Where Shall That Die Fall? Whom From Their Path Will It Deflect?

It was thirty years ago this month that Car magazine excitedly put the new Cavalier on their front cover. Mainstream cars helped sell magazines in those bygone olden days of yesteryore.

I have plucked some of the most interesting bits from the four-page spread which depends for its value on six spy shots of the car. The then-current Cavalier/Ascona, once a sales superstar had begun to wilt in the market so the new one had to catch up with the ascendant Sierra rather than build on solid success. Now this phrase is salient: “The new Cavalier… is also supposed to reinvigorate Vauxhall’s dull image with enthusiasts.” By 1987 then Vauxhall had acquired its perception of drabness.

And this: “The initial success of the current Cavalier, once Britain’s best selling fleet car, had the effect of distancing Vauxhall from keen drivers.” Why is this not happening with BMW, Audi and Mercedes who must surely
now rely on fleet sales these days? “The same problem befell the Cavalier´s predecessor as fleet favourite, the Cortina,” added Car. So, sales success

1987 Vauxhall Cavalier SR 180 – outgoing.

is also sales poison? According to Car, the big news for the new Cavalier lay in the optional 4×4 version (that didn’t pan out). “The body of the new car carries over the corporate GM look effectively enough, although we can be thankful it is a good deal more attractive than the Belmont and the ungainly Carlton”. I knew the Belmont always enjoyed the worship of a vibrant hate cult however the Carlton/Omega always struck me as a good-looking and rather intelligent design. I didn’t know that in 1987 the critical response was so negative.

Vectra in an advertisement c.1990

In retrospect, I have to disagree with Car’s assessment of the Cavalier in question. Far from carrying over the corporate look it seemed more to water it down. It is a very rounded car, missing the definition of either the Kadett or the “ungainly” Omega. Nonetheless, it represented part of the move towards organic shapes of the following decade: the Mondeo and then Laguna plus the Mazda 626 of the time, to name three, also adopted the trope of big radii wherever possible.

While this might have looked striking in relation to the outgoing and existing cars in the market, in isolation (and now) it leaves little for the eye to settle on. Renault’s Laguna avoided that with its clever graphics and even just the clam-shell bonnet.

1985 Opel Kadett LS 3-door estate.

No-one is going to agree too much with me here but I think the much-loved 1995 Vectra actually corrected the styling faults of the Cavalier by the use of some feature lines and more defined arches. Let the brickbats fly.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

23 thoughts on “Where Shall That Die Fall? Whom From Their Path Will It Deflect?”

  1. Thirty years of Vectea, oh dear… Thanks for reminding me of how old I’ve become!
    I actually find it quite a good design, if not exactly exciting. It’s very calm, but not lacking definition too much, in my eyes. I found it more substantial than the contemporary Kadett or the Astra that followed. Only the grille / badge arrangement of the pre-facelift cars was a bit strange and gave them an unpersonal look.
    Sales poison? Not around here. The 4×4 version which was actually available helped to keep Opel at the top spot of sales in Switzerland well into the 90s. Only the next generation corrected this, helped a lot by poor quality.

    1. There we go: the UK press described the 4×4 version as not involving, too costly and too heavy. Meanwhile all those steep-mountain and high valley people flock to the product. This has happened to a few 4×4 variants. There is some need for 4×4 cars (I mean saloons, hatchbacks) in the UK so this need is met. However, the press seem not to understand the required compromise.
      We had an Audi 90 here as a Sunday photo: remember the small crease on the bodyside that controlled the break-up between light and shade? That detail is needed on the Vectra 1 and it turned up on Vectra 2. It is a feature not shown in any drawing or sketch; it has to be be added during full-size modelling. Design doesn’t stop with drawing.

    2. Stradale: the topic is huge.

      First, provide evidence that Opel/Vauxhall do have a worse image than comparable peers. That requires a detailed examination of published material: newspapers, magazines, television. Also: consumer research on brand perceptions.

      Then why?

      1) Sales figures for at least 40 years: Opel, Vauxhall, others.
      1.1) Opel financials
      1.2) Vauxhall financials
      1.3) GM financials

      2) Economic data for the same time.
      2.1 Income distribution figures.
      2.2 Insight on macro-economic development
      3) Autoindustry trends.
      3.1) Technical
      3.2) Market trends

      4) Historical: GM/Opel internal events such as
      4.1) key personel changes and 4.2) labour relations.

      The work has show a clear link between the findings of the media review and the other evidence. What could that link look like?

  2. I will return to this in more detail when I have a moment, but in the meantime, feel free to peruse this comparison from 1990:


    As it happens, Wheels liked the Carlton rather a lot. But note this sentence:

    “A bloody Vauxhall , I hear you say! Remember, however, this is an Opel, and not a Vauxhall like a Victor or a Viva or a Velox.”

    Of course, this is referencing the days when Opel and Vauxhall were still discernibly separate entities. But overall, it seems to me that GM Europe’s image problem has very deep-seated roots.

    1. They shipped a Holden to the UK to do that test. And the journalists too. That is wildly expensive journalism.
      The Opel Omega didn’t do too badly.

    2. No doubt: there is a book or PhD to be written about this. Putting it in perspective, a billion dollar-sized enterprise neglected a communications problem which undermined it’s viability. Words and ideas felled Opel/Vauxhall.

    3. I agree, I think this is a fascinating subject that deserves rigorous exploration. Clarkson’s infamous road test was absolutely devastating when it aired, but it was only as effective as it was in part because those perceptions had already been seeded widely for years beforehand.

  3. One point I would make in general about magazines like CAR which allowed more ‘editorialising’ in news items than more staid publications would be comfortable with – writers’ personal prejudices were given more leeway than they would otherwise. It’s doubtless true that the Belmont wasn’t a favourite around the magazine’s offices, but I suspect the Carlton probably had more fans at CAR than is implied by that sentence, yet that impression is overriden by a single snide remark. This perhaps warrants a discussion on the failures of the editing process. But I also think it references my earlier argument that the personal impressions and prejudices of people who write about cars have a heavily disproportionate effect in swaying popular perceptions.

    So says the Beta owner who studies media’s influences on public opinion for a living, anyway; other opinions may also be available and valid.

    1. Good point.
      If I was in a position to edit I’d ensure news stayed factual. This is a professional question for journalist I was not aware of in 1989. Every journalist ought to be careful about the fact/comment divide even if the reader isn’t.

  4. A couple of points:

    1. The Vectra was not really about ‘organic’ forms, but about democratising the ‘aero’ trend, which was led by Audi (they proudly placed a sticker on Audi 100s bragging about the car’s low drag coefficient. GME definitely led in this area for a while, especially with the Callibra which was, I think, the most aero-efficient car on the market at launch. So no wonder the front cover splash – the Vectra looked like the future, even if the engineering was not.

    2. BMW’s success with fleet sales has definitely distanced it from keen drivers. Most 1 series customers don’t know it is rear wheel drive, they say.

    1. I think your point about it being an ‘aero’ / futuristic design is a good one – that was the message of the UK ad campaign at the time. Incidentally, John Butman wrote a book about the car’s development and launch, called ‘Car Wars’ – it’s an excellent read.

      I remember that Car magazine did a long term test of this Cavalier. My main recollection is that they found the ride very firm. It was a very early example – I wonder if the ride was softened on later versions.

      Branding is a vast subject, but I think that higher volumes, within reason, don’t hurt a brand’s image. After all, Mercedes-Benz have served the taxi trade very well for decades and that hasn’t done them any harm. Similarly, I’d argue that Apple is a popular premium brand.

    2. Charles: I’ll be on eBay to track down a copy of that book. Thanks for the reference.
      Additionally, some research on aero versus organic is required. For me, the Cavalectra is more organic than æro but I needed some photoreferences to justify and illustrate my argument.

  5. A mate if mine drove one of these when I was 18 (it was his Dad’s). I thought it was a very mature car, with a strong engine (1.8 SRi from memory), and a well put together and attractive interior. It seemed massively superior to the Sierra of the time – like a generational void – and I was shamefully jealous of it, being a Maxi driver at the time. My sense at the time was that Vauxhall was in the up and developing a more desirable, advanced image than Ford.

    1. The interior: this is an aspect I have neglected. The Sierra probably feels like a car with old underpinnings dressed up in a modern bikini. The doors are thinner; it’s RWD, the A-pillar is less inclined; the Vectralier is new underpinnings and a new look to illustrate the point.

    2. I drove several of these when new. They were not a huge advance on their predecessor from a mechanical perspective, but looked a lot more appealing and were in possession of a vastly better interior. As they (I imagine) shared a great deal of their underpinnings with the outgoing J-Car Ascona/Cavalier model they suffered from the same rather brittle ride quality, but apart from that, were I recall, a decent enough drive.

      I got the impression that the UK motoring press expected more from GM than this and reacted accordingly in print. But in in 1988/9 it was pretty much on a par with its major rivals dynamically and a good deal better in other areas. It was only when Ford launched the Mondeo a few years later that the Vectra/Cavalier was really left behind.

      What is interesting is that the UK press got behind the previous J-Car Ascona/Cavalier, partly because it was a palpably better car than a Cortina. This edition of Vectra A/Cavalier C took a step forward stylistically, but not dynamically. And by then Ford was more competitive, especially on the back of the revitalised ’87 Sierra range.

      A very close relative of this car is the NG-series Saab 900, one which shared a good deal of its platform architecture with Vectra A. It is by contemporary standards a rather inept device, even accounting for the extensive re-engineering the Swedes endowed it with, which I’d have to concede, doesn’t altogether amount to a ringing endorsement of the donor car.

    3. “A very close relative of this car is the NG-series Saab 900, one which shared a good deal of its platform architecture with Vectra A. It is by contemporary standards a rather inept device, even accounting for the extensive re-engineering the Swedes endowed it with,”

      The Saapel Vectroid 900’s biggest problem and one which the Swedes couldn’t do anything about was the Vectra’s biggest design fault that the Saab inherited: the steering rack that was mounted on the bulkhead instead of on the suspension subframe. This and the fact that the bulkhead was anything but sufficiently stiff allowed the rack to move up to an inch in relation to the suspension. Several UK Saab tuners developed stiffening solutions where milled aluminium brackets were mounted between the suspension top mounts and the steering rack to prevent the latter from moving around. When following a Vectra A on a bumpy road you only have to see the front wheels wobble around to instantly recognise that this cat can’t be a good drive.

  6. My teenage self was at the UK Motor Show launch of the Mk 3 Cavalier in 1988, just as I was for the Sierra eight years earlier. My recollection is that it felt like Vauxhall (Opel) had finally caught Ford up in terms of producing an aerodynamic car in this segment. I always thought this was a good-looking car, with some neat detailing inside and out. I always loathed the design of the Mk 2, so dated compared to the Sierra.

    I remember Vauxhall’s “Car of the Future” marketing campaign for the Mk 3 being good.

    1. Are you referring to the car body known as the last Ascona? By 1987 it was very passe, shown up by the car’s Kadett and Omega stablemates. Plus it lacked the depth of its predecessor.

      I had no idea this small article would generate so much response. It’s very gratifying!

  7. Richard: yes, the last Ascona was the Mk 2 Cavalier in the UK. As per the SR 180 pictured in your post.

    P.S. Whatever happened to the DTW monthly themes?

  8. Here is something from CAR magazine from early 2003.
    I don’t remember who the author was, but interesting reading nevertheless…

    Why it won’t take long until mainstream manufacturers have to face the question why they exist at all.
    One has to feel a little sorry for Ford. Now they build – at least in Europe- the best cars they ever had and nevertheless, they don’t earn any money.
    That’s a particularly heavy hit for the “car guys” in Dunton and Cologne. Designers and engineers who were grinding their teeth during the dark cruel years of Escorts and Scorpios with asthmatic engines, polyester shirt styling and roadholding like a bowl of soup. As they finally were allowed to build proper cars with honourable engines, class leading chassis and sharply cut tin they must have believed this would pay off in the showrooms. It just didn’t happen.
    The cruel reality might be that not much can be done for Ford. Or for GM, just to point that out.
    Look around you when you’re in a traffic jam the next time. Count the number of Audis, BMWs, Benzes and Jaguars you see. It’s highly probable that you see a lot more than you would have ten years ago. That’s because the market has shifted fundamentally: nowadays premium is the new mainstream.
    Need a proof? Look at the executive segment during the last twenty years. At the beginning of the Eighties the Ford Granada outsold the BMW Five four to one. Within a decade the Five overtook the Granada and in 1998 Ford gave up this segment completely. Today only fifteen percent of this segment in the UK are mainstream products and those are almost exclusively fleet special versions of the Vauxhall Omega.
    What gives mainstream manufacturers a real headache is the fact that this trend doesn’t seem to fade.
    Mondeo man is looking at BMW Threes, Audi A4s and Benz Cs in increasing numbers. In 1998 the volume players Ford, GM, Renault and Peugeot sold three times as many cars as the premiums. In 2006 the premiums will have overtaken the mass producers.
    Very important in this scenario: the premiums will get the cream of the market and nearly all of the profit. This nightmare just starts to repeat itself again from 4 x 4s to upper class minis.
    It’s really difficult to predict where this will end for the mass manufacturers.

    1. Where do Kia and Hyundai come in here? And Renault and PSA are not doing so badly. It’s the American business model that has failed to thrive rather than mass-market car brands in general: Ford, GM and Chrysler.
      If I can be a bit abstract: the American car makers are stuck
      in a hard systems methodology. This means a postivist approach
      when what is needed is a soft systems approach.

  9. Vauxhall Cavalier 1.6L Mk 3 Road Test 1988 2

    The Cavalier Mk3 (Opel Vectra A) was a neat looking car beset by a horrendous chassis (see enclosed roadtest of a car exactly like the one we had in our family). Vauxhall’s image in the UK was still on top despite its dealers (Car? 1990 Long term test ‘The Cavalier Treatment) and I guess it was the 1995 Vectra B that helped undo a lot of the progress.

    Plus, while the 1994 Omega B was a fantastic product, the JD Power surveys on BBC2’s Topgear threw a lot of muck at Vauxhall and its dealers. At the time it was easier to stay in love with an errant MK3 Volkswagen Golf or manky Ford Mondeo, but all too easy to the Vauxhall’s down to the ground.

    Get the products and dealers right and Vauxhall will get there. Sadly I hope Russelsheim doesn’t ruin the next product as it did with the Crossland X.

  10. The MK3 Cavalier / Vectra A is one of my favourite (set of) designs and the video brochure has just appeared online. I have to say that they chose some wacky (and amazingly unglamorous) locations for the shoot.

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