If you like cars, or even if you don’t like
cars, Vauxhall has very likely been a big part of your life. If you haven’t owned one,
you’ve probably hired one, or been driven around in one, or seen them day in day out on the
streets. And for good reason. Vauxhall has been pumping out affordable mainstream cars
for decades. But its fortunes have gone up, then down, up, then down, up, then down, and
finally up then sort of down? over the last 162 years it’s been in business! So, let’s
dig into the Vauxhall Story. (music) The Vauxhall story starts appropriately enough in Vauxhall, now a borough of Greater London.
In 1857 a guy called Alexander Wilson started “Alexander Wilson and Company” to build
steam engines and pumps. Remember, this was a time before practical internal combustion
engines, and in the 19th century steam engines were powering everything from boats, to trains,
to pumps to keep mines dry. They focused on small boats and launches,
and did OK, but finances weren’t looking too good by the 1890s. The now 57-year old
Alexander Wilson left the company in 1894 and a year later the company went bankrupt.
It was restructured and in 1897 renamed to the Vauxhall Ironworks. That same year Fred
Hodges was made head of the drawing office. Fred had an automobile passion and began enthusing
the company to make big changes to the company for the 20th century. It started with their
first petrol engine, the 5hp “Jabberwock”, which they would sell to power small boats.
Steam was so 19th century, and Vauxhall was changing with the times.
Fred believed this engine could also be used to power a car, so designed the Model 719
in 1903. The car looked like a marine engine bolted to carriage and bicycle parts, which
it was in some sense, but it was smarter under the skin. To try to make the car as light
as possible and because of his boat construction experience, Fred created the first uni-body
car. The car was improved in 1904. The engine gained
one extra horse, and the car got a reverse gear, and the dodgy tiller steering system
was abandoned in favour of a regular steering wheel. To help it sell, the car was driven
in the London to Glasgow reliability trial, although they probably didn’t stop off at
McDonalds! In those days it wasn’t a race to see how fast you could get somewhere, it
was to see if you could get there at all! With sales of these new-fangled cars starting
to take off, and with problems with the lease on their Vauxhall factory, the company looked
for new, larger premises. Luton was looking to attract new business after the decline
of the hat-making industry. They created an attractive package to lure Vauxhall Ironworks,
and cars built there were doing so well that by 1907 the company was renamed to Vauxhall
Motors. Fred Hodges had been the early visionary behind
Vauxhall’s early cars, but when he took a leave of absence a new hire, Laurence Pomeroy
took the initiative and became the powerhouse behind Vauxhall’s next cars. In those early
days of motoring it was only the very rich that would afford these expensive playthings,
and Vauxhall focused on the fast, sporty cars that they wanted. The first car Laurence made
won several trials and hill climbs and was developed into the successful A-Type. He also
produced the 1913 30-98 that was the first car guaranteed to go 100mph.
But his crowning achievement was the 1911 “Prince Henry”, after the motor trials
that were named for Prince Henry of Prussia. With the car clocking up win after win, road-going
versions were snapped up quickly. Vauxhall’s were very popular with the Russian nobility,
and Vauxhall opened a Russian sales office. But it was short-lived affair, with the decided
lack of rich Russians after the Communist revolution of 1917.
The First World War left Britain penniless, and rich people’s playthings like fast cars
weren’t really selling. With Vauxhall’s sales drying up, they looked around for a
potential suitor. Many people, me included, think General Motors must have bought Vauxhall
in the 1960s or 70s, but GM picked up Vauxhall in 1925 for $2½M! The bailout made sense
for Vauxhall, but there are many reasons why the purchase made a lot of sense for General
Motors. GM was locked in a battle for car sales with Ford, and Ford had already expanded
to the UK in 1909 and was assembling cars there in 1911. To compete with Ford, they
needed to expand to sell cars in other parts of the world. Vauxhall was known for their
high-end cars – and the Vauxhall name would give GM’s mass market cars some cachet.
With the 1929 Wall Street crash, the GM purchase likely saved Vauxhall from bankruptcy.
In the 20s and 30s small inexpensive cars were the growth market, with the Ford Model
T selling over 16½M cars around the world. It’s tempting to think Vauxhall would build
GM cars in the UK, but with smaller roads and a different customer GM let Vauxhall produce
its own cars. The first major car to come out was the 1930 Vauxhall Cadet. With Vauxhall
free to raid GM’s part bin, they fitted the first synchromesh gearbox to appear on
a British car. The Cadet was sold for the low, low price
of just £280, but by 1937 Vauxhall were selling a unibody Vauxhall 10-4 for just £168, also
offering it as the Bedford HC. By offering cars at such competitive prices they were
showing they could produce cars at scale and control costs. Vauxhall had completed its
transformation from a high-end car maker to mass producer.
But Vauxhall wasn’t the only European car company GM had their eyes on. In 1929 they
purchased Opel in Germany. Opel was a little different as it was already a mass market
car manufacturer, and in fact by 1937 they had the largest car plant in Europe.
GMs plans for European domination would be interrupted by someone else’s plans for
European domination, although it’s surprising that Opel’s German factories were churning
out civilian cars until the autumn of 1940, over a year after the war had started. Vauxhall’s
factories were given over to making helmets, rocket parts and Churchill tanks. They continued
to produce Bedford lorries and buses for the war effort at a new plant, suitably in Dunstable,
Bedfordshire. Opel was initially spared from the Nazi war
machine, likely because Hitler didn’t want to tip off an American company as to what
they were doing. But with aircraft and tank parts desperately needed by 1942, they were
pressed into service. With these plants now a part of the war effort, Allied bombers targeted
and destroyed the Opel factories. It’s ironic that American bombers were charged with destroying
an American-owned factory. After the dust cleared GM had to start from
scratch with Opel, not just because the factories were destroyed, but because some were located
in the now Communist East Germany. GM considered throwing in the towel but decided to continue
production. It would take until December 1947 until car production began again.
After the war Vauxhall restarted production of the 10-4, but middle-class Britain just
didn’t really have the cash. The company found itself selling larger and more expensive
cars to those that could afford them, and the Government encouraged British companies
to export to help restart the struggling economy. But Vauxhall’s like the 10-4 would start
to be built in other parts of the world such as Indonesia.
With the improving British economy, in 1948 Vauxhall released two new models to capitalise
on this growth – the large Vauxhall Velox and medium Vauxhall Wyvern. Both did well,
selling in their hundreds of thousands, and by 1953 Vauxhall was producing 100,000 cars
a year. They offered a bit of futuristic American glamour in a dowdy, austere post-war Britain.
But respectable middle-class Britain bought them in their droves.
In the 1950s the large Velox was replaced by the Vauxhall Cresta, with the medium Wyvern
being replaced by the Victor. The Cresta would become the person transport of the Queen herself,
but it took Americana to the next level, with fins at the rear, curved glass and oodles
of chrome. But it was the Vauxhall Victor that really took off, selling 1.3M. “The stylish rear end. With the exhaust pipe on the
Super discharging through the bumper.” “Door locks. At both sides of the car.” “The flashing turn indicators, way up above the taillights.” “A handsome sensible instrument panel,
right beneath the driver’s eye.” “A good solid handbrake, with a high-speed release.” “A 5-position main switch.
You use the key only to unlock the switch.” “After that the switch itself is turned
to put on the auxiliary circuit.” “The main ignition circuit, and to start the engine.” Vauxhall would continually update the styling of both cars, keeping up with the latest fashionable
styling. By the end of the 1950s cheap and cheerful
cars like the Morris Minor, Ford Anglia and Austin Mini were becoming affordable to nearly
everyone. Vauxhall realised they needed a small car to compete, so designed the Vauxhall
Viva. For the first time they would work with Opel, producing a common floorpan that would
be used for both the Viva and the Opel Kadett. But they didn’t make it easy on themselves!
Opel used metric and Vauxhall imperial measurements through the entire process.
The Luton plant had expanded and expanded since 1905, but with the company expecting
big things from the new Viva, they realised they needed a new factory. It was built at
Ellesmere Port, across the Mersey from the Triumph Speke plant near Liverpool. The Viva
was a success, selling over 1½M cars, and it was also popular around the world, becoming
a top-seller in Canada as the Envoy Epic. Vauxhall tried its hand at motorsports in
the late 60s and early 70s with the 2.0L Viva GT and Firenza having some success, but the
road-going Firenza was a beast with a top speed of 120mph and a 0-60 time of 8 seconds.
The 50s and 60s were a boom time for many car manufacturers, and Vauxhall was one of
them. But as the 60s turned in the 70s Vauxhall’s fate wasn’t looking too good. Ford’s complete
and compelling range was overshadowing the Viva, Cresta and Victor. And Vauxhall’s
were developing a reputation for being rust-prone and unreliable. By the early 70’s Vauxhall’s
UK market share was down to 7½% and GM were thinking of closing the company. Workers were
enduring 3-day working weeks, and empty production lines made for low morale.
But Vauxhall kept trying new things to return to success. The first was better corrosion
protection. The second was saving development money by using GM and Opel vehicles. The 1975
Vauxhall Chevette was based on the GM T-Car platform that was used by 36 other vehicles
around the world. And Vauxhall’s new family car would be the 1975 Vauxhall Cavalier, a
rebadged Opel Ascona that was built on GM’s worldwide J Platform that would be used for
the American Chevrolet Cavalier. But it would take until the 1980s until Vauxhall
would once again become a top seller. The improved mk2 Cavalier was joined by the supermini Vauxhall
Nova and hatchback Astra, producing a solid line-up that could be sold to fleets alongside
their luxury Carlton and Senator. Vauxhall even added the sporty Calibra to the mix in
1989. But although Vauxhall was riding high, it
was a shadow of its former self. Design was being done by Opel in Germany, with Vauxhall
little more than marketing and manufacturing, and it’s telling that Vauxhall’s corporate
HQ were moved into the old design and testing building.
Ford and Vauxhall were locked in a fleet battle into the 1990s. Company cars were popular
because they were an untaxed employee benefit. Fleet sales slowed when the tax loophole was
closed, and the remaining fleet sales were going to more prestige cars like the BMW 3-series.
Vauxhall had to retreat from the luxury car market as German luxury car makers with their
fancy badges took sales, leaving Vauxhall with the low margin small and medium car sector.
But small and medium car sales were still good, with the Cavalier being the 1993 number
1 selling car in the UK. Vauxhall launched an “all-terrain vehicle”
as it was called at the time, the Frontera, in 1991. Yes, it was a rebadged Isuzu MU,
but it was built in the UK and used Vauxhall / Opel engines. It would be joined by the
larger rebadged Isuzu Trooper as the Vauxhall Monterey in 1994.
But you shouldn’t underestimate the power of Jeremy Clarkson’s infamous review of
the Vauxhall Vectra in 1996. The car was the follow-up to the Cavalier, and his review
was scathing attack on its blandness, with people singing “I am bored” in the background.
One rep tellingly says in the review “I think the back looks like the BMW”. So,
the best thing he could say was that the car was a bit like a car he’d rather have. The
review was rather unfair but was a great story to tell down the pub, and Vauxhall’s image
soon became one of dependable but dull cars. The supermini Nova was now the Corsa. With
“No va” being Spanish for “doesn’t go”, the Spanish workers must have had a
quiet chuckle to themselves while sticking the badges on the back.
By the late 1990s there was a clear demand for people carriers or MPVs. Vauxhall tested
the water with the Sintra, based on the Chevy Venture U-body platform that would be used
for the ill-fated Pontiac Aztek. Apparently, Opel and Vauxhall left the naming of this
car up to a computer, which didn’t seem to be the wisest idea especially as it came
out with the name “Sintra”! After scathing reviews and being ranked J.D. Power’s least
satisfying car to own, the car was quietly retired. It was clear that GM were trying
to build one car for the whole world and satisfying no one in the process. And with GM having
money problems, new Vauxhalls were going to be hard to finance.
The smaller 1999 Zafira was a much more pleasant MPV and was more popular, with innovative
foldable rear seating. It was joined in 2003 by the even smaller Meriva. And Vauxhall tried
the innovative Signum large car that sat a little higher to provide bags of internal
room. But when I say Vauxhall made these cars, by now it was Opel making the cars and slapping
a Vauxhall badge on the back. And Vauxhall didn’t just rebadge Opels.
Vauxhall sold the Lotus-based VX220, but why buy a Vauxhall sports car when you could buy
the cooler Lotus version? The Agila was a rebadged Suzuki Wagon R+. The Monaro was a
rebadged Holden from Australia, as was the VXR8. You can see a pattern forming here…
Vauxhall could hardly be called a British car manufacturer when it sold cars designed
and manufactured in other countries. But while vans continued to be produced, Luton car production
ceased entirely in 2002. Vauxhall and Opel concentrated on their core
line of Corsa and Astra cars which were still top sellers. And Vauxhall were still selling
more cars in the UK than everyone but Ford. With crossovers becoming popular, Vauxhall
launch the Antara in 2006 along with the Mokka in 2012 and Crossland X in 2017.
Parent General Motors filed for bankruptcy in 2009, selling off its Saab business. Vauxhall
and Opel were going to be sold to Canadian “Magna International”, but GM changed
their minds as they felt Vauxhall and Opel were integral to their recovery.
Vauxhall continued to sell well into the 2010’s, but not spectacularly. It slipped from the
number two UK car marque to number three behind Volkswagen, and its share of the car market
dropped from 14% in 2008 to less than 8% in 2018. And finances weren’t looking too good
either. Vauxhall Opel lost over $18B between 1997 and 2017. In 2016 alone they were losing
£1M every working day. The company was using 9 different platforms across its vehicle range
when other companies were saving money by developing just 2 or 3. And with a lack of
finances the whole hybrid and electric car trend passed Vauxhall by, with the Ampera
E-Rev being a rare highlight, although it was just a rebadged GM Chevvy Volt.
PSA own Peugeot and Citroen, and they’d gobbled up Chrysler’s European arm in 1979.
In 2017 they did the same to GM’s European arm, buying Vauxhall Opel for $2.3B, making
PSA the second largest car manufacturer in Europe behind Volkswagen.
They’ve plans to rationalise the company. 9 platforms will be whittled down to just
2, and with PSA paying royalties on every GM platform that goes out the factory door,
there’s an incentive to get it done fast. The new Corsa used a GM platform and was about
to be released when PSA bought the company. They rushed to switch it to a PSA platform,
but it still took 2 years to release the new car.
Since 2017 PSA have been reluctant to invest in UK factories with the uncertainty around
Brexit. In 1957 there were 22,000 people working at Vauxhall, but in 2019 there were just 3,000.
Automation has allowed for fewer workers with higher output, but it shows that the car industry
just isn’t the British jobs powerhouse it once was.
So just what is a British car company, and if Vauxhall isn’t British then when did
it stop being British? When GM purchased it in 1925? When Vauxhall car design ended in
the 70s and 80s? When PSA bought it in 2017? And is PSA really a French company, when it’s
owned by shareholders around the world, and has British factories and German design houses
staffed by Italians and Danes. It’s natural to be patriotic about your country, but with
car companies it’s becoming increasingly irrelevant.
Vauxhall has a varied history, from steam engine maker 162 years ago to luxury sports
car maker, to a canny and innovative producer of inexpensive cars, to tank and busses during
World War 2, to mass-producing family cars. Time will tell how it fares in the new PSA
era! To get early advert free access to new videos,
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