Great British Bangers – No1: Vauxhall Cavalier MK2

Mike Humble:

In the first of a new little heritage section, we doff our forelocks and pay respect to some of Great Britain’s past masters…

The faithful Cavalier MK2 of 1981 - Model shown in the 1600 GLS
The faithful Cavalier MK2 of 1981 – Model shown is the 1600 GLS

It’s not that long ago that buying British still meant a great deal to the UK motorist. Most Japanese cars were either looked down on for being rusty (if reliable) imports and something Italian would either dissolve with all the aplomb of a Junior Disprin in front of your eyes or catch fire… or even both. And of course… don’t forget… your Grandad fought them in the war you know? Should you have been looking for a family car from our own Island, the choice was simple and clear – B.L Ford or Vauxhall Opel.

The B.L option for the trusty four door saloon was the Morris Ital, a car that was eyewateringly out of date when launched in 1890 – oops! I meant 1980, but not that you would notice, and based on the high tech and sexy Marina. Like the Marina it was based on, the Ital was as basic as an uncut loaf and handled like a shot Giraffe – I speak from experience as I owned one and could be best described as dismal.

The only 100% true Brit family 4 door was the Morris Ital when the MK2 Cavalier burst onto the scene - Lovely eh?
The only 100% true Brit family 4 door was the Morris Ital when the MK2 Cavalier burst onto the scene – Lovely eh?

Ford of Britain could offer you the good ‘ol Cortina 80 and I call it that because it was never officially called the MK5. The choice of Mr & Mrs 2.4 since the 60s, the Cortina was the sensible choice for family Guy or sales rep Ronnie offering 4 engine options in 3 body styles, parts you could buy on a Sunday, a dealer in every postcode area all wrapped up in a roomy no frills package – a total winner.

The two aforementioned automotive legends shared one common theme – the failsafe feature of rear wheel drive. But all that was turned upside down when G.M replaced the Wayne Cherry styled Cavalier saloon and sportback that dated back to 1975 with a totally new model that continued car production at Luton Bedfordshire… enter the Cavalier MK2 of 1981.

Luton 1981 - Not only famous for its airport and being the birthplace of singer Paul Young (also an electrical apprentice for Vauxhall) but also home to one the best selling family saloon cars of its generation.
Luton 1981 – Not only famous for its airport and being the birthplace of singer Paul Young (also an electrical apprentice for Vauxhall diddn’t you know?) but also home to one the best selling family saloon cars of its generation.

Bristling with technology never seen before on a British family car, the “Cav” featured front wheel drive, long service intervals, amazingly low workshop times thanks to ideas like a clutch that could be changed in under an hour and hydraulic tappets – the latter that Ford didn’t introduce on the Sierra until 7 years later. From day one, the Cavalier exploded into the sales charts.

By the end of 1982, Vauxhall had sold over 100.000 Cavaliers in that year alone which was more than double the number on the previous year. By this time, B.L and the Ital was left way behind misfiring in the slow lane as Ford and G.M slogged it out for the rest of the decade and half of the following 90s. The Sierra was launched in 82, and despite some hard hitting advertising, fell flat on its bonnet.

The Sierra was too modern for the three box saloon world of suburbia and the Cavalier simply ran away with the customers. Early Cavs could be known for some paintwork and mechanical fragility but once improvements came on stream, the Cavalier was quickly regarded as being a safe bet car that commanded respect from retail and business customers. Subsequent models such as the SRi to this day make many a seasoned petrol head slowly nod in appreciation.

Engines ranged from a 1.3 to a 2.0i with a plodding 1.6 diesel thrown in for good measure giving similar performance to the comparatively huge 2.1 & 2.3 Peugeot oil burners fitted in the Sierra. Sales reps adored the Cav as even the fleet favourite petrol 1600L would easily top 100 mph and early 4 speed cars could break the motorway speed limit in just one gearchange – I once witnessed over 70mph in second gear in a very early 1.6 saloon!

The Cavalier was a leap ahead of the competition - especially the 1.8 SRi
The Cavalier was a leap ahead of the competition – especially the 1.8 SRi

Once Ford revised the spec of the Sierra and switched the marketing regime into overdrive, they clawed back some of the lost ground they had surrendered to the Cavalier. Despite the unstoppable machine that was the sales and marketing department within Ford, Vauxhall held their own and the Cavalier MK2 remained in the top ten for all of its timeline (81-88)

We have a lot to thank Vauxhall for with monikers like SRi – CDi and LXi turning simple badge symbols into sexy three digit affairs that tripped off the tongue and stirred the soul (and in some cases the groin) much more than Ghia or Vanden Plas.

The Low Down

Produced: Luton UK by General Motors GB
Timeline: 1981 to 1988
Bodystyles: 2 & 4 door 5 door hatch and estate 2 door cabrio
Engine options: 1.3 1.6 1.6D 1.8 1.8i & 2.0i


One thought on “Great British Bangers – No1: Vauxhall Cavalier MK2

  1. I always liked the mk2 cavalier, my cousin had a y reg SR I think it was a carb model in two tone white and grey, and my parents had a y reg 1600 L saloon on grey.

    Both were comfortable and never broke down and I even remember the timing belt slipping or coming off our 1600 and we just slipped it back on re set the timing and off we went, whether that was just pure luck or that’s the way the engines were designed I don’t know.
    But I always likes the estate version which if I’m correct was a Holden, but I’ve not seen one of them in years.

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