Twenty-five years ago, Opel launched the Astra F. As far as I can ascertain, this is the only place where you will find that event marked.
You might find it odd that DTW (or is it just me) continue to bang on the Astra drum. One reason that I like to draw people’s attention to this car is because the recognition of good design is often rendered harder by ancillary matters of fashion and consensus and I’d like people to see past that.
The received wisdom is that in the C-class the Golf is the gold medallist. The Golf has many positive attributes: often its quality of construction is superior to the average of the day; some versions are acknowledged driver’s cars; some versions are neatly designed. However, the Golf’s arch enemy, the Astra has lingered too long in the shadows of the Wolfsburg car and if you are blinded by consensus you are missing something lovely.
If we peel off our prejudices concerning Vauxhall and Opel and look with fresh eyes at the Astra F, it is at the least, every bit as thoughtfully styled as the Golf. It happens to be more beautiful.
A: The shut-line flows into the rear lamp, with radii at the top and bottom.
B: There’s a small negative surface above the sill that catches the light.
C: One neat feature line runs cleanly from front to rear lamps, angled at one or two degrees, with an inflection over the front wheel.
D: The famous Wayne Cherry rear wheel arch flare is dynamic.
E: The base of the side glass is subtly curved and flows clearly into the base of the rear-glass. BMW eventually managed to do this a few years later.
What isn’t apparent in the images here is the remarkable quality of the sculpting (the topmost image of the Dutch car is best). The front wing rolls over from the side to the top and at the same time makes an impeccable junction with the base of the A-pillar. This is a tricky area because of its consequences for the C-pillar.
Box 2 is about one third of box 1, probably at or near the golden section. A-B is angled parallel to C-D. Even if the A-pillar shoots ahead of the front axle-centre, you don’t see this in the metal because of the way the front wing flares. The apex of the red triangle is on top of the centre of the roof, but the roof crown is forward of this meaning it falls backward.
If the wing and A-pillar don’t join around the same plane (vertical, parallel to the car’s Y-axis) it tends to create problems back at the C-pillar: the Citroen C5 Mk1 is an example of fudging this, as is the Mk1 Megane. In the case of the Astra the C-pillar terminates in a neat crease aligned with the rear glass. It’s expertly handled.
Note the way the shutline for the tailgate flows down the C-pillar (without confusing it) and then around the tail-lamps. The Megane tried this a little while later and required a dent in the form to achieve it. All over the Astra there are neat flourishes that show up the rather stodgy way the Golf and the contemporary Escort handled similar details.
In order to like the Golf you have to like flat panels and what was a rather odd and obtrusive solution to the cant rail where the body sides meet the roof. Honda had this solved twenty years before. Also, there’s a crease on the C-pillar intersecting with the rear lower corner of the side glass. There’s not really very much there between the profile and the detailing. It’s not subtle. The selected image is flattering the banality of the mid-spec 1.4 Golfs everyone really bought.
Finding a nice profile of a Mk3/Mk4 Escort is not easy. Here’s the Merkenich interpretation of the C-class car.
Seen against its competitors, the Astra offered a level of visual refinement this class of car was not used to seeing. It had the effect of making the 1988 Vectra A look incredibly plain and the Vectra B didn’t even match the Astra’s felicity of form, even if it improved on its predecessor and has held up very well.
I like to cite the work of David Pye, about why aesthetics matters in design. It’s because it makes us notice beauty. While the main aim of the Opel Astra F was to help Opel make money, the appearance of the car is invested with an enormous amount of care. This, in the end, dignifies the owner and makes for something better to look at on the street, whether you own one of the cars or not. The Escort and Golf were useful things, well-priced and generally made to an appropriate standard. What neither of them does is make you want to look at them for their own sake.
I might consider the Golf worth a look because they obviously insisted on an engineering style that eschewed prettiness. The Escort doesn’t even manage this, being one of Ford’s low creative points: they clearly didn’t want to waste time or effort showing us beauty. VW wanted to show us engineering. And whoever sculpted the Astra wanted to show us how something mundane like a family car could be lifted up and us with it. Happy birthday, Astra!