A Luton Brougham

A look back to Luton’s mid-’70s upmarket ambitions.

1976 Vauxhall VX Prestige prototype. Image: droopsnootgroup

As automotive industry analysts ponder the fate of Opel / Vauxhall in the wake of PSA’s takeover, one possible future being mapped out involves a shift upmarket. On the face of things, this appears about as likely as PSA getting a sudden rush of blood to the head and starting to take Citroën seriously, but as (im)possible futures go, it may not be entirely unthinkable.

Not everyone in the soothsaying universe seems to agree however, as a report in ANE yesterday suggests. Sanford C. Bernstein’s Max Warburton (we haven’t heard from him for a while) suggesting PSA should “Dump the Vauxhall brand,” before going on to say, “Even the most jingoistic Brexiteers would rather buy a German car. There’s no room for a one-market brand in 2017.”

But leaving aside Warburton’s tough love analysis, can Vauxhall (a) survive, and (b) prosper in today’s increasingly febrile landscape? Taking matters further, could (c) the Griffin ever contemplate a move upmarket given their current situation? While we ponder this, let us just for a moment cast our minds back to the early 1970’s as just such a move was being actively pursued.

1972 FE-series Vauxhall Ventora. Image: classic car catalogue

In 1972, Vauxhall introduced the FE-series Victor / VX4/90/ Ventora, a range of cars developed in Luton and based upon a shared body structure with the Opel Rekord D-series. The final Vauxhall model to have a unique set of skin panels to its Russelheim equivalent, the FE retained the slightly transatlantic appearance which characterised its design at the time.

With the most expensive Ventora model offering the 3.3 litre Bedford in line six, there was a gap at the very top end of the range owing to the demise of the larger Cresta / Viscount models. During 1973 a number of alternatives were explored, one of which was a version of the FE body with a Holden sourced V8. This proposal was axed owing to the 1973 fuel crisis, but once the panic had abated, the idea of a top-line Jaguar-fighter was once more dusted down.

Ventora SS styling proposal. Image: vximages

By now the Ventora was no more, the revised VX range (which debuted in 1976) topping out with the 2.3 litre VX4/90 model. With Vauxhall having developed a close relationship with Bob Jankel of Panther Cars, chief stylist, Wayne Cherry arranged for them to build two prototypes for a stretched luxury version of the FE body, which had been styled at his Luton studios. Four inches longer than the standard car between the axles, the rear doors were also lengthened, as was the nose, forward of the front wheels to accommodate an Opel-sourced 2.5 litre in-line six.

Longer than the standard car by just over a foot, the VX Prestige as it became known was built with two alternative side window treatments and headlamp proposals. One car was a static non-runner, the second, a fully running prototype. However, the car’s additional weight, coupled to the Opel unit’s modest power output, (115 bhp, 125 lbs/ft) meant it was no ball of fire, nor was the handling reputed to be all it could have been.

1978 Vauxhall Royale. Image: fotocars

By the latter part of the ’70s, time ran out for the VX-series and with both the 1978 V-4 Carlton / Viceroy and larger Royale models becoming stylistic priorities within Cherry’s Luton studios, the big VX saloon died. It was probably the right decision, the FE-series, while entirely competent, was not really going to give the second-generation Ford Granada V6 a run for its money, certainly not with an underpowered smaller capacity engine, and that’s before we even start to think in terms of the prestige marques.

But it’s an attractive looking thing nonetheless, even if Opel’s contemporary Commodore was on balance a more successful piece of design overall. But like most ‘what might have beens’, the VX Prestige casts a somewhat poignant shadow.

But getting back to Vauxhall now, PSA CEO, Carlos Tavares made the following rather ambiguous statement to ANE’s Chris Reiter yesterday, saying, “I consider Vauxhall as an asset and not a penalty…. I don’t see there’s a risk that Vauxhall doesn’t stay.” Which is an interesting choice of words, don’t you think? Before going on to say that “Nothing is taboo, including differentiation,” Reiter suggesting Vauxhall could potentially go their own way from that of the Opel mothership.

One thing is relatively certain however, with Tavares’ at the helm, the core message is to slash costs and above all make money. On that basis, and with the economic and political winds as they are, surely now only the most ardent Vauxhall enthusiast would envisage a bright future for the Griffin shield under PSA’s wing?

Datasource: Vauxpedia.net

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

10 thoughts on “A Luton Brougham”

  1. ” Reiter suggesting Vauxhall could potentially go their own way from that of the Opel mothership.”
    That sounds a stretch too far, as it would be too expensive. Better to stick to Opel chassis and parts bins, with just a few striking external baubles to look different.

    Vauxhall’s model history is truly dreadful, muddling its identity in buyers’ eyes.
    Their 1950s line-up was coherent: cheeky, brash US-inflected cars which cashed in on the positive feelings for America. But gradually the cars lost their US referents, replaced by nothing really, except the more anonymous German look of Opels. I doubt they can afford to do that again. The “droop-snoot” front worked quite well while it lasted.

    But luxury engines and drivetrains are expensive: they’ve only got a 2-litre, but a petrol-only 3.6 is due next year (I think) But “Will be available only on Holden Commodore VXR and Buick Regal GS”, says Wiki.

    1. At the same time as Vauxhall planned their Prestige Opel were also pushing upmarket with the Monza and Senator and launched them first. Car magazine was duly impressed.

  2. An illuminating article that shines a light on the sheer incompetence of British car industry management in the 70’s. Why on Earth were Vauxhall developing a luxury version of their failed Cortina alternative when the Carlton and Royale were only two years away? In 1976, apart from the Granada, they had the Citroen CX, Audi 100, Peugeot 604, BMW 5 Series and Toyota Crown to contend with, yet their proposal was a car that wouldn’t have been advanced in the 60’s.

  3. Richard, pardon my ignorance of how things were in the UK, but was it British management science or GMism?

    I’ve always believed that GM’s foreign divisions were managed from Detroit and had little autonomy.

    1. While I’m not an expert either, my answer is that evidenence points towards Opel and Vauxhall being quite independent of GM and each other. The extent of that is the degree to which the model ranges differed. Opel used independence to good effect while Vauxhall didn’t. That Opel’s cars replaced Vauxhall’s as the 70s wore on shows which outfit GM thought more competent. But GM also clipped Opel’s wings gradually too, as discussed here at length.

  4. Wasn’t Vauxhall slant four half of a proposed OHC V8 ? Such an engine would have been very useful if they really intended to move upmarket. Opel’s Diplomat could have had a better chance as well, had it been equipped with something more up to date than US-sourced Chevy small block
    On the same subject, i don’t think there has ever been any information on what Opel was working on in the 70’s and 80’s, engine-wise. For instance, I’ve never understood why they didn’t make an inline six out of the very successful Family II four, to replace the obsolete CIH six

    1. Indeed, with both the Slant-4 and proposed V8 engines even spawning diesel variants.

      It certainly opens up a lot of possibilities for Vauxhall along with other projects had they not went through their troubled period during the 70s(?) which only accelerated their integration with / absorption into Opel. Opel could have even benefited from using the Vauxhall V8 in a number of its RWD cars, while Vauxhall could have gradually integrated with Opel as was originally planned instead of being subsumed by Opel.

      In better circumstances Vauxhall could have probably developed a related Slant-6 or PRV-like V6 from their Slant-4 and V8 engines as an in-house alternative to the 6-cylinder Opel CiH engine.

  5. When Chevrolet developed its new 194 cubic inch six (3.2l) for the 1962 Chevy II, my thoughts at the time were that they could ditch that rattly old six they stuck in the few Crestas they sold here. Ditch the clacky old tappets for decent hydraulic lifters that GM had for years been putting in their ohv V8s and now the Chevy six. Low weight block, and eventually expanded through 230 to 292 cubes for bigger cars and trucks, seven main bearings, smooth, reliable, available from Canada through preferential Commonwealth tariffs at the time, probably for next to nothing. Opel could have ditched that CIH engine too and gone mainstream making them with an overhead cam.

    As Pontiac did in 1965. Delorean, yes him, stuck a SOHC head belt-driven (one of the first) on the 230 for the Tempest Sprint, but the availability of V8s for not much more meant few takers. E-types had the hoary old XK monument to the iron ore industry yanked and these Sprint engines installed, losing 200 pounds of road-hugging weight from the front wheels in the process. Car and Driver tested at least one conversion and liked it. Gosh they might not ever had a file laid upon them to persuade parts to fit.

    Still, as I’ve mentioned before, I knew two FoMoCo execs, one Canadian and one American, who did the Euro tap dance foreign duty on isolation pay routine for their careers. They couldn’t have cared less what Dagenham was up to, just as GM execs couldn’t have cared less what Vauxhall and Opel were up to. Once Ford UK went crossflow on the Kent engine and burdened it with heavy pistons and a Heron head, followed by a succession of distinctly second-rate V4 and V6 engines, Ford engines were generally blah – the Pinto engine ate cams so badly you could see the squashed metal through the oil-filler hole, and it was none too smooth in any version. Vauxhalls, were they any better? The 2.3 seemed okay on paper, but while I studied in the UK, Vauxhall produced rubbish and left the Canadian market under a black cloud.

    I expect PSA to say one thing and do another, so if I hung my employment hat in Luton or Ellesmere Port, I’d have been sending out resumes for months by now.

    In a further fit of unreality, GM through Buick is just about to introduce two new Insignias to North America, one a liftback, the other a raised wagon. Made by Opel/PSA but with the standard 2.0t GM four. At least that engine is proven, unlike whatever gas engines PSA have, and their diesel engines are irrelevant in this market. The car looks good, the price not too bad, but my nagging doubts about whether PSA will bother stocking spare body parts or care one whit about customers buying a car not of their “design” means I won’t bother looking at the cars. Their last effort here was distinctly third-rate. Europeans tend to produce vehicles that they think customers “should” buy, rather than bother seeing what a market might need and adapting to it, like the Japanese did. Evidence of this mindset I see here at DTW frequently, which I’ve also mentioned before. Still, by not exporting much here, they can weather the Trump storm with equanimity – BMW and MB SUVs are mainly made inside the USA, and saloons are dying on the vine anyway.

  6. Not sure on the notion of both Opel and Vauxhall using some version of the 3rd gen Chevrolet Straight-6 based Pontiac OHC-6 in place of their existing 6-cylinder engines for their larger cars.

    Holden and some GM branches in Brazil and South Africa could have well benefited along with Vauxhall to a limited extent (since they needed a suitable replacement for their 6-cylinder engine), though Vauxhall could have also developed their own 6-cylinder related to their Slant-4 / V8 engine family.

    Still there is some appeal to the idea of a developed version of the Pontiac OHC-6. For one thing it seems such an engine could have potentially spawned an OHC version of the related Chevrolet 153 4-cylinder with displacements as low as 1960cc, which would in turn allow for a OHC Inline-6 to feature a more euro-sized displacement of around 2940cc (plus possible scope for a relatively small V8 displacing around 4.0-5.0-litres derived from the 2.0-2.5 Chevrolet 143 4-cylinder).

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