A tale of two half-sisters.
US multinational corporations are often caricatured as having a heavy-handed We Know Best approach to managing their overseas businesses. In the automotive industry, however, the opposite appears to have been the case, at least historically. Over the course of the twentieth century, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler all built up substantial European operations, either through acquisition or organic growth. Not only did these corporations allow their European businesses to operate with a high degree of autonomy from Detroit, they were also markedly reluctant to force them to cooperate or integrate across European borders and instead allowed them to continue as national fiefdoms for a long time.
The reasons for this were largely to do with historic enmities between European countries, particularly in the wake of the Second World War. It suited Ford well for its UK customers to regard the Cortina as a quintessentially British car while, across the Channel, the equivalent Taunus was perceived as wholly Germanic. It was only in 1976 when the Cortina Mk4 and Taunus TC2 were launched that the two finally became one in all respects other than their model names, and this final distinction was eliminated with the launch of the Sierra in 1982.
Chrysler was equally reluctant to walk Rootes Group and Simca up the aisle. When eventually it did so and rebranded the cars as Chryslers, neither British nor French customers were particularly impressed by the only vaguely familiar new marque name. When Peugeot took over the ailing operation in 1978, they rebranded it Talbot on the basis that this marque was supposedly perceived as British in the UK and French in mainland Europe. The venture was, of course, an abject failure.
General Motors faced a similar dilemma with Vauxhall and Opel, acquired in 1925 and 1931 respectively. There followed half a century of prevarication before the two companies’ model ranges were finally fully integrated with the launch in 1982 of the Opel Rekord E2 and facelifted Carlton Mk1(1).
That model’s predecessors were the 1971 Opel Rekord D and 1972 Vauxhall Victor FE. These two cars shared a considerable amount under the skin, including their floorpan, but were each given completely different styling and shared no external body panels.
The Rekord D styling was styled by Hideo Kodama, overseen by American Charles ‘Chuck’ Jordan, Opel’s Design Director from 1967 to 1970, and it stands as one of their finest pieces of work. It was a clean and handsome car, with unadorned flanks containing just a subtle horizontal crease between the elliptical wheel arches, which added visual length and a degree of tension to the bodysides. The front and rear light units were smoothly integrated into the surrounding bodywork, those at the front bookending a separate forward-canted grille. The rear quarter panel flowed seamlessly up into the C-pillar and roof, an elegant and expensive looking treatment.
The Rekord D was available in saloon, estate and coupé variants, all equally handsome and finely resolved, with slim pillars and a large glass area. In base form, the Rekord had minimal exterior brightwork and looked most striking in this guise, as it showed off the sculptural qualities of the design to best effect. The more upmarket Commodore variants actually looked rather fussy by comparison, with side rubbing strips, bright trims around the wheel arches, extra brightwork across the rear panel and a vinyl roof adding unnecessary visual clutter and distracting attention away from its beautiful detailing. One such detail is the manner in which a crease in the rear quarter panel is perfectly concentric with the radiused corner of the boot lid shut-line above the rear light unit. It is a delight to behold.
The interior treatment, while perhaps austere to some eyes, is an object lesson in simplicity and functionality. Three large dials sit under a deeply hooded cowl directly in front of the driver, below which are rotary switches for the lights and wipers on the left and slide controls for the heater on the right. The hazard light switch is an illuminated push-button on top of the steering column, while the remaining secondary controls are on a solitary column stalk.
The Rekord D has all the hallmarks of a clean-sheet design executed with great skill and confidence and without compromise. Jordan spent three highly successful years at Opel before returning to Detroit, ultimately to succeed Irvin Rybicki as GM’s Vice President of Design in 1986.
If the Rekord D was the product of an uncompromised and singular vision, the Victor FE was quite the opposite. Its predecessor, the 1966 Victor FD, had been rendered in the highly fashionable ‘coke-bottle’ style popularised in the mid to late-1960s by GM. This had been well received in the market, so the initial work on its successor, which began in early 1968, attempted to retain this styling trope and marry it to new front and rear-end treatments.
The Vauxhall Design department was headed by British Design Director David Jones. Designer Leo Pruneau, assisted by fellow American David North, was given responsibility for the FE before North returned to the US and was replaced by Wayne Cherry. Early design sketches for the FE looked like an FD with new front and rear end treatments reminiscent of contemporary US Pontiac models. They showed little worthwhile stylistic progression over the FD. The large number of different design treatments(2) proposed and rejected before the production design was settled upon is indicative of the lack of a clear vision for the FE.
As the work progressed, the coke-bottle waistline gradually evolved into a downward curving arc between the A and C-pillars, which was then flattened out to leave just an upward curve at either end. How much cross-pollination of ideas there was between the Opel and Vauxhall design teams is a moot point, but the Victor FE, by coincidence or intention, ended up looking broadly similar to its Russelsheim half-sister.
The devil is, as always, in the detail, and this is where the Victor compares poorly with the Rekord. At the front end, instead of the Rekord’s bespoke large headlamp units with integral indicators behind a single glass lens, the Victor had to make do with small rectangular headlights from the HC Viva and a separate plastic indicator unit, surrounded by a wide bright metal bezel in a futile attempt to make the assembly look more size-appropriate to the car.
The imbalance was exacerbated by a large and deep V-shaped (in plan view) front grille that was bisected by the bumper. The car’s bonnet had diagonal flutes either side of a raised centre section that were meant to invoke memories of much earlier Vauxhall models(3), a reference that was lost on almost all observers. These flutes accounted for the otherwise inexplicable ‘bites’ out of the upper corners of the grille surround.
The flanks were commendably clean, but there was an awkward junction at the base of the A-pillar, where a wide horizontal door shut-line failed to align with the downward sloping base of the DLO. The trailing-edge shut-line on the rear door also abutted the drip-rail on the C-pillar rather awkwardly. Unlike the Rekord, which had different rear doors on the estate version, the Victor had to make do with the saloon’s doors, so the rear side window was visually separated from the rest of the DLO. This was not a problem in itself, but the forward inclination of the C-pillar forced a much faster slope on the tailgate, which robbed the estate of load capacity and practicality.
Overall, the Victor FE had a somewhat brash and Americanised demeanour that did not sit well with European tastes. Vauxhall tacitly acknowledged the US influences by calling the new model the Transcontinental (although Transatlantic might have been a more accurate descriptor) in its advertising. It didn’t help that it was launched in January 1972, just a month after the Rekord D, which had been warmly received by the automotive press.
The Victor FE was not exactly ugly, but it was notably less well resolved than the Rekord and lacked that car’s understated elegance. Part of this, for example the use of off-the-shelf headlamps(4) and shared rear doors, might have been caused by budget constraints(5) but, if that were the case, why didn’t Vauxhall simply adopt the superior Record D design wholesale? Built in Luton, with Vauxhall badges and drivetrains, it would have made a perfectly acceptable Victor. Presumably, corporate pride prevented this at the time but, less than a decade later, all Vauxhalls would be designed in Russelsheim.
Author’s note: I am indebted to Christopher Butt for the detail photos of the Rekord D above. Further analysis of the qualities of the Rekord D may be found on Christopher’s own Auto Didakt automotive design website.
(1) The 1978 Carlton Mk1 with its Droop-Snoot front end was the last Vauxhall to have different sheet-metal to its Opel equivalent. Subsequent models differed only in trim and badging.
(2) The Vauxpedia website is a valuable resource for viewing these drawings and much more Vauxhall-related material.
(3) The front wings of the 1957 F-Series Victor featured similar flutes, the last Vauxhall previously to do so.
(4) The Victor finally received custom one-piece headlamp units in January 1976 when it was heavily revised and renamed the VX.
(5) Vauxhall’s financial condition was deteriorating during the development of the Victor FE. The company posted a £2.1 million loss in 1969, followed by a £9.4 million loss in 1970. The latter figure is equal to £155 million today.