The last car on test in 2016 turned out to be something rather special. It was Vauxhall Heritages stunning 18,000 mile Mk3 Cavalier… a lovely old beast of a thing:
As much as I love the new and pioneering cars in Britain, I’m not adverse to old and the retro motors from time to time. Some people think that when you become middle aged you hark back a few decades in terms of your motoring tastes in a period universally known as a midlife crisis. Were things really that better back then? or do we love nothing more than languishing in the past? Well I have recently spent a thoroughly enjoyable week mooching around in a genuine past master of a car… I remain undecided.
The Vauxhall Cavalier Mk3 was possibly their last fully UK assembled car that was undeniably seen as a huge success until recent years. The 1975 introduced model had its followers but otherwise became an also-ran as it lurked in the shadows of the Ford Cortina – then something strange happened. After so many years of playing second or third fiddle to both British Leyland and Ford, Vauxhall seemed to find their mojo so to speak. This was first witnessed with the birth of the all new Astra in `79 but Vauxhall really did hit the big time just two years later in 1981 with the advanced front wheel drive Cavalier Mk2.
Without going into a point by point delve into the Cavalier Mk2 history, its best said that from 1982 to 1993 in the United Kingdom the supremacy for the middleweight title was fought out between just two rivals. We are talking about the Cavalier and the Ford Sierra – think of them as being the automotive Benn vs Eubank. The Mk2 enjoyed great success in both fleet and retail sectors pretty much all of its lifetime. Then in 1988 Vauxhall moved up yet another gear with the introduction of the all new Mk3 model – a car that once again sold in huge numbers until it was phased out with the launch of the Vectra in 1995.
The vehicle I have had the utter joy of wafting around in was a `95 CDX auto saloon with the 2.5 litre quad cam 170bhp V6 with electronic 4 speed auto box. With just a mere 18K showing on the clock, its pretty much as near to a brand new Cavalier as you will ever be likely to find though oddly enough, the last ever Cavalier to be built recently appeared for sale on eBay as I took delivery of this one. Being the CDX model it was pretty much well quipped for its time – more leather than a DFS showroom with subtle fillets of burr walnut here and there just to remind you that you’re not rubbing shoulders with the plebeians of motoring in LS or LX class.
All round power windows, air conditioning, electric sunroof, double lumbar support knobs on the front chairs and a Grundig branded RDS wireless / CD player may not seem mind blowing now but in `95? simply extravagant. The gently curved and aerodynamic lines still look good today but boy… it looks so small parked next to modern metal. Slipping into the driving seat sure does make you realise how the world has moved on. The first thing you notice, or if you are old enough to remember that is, is just how flat the steering wheel position seems – a trait you found in most Vauxhalls of this era. The wheel may be airbag equipped but there’s no facility to tilt the angle – you had to wait for the Vectra.
If like me you wish to sit high and mighty behind the controls you’ll certainly notice how low and wrong the steering wheel sits -otherwise you cannot fault the cockpit. Lovely large dials for revs and speed with crystal clear markings and small yet perfectly legible incidental gauges for temperature and tank level still look great. In fact the whole dashboard is set up for ergonomic use, the knobs, dials and levers are never more further away than a gently raise or outward stretch of the arm. Another thing that hit you once inside is the sheer feeling of quality. The roll top of the dash through to the door cards are soft feeling with a deep leatherette grain – you just don’t find that in most modern motors these days.
Firing up the creamy V6 from cold brings a little bit of off beat burbling but once warmed through it sounds sublime. As you gently press the loud pedal, the car just glides away almost unnoticeably changing gears – its all very refined and stress free. Thankfully should you want to press on that bit more urgently, and with a little help from the sport mode switch, the 24 valve Ellesmere Port built V6 clears its throat and sings a song. Though far away from booming like an Alfa “Busso” unit, the GM 2.5 with its narrow 54 degree vee angle makes a rather pleasing and loud wail as the rev counter climbs ever higher. In a straight line and even hampered with just four gears… its a hell of a weapon.
And its in a straight line this car excels. Tug hard and fast on the steering wheel and another demonstration of progress is revealed. Back lane driving becomes slightly disturbing as the chassis struggles to reign in the power and steering inputs. The ride comfort is truly superb, but by current trends the Cavalier feels hopelessly underdamped and pudding like when asked to change directions in a spirited manner. Thankfully the all round discs with ABS rub off the excess knots but off the main highways and especially round the lanes, the V6 Cavalier feels very boat like… but that’s not how these were driven in all fairness – the “Seedy X” is a gentleman’s cruiser rather than a fooling around bruiser.
It was meant to sit there in the overtaking lane just knocking off the miles as effortlessly as thinking about it… 22 years later it still does just that with excellence. Thanks to a rather tall top ratio it purrs away at the legal 70 just a shade over 2500rpm, and providing you stick at that speed the fuel economy stays on the right side of 30mpg. Its flush glazing, aerodynamic door mirrors and impressive door seals provide a kind of refinement when cruising at speed that still stands well even today. But to be realistic, the `88 on Cavalier was indeed marketed as; The Future…Now and you can still be impressed with its refinement, safety and deep rooted engineering almost thirty years later.
Good enough to still enjoy and use as an everyday car? you betcha it is. Furthermore… if you want to get a foot onto the rung of retro classic motoring now is the time to act – there’s still a sprinkling of them out there at very acceptable prices too – for now that is. And yet other things also rate highly with a Cavalier Mk3. V6 engine aside they are laughably simple to mend, commendably fuel efficient and getting hold of almost every consumable spare part from a cam belt through to wheel bearing kit presents little problem to your local motor factor. A superb car when launched in 1988 and still a decent vehicle almost 30 years later.
Just slot in that Derek and the Dominos cassette and enjoy the ride – I’m sure you’ll still be forever smitten!
ME LIKE: Cracking performance – Sweet revving engine – Nice build quality – Refinement when cruising – Big boot – Well equipped – Still good enough to use as a daily car – Now becoming loved and appreciated.
ME GRIPE: Chassis control not brilliant by todays standards – Thirsty when hurried – 2.5V6 engine not the most DIY friendly to fix – Awful steering wheel angle.
Other notable period British built rivals included:
- Ford Sierra & Sierra Sapphire
- Nissan Bluebird / Primera
- Peugeot 405
- Rover Montego
- Toyota Carina E
Thanks go to Andy & Terry at Vauxhall Heritage in Luton for the loan of the car!