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.
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).
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.
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.
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.