Happy Birthday: Vauxhall Cavalier turns 40

Words: Mike Humble

Pictures: Jacky Lawler

A car I have loved since a child. The Vauxhall Cavalier has turned 40.
A car I have loved since a child. The Vauxhall Cavalier has turned 40.

I heard some interesting statistics recently saying that 25% of the British motoring public have either driven or owned a Vauxhall car – it didn’t surprise me. The brand is now well over 100 years old and things have not stood still for the Luton based company despite swallowing some very bitter pills over the last two decades. Car production at Luton ceased back in 2002 and as you drive towards the former assembly plant from Junction 10 of the M1, the lack of buildings and chimneys on the horizon that once forewarned you that Vauxhall country was looming still make me ponder for a moment with a twinge of sadness.

Of course, we still produce Vauxhalls in abundance. Vans are produced in a plant just up the road from the former car assembly buildings and up in Cheshire, the Ellesmere Port site has just commenced full scale production of the exiting (and rather good) all new Astra which has just arrived in the showrooms as I type. But as with most volume manufacturers General Motors appreciate the importance of heritage, and future products are based on lessons learnt be them good or bad from previous designs of the past. One such vehicle enjoys a very special birthday this year as it marks its 40th birthday.

Vauxhall Motors three Cavaliers from the heritage fleet.
Vauxhall Motors three Cavaliers from the heritage fleet.

The Vauxhall Cavalier marked a very important turning point for Vauxhall Motors. Thanks to the sleek styling that looked better than most other saloon cars of the era, Vauxhall slowly moved away from an image of worthy albeit slightly dull cars into a world of engineering led designs good enough to at least dent the confidence of the mighty Ford Cortina. Relying on Opel technology made sure the Cavalier had agreeable quality that gave the driver good value for money in the long term, a strategy that was to continue for the next twenty years.

Offered in 1.3 1.6 & 2.0 guises, the Mk1 Cavalier quickly became a strong selling vehicle both in retail and the all important fleet markets. The arguably pretty looking body was penned by GM styling director Wayne Cherry which boasted obvious cues to the sporting Vauxhall Firenza Droop Snoot – the Chevette also had a similar frontal aspect and also celebrates its 40th birthday in 2015. The Cavalier range was expanded into the 3 door sport hatch shortly after the 1975 launch and by the time production ended in 1981, over 200,000 cars had been produced for the British and European market.

As the eighties unfolded, the Cavalier Mk2 first rolled off the Luton tracks on the 17th of August 1981. Riding high on the success of the new Astra that was launched in `79, the new Cavalier certainly became a sales smash hit. With front wheel drive and a whole host of innovative engineering features that literally slashed workshop downtime and running sosts, the Mk2 even to this day is regarded as a legend in certain automotive circles. So popular was the Cavalier that soon after the 1981 launch it represented one third of all Vauxhall sales thanks to its huge range of 3 / 4 / 5 and 5 door estate models not to mention the all important SRi model.

Cavalier also succeeded in BTCC. Here's Super Scot John Cleland giving it some air at Thruxton.
Cavalier also succeeded in BTCC. Here’s Super Scot John Cleland giving it some air at Thruxton.

The same success was repeated again by the time the Cavalier Mk3 arrived in 1988 and some very clever teaser T.V adverts prior to the official launch made sure the public knew something special was coming to the showroom. The multi award winning Cavalier now spanned every possible budget and engine range which also included turbocharged petrol engines and even all wheel drive but no estate version was offered. Success in the dealers was boosted by success on the tracks as the Cavalier Mk3 racked up win after win in the British Touring Car championships 1996 season piloted by John Cleland.

July 1995 marked the end of Cavalier production with final sales numbers almost touching 1.7 million units. Sadly, the same magic was not repeated with the all new Vectra. I wonder how the fortunes would have turned out had they kept the Moniker of the vehicle as Cavalier. It was a respected car that many owners treated like one of the family and I was keen to sample all three versions of the car at the Vauxhall heritage centre recently. On a personal level I have owned many Vauxhalls including Cavaliers… but for me? the original is still the best.

Driving around Luton and on the M1 in a Mk1 Cavalier was just lovely. hey drive so much better than a Cortina. I should know... I've owned seven Cortina's!
Driving around Luton and on the M1 in a Mk1 Cavalier was just lovely. They drive so much better than a Cortina. I should know… I’ve owned seven Cortina’s!

Driving around Luton on a typical English drizzly autumn day was made that bit more pleasant at the fact I was doing so in a 1979 2.0 GLS Cavalier Mk1. The local football club were playing at home that Saturday and a few of the walking “Hatters” crowd turned and looked at the car as I crawled past the ground. Other motorists stared and smiled at roundabouts and traffic lights too and I was impressed at how well it cruised down the M1. The Cavalier will always have a space in my heart and many former owners too no doubt – it was a wonderful few hours spent with three old friends!

Friend of mine and Vauxhall Communications Director Denis Chick only recently told me a little more about the heritage Vauxhall Collection…

“Vauxhall cherishes it’s long history as a British brand and British manufacturer. It can claim to be the oldest automotive company in the UK still manufacturing in Britain, in fact without a stop, even through two world wars. This history is one thing but to have a selection of products from across the 112 years of its existence tucked away in our Heritage Centre in Luton is massive! 

In fact, we’ve been around so long that Vauxhall is now the only surviving British manufacturer eligible to enter cars in the London to Brighton run, as we will proudly do this year with our 1903 and 1904 examples.  We strive to keep our whole collection alive and roadworthy with certainly the vast majority of our cars from the 1950s to date running on the button. The older cars take a little more TLC! 

We use the collection to support new car launches, media requests for test and comparison work with new products and wherever we can they are out there supporting many events across the length and breadth of Britain. And not only do we have two excellent members of staff looking after the collection, we have an apprentice learning how it used to be done. It’s all in good hands and will be with us for many years to come”

Denis Chick – Vauxhall Communications Director

AUTOBRITANNIA.NET would like to thank Denis Chick & Zoe Peacock at Vauxhall Motors for a memorable Saturday!


  1. Cracking stuff Mike!

    I personally ran six cavaliers as company cars from 1980 through to 1995 with every one never so much as missing a beat despite some serious mileage. The MK3 was utterly superb and my last one which was an 1800 LSi clicked over 140,000 miles before being replaced by a Peugeot 406.

    The Pug was more comfy but nowhere near as reliable.

  2. owned 2 Cavs in the past. A bronze Mark one 1600GL and a Mark 2 Commander which I bought new. Both were damn fine cars although the first one ended up with more body filler than steel in its construction

  3. We ran numerous Mk3 Cav’s in the 80s. You could rely on them to get you and a load of equipment anywhere economically, quickly, and in comfort. You certainly could not say the same for the Vectra or for any of the appalling diesel sheds Vauxhall sells now. 250,000 miles on the same clutch and engine for one H-reg SRi anyone?

  4. Liked the mark2 Sri, rather than the mark 1 GL (I think) that we had. Just couldn’t get my legs under the non adjustable steering wheel of the mark 1. Regardless a drivers car and a big step up from the BL cars of the day. However the Opel Manta GTE and the Cavalier coupe GLS that we also had, what cars!, The Cavalier had a combination lock on the handbrake. How cool is that!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.