A look back to Vauxhall’s mid-’70s upmarket ambitions.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on DTW on 11 November 2017.
As automotive industry analysts ponder the fate of Opel / Vauxhall in the wake of the PSA 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 the Griffin (c) 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 1970s, when just such a move was being actively pursued.
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 that of its Rüsselsheim equivalent, the FE retained the faint transatlantic appearance which characterised its design themes 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.
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 and torque, (115 bhp and 125 lb ft) meant it was no ball of fire, nor was the handling reputed to be all it could have been.
By the latter part of the ’70s, time ran out for the VX-series: with both the 1978 V-4 Carlton / Viceroy and larger Royale models becoming stylistic priorities within Wayne 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 versions.
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?
16 thoughts on “A Luton Brougham”
My very first thought on beholding the lead shot of the VX Prestige was that it resembled an XJ40! This probably says more about the Jaguar’s protracted lead time and the angle the photo was taken from than anything else, but still… Nevertheless the Senator/Commodore of a red years later was a handsome thing, and was definitely the way to go.
(As a rather off topic aside, I saw an early XJ40 parked up yesterday, and I think time has been kind to it: to my eyes there’s an integrity to the boxy design that was lost as the car evolved. It somehow disguises its slightly odd proportions much better than the X350 did.)
Interesting Michael, as my thoughts were more of US styles, circa ’68! Though of course that could also fit in with the protracted lead time…
To my eyes I get vibes of Holden mixed with a bit of Peugeot 604 (in the frontal aspect).
Frankly, I see shades of Audi in the nose, the rest does have an Holden feel to it. As Daniel and the article itself conclude: probably for the best, although I really like Vauxhalls and Opels from that era. Their styling proposals were really ambitious too, imagine this becoming the HD Viva:
Can’t agree on theX350. To me, it’s the ultimate incarnation of the XJ, before they decided to ruin it in 2009, with the bland nondescript X351, then scrap it altogether, entirely due to their own abandon of Jaguar design. I do agree with you on the XJ40 however. I wasn’t too impressed on the launch, but later realised it was purely a case of nobody knowing how to photograph it.
I would say that maintaining 2 brands right now is much easier than in the past. Opel and Vauxhall cars are identical besides the badges. All of their marketing material, branding is quite similar (website etc.). With modern digital tech they don’t have to create separate ads for both brands, they can digitally change badge without any problem. I would go further as to unify everything besides logo, name, and brand accent color (red for Vauxhall and yellow for Opel). Cost of maintaining 2 brand would be minuscule, but brand recognition would still play positively for British Vauxhall.
Overall I noticed that Opel was master of “white label” cars for GM. Whereas Opel brand was mostly popular only in Europe, their cars were sold as Chevy, Daewoo, Cadillac, Buick, Saturn, Holden or Isuzu…. A lot of “global” GM cars where actually created in Germany by Opel. It’s good material for an article.
Not too long ago when you passed the Opel factory and looked at its railway station you could see car transporters filled with Cadillacs and others built in Rüsselsheim for ‘worldwide consumption’.
With faint tears of regret, I see the possibility in the VX Prestige of an effective mid ’70sfacelift to assert the FE’s place as a Granada competitor. It could have worked, with the Opel 2.5 and 2.8 litre sixes, and a V8 headline-maker. Filling those wheel arches helps a lot too.
I’m puzzled that the nose had to be extended to take the Opel six, given that the similarly proportioned British six fitted. And why the 2.5, when the 2.8 was available? Opel liked to keep the best engines for their own, even in the Senator / Royale era.
As mentioned the other day, the VX Prestige is not only a visual improvement over the FE but also looks like a straightforward development of the Rekord D.
One of the things that is perplexing about Vauxhall would be while they were developing the Slant Four derived Vauxhall V8 (along with looking at Holden and possibly Chevrolet V8s), they seemed to had little to no plans to replace their 3.3 Bedford Straight-6 with a suitable Six of their own as an alternative to the Opel CiH Six. Let alone looked at what was in the engine cupboard at GM’s other non-Opel divisions, it be the recently bought back Buick V6 or upcoming Chevrolet V8-based GM 90-degree V6 or an earlier equivalent of the GM 60-degree V6 that would have likely put out competitive outputs in non-US emissions spec (the difference between the Essex / Cologne V6s by Ford depending on which side of the Atlantic they were sold comes to mind).
Was that simply an oversight on Vauxhall’s part (if not an overconfident belief the Vauxhall V8 could replace the Bedford Six) or a symptom of Vauxhall’s problems at the time before their forced integration with Opel due to their financial issues (instead of it being a more organic process)?
Reading the articke I wondered how much effort it took the Luton design office to create the Royale from Senator by sticking on an even weirder grille and moving the rear number plate to the bumper.
Did Vauxhall ever have intentions in direction of a true upmarket contender in parallel to Opel’s KAD barges?
At least for me (and seemingly for a lot of poential customers, too) the Senator isn’t truly upmarket but just a six cylinder Rekord with the IRS the Rekord should have hade from start. It took them some time to recognize it but after the Senator got four cylinder engines and diesels it was just that: a posh Rekord.
Truly upmarket competitors like BMW and Mercedes didn’t differentiate their four and six cylinder versions of the same model. Only wannabes needed Senators and Audi 200s decorated with questionable taste to boast about their bigger engines.
“I wondered how much effort it took the Luton design office to create the Royale from Senator by sticking on an even weirder grille and moving the rear number plate to the bumper.”
Well, it worked tremendously well for the Chevette and Mk.1 Cavalier, without which the Vauxhall brand would have been consigned to history long ago.
The Royale / Viceroy grille even looks like a Holden part, but probably isn’t. The UK-destined Senator A dropped the Royale title in 1983 with the extirpation of the Opel brand – except, briefly, for the Manta and Monza A2 – and became a Vauxhall Senator.
The Senator competed quite effectively with the Granada and Rover SD1, albeit that a large proportion of UK Senator Bs started their lives in uniform.
I always thought the Royale grille was a modern reinterpretation of the historic Vauxhall grille pattern:
As to the VX Prestige, I’m not sure it would have been worth the effort trying to update an ageing design which was not an especially distinguished one in the first place.
Why should Vauxhall’s future not be bright. The cost of rebranding an Opel to a Vauxhall is small and there is still a following for the British name, much more so than for Opel. Contemplating a large saloon is obviously ridiculous. Vauxhall today is simply an alternative for people who won’t buy a Ford. With the move to EV’s everything is to play for. VW seem to be throwing their advantage away with ugly mediocre models. Of course the German premiums remain as invincible as ever given their relative merits and cheap as chips deals but most things in life change and evolve. Perhaps the demise of the ICE, just as with nuclear modular technology we will see smaller being possible.
Opel-Vauxhall’s resurgence has been design-led, based on reinterpreting Opel design cues from the past, funnily enough. Ultimately, what one sells is more important than what it’s called – just ask Kia or Hyundai.
On the subject of posh Vauxhalls, I came across this link on Vauxpedia, recently. It shows their thinking in the mid-‘60s, including a facelift proposal for Rekord C, towards the bottom of the page.
Apologies if this has been mentioned in one of the other articles, but last week also marked the end of Vauxhall Astra production in Britain: https://cardealermagazine.co.uk/publish/last-vauxhall-astra-rolls-off-production-line-at-ellesmere-port-as-plant-readies-for-switch-to-ev-manufacturing/259562
The plant will be refitted to produce electric-only versions of the small van, and its passenger counterparts, labelled as the Citroen Berlingo, Peugeot Partner/Rifter, Opel/Vauxall Combo (and possibly Toyota ProAce City). The IBC plant at Luton continues to be one production site of the medium van, the Opel/Vauxhall Vivaro, Citroen Dispatch and Peugeot Expert.
The Vauxhall Corsa was Britain’s top-selling car last year; 2021 market share for the Vauxhall brand was (SMMT data) 5.55% which makes it the seventh most-sold nameplate last year. Citroen’s UK market share was 1.83% (18th) and Peugeot’s was 3.71% (11th), although in both cases their actual sales were about +7% on 2020 whereas Vauxhall was -4.18%. This does not necessarily reflect profitability of each brand, of course.
For interest: Abarth (33rd) and DS (32nd) each had a 0.14% share of the UK market, Jeep had 0.27% (30th) and Fiat 1.22% (23rd). Alfa Romeo’s share was 0.1% of the market (36th), and cars sold were -25.3%, to 1574 cars but Maserati managed an increase of 30.77%, to 765 cars (39th; 0.05% of the market).
The comment regarding the UK preference of German brands is borne out by market shares: Audi 7.16 (2nd), BMW 7.08% (3rd), Mercedes-Benz 5.95% (6th), Volkswagen 8.97% and the market leader with 147826 cars. German home market share of Opel is 6.2% (5th); is there really much to be gained by swapping the UK badges and fully rebranding? Maybe if they repositioned it upmarket then a full relaunch as Opel would make sense. Otherwise it’s probably best left alone for now.
Quick comparison of French market share: Peugeot 17.2% (1st), Citroen 9.8% (3rd), Opel 2.3% (14th), Fiat 2.4% (13th), DS (20th). In Europe as a whole, Peugeot was the second-best selling brand (VW was top) and the other mainstream brands were closer: Opel/Vauxhall in 12th spot, immediately followed by Fiat and then Citroen.
The Lancia Ypsilon was 27th most popular car in Europe last year, despite being on sale in Italy alone. It outsold the European DS range by 1017 units.
UK figures: SMMT. EU figures: https://www.best-selling-cars.com/
Hello Tom – thank you for posting that – it was news to me. It seems strange to me that the event received so little publicity, even in the specialist media.