When Good Enough Just Wasn’t Enough

Once ubiquitous on our roads, the 1979 Kadett D / Astra Mk1, GM Europe’s first front-wheel-drive car, is long forgotten and sadly overlooked, even here at DTW. Belatedly, we celebrate its 40th birthday.

1979 Opel Kadett four-door and five-door (c) wheelsage.org

There was considerable ballyhoo when Ford unveiled its first FWD Escort in September 1980. Few now remember that Opel actually beat Ford by a whole year in the switch to FWD for its C-Segment stalwart, the Kadett. Moreover, the Kadett D became the Vauxhall Astra in March 1980, replacing the geriatric Viva.

It was not the first badge-engineered Vauxhall with no sheet-metal differences to its Opel sibling. That dubious honour goes to the 1978 Royale saloon and coupé, better known as the Opel Senator and Monza. That said, the Astra Mk1 did mark the end of Vauxhall’s design and engineering independence from its German cousin. In future all GM Europe siblings would be differentiated only by badging and minor trim differences.

The Kadett D was also revolutionary in that it was designed explicitly as a hatchback. Previously, the only hatchback* in Opel’s range was the Kadett C City, a reverse-engineered Vauxhall Chevette with a Kadett front end. Opel was, allegedly, more nervous about the reaction of its conservative customers to the hatchback configuration than the switch to FWD, which it regarded as essential to remain competitive in this class, notwithstanding the worldwide success of the RWD T-Car (the Kadett C and Chevette in Europe).

1980 Opel Kadett three-door (c) s-u-k.de

At an early stage in the development, it was envisaged that the Astra would have a distinctive front end in the droop-snoot style seen on the Chevette, Cavalier Mk1 and Carlton. Moreover, Vauxhall was given leave to explore a three-box booted version of the design as a more direct Viva replacement.

The Vauxhall design studio, headed by Wayne Cherry, came up with some attractive proposals for the front end but these, along with the saloon derivative, progressed no further than the clay-model stage before being severely curtailed, then cancelled entirely. These proposals were, allegedly, casualties of the need to curtail growing costs associated with the FWD programme.

The Kadett D design was very much in the contemporary mould, with rather geometric lines and flat panels, somewhat like the 1974 VW Golf Mk1, but lacking that car’s delicacy of touch. It was actually rather more similar to the Chrysler Horizon, launched a year earlier. Despite its rather blunt appearance, the claimed Cd was 0.39, which was respectable for the time.

Instead of the distinctive saloon originally envisaged, there was a rather crudely engineered booted variant of the hatchback, with Alfasud-style exposed boot hinges. This did not have folding rear seats and the boot capacity was the same as the hatchback with the rear seats in place, so its practicality was severely compromised. At launch, there were six different bodystyles to choose from: two and four-door fastback saloons, three and five-door hatchbacks and three and five-door estates. One regrettable omission was a version to replace the very pretty Kadett C coupé.

The engine range at launch comprised a new OHC 1,297cc unit producing 59 or 74bhp and an OHV 1,196cc unit producing 53bhp which was carried over from the Kadett C. The latter was restricted to the entry-level E models. Added later to the range were 1,598cc 90bhp and 1,796cc fuel-injected 115bhp OHC engines, the latter reserved for the 1983 Kadett GSi and Astra GTE sporting versions. The GTE, in red or colour-keyed white, would become a firm favourite amongst the baseball-cap-on-backwards brigade. A 1.6 litre diesel was also offered, used mainly in a van version of the three-door estate, marketed under the Bedford name.

1982 Vauxhall Astra GTE (c) classics.honestjohn.co.uk

In its mechanical layout and specification, the Kadett D was a resolutely conventional FWD car, with an Isuzu-designed four-speed gearbox, MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension, front disc and rear drum brakes, and rack and pinion steering.

It had originally been intended that the Kadett and Astra would be launched simultaneously in August 1979. However, there was a prolonged industrial dispute at Vauxhall’s UK plants in the summer of that year. Tensions were further inflamed by news that the Astra would, initially at least, be imported from Germany and not be sold outside the UK. This led to rumours that GM was planning to close its UK plants. The dispute delayed the Astra’s launch until March 1980, by which time the unions had received assurances that both Luton and Ellesmere Port had a future. The first UK built Astra duly rolled off the Ellesmere Port production line in November 1981.

Autocar magazine had an opportunity to drive the new Kadett D at Opel’s Dudenhofen test track in September 1979. The testers found it to be entirely competent and class-competitive, if not outstanding in any area. The steering was good, if somewhat imprecise and low-geared. The gearchange was smooth, but a bit rubbery. At higher speeds, wind noise was quite noticeable but not unacceptable. The car rode well, albeit with some ‘bump-thump’ on poorer surfaces. Handling was safe and predictable, tending towards understeer when pushed hard.

The magazine wasn’t able to measure performance figures, but Opel indicated a 0 to 62mph time of 18.5 seconds for the 1.2 litre, 15.5 seconds for the 59bhp 1.3 litre, and 13.5 seconds for the 74bhp 1.3 litre. Claimed top speeds were 87mph, 91mph and 98mph respectively. These figures were again broadly competitive with its peers. Overall, the testers thought it a good car, but wondered how it would compare with ‘Erika’, the forthcoming and keenly anticipated FWD Escort Mk3.

Ultimately, they need not have worried too much: the Escort Mk3 was certainly a handsome and contemporary design but, at launch, it was found to have poorly resolved ride and damping as well as rough and thrashy engines. Not that this mattered much: despite its dynamic shortcomings, Ford’s marketing power quickly made the new Escort into a best seller and it won European Car of the Year in 1981.

Confusingly, both the Astra and Kadett were offered in competition with each other until the UK dealer network was rationalised, allowing the Opel cars to be phased out. The two and four-door saloon versions were unpopular and were discontinued in January 1982. The car was reliable, with only one notable problem, which was premature camshaft wear on the OHC engined versions.

1981 Opel Kadett D five-door estate (c) vibilagare.se

The Kadett D and Astra Mk1 had a relatively short production run of just five years. The 1984 replacement model used largely the same underpinnings but clothed in new ‘aero’ bodywork and remained on the market for over a decade.

A short life, indifference and terminal corrosion has seen the Kadett D and Astra Mk1 disappear completely from our streets, although there are still enthusiasts out there who cherish their GSi and GTE models. It was a wholly unremarkable car but deserves at least a footnote in automotive history, and this is it.

* The Manta B was available in both two and three-door variants from 1977 and the 1978 Monza was a three-door, but their coupé shape makes them liftbacks rather than hatchbacks.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

53 thoughts on “When Good Enough Just Wasn’t Enough”

  1. Good morning Daniel and thank you for a welcome blast from the past. In 1986 I took up a new job with which came my first company car. It was an Astra estate – but for a couple of weeks before it arrived I had a well-worn example of the earlier version. In fact a 5-door diesel version the same colour as the Opel illustrated above. Astronomical mileage and total lack of care notwithstanding, it struck me as a surprisingly competent piece of machinery and actually a quite pleasant drive. Damning with faint praise? Not really; as a ‘free’ perk it was one I could happily live with – as was my new one. But what strikes me now is what a pleasingly balanced shape that 5-door estate is (more so than the hatch) with every sign of having been designed with care about the details.

    1. Good morning JTC. I imagine that your experience of the Astra chimes with many owners and drivers. It was an honest and reliable workhorse but fell into the category of ‘automotive white goods’ precisely because of its practicality. It was a staple of many fleets and pounded the roads of Europe driven by sales people and service engineers. It didn’t help its image that the van version was simply a three-door estate with the rear side glazing replaced by metal panels. In contrast, the Escort Mk3 van had a completely different (and nicely executed) body aft of the windscreen so, name apart, was perceived as a different vehicle to the passenger car.

      A comparison between the Kadett D/ Astra and Escort Mk3 is instructive:

      At launch, the Escort was praised for its stylish design, with its crisp surfacing and the distinctive ‘bustle’ tail. However, the latter may have been dictated by its rather short wheelbase (2,393mm versus the Kadett D’s 2,514mm) to stop the rear overhang looking too heavy, and it compromised interior space and practicality somewhat. I would argue that the Kadett D is a better expression of the benefits of the hatchback configuration, and still a good looking car.

    2. At the risk of hijacking my own piece, here’s the Escort Mk3 van I mentioned above (with Escort RS wheels):

      That ‘opera’window behind the door is a really nice touch, especially in a commercial vehicle. Ford didn’t bother making any such effort with its dreary successor:

    3. i started vauxhall 1979 ellesmere port, ive just retired ,i have a fond affection the the mk1 astra my first car.i built the bodysides at e port my favorite colour was the 2 tone browns and cream..later on we even exported to japan it was a status to them to own a uk built car.fond memories .willnevetneverforget

    4. Hello and thanks for stopping by Andrew. Good of you to share your memories with us. I wish you well in your retirement – after the best part of 40 years, you’ve earned it…

    1. Good morning Huw. Logically, you’re right in that the Kadett D replaced the Kadett C and the Chevette was a variation of the latter. However, the switch to FWD coupled with a 119mm (almost 5″) stretch in the wheelbase made the Kadett D/Astra Mk1 a notably larger and more spacious car than its predecessor.

      In any event, the Chevette was facelifted and the Viva killed off when the Kadett D/Astra was launched in 1979. The Chevette continued in production for another five years until 1984 as Vauxhall’s supermini challenger and was effectively replaced by the 1982 Corsa A/Nova.

    2. The first new car I ever bought, and the most unreliable car I have ever owned thus far. Rubbish would be a fair description and I have never bought another Vauxhall as a result.

  2. I feel like a 2-door would have sold like hot cakes, (though probably more if it had been RWD).
    The Nova/Corsa saloon however had terrible proportions, as did the Kadett-e ‘Belmont’

    1. My memory playing tricks then – in my mind one just replaced the other with no overlaps Viva>Chevette>Astra. Interesting the Chevette remained as the supermini – far bigger than a Polo / Fiesta / Sunbeam?

    2. That’s very nice, lovely proportions. Now you’ve got me thinking about how a Kadett D coupé might have looked! Time for some photoshopping!

      Regarding the Chevette’s size, its RWD layout would have made it little more roomy inside than many FWD superminis. Its overall length was 3,945mm versus 3,655mm for the VW Polo Mk2, to cite one example. As a better indicator of interior space, the wheelbases were much closer, at 2,395mm vs 2,335mm.

    3. I extended the wheelbase by about 2″. A Coupé would be lovely – let’s see it!

    4. Huw, your Kadett two-door saloon reminded me strongly of something in its proportions and stance, but I couldn’t recall what…until now:

      That’s a compliment to your design eye and Photoshop skills. The E21 is a favourite of mine.

    5. The E21 surely wasn’t the best BMW design could deliver and it took a lot of criticism for its chubby looks, particularly in direct comparison with the 02 predecessor. Its ‘baboon’ bum’ rear (Paul G. Hahnemann’s words) of the original version without the black ribbed panel between the rear lights was particularly bad.

  3. What a delight to see again, the Astra/Kadett along with a very nice synopsis, thank you Daniel. The side pictures of the two rivals shows to these eyes how lovely the Opel was against the Blue Oval, the three door being even more agreeable. I guess the power of British Ford was considerably stronger than that of Vauxhall’s sales.
    A belated happy “fotty -ieth “ birthday, Opel Kadett. You might not have been good enough but I’ll always hold a candle for you.

  4. I think the kadett “D” is back in style! To my eyes a very rational and detailed design covered through simplicity.
    Thanks Daniel for a mice article.

  5. Thanks, Constantinos.

    I was going to attempt a Kadett D Coupé, but got distracted, wondering what the Escort Mk3 might have looked like if Ford had gone for a longer wheelbase (like the kadett D) and dispensed with the ‘bustle’. Here’s what I came up with, the original, then the altered car for comparison:


    1. Original


    2. Bustle removed.

    1. Car design is holistic – or gestalt as the Germans say. On the revised version the front wing now looks wrong. If I was to suggest a remedy, I´d consider moving the front windscreen forward by a small amount or move the front wheel backwards a tiny bit.
      It´s nice to see the Kadett getting its moment in the sun. I agree that the estate is especially pleasing – in fact the whole car is a satisfactory bit of design. The later Escort eschews all curves and the Kadett has a few subtle ones such as the radii on the DLO and the general outline of the DLO. It is also sensitive to model version. Upper range Escorts look quite pleasing but the base models are soviet; even Kadett base models have an acceptability to the them and they just get nice and nicer up the range.
      Autocar tested the Kadett against riveals in December 1979. The minute I saw Daniel´s item I rooted out my copy of this edition of AutoCar. The Kadett they tested was the 1.3 LS. “Prime features are eagerness of engine, the excellent gearchange, good steering and easy, predictable steering”. They didn´t like the engine noise level and awkward self-lock tailgate. And the choke was tricky on coldstarts. As Archie Vicar says, just sit in the car and have smoke and rev the engine until you´ve finished your Craven “A”.
      They didn´t test a Ford.
      The Golf was given full marks across the board – “near the top of the group whatever aspect is considered” Its main demerit was fuel consumption (also 1.3)
      The journos had a space for their personal view: the Kadett “impressed with its really thorogh development”; “… a complete cars… with nice, precise handling and good performance”. Someone else rated the Renault 14 higher but agreed that VW´s “Golf” and Opel´s Kadett “please most with the practicality of their design”. One writer thought the Kadett good but anonymous.
      My view is that Opel´s biggest weakness is in the realm of marketing and brand management. Objectively, they´ve always fielded decent cars but always failed to sprinkle enough magic on them to create the goodwill that the “Golf” and Escort have. From a design point of view, the Kadett is a delight to look at (and it doesn´t hurt that it evokes pleasant memories of West Germany´s brighte side).

    2. The 1981 Ford Laser in Australia & NZ seems a fairly close approximation to this photoshop IMO

    3. Good morning Jack. Yes, it does look quite similar to the Laser, effectively a Mazda 323 with Ford badging and slightly altered nose and tail:

      The similarity between the Escort Mk3 and 323 was such that Ford allegedly forced Mazda to remove the third light in the C-pillar for export five-door cars:

    4. Note the 323/Laser wheelbase is even shorter at 2365mm, they were not spacious cars!

    1. Try bringing the corner of the bustle down to be aligned with the DLO. I think as it is is looks to in betweeny. It looks like a bump. Or else thin the C-pillar so the bustle is clearer. That said I like the concept and I am only fussing over the last 1%. Do you think the roofline needs to begin falling from the b-pillar backwards (just a tad?)

    2. By the way, the overall proportions are very pleasing. It´s very taut, and well-positioned. I hope this article helps people see Opel in a new light.
      The thing that did it for me was Georg Kacher´s drive of the Monza in Car magazine (June 1978, I think). It´s an eye-opener.

    3. Correction: Car magazine, March 1981, p.62 “Opel´s buried treasure – Georg Kacher drives the revised Monza, Opel´s biggest coupé, and says it´s too cheap for its own good”.
      The same edition tested the Astra estate against the Peugeot 305 and Citroen GSA. Wow. Three very different cars in that class.
      They said about the Astra: “Firm springing gives sharp, precise handling. In performance it scores over the other two. The automatic choke starts the fiert 1.3 S engine promptly. Pushed the through the gears it can out run the others. Marginally the biggest stowage space with a 9.4 cwt payload. Spacious in the front although a high brake pedal could cause problems and finding gears is sometimes hard. Otherwise the controls are good. Seating is harder than the other two but anatomically designed, is perhaps the most comfortable. … best for nippy loadcarrying, efficient, economical and spacious”: They concluded it was the most entertaining to drive but lacked the versatility of the the Peugeot and the character of the peaceful Citroen. Hey ho, the more things change…

    4. Always interesting looking back at contemporary road tests (this one is GSA vs Astra vs R14). They thought that the Astra was fine, but that the R14 was a good compromise between the Astra and Citroën.

      Citroen GSA Pallas - Renault 14 TS & Vauxhall Astra GL MK1 Group Road Test 1980 (1)
  6. Hi Richard. Well observed on your part. I did think my revised design did look a bit too ‘cab-backward’ but wasn’t sure how to correct it. Here are my altered version and your suggestion, with the front wheel moved rearward, for comparison:


    2. Bustle removed.


    3. Bustle removed and front wheel moved slightly rearward.

    Good call, that’s definitely an improvement!

    1. Can you label them? I am beginning to find it hard to tell which is which. What you may notice is how the car is morphing away from the orginal with its very squared, internally consistent, blocky feeling (that´s not criticsm) to something more (slightly) pointy, dynamic, fluid?

  7. More work on the Astra D Coupé:


    2. Bustle removed.


    3. Bustle removed and slimmer C-pillar

    I didn’t want to take too much width out of the C-pillar as I think it adds strength to a coupé design and the lower half of the car is already quite deep. The last iteration is quite pleasing, but aerodynamics might dictate the addition of a rear spoiler. It might look nice with an inset rear window in the tailgate (which might help aerodynamics and negate the need for a spoiler).

    1. The last one looks like the real thing. I think the roofline needs to fall about a centimetre from just above the B pillar. Still, jolly nice and it might not be needed in three dimensions.

  8. Another interesting article, thank you Daniel. It did make me wonder whether you could hang on to the text for a few years, substitute car models and dates and you would have yourself a ready-written article about those Jaguar saloons we were thinking about on Thursday, including the title.

    1. Hi Adrian, and thank you. Oh dear, I hope I never find myself referring to any Jaguar as ‘wholly unremarkable’ but you’re right, the XE comes dangerously close to the ‘automotive-white goods’ dismissal.

  9. Hi Richard. Another iteration, roofline dropping slightly from B-pillar rearward:


    4. Roof lowered slightly from B-pillar rearward

    1. Photoshoping a Coupe out of a Kadett D. How useless. Marvellous.
      You. Guys. Are. Crazy!
      What a privilege to be here.

    2. Thanks, Fred, that’s a real compliment, and much appreciated!

  10. Great article – thank you.

    I like the Kadett / Astra’s design, but it strikes me as being quite a serious one and it looks slightly sinister with round headlights. On the other hand, it was available with some nice alloys and trim options.

    1981 Vauxhall Astra 1200S Mk1

    I’m amazed they bothered launching it with a boot – there were plenty of hatches showing the way in its segment, early on in its development – Golf, Simca 1100, Renault 14, etc.

    I had a look at some of the ads from its launch – one for the German market and one for the UK. The German ad features 5 friends on a picnic, although I think the music used is a bit over-dramatic.

    The UK one is simpler, translating (not very) technical jargon in to everyday language.

    1. Hi Charles. Thank you for your kind words and glad you enjoyed the piece. Thanks also for the videos and photo. I really think GME shot itself in the foot somewhat with those round headlamps on the base models. They scream poverty, especially the way they are recessed (in two steps) in the sloping front end and make the indicators look like they’re not fitting properly. The additional cost of the custom rectangular units cannot have been great, so the round units should have been only used on the van version.

  11. I always wondered what was going on in the heads or Opel’s product planners at that time.
    First they gave us the awful Kadett C City as a knee jerk reaction to the Golf and when they launched a car to take the Golf head on a full model generation later they came around with a car with a conventional boot and design like Lego experiments of a primary school kid. That this version was available at all is testimony to the utter conservatism of the typical Opel customer.

    I remember well a comparison test in ‘auto motor und sport’ between Kadett D GTE and Golf Mk1 GTI.
    The Kadett did everything worse than the Golf and won the test nevertheless because it was avilable with five doors. As an immediate reaction VW made a five door GTI available and the magaine wrote that had it been available in such form at the time of the test it would have won it clearly…

    1. You really don´t like Opel, do you? The period tests from the UK show a decent, competitive car. It is hard to see the car as any blockier than contemporary designs. It´s not the best car in the world but it´s a long way from rubbbish.

    2. AutoMotorSport, another word for bias and advantage. I just pretend that they never really did “Tests”, even if it looked and was presented that way.
      Already at the end of the 70s I could no longer take them seriously, even if I had wanted to.

  12. I had one of the last of the ‘D’ models, an ’84 1200cc 4-door, which I bought around 1990. The good thing about the 4-door was that it had cross-bracing behind the rear seat, to stiffen the shell – but inevitably by the time the car was a few years old the steel would have cracked and hopefully been welded up again as on mine.
    Early RHD models had very heavy brakes because they left the master cylinder and servo on the left and put a steel bar across to the brake pedal. On later cars they up-rated the servo on RHD models to compensate.
    UK built Astras suffered from not having German electrics, so they couldn’t match the Kadett for reliability. One of the best features was the ability to change the clutch without removing the gearbox – if you could borrow the correct tools to pull the mainshaft out of the end you could drop the clutch through a hatch under the bellhousing. The entire job took 30 – 40 minutes.
    I always thought these cars should have won ‘Car of the Year’ , an award that was instead given to the the miserable looking Kadett ‘E’

  13. Excellent article Daniel and some interesting photoshops. Not sure the Coupe version would have been worth the expense to produce it, though there again, it could have been produced rather than the pointless exposed hinge saloon versions.
    The Astra did replace the Viva in the UK as the Chevette soldiered on till 1984 and was actually exported to Germany from 1979 to 81, minus the Vauxhall badges, to fill the demand for rear wheel drive and a smaller cheaper car till the arrival of the Corsa A (Nova).
    It would have been interesting to see how the Astra would have fared sales wise if GM had sorted their marketing out earlier in the UK and announced a full range of Astras 12 months before Escort Mk3, rather than just the GL hatch and L estate. Given Vauxhall’s resurgence following Chevette and Cavalier, it could have given the Escort a much closer run. The Kadett could never hope to compete, still regarded as a German car and a much smaller Opel dealer network.

    1. Hi Ayjay. Thank you and glad you enjoyed the piece. You’re absolutely right, Vauxhall should have had a full year to establish the Astra in the UK with a complete range of models, and without competition and confusion from the Kadett, before the Escort Mk3 appeared. Instead, GME’s brainless marketing and labour unrest hobbled its launch and threw away its advantage.

      Interestingly, the 12,332 Chevettes sold in Germany through Opel dealerships in 1980 and 1981 carried no marque badging at all, just the Chevette model name. Here’s a contemporary advertisement that shows the (lack of) badging:

      The Kadett/Astra coupé probably wouldn’t have justified the investment, but we like our alternative realities here at DTW!

  14. Yes, keep the photoshops coming, Daniel. It reminds me of a misspent youth, pre-internet, doodling on newspaper and magazine adverts trying to improve on the designer’s pride and joy. I was also a member of the Vauxhall Craftsman Guild which invited youngsters to design a car of the future and then make a model of it. I had plenty of designs, but my model making skills (or lack of) meant I never actually submitted an entry. No matter – every year, members were invited to view the winners, inspect the new model year of Vauxhall cars and have a factory tour. A car mad schoolboy’s dream.
    The Astra 2 door rendition looks a much better option than the compromise GM went with. That decision was all the more surprising given other manufacturers had seen that the Golf had proved hatchback was the way to go in that market sector and set about re-engineering their 2 box saloons (Alfasud, Citroen GSA). Poor old cash strapped BL had to soldier on with the Allegro for a number of years, but that rear window probably ruled out a cost effective revision.
    Not sure if the 3 box treatment would have suited the 4 door Astra/Kadett – maybe it’s time I looked into this photoshopping game.

    1. Hi Ayjay. Thank you and, yes, I will keep offering alternative reality models for your delectation. Creating them saves me from having to do something useful instead!

      Regarding the Allegro, that heavily curved rear window, together with the odd change of profile at the base of the C-pillars, would probably have made incorporating a hatch tricky. However, Photoshop doesn’t have to worry about such things, so:

      Sadly, I cannot take credit for this rather nice effort. It belongs to the very nice Mr Keith Adams over at AROnline.co.uk and I hope he doesn’t mind me borrowing it!

    2. Indeed it does, Charles, but the competition would have been far beyond my meagre design capabilities. In fine meddling with other people’s work, but haven’t the imagination to design anything from scratch. I’d have been the poor sap in the design team stuck with facelifts!

    3. The quality of the modelling is staggering, quite apart from the designs themselves.

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