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?