(first posted 7/10/2013) 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?
Easy way to buy one of these in the US it to find a relatively rare first generation Z24 from 1986-1987 that was available in the 3 door hatch. You get all of the upgrades that came with the Z24 including the 2.8V6, especially for 1987 the GEN II one.
While there are visual similarities, the design of the Monza, and other RWD H bodies were designed independently of the European cars and subsequently the US version J bodies.
Yes, while I was reading the article I kept thinking that the hatchback version looked like the offspring of a J-body and the RWD H-body.
Interesting how the designs converged, and makes me wonder how things would have turned out had there been more global platform sharing at GM in those days, particularly in the size classes below the A-platform. However, as you and others have said, Opel and Vauxhall were aiming for a higher price point in these size classes than GM was in the U.S., where small cars were primarily marketed as inexpensive, basic transportation.
OK, it’s not just me — my first thought was that this was exactly what you would get if you tried to imagine a transitional design between the American H and J bodies.
Here I was, thinking all the awful Monzas were gone for good…
I never liked these, and all I saw was flimsy construction, especially on the hatch hinges when I checked these out at a dealer in the early/mid-70’s.
Still, I suppose they were a step up from the Vega? No thanks, anyway.
Geozinger’s official “Cockroach of the Road”© Cavalier was a better car all-around.
Ah yes, the FE Victor, whose rear door window barely wound down more than a few centimetres due to the lack of a quarter pane… We got most Vauxhalls in NZ until the mid-70s. We didn’t get the Cav, which signified the beginning of the end for Vauxhall as Holden became GM’s primary brand here. Eventually the Chevette was the sole survivor, dying alone in 1980 – although its Holden and Isuzu Gemini siblings carried on in its place.
“Ah yes, the FE Victor, whose rear door window barely wound down more than a few centimetres…”
Yeah, just like the bathtub Caprice Roachmobiles! One of the main reasons I hated GM for so long.
The side view of the FE Victor looks to me exactly like the American Ford Granada, except for the lack of that quarter pane
Is it just me, or does that roofline remind of the Aeroback Oldses? Especially the two-doors?
I have enjoyed the Vauxhall tutorial I have received here at CC over the past couple of years. I have never seen one of these. An attractive car.
The 4 door sedan outsold them by a lot in the UK.They were never as popular as the Ford Capri,my brother got a used bronze one with a black vinyl roof around 1978.
I found my 2 litre Cavalier Sportshatch a much better car to drive than the Ford Capri with it’s ‘ cart spring ‘ rear suspension.
Drop the clutch in a Capri and it skitters across the road but a Cavalier with it’s coil springs just digs in and goes ———
It is also a much better towcar.
The cavilier sportshatch make the monza look bloated and frumpy to my eyes.
Great piece, thank you. Never realized how American some of the Vauxhalls were in appearance. The European Cavalier looks a bit more attractive to me compared to the U.S. J-body version, especially with the rear drive dash to axle proportions. And best of all, Look ma, no torque steer!
The second photo with the sedan in the mist would be an interesting story. Love the odd American styling features with the European twists.
Don’t forget this car was replaced by a fwd J-body car basically identical to the US version, it is not a contemporary alternative.
That is a Vauxhall Cresta PA
Never noticed how American these cars look, particularly the red interior. I’m not sure whether the Opels were ever available with that. Overall, I feel the Cavalier looks more modern than the Ascona because of the front end, although that, too, was original Opel. The Manta and Cavalier coupe can be told apart only by the absence of the grille slits on the latter.
Of note: the Manta was stereotypically the European equivalent of the Camaro, particularly towards the end of its 13 year production run: souped up almost beyond recognition, fox tail on the antenna and the driver’s arm leaning out of the window permanently. Observe in this early 90s film, Manta Manta: http://youtu.be/PgigEmJFw0Y
BeWo, your Camaro~Manta comparison is hilarious ! There was a sort of lime green Opel Manta B in a Dutch comedy TV-series “New Kids”.
It was about some non-plus-ultra white trash in a small village. There’s enough of them on YouTube. One of those guys drove the Manta.
Here are 2 typical late seventies~early eighties Euro-owners of a Camaro, Firebird or Manta: Hustlers, crooks and pimps.
(These guys were actually TV-characters, but you’ll get the picture….)
That’s more of a S-Class, 420/XJ or 7-Series, maybe Cadillac, sort of guy.
Ah, Opel Manta, the second most favourite car of German humor (after the Trabant).
“What’s the shortest joke in German? A Manta at a college.”
“Why are Mantas going to be built with triangular pedals? So that cowboy boots will fit better.”
“Why was the Manta going to be 90 centimetres wide? So that you can drive with both shoulders out of the window.
And why it isn’t? So that the Kenwood sticker fits on the rear window.”
Perplexing that GM saw fit to build the T-Body Chevette stateside, but couldn’t muster the business case to build the V-Car (Ascona et al) here as well. I remember reading that Buick couldn’t continue with the Opel Manta in 1975 due to the currency exchange rate pricing it out of the market. Yet I think the car had done a reasonable job of finding import intenders in the earlier 1970s. Would making it in America to avoid the currency issues have hurt it in the eyes of those buyers? Purely from a product perspective, this Vauxhall Cavalier looks like it could have done very well against Datsun and Toyota at the time had it been sold in the U.S. (under what brand I don’t know–Pontiac, Opel, Buick???). It would have been a far better car than the Vega-derived Monza clones. Had this been on the U.S. market in 1976 when my brother bought his first car, he might have had a legitimate GM choice (and we were solidly a GM family at that time) that could have more effectively competed with the Celica he ultimately bought.
These Opels were well-built, durable and no-nonsense cars. With a good quality paint job and a decent rust proofing, certainly compared to anything from Southern Europe.
The sedan was by far the most popular, with a wide model range, from very basic to attractive and fast sporty versions. In those days Opel was a renowned rally participant.
Don’t know if there were any differences (quality wise) between the Opels and their Vauxhall counterparts, since we only had the Opels.
But aything built in Southern Europe would drive circles around an Opel in the wet.
Roadholding and brakes were Opels main failures.
We got Opel Rekord Stationwagon Diesels, to replace our 504 Peugeots.
The Opel’s bodywork was much much better, but the Peugeots were simply better workhorses.
Towing a trailer in his brandnew Rekord, my then collegue called us in panic, he’d made a 180 degree turn on the highway, the tralier taking posession of the Rekord, something that never ever happened with a Peugeot.
Starting in wintertime with the Opel Diesel was a disaster, the Peugeot never failed.
The dash and bodywork on the Peugeots was poor, but technically they were far superior to any GM product of that era.
With 65000 k my Opel clutch failed, the Peugeot had had it’s original clutch after a hard life of 230000 kilometers. And I felt ashamed when my clutchhad failed after the car -for us- had just run in.
Opel told me that I had done a very good job, coz most clutched would fail at around 40k kilometers, under hard circumstances.
The brakes were an absolute disaster and had no stopping power at all.
And yes, only with a French built car, at around 180000 k my drivers door fell out, the hinges we broken on the 504.
The heating panel, flew into the car when you tried to adjust the ventilation, you’d grab the wires and frumble it in its position again, in the dash.
But we got used to it.
Rain, blizzards, slippery roads, the 504 always did its job. And the headlights were just great.
May it lead a happy life in Egypt now, as a taxi cab……………………………
Northern Europe vs Southern Europe: rationality vs emotion, with Peugeot right in the middle…a French automaker with a German twist due to historic and geografic reasons. The best mixture of both worlds ?
Regarding diesel engines, I think Opel diesels were and are only moderate compared to the other diesel engine builders in Germany, France and Italy. Again, Peugeot being one of those others.
Vauxhall managed to design some of the best vehicles to come out of europe in the whole period (aesthetically at least):
Vauxhall Victor/ventora FD
Vauxhall Firenza/Magnum Coupe
Vauxhall Cresta PC
The rest were Opels plus maybe the Rover SD1 and P5B Coupe.
I’m going to stick my neck out and say the vauxhall Victor FD is the best looking British car ever….
My first car was a Victor FD,it was a nice looker but i wouldn’t say it was that good!The Cresta PC is my favourite car of the ones I owned,good looks reliabllity and comfort made a nice car for me.
MK1 Granada looked good too I’ll admit. It’s just something about the FD that did it for me. Sales were pretty low though I think?
Mk1 Granadas look nice,there was a great looking fastback coupe for a while.The FD Victor lost out to the Ford Cortina sales wise although it was a pretty common sight in 60s/70s Britain
I should ask you to name your candidate for best looking British car ever…
FD Victor here was fitted with the Cresta 3.3 and 4speed Nothing and I do mean NOTHING could catch those but in the UK you had to buy a Ventora to get the big motor.
Can’t say I agree re the Victor’s looks, but I’ve always liked the almost regal air of the PC Cresta. The current Jag XJ, is easily the best-looking new car in Britain and the world! But polarising I’ll admit. Not so polarising (aesthetically anyway!) is the always elegant facelift flush-headlight SD1. But I think the most beautiful classic British car is the Jaguar XJ SIII. The interior isn’t bad, but the exterior is gorgeous!
I was thinking 60s &70s. XJ is interesting but it reminds me of the collonade pontiacs the bad guy would drive in the A-team
It manages not to look too much like a Lexus unlike most other luxury cars.
The Bristol 411 is my vote for best looking British car Dave.
Opels were often fitted with a 1700cc Isuzu diesel same size as the OPel but it didnt break
We did get a 3.3 litre Victor in the UK, the SL. I too love the PC Cresta and FD Ventora designs but I think my all time favourite British design is the Series I XJ6. A car with such a stance that it that looks like it’s just ready to pounce, the look was lost with the Series II which had it’s bumper lifted.
Another of my favourite designs was the Datsun 280C. Lovely engine too and with a manual box could be made to sing..and who can fail to love the estate with TWIN rear wipers? pray for rain and keep one eye in the mirror to watch them..
My dad worked at Vauxhall at Luton for about 35 years during the 60s 70s and 80s and always drove a Vauxhall as did I for a long time. My first was a pale blue 1970 Viva HB and then a 1972 Yellow Firenza with a black vinyl roof! Had a couple of Cavaliers etc but my all time favourite was a Cavalier 2000GLS Sportshatch . Had to sell it when I got married and had to get a deposit for a house, as you do. Good times.
I have a 2 Litre Sportshatch from new, which was ordered before being launched on the market in 1978.
I did vehicle signwriting for S.M.T. in Carlisle and was informed by the director that the Sportshatch model was due on the market but they had not yet seen any literature for it.
Later I was told ” We have ordered your car ” — ( I did not ask for it ) ” We haven’t seen one yet so if you don’t want it —–”
Seven months later I had the phone call — Your car’s arrived ——–
BHH 3T was built in August 1978 and registered in Early February 1979 ( It was snowed up in the compound in Belgium )
When I saw that beautiful Bright Copper metalic car, I fell in love with it and it is still with me and treasured with 91,435 miles on the clock. I can count the number of major replacement parts fitted on one hand and that includes ONE tail light bulb !
I did contemplate selling her about 20 years ago but my father said ” don’t sell it while I’m here ” so I didn’t, even after he passed on —- and I am forever grateful because she is now a family member.
Thanks for many years of pleasure with a caravan and latterly at classic car shows. I have just had her in for her MOT which to my surprise, she passed with better readings than last year ! The engine has never had a spanner on it and it runs as good as new and with no squeaks or rattles.
BHH 3T has been featured on the Manta Club Website and in Car Magazines too and is now left in my will to another Cavalier Fan.
What a wonderful motor car —————–
I’ve just googled an image of your car – it looks brilliant!
It was a mistake for Vauxhall not to carry over the Manta name for the Cavalier Sportshatch and Coupe as well as sell a RHD Vauxhall Manta B2 til 1988.
While reading about aftermarket companies managing to fit the inline-6 CiH engines into the Manta, it would have been worthwhile seeing a UK Manta powered by a 150 hp 2.3 16v version of the Vauxhall Slant-Four as well as a de-restricted 2.5-3.0-litre European version of the GM 60-degree V6 to take on the Ford Capri.
Vauxhall built a 327 Chev powered prototype FD Victor the car still exists
The most Vauxhall of the Cavaliers. As with the Kadett City hatchback Vauxhall supplied the unique Sports Hatch panels to Opel. The Sports Hatch was really Wayne Cherry’s ‘baby’, having started as part of the cancelled HD Viva replacement programme.
I really like that Cavalier sportshatch, the rear side is the most gorgeous among any other version of the Ascona B. Actually the J-car in South America were made only in Brazil and Chile had two J-Cars in its Chevrolet line up, the Brazilian Monza and the Asian Chevrolet Aska, which had a more pleasant nose style than the original Ascona C. Although it’s a little bit awkward, i like the Buick Riviera nose in the yellow Vauxhall Victor.
The Ventora version is even more like the Buick, with eggcrate grille and four headlights:
The original styling proposal was much cleaner; I wonder why it changed as much as it did:
Wow! It is really gorgeous! It’s style is far ahead from what even GM was doing in the early 70’s!
Actually that cleaner fronted version was a prototype from 1976 for an upmarket version with an extra 4″ of wheelbase, so is newer than the production car.
Didn’t know that, but it makes so much more sense. Trust everything you learn from the internet, folks…
And it looks like you could wind the rear door window down, too!
According to the guys over at vauxpedia.com it was designed for the Canadian market where Vauxhalls were trying to increase their presence, and was to fit in with the ’70 Pontiac!
Yes, but never sold there thanks the the debacle over the HC in Canada. In retrospect, the front grille bisected by the bumper, particularly the later VX version, bears a passing resemblance to that Audi adopted from 2004. Back in the ’70s UK market though it was always regarded as odd. It doesn’t pay to be 30 years too early!
One for the German speakers here:
Was nennt der Manta Fahrer seine Unterwaesche ?
I ‘ll get my coat…..