Curbside Classic: 1977 Vauxhall VX2300GLS – The End Of The British Vauxhall, The End Of Americana?

Styling is always, at least in part, an expression of a fashion, and of influences from elsewhere, hinting at glamour by association, claiming sophistication or performance by visually linking to a clear source. Think of the clear influences on the Rover 2000 (P6) from the Citroen DS, the influence on the Rover 3500 (SD1) from the Ferrari Daytona, BMC aping Lancia styles through Pininfarina, Rootes using themes familiar from Studebakers, Japanese brands using Italian themes in the last 1960s.

Looking back, as we do on CC because we like to, it can be argued very easily that every Vauxhall from the early 1950s to last Vivas and Victors of the 1970s, and indeed later models based on Opels as well, was clearly linked to or derived from prevailing and immediately preceding themes from GM’s North American studios. Indeed, many designs were signed off in Detroit, not Luton, and North American market acceptance was part of the brief on several cases.

Of course, Vauxhall were not alone in this pattern, and the practice cannot be labelled as a totally negative one. Ford, Rootes, Simca, Volvo and BMC were all practitioners to greater or lesser degrees.

Several examples were fine looking cars, perhaps none more so than the Victor FD.

The FE series Vauxhall Victor, and later Vauxhall VX, the last Victor in a series that started in 1958, is another prime example of this, maybe the clearest example since the first Victor (the F Series). However, it was also apparent by 1972 that American style was not the panacea that Vauxhall needed. There were many other issues there too.

So, when fellow Curbivore Big Paws sent me these photos of the only Vauxhall VX2300GLS we’re likely to see this year (there are fewer than 10 still registered in the UK), it was clear that CC needed to see it, and I needed to find out more about the car and its origins; its role models if you will. But first, a quick history.

The Victor was Vauxhall’s mid market car. It started with the 1958 car, which clearly aped the 1956 Chevrolet down to the wraparound screens, and generous use of chrome on the side and the prominent bumpers, and progressed through the calmer FB, the FC that clearly reads across from the GM Solaris project and then the 1968 FD with clear mid 1960s North America GM influences.

The FE series came in 1972, and marked change in two respects. Firstly, it was a bit larger than earlier Victors, and moved decisively into the space between the Ford Cortina and larger Ford Consul and Granada. The wheelbase was 105 inches, pitched between the Fords 101 and 107 inches, compared with the FD’s 102 inches, and the engine was expended to 1800cc and 2300cc options, ahead of the 1600cc and 2000cc options in the FD and the Cortina, but less than the 2500cc available on the Consul. It was almost in a no man’s land part of the market.

Style wise, there were limitations on the Victor FE as well. The Victor had a history of being sold in Canada under the Envoy name, alongside the smaller Viva badged as an Epic, through Chevrolet dealers, and under the Vauxhall name through some Pontiac and some Buick dealers. When the project started, whilst it was expected that the Chevrolet Vega would assume the bulk of the Chevrolet traffic, Pontiac dealers were still expected to be offered the car, and clearly this influenced the style and, likely, the decision to increase the size of the slant 4 OHC engine to 2279cc. For the record, this was a very different engine to that used on the Vega, even if the sizing appears the same. The Vauxhall slant-4 had been around since 1968, used in the Viva HB and Victor FD in 1.6 and 2.0 litre sizes.

And then came the Firenza (aka the Vauxhall Viva HC in saloon, estate and coupe formats) debacle. Let’s keep to the short version. Any ideas Vauxhall had of ever exporting to North America again were pretty stopped in their tracks in 1971 and 1972, with the reliability and customer service issues around the cars sold as the Firenza by General Motors culminating in GM Canada being fined for false advertising, and new Canadian consumer legislation.

Perhaps the peak of the debacle was when GM Canada had claimed three cars had crossed the country with the encountering three burned bulbs and some stone damage to a fog light. Accurate, but apart from omission of the facts that one car failed to start 12 times, two didn’t finish and one caught fire. Somehow, the Lancia Beta rust story with the prompt and generous re-purchase scheme seems like a good news story.

That meant that the Victor FE was basically going to be a pretty much UK market only car – Vauxhall sales in continental Europe had never been huge, so sales were going to limited realistically to the UK, the old Empire markets and a bit in Scandinavia.

GM at this time were, if quietly, imposing more commonality and sharing of components across the European arms, Opel and Vauxhall. Without public fanfare, the Victor would share its floorpan, front and rear bulkheads, front screen structure and front door structure, as well as various electrical and mechanical components with the Rekord D, including that longer 105 inch wheelbase.

The car was growing into something more than a Victor, but less than a Cresta, with styling that did not sit that comfortably with its home (and major) market and with engines sizes that were out of step with the key competition (Ford, let’s be honest). The omens did not look good.

But the styling? Where did that come from? Well, the root was clearly not in Luton, although some evidence suggests it was an evolution of the Victor FD. Well, sort of. Like the designer could see it that way, but not the average customer. Surely, as Vauxhall had shown us for 20 or more years, it had to be Detroit, but which part of it?

Well, Curbivores can work better in packs, and working with suggestions from Jason Shafer, we identified the 1968-72 Buick Skylark and Oldsmobile Cutlass A bodies as being of the same origin. I propose that the Chevrolet Chevelle and Pontiac Le Mans were also there. The window shapes, screen shape and angle, roof line and slope of the rear window in to the rear deck are all there, essentially.  But there is one point that is not covered by this suggestion (Jason’s suggestion, my deductions and conclusion, so blame me, not him). Where does the front of the Victor come from?

The high bonnet leading edge, the prominent V shape at the centre, the reverse slope return, the deep and wide centre grille split by the bumper and the four square headlamps?

How about a 1972 Buick Riviera?

Scale it down for Europe, calm it down for Vauxhall not Buick and replace the twin lamps with single sealed rectangular units, and you’re about there?

The range, as announced in January 1972, was the Victor 1800 and 2300, in saloon and estate form, the 2300 twin carburettor VX4-90 (an old Vauxhall name, that meant four cylinders, 90 mph) and the 3.3 litre 6 cylinder Ventora saloon, the Brougham Victor, distinguished by the vinyl roof and four headlamp front.

So there we have the Vauxhall Victor FE series. On an Opel platform, with American inspired styling, odd engine sizes, out of step in overall size and in limited markets. Add to that add a very sparse specification on the early cars (a bench seat was still standard on the entry model even, vinyl seat trim, no heated rear windows), uninspiring performance and handling, and strong competition, and you can sense this does not have a happy ending.

During the development of the Victor, Vauxhall were trying also to replace the larger Cresta and its upmarket (dare I say Brougham?) derivative the Viscount. Serious attention was given to a longer nosed version of the car with a Holden 4.2 litre V8 and all the Brougham trimmings. Some suggestions included rear wheel spats and some rather Cadillac like grilles….

One other proposal was for what we might now identify as a four door coupe. The standard Victor front doors would be retained, along with the wheelbase and rear door skins. There was a strikingly different rear roof line, rear window and rear profile, and some drawings show a longer front as well, similar to that of the V8 Ventora proposal, which was likely to have been badged as a Viscount if it had come to pass. In the photo above, on the left is Wayne Cherry, Vauxhall’s Director of Design in the 1970s.

You might want to see as a Rover 3 Litre or 3½ Litre (P5) Coupe for the people. Maybe. Certainly, I would suggest it was the best looking FE version, which was always a car that was colour and specification dependent. A VX 4-90 with the four headlamps, Rostyle wheels, stronger grille and in a strong colour significantly trumps the regular Victor in a pastel or quieter shade. Whether it ever trumps the Rekord D is a matter of personal preference, but the right specification could do well.

Over 4 years, from early 1972, Vauxhall sold the grand total of 44,000 Victors. Clearly, the days of the Victor selling 100,000 copies a year were gone.

From 1975, Vauxhall had been selling unambiguously Opel based cars, initially the Chevette (T car) based on the Kadett D and then the Cavalier (U car), and the future for the UK designed Viva and Victor looked bleak.  There was one last try with the FE series, as Vauxhall prepared a facelift, which was marketed as the VX series.

There is a longer story around the VX series. Vauxhall still wanted to move the car upmarket and to have a product that take the fight to the Ford Granada, and toyed with various long wheelbase FE adaptations to try to achieve this. There was even a version with an extended wheelbase, a new calmer and more contemporary front and the full Brougham treatment, which might be sold as the Vauxhall La Salle.

Whether it could really go head to head with Jaguar XJ6 is doubtful, surely?

Eventually, Vauxhall to accept that the likely sales for anything other than a mildly fettled Victor were not there, and in January 1976 the VX series was launched. A new grille, bigger headlights, some engine changes, more sound deadening and plusher interior were the essence of the changes. The Ventora was allowed to die, and was replaced by the VX 2300GLS.

A special grille, more velour, thicker carpet, vinyl roof, full instrumentation, wood dash trim, the full set of mid 1970s luxury was there. Performance, compared with the 3.3 litre Ventora was directly comparable, but with much better full consumption. Anecdotally, it was a successful package, sales wise, once supply came through in autumn 1976.

The revised and retitled VX490 followed in the spring, now offering officially 116bhp but considered by many to be perhaps 125bhp. The other cars had a revised cylinder giving another 8-10 bhp and this was used on the VX490 but the performance claimed was unchanged, perhaps to avoid costly certification (these were simpler times after all). This car also had a five speed Getrag gearbox with a dogleg first gear (on a Vauxhall!).  Vauxhall sold perhaps 1000 cars.

In 30 months, the VX sold around 25,000 examples. That wasn’t enough. It died in July 1978, at the same time as the Viva, and was replaced by the Carlton, an Opel Rekord E clone built in Luton, purely for the UK market.

That was the end of the British Vauxhalls – every car since then has directly matched an Opel, market share grew and Vauxhall spent the 1980s and 1990s doing a pretty good job of holding market leader Ford’s feet to the fire. The question of American styling has largely gone away as well.

Can those points be linked?


Thanks to Big Paws for the VX2300GLS spot and Jason Shafer for the style advice.

And a hat tip to (a great place to spend a lockdown weekend!) for the archive photos.