My father’s retirement came in 1963, immediately after Vauxhall introduced the Viva, which was smaller than all of its postwar Vauxhall predecessors. By this time, the company had Philip Copelin as a CEO. Copelin was an American who was well suited to mediate between Luton and Detroit, as he had spent a lot of his life in Europe, and had worked for General Motors Overseas Operations.
My father’s autobiography recalls a series of meetings led by Copelin in which Vauxhall’s executives discussed the best way in which to introduce a completely new model as quickly as possible. The time seemed right for a very small vehicle. The Austin Mini had captured everyone’s imagination since its introduction in 1959.
Opel, the German subsidiary of GM, had already been working on its own small Kadett since 1957, to compete against the massively popular Volkswagen. But Vauxhall’s program of aggressive expansion was not far enough along for the company to design something quickly enough.
I have a feeling that Copelin was the one who encouraged his British colleagues to think the unthinkable: Collaboration with Opel. The companies were competitors; as my father put it in his book, “My own relationship with Karl Stief, their chief engineer, was one of friendly rivalry, but we thought of ourselves as rivals, nonetheless.” Any new, small vehicle would need a complete new unibody structure, engine, transmission, suspension and other all-new components; could Vauxhall swallow its pride and use German engineering?
This was more or less what happened, although Vauxhall only imported the designs, not the actual hardware. It changed all the metric measurements to inches, even including screw threads, and it did put a genuine British clutch on the car.
The upper body was designed by Vauxhall, but it was essentially the Kadett’s unibody inner structure with updated styling, and the floor pan was all Kadett. This created an overall family resemblance, but initially the collaboration remained a secret, as World War II had ended less than 20 years ago, and many British buyers were not quite ready to embrace German products. For instance, German Krups washing machines were sold in the UK under a different logo that sounded reassuringly British.
I think my father viewed the Viva collaboration with Opel as a one-time thing, forced upon Vauxhall by circumstances. The second model of the Viva, which he initiated but was completed after his retirement, was all-British. Still, an ominous precedent had been established.
As for the Viva’s styling, it was still influenced by Detroit, even though it was just a cheap little car–actually, not just little but tiny, by US standards. It had relatively flat body panels and a straight waist line, like a Corvair.
The power train layout was utterly conventional. My father was friendly with Alex Issigonis, the designer of the Austin Mini, which had been the first to use a transverse engine with front-wheel drive; but the collaboration with Opel ruled out any radical ideas of that type. In any case, my father liked to tell people that despite its impact, its sales life, and its popularity, the Mini never actually made a profit for British Leyland, its manufacturer.
The Viva was very successful, but as The Corporation was forced to become more financially prudent in the 1970s, it revisited the idea of “commonality” between its two European subsidiaries. Why should GM bankroll them to create different designs for cars that were of equivalent size and were appealing to similar markets? In 1980–the year when my father’s autobiography was published–Vauxhall ceased to originate cars. Henceforth, its badge would be applied to vehicles that were styled and engineered in Russelsheim, Germany.
So it was that the company which had built the Churchill tank to defeat Hitler became a mere conduit for German engineering. To my father’s chagrin, he even found himself driving an Opel, because this was the only way he could take advantage of the substantial discount that he was still allowed as a former Vauxhall executive.
As for me, the Vauxhall Cresta was my last British car. In 1970 I relocated to the United States, where I decided to see the country by driving a Chevelle from coast to coast for a car delivery service. This was a revelatory experience, because the Chevelle didn’t develop any mechanical trouble along the way, and didn’t use any oil. Thus did I learn the value of American engineering over long distances. Of course, in 1970 American cars still didn’t handle properly, but so long as you kept them pointed in a straight line and didn’t have to stop too quickly, they got the job done.
My father understood this. He was always an admirer of American engineering, and felt that British cars suffered greatly from the national tendency to do everything as cheaply as possible. The root of the problem was that Britain had taken so long to recover from World War II. Although the war ended in 1945, many foods were still being rationed as late as 1950, and “luxury items,” which included all candy, were rationed until 1953.
This was the bottom line. British people didn’t have much money, and therefore British cars had to be cheap. It was as simple as that.
Vauxhall had adopted American styling fads, but aside from the short-lived experiment with panoramic windshields (which were expensive for structural reasons, quite apart from the British insistence on using toughened glass), American styling didn’t increase the cost of the car. Beneath the shell, Vauxhalls were still British, and penny-pinching remained a priority.
I think this is the main reason why British automobiles have almost ceased to exist. The manufacturers never properly reoriented themselves to a more affluent market in which buyers expected a higher quality product. After the UK joined the European Community, imports became affordable, and British drivers realized that they didn’t have to settle for a maximum lifespan of 40,000 miles anymore.
My father was fortunate. He designed cars during the glory days of The Corporation, when Vauxhall Motors enjoyed its patronage. He ended his career before the British automobile industry spiraled into oblivion.
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.