The Vauxhall Cavalier took the fight to Ford and put its maker back on the map. We drive an early example of this landmark classic

Words and images: Joe Miller

Few could’ve blamed Vauxhall for casting envious glances in Ford’s direction. The Cortina had proved to be smash hit for the Blue Oval, with the Mk1 shaking up the family and fleet market, and the Mk2 knocking the BMC 1100 off its perch to become a UK best-seller in 1967. Even Ford’s gamble in launching the bigger ‘Coke-bottle’ Mk3 Cortina would pay off handsomely, as it once again soared to the top of the Britain’s sales chart.

By contrast, Vauxhall was suffering something of a nosedive in the early 1970s. While the Viva was a decent seller, the FE Series Victor failed to make inroads into a fleet market dominated by the Cortina. Unfortunately, unlike Ford who’d spent tens of millions to develop the Mk3, Vauxhall ultimately would lack the funding to continue with its proposals for a ground-up Griffin-badged competitor.

The answer for GM was to rationalise its European operations with a long-term goal of combining Vauxhall’s range with that of its Opel counterpart. Vauxhalls had increasingly shared general specifications, engineering features and styling with their Opel equivalents since the early 1960s, but now the need was more drastic.

Increasing economic turmoil in the UK contrasted with a strong early 1970s upturn in West Germany, and with the entry of the UK into the European Economic Community, two parallel model lines serving similar markets no longer made sense. So, at the beginning of 1973, Vauxhall’s project with merged with the development of Opel’s Ascona B, to be built on what GM called the U-car platform. The Ascona B would be the replacement for the existing Ascona, which had been positioned in the market as a rival to Ford’s European Cortina equivalent, the Taunus.

Vauxhall’s take on the Ascona was intended to have its own bodywork, but the brand’s falling sales and a lack of money meant it needed to be launched earlier and cost less, hence it would essentially end up as the same car. However, to differentiate the new Vauxhall from its European counterpart, American designer Wayne Cherry grafted the ‘droop snoot’ nose of the Opel Manta onto the Ascona saloon, creating what Vauxhall would call the Cavalier. The result of Cherry’s efforts was a rather handsome car – not far removed from his original bodywork proposal.

Perhaps it wasn’t as glamorous or standout as the Americana-inspired Mk3 Cortina, but its sharp nose and clean lines were more contemporary without being too radical, and gave the Cavalier a very smart appearance.

The new Vauxhall debuted at the 1975 Earls Court Motor Show, remarkably with the exact car you see pictured on these pages. Its styling and Opel connections gave it something of a European chic, and the public flocked to it. Journalists liked it too, with What Car? comparing it highly favourably to the Cortina and the contemporary Morris Marina, praising its comfortable ride, spacious interior and remarkably composed handling.

It might never have gained the estate the Cortina had, but a sporty two-door coupe and three-door Sports Hatch further broadened the Cavalier’s appeal beyond the sales rep. The Magraw Engineering-developed 1978 Cavalier Centaur convertible, meanwhile, was an extremely rare beast, selling just 118 units in a one-year production run. With more than a hint of Triumph Stag about it, the Centaur likely sold so few due to being double the price of the Cavalier Coupe it was based on.

Driving what could be the earliest surviving Mk1 Cavalier today, the early journalistic praise still rings true; the steering is far sharper and more direct than the slightly vague feeling Mk3 Cortina, which is not helped by its bus-like steering wheel. The Vauxhall turns sharper and more responsively than the Ford and is far more composed, feeling tighter and with noticeably less body roll. Despite having driven thousands of miles in Kelsey’s own Cortina, I immediately felt more confident “pushing on” in the Cavalier, which blends comfort and cornering in a more modern fashion than the Ford could.

Yet the ride quality is very good, with only slightly more of a shuffle over bumps and without measuring decibel levels, what feels like a more refined, quieter cabin at speed. Once again, the interior doesn’t have the US-inspired look of early Mk3 Cortinas, let alone the auxiliary dials and ‘tombstone’ seats of a GT, but like the exterior styling, the Cavalier’s interior is neat and sharp. The heater controls are within reach from the wheel, the dials are clearly laid out and you could easily change the temperature or radio station without looking away from the road. The space, particularly in the back, is impressive too – you expect it of the Cortina given its extra width, but the Cavalier’s packaging is superb, with plentiful room for kids in the back and sales rep’s samples in the boot.

Then there’s the engine – our test car sports the 1.9-litre powerplant, the biggest available at launch and it’s an unexpected gem. The 1.9 feels far torquier than the 1.6 Cortina, yet cost less than the 2-litre Ford. The Cavalier’s cam-in-head 1.9 is also smoother than either Ford’s Crossflow or Pinto, with noticeably less vibration and drone. Much like the handling, and refinement, the Vauxhall’s engine feels notably more modern than the than that of the Ford.

The Cavalier’s target market was fleet buyers, a goal it achieved perfectly – the smooth ride, refinement, spacious cabin and sharp yet conservative styling meant reps were lapping up the new Vauxhall. Orders came in by thousands and despite operating at full capacity, the Opel factory in Antwerp simply couldn’t keep up with demand. After two years, Luton started building the Cavalier in Britain, at the same time introducing the Viva’s 1.3-litre engine to offer a new entry point. With Luton building cars at full capacity, supply finally matched demand and once it did, the Cavalier achieved and maintained a spot in Britain’s top 10 best-sellers list every year it was in production. Ultimately, over 240,000 Mk1 Cavaliers were sold.

So after teetering on the brink, Vauxhall had struck back with remarkable effect. The Mk1 Cavalier didn’t really do anything ground-breaking in terms of specification – it had ordinary suspension with a live axle at the rear and coil springs up front, plus an engine that was effective but ultimately fairly basic. By being a competent all-rounder, however, it helped to turn Vauxhall’s ailing fortunes around and rehabilitate the marque in the minds of UK buyers.

It also helped show that Vauxhall could beat Ford at its own game in building a car that sales reps loved. The Mk1 never outsold its Ford rival, but it played a massive part in paving the way for what came later with the Mk2 and Mk3 Cavaliers, which were both able to challenge and regularly beat Ford in the battle for mid-sized family car supremacy.