SALES FORCE / SURVIVOR’S GUIDE / WORDS PAUL WAGER / 40 YEARS OF THE CAVALIER / #2015
We chart four decades and three generations of the Cavalier, the car which finally allowed #Vauxhall
to topple Ford in the fleet market. #Vauxhall-Cavalier
/ Vauxhall / #GM
Back in the ’50s, the US influence brought to bear on the previously rather dowdy Vauxhall range by its parent company General Motors was by and large a good thing. A dose of transatlantic glamour, a touch of chrome and even fins on the bigger models all suggested Detroit rather than Luton and all that held the firm back was its rather unfortunate reputation for rot.
Into the ’60s, the recipe continued to work well but as the decade wore on, the need to downsize became more apparent as changing tastes and wider car ownership dictated smaller, more efficient cars. The first fruit of this thinking was the Viva of 1963, which was the smallest Vauxhall model to date and sold well. Crucially, it sold more to private buyers rather than the growing fleet market and the FE Victor failed to appeal against the slick marketing and pricing of the 1962 Cortina and even the still appealing BL products. Suddenly a neater European style was fashionable and the flamboyance of the US-influened Victor started to look outdated. The marque’s reputation for rot didn’t help things and GM knew a solution was needed.
The answer was to more closely integrate its British and German subsidiaries, with Opel having been a part of the GM fold since 1931. The two firms had tentatively collaborated on the Viva and Kadett back in the early ’60s with both models featuring similar specification, while the FE Victor already used the Opel Rekord floorpan and this time the idea was to integrate the British and European products more closely.
The result was that the Opel Ascona was picked by management as the basis for a proposed new Vauxhall midranger: it was the perfect size for a Cortina challenger and its conventional longitudinal engine and rear-drive layout would be a fleet-friendly recipe.
Unlike the Victor though, budgets ruled out an entirely new body style and design director Wayne Cherry was asked to simply rework the Ascona. Cherry had already shown himself to be a fan of the dramatically wedgenosed designs and despite not being given free rein to develop something in the mould of his previous Firenza, he was able to adapt the front end of the recently-launched Manta (itself also developed on the same structure) to create a fresh-faced shape very different from the Ascona. Under the skin, the British car was identical to its German counterpart, which meant wishbone front and live axle with trailing arm rear suspension and the cam-in-head engines from 57 bhp 1.3 to 100 bhp 2-litre.
The Cavalier was launched at the London motor show in 1975 and the timing couldn’t have been better: the Cortina was still in its MkIII incarnation which still had a year to last until the MkIV would arrive. The Coke bottle styling which had seemed so fresh in 1970 was now looking dated and the Cavalier’s neat European look was something new.
Coupled with its fleet manager-friendly mechanical layout, the Cavalier sold well, with UK production coming on stream from 1977 at which point it could also be considered a ‘buy British’ choice. Certainly road testers of the day rated it highly, placing it above the Marina and even the Cortina. With the smaller Chevette slotting in below it in the range (also largely based on the Opel Kadett), Vauxhall once more had a competitive line-up.
Of course Ford didn’t rest on its laurels and in 1976 unveiled the MkIV Cortina, meaning that Vauxhall was once more playing catch-up. This time though, it was starting from a more promising position in the shape of GM’s ‘J-Car’ project – one of the first attempts to create a ‘world car’ design which could be adapted to different markets with relatively little redesign.
Development was a transatlantic affair, with teams based both in Detroit and Rüsselsheim and the car itself was intended as essentially a larger version of the MkI Astra/Kadett platform. Transverse engines and front-wheel drive would give it a modern flavour, while the cam-in-head engines would be replaced by a newly-developed family of OHC powerplants. With an alloy crossflow head and hydraulic tappets together with Varajet II carb and electronic ignition, they were designed for low-maintenance costs and improved fuel economy, while power outputs were up across the board: the 1.3-litre now developed 75 bhp which was equivalent to the outgoing 1.6.
Elsewhere, the MkII Cavalier also boasted a famously neat piece of design in the sliding input shaft which allowed the clutch to be changed in just 65 minutes – at least, according to the1981 press release. Underneath, the MkII boasted MacPherson strut front suspension and coil-sprung rear with space-saving ‘Minibloc’ springs.
Vauxhall also knew that Ford wouldn’t be replacing the Cortina until 1983 and so knew that if they could get their all-new Cavalier into production by 1981, they would steal a march on their Detroit rivals, with a car which made the Cortina look decidedly old-hat.
As luck would have it, initial public reaction to the Sierra was also muted and the MkII Cavalier gave Vauxhall its big chance in the fleet market.
Launched in summer 1981, the Cavalier was available as a two-door (later dropped) or a four-door saloon, but also a five-door hatchback which gave it something the Cortina couldn’t offer.
Its neat styling, pleasant driving manners and decent build quality won it many ‘conquest’ sales as the Cortina was wound down and the biggest prize for Vauxhall must have been the 1984 sales figures which placed the Cavalier in second place with the Sierra down in fifth – a terrible showing for a brand new model, although Ford could take comfort in the fact that its Escort was rarely shifted from the number one spot.
Initially just two engine options were offered: a 1.3-litre rated at 75bhp or a 90bhp 1.6, with trim levels ranging from basic, L and GL through to GLS and the sporty SR. In 1983, the range was expanded to add a fuel-injected, 115bhp 1.8-litre engine available in the new GLSi, CDi and SRi models as well as the rather lacklustre 54bhp diesel engine and a voluminous estate created by using panels from the Australian-market Holden version of that world car design.
The SRi in particular was something of a halo model for the range with its boot spoiler, alloy wheels and checked Recaro seats and notably more sporting than any of the Sierra models. In 1985, the Cavalier received a first facelift with a chunky new chip-cutter grille, restyled rear lights and revised specifications. It worked well without detracting from the neatly understated style, but Ford was also fast catching up with the Sierra which after a slow start was really gaining ground.
In 1987, the grille was revised once more with a slatted style and the top engine was upgunned to an injected 2-litre good for 130bhp with the SRi now renamed ‘SRi 130’. The Cavalier remained an attractive product to the end, but with rivals like the Pininfarina-styled Peugeot 405 on the market, coupled with the increased attractiveness of entry-level BMWs, VWs and Audis, the writing was on the wall for the MkII which ended production in 1988. Its swansong was the Calibre special edition, created by in-house tuner Irmscher which took the SRi 130 in four-door saloon form and added a chunky Tickford-penned bodykit, sports exhaust and sports suspension. A limited edition of 500, it boasts a survival rate far higher than the average MkII but is still a rare beast. With over 807,000 examples sold and cars even exported back to Europe, the MkII reversed Vauxhall’s fortunes in the British volume market but the big question was what exactly to replace it with.
The answer was of course, more of the same. The MkIII Cavalier unveiled at the British motor show in 1988 was in fact a heavily facelifted version of the MkII and carried over much of the engineering but looked like a bigger, more grown-up car. Once again, its styling was neat but inoffensive and was identical between Opel (now badged Vectra) and Vauxhall versions. Careful attention was paid to detail engineering and the new car had a feeling of solidity which set it apart from the MkII, with chunkier plastic mouldings and improved corrosion protection. The engine range was now larger too, kicking off with a fuelinjected 1400 option which just a few years ago would have seemed too small for a car this size but which offered 75bhp – the same as the original MkII’s 1600 unit. Further up the range was found the 1600, 1800 and the 2-litre, the latter now available in 150 bhp 16-valve form as used in the Astra GTE.
More was to come though: in 1992, a 167 bhp 2.5-litre V6 and a 204bhp turbocharged four-wheel drive model were added to the range, with a new trim level bringing with it full leather trim and the 4x4 also available as a regular L model. ABS and airbags also featured on the menu, making the Cavalier a thoroughly modern offering. Meanwhile, further down the range the diesel option was improved with the addition of the Isuzu-sourced 1.7-litre engine in both 57bhp and 82 bhp intercooled turbo versions.
The MkIII version represented the pinnacle of the Cavalier and despite Ford’s best efforts the Sierra was looking increasingly dated against the Vauxhall, even if the lairy Cosworth did gain a cult following which the more subtle Cavalier 4x4 Turbo lacked. The MkIII also spawned the Calibra which was a more glamorous, two-door Cavalier and offered a stylish coupe sitting below the Corrado and 3-Series in price.
The MkIII would continue in production until 1995 and remained competitive right to the end, but in the face of new opposition GM had no choice but to embark on a further update.
That competition of course came in the shape of the Mondeo which spearheaded Ford’s remarkable reinvention of its product range during the ’90s and which would take a state-of-the-art challenger to unseat it. And GM’s response? Ah yes, that’ll be the Vauxhall Vectra... the story of which deserves a feature all of its own.
THE CAVALIER THAT WASN’T
When the Cavalier was replaced by the Vectra in 1995, it represented more than a name change but a larger cultural shift. The Vectra name had been used for European versions of the model since the MkIII and replacing the Cavalier name was significant as it represented the end of a perceived need to engineer a different model for the UK market.
An all-new model built on a 5cm longer wheelbase and with wider track and multi-link suspension, the Vectra B as it’s known in Vauxhall/Opel circles was in its own way just as neat as the Mondeo and a worthy successor to the much-loved Cavalier. Its styling was tidy if rather bland and the racy oval mirrors sweeping out of the scuttle line were an elegant touch. It was an easy-riding motorway pounder even if its chassis lacked the sparkle of the new Mondeo which appealed to road warrior types. The engine range was modern enough too, with 16-valve units standardised from 2000 at which point the chassis received a facelift too. So why was the Vectra a failure? Actually, it wasn’t: the car sold strongly across the fleet sector and it was only the sensationalist comments of a certain J Clarkson still keen to make a name for himself that placed that image in the public mind. The Vectra B was replaced by the squarer Vectra C in 2002 which was even more significant for Vauxhall, representing as it did a sad milestone. The new Vectra was produced entirely in Europe, which meant the end of car production in Luton.
Top of the Cavalier range was the 204 bhp Turbo 4x4. A V6 option was also available, as was a luxury leather spec.
Although the MkIII Cavalier was a heavily revamped version of the previous model, it sold well against the Sierra and early Mondeo.
MkII seemed very modern compared to the Cortina, giving Vauxhall a great opportunity in the gap before the Sierra arrived.
The second generation of the Cavalier proved a top seller for Vauxhall.
The Cavalier was a comfortable and able performer and transported countless reps around our motorway network.
The short-lived two door coupè is now highly sought after.
The MkI's sloping nose is attributed to designer Wayne Cherry.