(first posted 7/26/2014) There are two cars from Vauxhall in the after war period that truly remain in the popular memory: the compact Viva series and the larger Vauxhall Victor. The Victor came first, and was built for all its life in Luton, a town that is still proud of its links to Vauxhall, even if car production ceased several years ago. And where better than Luton, at the town’s recent Festival of Transport, to recall the car’s entire five generation career?
The Victor is another of those British cars with a history of contrasts. In its first years, it was a genuine success, with strong export sales to North America; in its final days it was almost forgotten, and even had its name changed out of shame. It was a typically conservative (small c) British product, but yet had its styling influenced by the most contemporary trends from North America. It was not a performance car, but the VX4/90 variant was one of the first popular-priced cars to bridge the gap between the hum-drum and the more adventurous in a way every competitor had to follow. It was repeatedly refreshed (five generations in less than 20 years), yet never changed from a four door saloon and estate. It was never a great car, but was frequently and unfairly overlooked, and even underrated on occasions.
The first Victor, known as the F series, was conceived in 1954 as a key part of GM’s expansion plan for Vauxhall, and to fit below the existing Vauxhall Wyvern and Cresta E series, which together constituted the Vauxhall range of the mid 1950s.
Vauxhall’s UK styling team created two distinctly different clay models for approval by Harlow Curtice, then head of GM – one version cautious and conservative, and one very clearly following contemporary American trends. There are many stories about senior management being presented with a range of design concepts to choose from, with one being a deliberate non-starter to make the choice of the designer’s preferred car easier, but in which the senior guys select what the designers consider the non-starter. This may have been one of those occasions, with Curtice being quoted as saying “Vauxhall has a wonderful opportunity to lead Europe in producing a car with the panoramic windshield and our competitors would be forced to follow suit”. Then it gets worse.
Curtice had made another significant intervention to the Victor programme – he ordained that development be completed in Detroit to meet the ambitious timescale set for the car and the styling was further “improved” whilst the project was in Detroit. Distinctive it may have been, but not in the same way as the contemporary Peugeot 403 or 404, or Volvo 121 Amazon.
Technically, this was a very typical car of the period – a four cylinder 1.5 OHV engine, driving the rear wheels through a three speed gearbox, with column change, coil springs at the front and leaf springs at the rear, recirculating ball steering and drum brakes. The wheelbase was 98 inches, 5 inches shorter than the Wyvern it replaced, and the length was 167in – almost exactly the same size as the later Hillman Hunter/Sunbeam Arrow.
What cannot be challenged is that the Victor F series was a commercial success – sales commenced in the spring of 1957 and by the end of 1959 250,000 had been sold. North America was a successful market for the F series Victor, where the car sold over 20,000 in 1957 and 1958.
The Victor was sold in the US by Pontiac dealers, during the great import boom of the mid-late fifties. But that ended with GM’s plans to introduce its own domestic compacts in 1960.
The revised series II version was sold only in Canada, and also rebadged as an Envoy, starting in 1960. David Saunders has a great write up here on the Victor F series and the Envoy.
In February 1959, Vauxhall launched the series II version, with the styling considerably toned down, and quite possibly a lot closer to what Vauxhall had expected before the design process was moved to Detroit. The bumpers were more modest, the grille calmer, the body creasing much reduced, the exhaust no longer exited through the rear bumper, and the rear window was larger. The panoramic screen, almost unique in its class in Europe, a feature that dictated much of the styling and the impression of the car remained. The featured car is a 1961 series II, and probably as good an example of the F series as there is.
Unfortunately, what also remained was the Victor’s truly appalling ability to rust. The exhausts through the bumper, the complex window shapes that had proved difficult to seal, and poor sealing of box sections and a build quality that was poor all allowed the car to rust from outside and inside, This was also widely attributed to the speed of the design and introduction. Nevertheless, Vauxhall sold almost 400,000, which was a pretty strong achievement
The Victor F series was replaced in October 1961 by the Victor FB. This time, Luton had been able to control the project much more closely and the styling showed this. Whilst it still had some north American influences, it was more to European tastes and achieved the unusual feat of being modern but ageing well. Mechanically, it was very similar to the F series, but with a higher compression ratio engine and an optional four speed gearbox, with a floor mounted gearchange. In 1963, the engine went to 1.6 litre and front discs brakes were fitted.
Size wise, it grew two inches in wheelbase and five inches in length – this was the start of the Victor’s growth away from what perhaps should have been its target competitors – the Ford Cortina, Hillman Minx and even the Morris Oxford. Better news was the increased torsional rigidity and the significant weight reduction.
Vauxhall had an unexpected extra offering in 1961 also – the Vauxhall VX4/90 (VX for Vauxhall, 4 cylinder and 90 mph), probably the first attempt in Britain at making a relatively affordable sporting saloon purely as a derivative of the mainstream car, rather than as a separate product, such as the Rootes Sunbeam-Talbot 90. Prior to this, buyers had two choices – a Ford, Vauxhall, Hillman or Morris saloon, a more expensive MG or Sunbeam, or a luxury rather than sport Wolseley 15/60, or spring for a much more expensive imported car, such as a Lancia. There was no compact Triumph 2000 or Rover 2000 until 1963; the Sunbeam Rapier was 2-door only, the Cortina GT was still a few years away. and the Triumph Dolomite 10 years away. A true pioneer, not wholly unlike the 1964 Pontiac GTO.
Vauxhall succeeded with the VX4/90 in establishing a sub-brand that lasted for four generations and 15 years, and which always had something more than stripes and a rev-counter to distinguish it from the base car. The first VX4/90 had a revised version of the 1.5 litre OHV engine, with twin Zenith carburettors, a revised camshaft, disc brakes at the front and front bucket seats. Full instrumentation and side stripes completed the package.
The FB did more good business for Vauxhall – 328,000 cars in 3 years.
In 1964, Vauxhall replaced the FB with the FC, also known as the Victor 101. The name was said to stand for 101 improvements over the FB. It shared a lot with the FB – in fact it was essentially a new body on top of the FB floor pan, with carry over engines and gearboxes. Styling wise, it had more in common with the 1963 Viva HA and larger Cresta PC, launched in 1965, than the Victor FB. The offer remained essentially the same under the new skin – dimensionally it was practically unchanged, the engine grew to a full 1.6 litres and there was a fourth gear, but you could still have a bench seat and a column change 3 speed box if you wanted.
Vauxhall made a big play with the curved door glass, which was a first in the UK, and a double curvature rear window was claimed to add rear headroom and to be better at resisting dirt and rain. The interior took a significant step forward as well. There was a VX4-90 version, of course, still with twin Zenith carburettors and side stripe.
There had always been a Victor estate; indeed it was the first estate to be factory built by Vauxhall and the FC was no exception, which made probably the most attractive Victor estate yet. Vauxhall also built two van versions of the estate for evaluation and used by the company for a period – and tried a Perkins diesel engine in the car as well.
The biggest challenge for the Victor came from Dagenham – the Ford Cortina was now well on its way to market domination, and whilst the 1966 Cortina Mk2 was not aimed directly at the Victor, it offered most of what the Victor did for a little less money. Typically, the Cortina cost 5-8% less than a comparable Victor, and delivered almost the same. Vauxhall had sold 235,000 FC Victors, but needed to do something to meet the Cortina head on. Instead, they chose to avoid Ford.
In 1967, Vauxhall showed an all-new Victor the FD. Not only was the styling a definite departure from the FC, the engineering was too. Wishbone front suspension and a live rear axle with trailing arms and a Panhard rod were significant upgrades from the earlier cars. But the big news was a brand new engine, known as the slant-4. This was the last engine Vauxhall would develop by itself, and was planned as part of wide range of engines, including a V8 – hence the slant nature of the four cylinder – in a similar way to the Triumph Dolomite and Stag engines. It was also one of the first to use a belt drive for the overhead camshaft, and was offered in the Victor in 1.6 litre and 2.0 litre sizes.
Vauxhall was clearly moving the Victor upmarket away from the Cortina, trying to find a space between the Cortina and the larger Zephyr and Zodiac range. The car grew to a wheelbase of 102 inches and length of 177 inches; the Mk 2 Cortina was 98 inches and 168 inches, the Zephyr was 107 inches and 183 inches. The Victor sat almost exactly half way, and offered a 2.0 litre engine that the Mk 2 Cortina did not.
With the new platform utilising suspension design that would not show on its British competitors until the next decade, the new OHC engine and the sharp, contemporary styling, one didn’t have to a complete Vauxhall addict to describe it as not the last British midsize car of the 1960s, but the first of the 1970s. It was not as conceptually advanced as cars such as the Issigonis designed products BMC were offering, or the Renault 16, but for a high volume saloon it was right up there on most counts.
And unlike the F series, there was absolutely no need to call the Style Police either. None at all; in my view, this is one of the best looking British cars of the 1960s, not that that is a valid excuse for advertising like this.
Vauxhall’s Ford problem continued though; the 1970 Ford Cortina was sized within a half a inch of the Victor’s wheelbase, and offered a 2.0 litre engine and the 1972 Consul and Granada were significantly more accomplished than their predecessors, the Zephyr and Zodiac.
Vauxhall tried to match the Zodiac and then the Granada with the Ventora – this was a Victor with a 3.3 litre 6 cylinder engine, used in the larger Cresta and some Bedford trucks vans, with 123 bhp (up from 88bhp for the 2.0 litre Victor) and a full luxury trim pack, with additional instrumentation and a vinyl roof. This was about torque, not power, and many came with a GM Powerglide two-speed automatic transmission. Most people saw the engine for what it was – essentially a 1950s engine more usually found in a van.
In reality, the Ventora was lost between 3.0 litre Granada, the 2.0 litre Cortina GXL and cars like the Triumph 2000, Rover 2000 and imports like the new Audi 100.
There was also a VX4/90 version of the FD, this time using the 2.0 litre engine, twin carburettors and 112bhp.
The FD series notched up almost 200,000 sales in four years – the Victor’s great sales years were now behind it.
Although we were not told so explicitly, the 1972 FE series marked a turning point for Vauxhall and General Motors in Europe. The car was built on the same floorpan as the Opel Rekord D, though with a different engine, suspension and steering system (rack and pinion as compared to the Rekord’s recirculating ball unit. But various parts like wiper mechanisms, door locks, etc. were common with the Rekord.
The engine, suspension and steering were all carried over from the FD, although the engines were enlarged to 1.8 litre and 2.3 litre. The 2.3, was an unusual size for the UK market, and also large for a 4 cylinder engine, and this summed up the FE’s main issue. Was its mission to compete with the Cortina, offering a bit more space, or was it to be a more compact Granada competitor? No one seemed to know, frankly.
The larger Vauxhall Cresta was discontinued in 1972, so the Ventora became the top of the range Vauxhall, with the 6 cylinder 3.3 litre engine in the UK and a 2.8 litre version for some export markets,where the 3.3 litre was subject to higher taxation.
The VX4/90 was there again as well, with a twin carburettor version of the 2.3 litre engine. However, with the improved torque of the 2.3 litre engine over the earlier 2.0 litre, there was little need for a Ventora over a VX4/90, and arguably little need for a VX4/90 over Victor 2300SL.
Except that the VX4/90 had Rostyle wheels, which make any car (almost) more desirable!
The styling again followed American GM trends. Part of that may have been that Vauxhall historically had a pretty strong presence in Canada, however after the issues the Viva and Firenza had there in 1971/2, Vauxhall left North America, never to return. This left the car with an engine size that didn’t suit its main market, styling that may be described as “not at ease” in that market and with a reduced market to achieve the necessary volumes.
Vauxhall initially marketed the FE as the “Victor Transcontinental”, presumably to emphasise an ability to cover long distances. Fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t make up for a lack of equipment – early cars were so sparsely trimmed and equipped that extensive specification improvements were made as early as 1973. The bench front seat was finally discontinued, trim materials improved and colour ranges extended, and revised cylinder heads and viscous fans improved engine refinement.
None of these factors were enough to help the Victor as new competitors emerged from Japan – compared with the fully equipped nature of the Japanese imports with all their home comforts, the Victor was equipped like the dormitory of a British public school. Just check the comprehensive package of six extras featured in the advertisement above!
The early to mid 1970s were a tough time for Vauxhall. The retreat from Canada cost volume, the cars were now the wrong size for the main UK market, and the competition was just getting tougher and tougher. In four years, to early 1976, the Victor FE sold just 55,000 copies.
In 1975, Vauxhall had launched the first Cavalier, and the smaller Cavalier 1600GL saloon actually sold at a higher price than a basic Victor 1800. Vauxhall had one last shot with the Victor, to try to move it upmarket out of the Cavalier’s reach: the VX.
The interior was extensively revised, the Ventora dropped, the equipment levels ramped up and the engines revised once more. The car was renamed the VX1800 or VX2300, and a fully specified VX2300GLS replaced the Ventora as Vauxhall’s flagship. In 1977, a new VX4/90 followed, with a 5 speed Getrag gearbox and a 116 bhp 2.3litre engine
But the Cavalier, the Chevette, and the under body origins of Victor FE had all put the writing on the wall. In 1978, the VX was retired, replaced by the Vauxhall Carlton, a badge engineered Opel Rekord E, and few noticed; fewer cared, and even fewer mourned that this was the end of the Victor line. Which is a shame – the Victor nameplate had had a long and honourable service, cars such as the FB and FC provided solid good value with a touch of American flair as an alternative to a stodgy Morris Oxford or poorly executed Austin 1800; the FD showed us what the 1970s might have been like and the F series showed us why Britain never publicly endorsed 1950s’ American style.