Fine cars, but victims of badge snobbery?
Half a century ago, there was still a place in the European car market for large saloons from mainstream automakers. These typically offered excellent value for money by being more spacious and better equipped than similarly priced cars from what are now referred to as premium marques. BMW and Mercedes-Benz(1) in particular facilitated their would-be competitors by offering entry-level specifications that included all the features and comforts of a mediaeval prison cell. Air-conditioning, alloy wheels and even a radio were all expensive options. What you got was finely engineered, certainly, but there was little or nothing to surprise or delight most potential buyers(2) in either marque’s lower-order cars.
In August 1977, Ford and GM Europe went head-to-head by unveiling on successive days their new contenders in this market segment. The Granada Mk2 was a very clever reskin of the by then slightly chintzy and dated looking Mk1(3). GM Europe’s response was not one but three(4) new models; the Rekord E and Senator A saloons and the Monza A coupé(5). In terms of size, the Rekord and Senator neatly bookended the Granada: their overall lengths were 4,595mm and 4,810mm (181″ and 189½”) respectively, compared with the Granada at 4,720mm (185¾”). The Granada had the longest wheelbase, however: at 2,769mm (109″), it was 84mm (3½”) longer than even that of the Senator.
We have previously looked at the Granada Mk2 and Rekord E, so today we will take a look at the Senator and Monza. The former was a large and assertive looking saloon, with a crisp six-light DLO and a sharply geometric bodystyle. The latter was a three-door fastback coupé that shared the Senator’s front end but was completely different from the A-pillar rearwards, with a more steeply raked windscreen, frameless door windows, broad B-pillars and a large liftback tailgate.
Both cars were designed under Henry ‘Hank’ Haga, formerly Chief of Design for the Chevrolet 2/3 studio from 1963 to 1974 where he was responsible for styling the Corvette and Camaro. Inside, the Senator and Monza were spacious and luxuriously trimmed with fashionable velour upholstery in a range of inviting hues.
The cars were underpinned by a revised version of GM’s rear-wheel-drive V Platform, developed by Opel and first used on the 1966 Rekord C. Suspension was by MacPherson struts with an anti-roll bar at the front and an independent semi-trailing arm arrangement at the rear, where a box-section subframe on heavy rubber mounts carried both it and the differential, to reduce noise and vibration transmitted to the cabin. The rear coil springs were conical and of variable thickness, to allow them to compress progressively without the coils touching each other, so reducing the height needed to accommodate them.
The engine range initially comprised Opel’s straight-six cam-in-head units in 2.8-litre carburettor and 3.0-litre fuel-injected forms. The latter produced maximum power of 178bhp (132kW) and torque of 183 lb ft (248Nm). Transmission was either by a Getrag four or five-speed manual gearbox or Opel’s own three-speed automatic. A zero to 100km/h (62mph) time of 8.5 seconds and top speed of 215km/h (134mph) were claimed for the 3.0-litre model.
Car magazine was sufficiently impressed by the new models to feature the Senator on the front cover of its June 1978 issue with the tagline “Bullseye! The General goes luxury – and it’s very bad news for BMW, Rover and Mercedes.” Journalist Mel Nichols continued the praise inside, describing the car as having “a powerful and responsive engine, fast and accurate steering(6), impeccable and pleasing handling, strong and progressive brakes; a car that does exactly as its driver asks, cleanly and satisfyingly.” When not being pushed hard, the Senator was “remarkably relaxed, its body motion beautifully controlled, its suspension impressively capable.”
Nichols was equally effusive about the Senator’s styling, describing it as having “…individuality but pure elegance as well. Hank Haga proportioned the Senator beautifully and detailed it superbly.” He regarded the Senator as more authoritative and prestigious looking than the BMW 7 Series, Peugeot 604, Ford Granada, Rover 3500 and Audi 100. High praise indeed.
The Senator CD was very well-equipped, with air-conditioning, heated front seats, height-adjustable driver’s seat, tinted glass, electric windows in the front doors, alloy wheels, headlamp washers, remote electric boot lock and a radio-cassette player. The fully-instrumented dashboard, while simply and clearly laid out, was “less Teutonic” (read less austere) than its German rivals. The cabin was described as only “reasonably spacious” however, perhaps compromised somewhat by a relatively short wheelbase for such a large car.
If the handling was impressive, the ride and refinement were even more so and were compared favourably to “that paragon, the [Peugeot] 604” in this regard. At motorway speeds, there was “no windnoise of note” and only a degree of engine harshness at high revs to disturb the calm inside.
Nichols concluded, admittedly on the basis of his drive of the Senator in isolation, that it was “a rather better car than either the 528i or 280E” and possibly “more impressive than even the BMW flagship, the 733i” in that “it better blends the compromise between sportiness, comfort and refinement more skilfully.”
On the basis of Nichol’s glowing report, the Senator should have wiped the floor with the opposition, but his assessment ignored the elephant in the room, badge snobbery and blind prejudice. Opel, like Ford, had a resolutely blue-collar image and struggled to achieve conquest sales from more prestigious marques. Buyers might trade up to a Senator or Monza, but rarely traded down to one.
In June 1981, a 2.5-litre fuel-injected engine replaced the 2.8-litre carburettor unit. The Senator and Monza received their only major revision in November 1982(7) when both were given a new, smoother front end with a shallower grille and headlamps in place of the rather cliff-like original. Body-coloured semi-integrated polycarbonate bumper shields front and rear replaced the chromed steel originals. These apparently minor revisions dramatically improved the previously unimpressive drag coefficient of 0.45 to a more competitive 0.36. Inside, new, larger instruments were fitted in an altered dashboard and there were other minor trim changes. The revisions successfully freshened up the cars, and previously flagging sales picked up noticeably.
Car magazine tested the revised Senator in July 1984, again in 3.0-litre fuel-injected form. The car’s strengths remained largely the same as before; excellent ride and handling coupled with high levels of standard equipment. The adoption of the digital instrument display from the Kadett E was of questionable benefit, however, with the secondary gauges being too small to be easily read and the whole display too dim in strong sunlight.
There followed a number of further mechanical updates including smaller capacity engines, none of which fundamentally altered the appeal of the Senator and Monza, before both were discontinued in 1986. Total production numbers were 129,644 and 47,008 units respectively(8). It is a shame that two handsome and well-engineered cars were consistently underappreciated throughout their lives, thanks to potential buyers being unwilling or unable to see beyond the badges they carried.
(1) Audi had not yet gained admission to this exclusive club.
(2) Unless, like this author, you were enthralled by the engineering of the Mercedes-Benz cam-driven single windscreen wiper mechanism on the W124 and W201.
(3) Sadly, the Granada Coupé never made the transition to Mk2 form.
(4) Actually, four if you include the Opel Commodore C, which was a curious hybrid of the Senator front end and engines mated to the Rekord body from the A-pillar rearward, a rather pointless concoction that sold poorly for just four years.
(5) Which were rebadged Vauxhall Carlton, Royale and Royale Coupé respectively for the UK market. The Commodore C was rebadged as the Vauxhall Viceroy.
(6) A questionable assertion, given the car’s recirculating ball steering gear.
(7) The revised models were initially sold in the UK as Opels. In 1984, the Senator (but not the Monza) was rebranded as a Vauxhall. These were confusing times for would-be buyers of GM products in the UK.
(8) Data from http://www.autocade.net