PA’s method for assigning them make my head hurt.
A maximum of 50mph? This is news to me. It was standard practice among the drivers in my household to do 75 to 80 on any “A” road, if other traffic would permit. Don’t forget that overtaking was facilitated on many of the “A” roads near London, becuse they had three lanes: One going in one direction, the other going in the other direction, and the center lane accessible in both directions, for overtaking. No double yellow lines or sissy stuff like that; it was up to you to decide whether to go for it. Seeing someone else in the distance doing the same thing, coming toward you in the center lane, was a fascinating experience as the cars neared each other. Who would yield first? Alas, this entertaining sport was eliminated in the 1960s as being “too dangerous.”
Three lane highways like that were rather common once in the US too, seen as a easy solution to make passing safer. I suspect that’s where the idea came. But the same thing happened here; in the sixties most were converted to 2+1 highways,or widened to four lanes.
Actually, we have some stretches here in the mountainous areas nearby that still work that way, except that it is posted that the uphill side has the priority. But one can use it from the other side, legally, if it’s not taken.
Hmmn, then those four Rockers I spent most of a week with in Brighton back in 1979 doing research (aka, I picked up the tab at the pub three, er, four nights running, they got to retell all those stories their families were long sick of hearing) were a tad less than truthful.
Or, they were underplaying how easy it was to pass cars on the ‘A’ roads back in the day . . . . . .
The roads were driven home to me as I was driving like a complete prat in a rental Ford Fiesta S (my first time in a FWD car), and my fiancee on one occasion did almost the entire trip from Brighton to Battle cowering in the foot well. Those ‘B’ roads absolutely floored me!
Yep my 59 Hillman is not motorway capable the final drive too low Ive improved it but its still underpowered more so with taller gearing.
Great post – a fascinating insiders’ look on a major vehicle manufacturer.
I think the styling dictates that GM HQ imposed on Vauxhall probably also applied to its’ Continental sister company, Opel. Look at the late 1950s Kapitan with its wraparound windshields.
Is it just me, or does the Victor at least somewhat resemble the Nissan Figaro?
I’ve always like the look of the Victor, and remember the local Pontiac/Cadillac dealer selling them in the late ’50’s/early ’60’s. And they immediately got a reputation for rusting in a short amount of time that made the Renault Dauphine look incredibly well built by comparison. Seems there was no rustproofing whatsoever on the car.
This is the big reason why Opel lasted into the mid-70’s, killed only by the exchange rate for the mark/dollar, while Vauxhall was gone by the mid ’60’s.
German Opels and Fords had (way) better rust proofing and were (way) better built than their counterparts from the UK.
A few weeks ago I watched a BBC documentary about the rise of the German automakers and the fall of the English automakers after WW2.
That was some comparison ! Oh, that monstrous British Leyland organisation, they ONLY made crap in the seventies and eighties. (often they made nothing at all due to the countless strikes)
The rush to FWD,strikes,poor quality and ill thought designs put BL in the coffin.Few people wanted anything apart from the Mini when the opposition both home and abroad were making better cars in a lot of cases cheaper and in some for not much more money
This is an excellent series. Now I’m wondering whether I should add “An Addiction to Automobiles” to the list of out-of-print books I’m looking for, or whether this pretty much covers the same ground. 🙂
The panoramic windshield and 3-piece back window of the Cresta are like an Olds, but from the side the greenhouse reminds me of a Kaiser.
Unfortunately, a quick check of Amazon doesn’t even indicate used books available for this title. Bummeruski.
BigOldChryslers: Ebay UK has a copy….
And my favourites the 3.3 PB and 3.3 Victor lead on Ive owned easy a couple of dozen Vauxhalls some were good, some weren’t
The shot of the Lagonda climbing the hill, with the ribbon of road behind it, is worthy of framing. What a beautiful image!
So much to like in this post. The humor, confirmation of long-held personal beliefs about the Brits and explanations for things I’ve always wondered about.
I think you are dead right about engineering the cars to last 40,000 miles. The short length of the country and it coming from your father makes the statement 100% believable. Jaguar and MG fans are going to hate you Charles!
Just as interesting was the story about the boxed sills rusting from the inside out and having to wait until the next gen for a fix, where GM N.A. could have made a change in the next model year. Assuming that was par for the course for anyone expect the Big 3, it really does support the belief that American cars were something special back then.
I didn’t know that American styling was adopted because of a push by GM N.A. on Vauxhall, I thought that would have been wanted from within even on a smaller-sized car. The Fintail Mercedes doesn’t look so bad after all. But when I saw the Cresta, OMG!
Loved hearing a foreign engineer’s take on the lower, longer dictate from Earl — simply priceless.
The flattened car is a PAY not a PA it has a one piece rear screen I hit a Austin Mini T bone in a PAY Velox, it was toast it still went but it was bent beyond feasible repair we yanked the front out with a chain on a Velox powered Landrover welded another radiator in, connected it and took the glass out then drove it too fast on dirt tracks till it fell apart ,
I sold the generator to a guy for $25 but he had to take the car he did he drove its remains to the wreckers, removed the generator and his battery and sold the rest for junk
Hard to believe I’m reading in CC the memoirs of the son of Maurice Platt ! I started buying “Autocar” Magazine in 1959, but sometimes I bought “Motor” as well, and I remember reading some of his opinions in the 70s or 80s. I was very impressed that the chief engineer of Vauxhall was writing for “Motor”. I remember him complaining about the “dog-leg” A pillar design which went with the wrap-around screen, which was totally unsuited to unibody construction.
In the penultimate photo, did the bicycle in the boot come as standard equipment? Is this a pre-Jetta Trek version? Or did the odometer reach 39,985 and the owner was making sure he had a ride home? Did the other two cyclists hit the magic mark earlier that day and were pedaling home? Too many questions, too many possibilities.
I once again thouroughly enjoyed your memoir. Those Crestas sure do look like toys. What’s up with those rooflines? And Cadillac taillights?
I love the black-over-silver styling model sedan in the studio – it looks like a halfway-point between the F type Victor and a Corvair.
Excellent again Charles,I look forward to the next installment
A very enjoyable piece…and I’ll echo the comment above on the photo of the Lagonda on the hill.
Fascinating reading. I was sorry when I came to the end. I am looking forward to the next part.
One detail that I really like on the pictured Crestas is the way the rear door handles form the leading edge of the tailfin. Those troublesome stylists were good for something!
This is amazing reading… Lagondas, Flat-12 tank engines, Vauxhall Crestas, intense destruction – I’m incredibly impressed, and actually kinda overwhelmed, by the amount of detail you’ve crammed into this as well as the story being told here. Truly great stuff, please keep it coming!!
Wonderful article. I wonder if GM brass knew when they decided to import Vauxhalls that the cars were built to last only 40,000 miles and ill-adapted for US driving conditions. (But I suspect GMs domestic cars back then were expected to be used only 50,000 miles. That would be top secret, of course.)
Great success–as Harley Earl had in America–can lead to arrogance. Crazy ol’ Henry thought the Model T was perfect for any country. His British managers knew better: the engine was too big, too thirsty and too taxable for the UK. It was quite a battle getting Ford to modify the T for the Brits.
Fifty thousand miles on a 1950’s-60’s car meant you were going to have to spend a good chunk of moolah to keep in on the road. Where I grew up it would be so holy by 50,000 miles you probably could’t drive it.
Now that is chicken feed but I remember when 100,000 miles was a really big thing. Now cars are as tight as a drum at that mileage.
Hate to tell you this but American cars were shot to pieces at 100,000 miles in the 50s and 60s if not driven on lovely smooth american highways US cars didnt last very well at all Most UK sourced cars would last 100,000 miles maybe not Vauxhalls but Fords Hillmans Austins and the like could all run big mileages.
My father alway used to say “10,000 miles per pot” (cylinder)
Most English cars over here were shot well before 100,000 miles even though they were run on lovely, smooth American highways.
No, they was not. In the 50s and 60s the american cars was of a way better quality than the rest of the world. End og discussion.
A lot of the cars from the 50s and 60s still has the original engine. I have one original Buick 430 engine with 172.000 miles on it. No noises, no oil consumpton or other faults. Same with my Cadillac 425, but that has 250.000 miles on it.
The american cars from this era is very heavy duty, both in engine/drivetrain and in front and rear end. Dead reliable.
This is true, they were designed to run with minimal attention including in the vast area between the coasts and in the west where good roads and service were scarce. Before computers, they were overbuilt to survive; even if the bodywork and interior finishes were mediocre, the mechanicals were durable. Even Benz engineers were astonished at the level of precision of engine manufacturing when they toured GM’s factories in the ’50s, according to John R. Bond of R&T, a story he often related, as he was there. From the teens to the ’70s US cars were the most durable in the world, without any doubt.
Of course I’m talking about traditional front engine full-size US cars here, always the strong point of the US auto industry.
[The 1957 Victor] “had a panoramic windshield and looked like a toy-sized Buick Century”
I’m no metalworker, and can’t afford a checkbook restoration, but it makes me wanna get one of those Victors, and some boneyard ’57 Century parts to cut down and reinstall, just to make a “three-quarter Buick.” Hideous or a cutie, depending on the eye of the beholder.
BTW: a GREAT narrative. Thanks for sharing, and supplying images as well.
As usual I am late to the party. Thank you so much much, Mr Platt, your writing is superb in classic British style, always my favourite! Very interesting views of the British car scene of the day.
There is quite an influx of British into Canada in the post-war period as they even had their fares paid, low interest loans, etc. Quite a few saw it as temporary respite from Jolly Olde and they attempted to be as British as one can be. These were the Vauxhall owners in Canada in the 1970’s in suburban Montreal where I grew up.
No cars were less suited to a Quebec winter than a Vauxhall. They were infamously hard to get going in the winter time. They rusted faster than anything which is quite a feat when all cars were rustbuckets. They got handed down so fast that hillbillies had them at 4-5 years old, at which point they usually barely ran and had holes all over, especially the rocker panels.
Perhaps a good car for the UK but it didn’t work well here.
The 40,000 mile comment rings true- Vauxhall cars had a pretty good rep as being a decent car, but not a long lived car in Australia. Holdens tended follow the American GM lead of running badly longer than most other cars run at all…
Holdens imitated Vauxhalls for the first 10 years that horrible sideplate engine is a direct copy of the prewar Vauxhall engine still used in the L series and early E models untill 54 Holdens were the only car that rusted faster than a Vauxhall proved when the incredibly primitive FJ was exported to NZ a car that looked 10 years old in the showroom.
Keep in mind that American cars back in the ’50’s were considered ready for a near-complete rebuild at 50,000 miles; and were thought of as being worn out by 100,000 and not worth a second rebuild. Looking at it in that light, British cars were 80% as good as American.
Balance that off against average annual mileage being a bit south of 10,000 back in the day.
An excellent read. It is particularly interesting to see the American-centric view that the British operation had to battle. Some of that was probably just Americans being Americans, and a good bit was also probably GM being GM. This makes me wonder how much more successful Vauxhall could have been had they possessed more autonomy from the mother ship, which did not have a very good feel for markets outside of North America.
The flip side, of course, is that cars designed to British tastes and needs tended to not be very successful in the U.S., at least non-sports cars.
I think that Opel was GM’s real overseas favorite with more autonomy and funding, certainly in those days. Basically Vauxhall was a UK operation only, whereas Opel covered continental Europe. Opel was higly successful for many decades in a row. Good quality no-nonsense cars at a fair price, beloved by many.
Also their model range was much wider. From the simple Kadett to loaded big (for Europe that is) sedans with Chevy V8s. And of course all their coupes and sporty models. Vauxhall never had all that, they were always in the shadow.
I like the big Opels from the seventies. Simple and clean lines and available with a Chevy V8. Heck, a Mercedes competitor ! Here’s one with a 327 engine:
As far as I know Vauxhall never had a model like this.
+1 on the big Opels,nice cars
I’ve read that the platform of those big Opels from the seventies was a candidate for the new 1976 Cadillac Seville. Never happened, instead they used the American X-body.
Designed in rust by Fisher yeah they designed the HD Holden which rusted madly only because box sections werent vented properly, Holden never got another car designed in the US one rusty shit box was enough
i saw the addiction book in a 2nd hand shop yesterday… should I buy it??
Excellent article; I hope to read more from Mr. Platt. I really like the two tone Cresta. But then I find the Nash Metropolitan a desirable car…
Excellent article. It’s all I have to say, but the British cars in the 50s, 60s and 70s was not good. The american cars of this period was the best in terms om reliability.
I think there was a lot more to blame for Vauxhall’s legendary rusting capabilities than merely box section sills on the PA Cresta, it affected just about everything they produced in this era. All cars in the Uk up until the 90s would rust eventually. Our maritime climate and salted winter roads is not kind to car bodies. But Vauxhall were in a league of their own from the late 50s right up until the early 70s.
That F type victor for example, along with the PA cresta, would develop actual fist sized holes in the wings after only two years. My dad owned a ’59 Cresta in 1966, you would slam the door and listen to the flakes of metal falling off underneath. It was scrapped within a year as it had virtually no floor left.
Subsequent models fared little better- Vivas, later FB,FC,FD and FE victors would all be scrapyard fodder after remarkably short lives, not to mention PB and PC Crestas.
Figuring lightning doesn’t strike in the same place twice, Dad bought a ’73 Vx4/90- a seriously flash car at the time. Unfortunately that one too was fit for the bin by 1980 with rotten sills,floors,wheelarches. Not just rotten but non-existent, you couldn’t achieve a better result if you parked it in the sea.
Some suggest that it wasn’t until the advent of simply re-badging German Opels as Vauxhall that the company finally made a worthwhile well built product, as the Chevette,Cavalier and Carlton (actually Kadett, Ascona and Rekord) were decent cars.
Whether it was exceptionally poor quality steel, hygroscopic paint or simply leaving hidden cavities in bare metal, Vauxhall was one of the worst for rust, just as bad as a ’70s Fiat or Alfa. Or, for those in the new world, the Chevy Vega. Two decent winters and it’s time for new fenders. Vauxhall are damned lucky to have survived.
It would be really interesting to know the extent to which Opel suffered the same problems, since many of their models were conceptually similar to their Vauxhall equivalents. If not, why not?
As an English childhood fan of 50s and 60s American cars, I was delighted when my neighbour got a 1960 PA Velox with Hydramatic. A beautiful wrap round screen, vestigial fins and lashings of chrome, it made everything else look so dull. This was real rock ‘n roll, British scale, and it was a well proportioned car. Incredibly sought after today, worth serious money.
However they do say they had to speed up the line at Luton to get them off the end before they started rusting…
Sadly its successors were dull in the extreme and it was left to Ford to give us a little dose of Americana.