Vauxhall. What does it mean to you? A Bentley rival? Rust and sales reps? Rebadged Opels? Gerry Marshall's Big Bertha and Old Nail racing cars? At one time or another, all the above have been true.
JUL 17th 2017
John Simister: Sampling ghosts of Vauxhall past
A couple of years ago I was one of the 'taxi drivers' at the Goodwood Revival. My particular taxi, doing variations on a run via Goodwood House, the Goodwood Hotel and the Motor Circuit, was a Vauxhall. Not a Victor as you might suppose, nor a mini-Americana Velox, but a 30/98 tourer from 1926 with the Velox body option. With a lighter, more slippery body the 4.2-litre, four-cylinder, 120bhp 30/98 could reach 100mph, and even the version I drove can cruise happily at 75mph – as I proved when I once drove that same car on a trip from Cannes to the Geneva show.
This fine machine belongs to Vauxhall's heritage collection, and offers a driving experience much like that of its contemporary Bentley rival. I met it again last week when Vauxhall gathered together a selection of its old cars at Bicester Heritage, along with other primordial Vauxhalls including its 1904 4hp (a regular London-to-Brighton entry), a 1909 B-type 'semi-racer', and the oldest surviving Prince Henry, a sporting 1910 machine from which the 30/98 evolved.
I've driven the Prince Henry and a 1903 variation on the 4hp, and sadly the semi-racer is off games owing to a fuel blockage. So this time my focus is on some less ancient Vauxhalls, lovely period pieces which have long piqued my curiosity. This year is the 60th anniversary of the launch of the Vauxhall Victor, and three of the five generations – the first, the third and the final – are represented here.
As launched, the F-type Victor was a gaudy piece of miniaturised Chevrolism with all kinds of exotic creases and fairings on the body and an exhaust pipe which merged though a bumper-end shaped like a jet orifice. After a couple of years, it was calmed down a bit, at a huge cost in revised press tooling, and my father had a 1960 example in which family Simister took its first foreign motoring holiday, to Brittany in 1963. To my parents' horror, during the night before departure, I had suddenly become covered in the spots of German measles, but I felt perfectly OK and so we set off as planned.
The Victor proved appalling in France, boiling up regularly – a stuck thermostat was eventually diagnosed – and breaking both its rear leaf springs. This was in the days when French roads were worse than ours. It looked quite racy with its temporarily low-slung tail, though. Then, a couple of weeks after our return, the steering failed completely, the steering wheel rotating with neither resistance nor result. So it's especially interesting to try an F-type now. Vauxhall's own example is the second facelift, with a deeper rear window than my father's car and a few subtle trim changes, but as soon as I shut the door, remembering how my mother twice caught her thumb between the pillar of the wraparound windscreen and the door frame, it all seems very familiar. After all, it was the family Victor in which I learnt to drive at the age of eight, seat fully forward, peering through the giant steering wheel past the horn-ring as my father instructed me on a disused airfield in the New Forest. It couldn't happen today, more's the pity.
The cabin is a curious mixture of painted metal and leather upholstery (it's the De Luxe model), and that forward vista is extraordinary with the slender screen pillars almost out of sight. The surprise, though, is how delightful this Victor is to drive. The 1508cc engine is smooth, sweet and plenty torquey enough to cope with just three forward gear ratios selected with a lever on the steering column, the steering is light and precise, and it rides with suppleness but no slop on rear springs which are clearly intact. And the engine stays cool. Honour restored, I feel.
Skipping the FB generation (Vauxhall does have one, in estate car guise), I next try the 1965 Victor 101, the FC version. This is squarer-cut, sleeker, simpler-looking and features Britain's first curved-glass side windows for extra shoulder room. And this particular example, in Super trim (less plush than a De Luxe, although rival Ford did it the other way round), is identical to one run by a work colleague of my father, even down to the dark green paint and the deep parp of the exhaust.
The interior door handles have little ridges on their gripping surfaces, and as a child, I would run a fingernail along those ridges to make a tinkling noise which drove said work colleague, always a tense driver, mad. It helped to pass the time as I sat in the back squashed next to his three daughters. Fifty-two years later, this pristine example with the optional four-on-the-floor feels less lively than the F-type despite its 1595cc engine, and it squeals comically around every gently-taken roundabout on its Camac cross-ply tyres. I don't remember them doing that back in the day.
Finally, an FE-series 2300S. This is the Victor dubbed the Transcontinental in ads of the time, the first one to share a platform with an Opel (the contemporary Rekord), and the Victor that lost its name after its facelift, re-named simply as VX 1800 or 2300. By FE time the Victor had grown significantly and the first Cavalier soon snuck in beneath.
The cleanly-drawn FE has an unusual dipping waistline which makes it airy inside, despite the cliff of a dashboard, and its front seats are wonderfully comfy cloth-trimmed chairs. What I was not expecting is that, with this overhead-camshaft, slant-four engine, the Victor 2300S is a bit of a hot rod. A modest 100bhp is claimed, but the 138lb ft of torque and rather short-legged gearing make this an amusingly punchy machine. It's much wieldier than you might expect, too. The world has practically forgotten the FE Victor, but this handsome machine is really rather good.
I hope you've enjoyed reading about these Vauxhalls, cars far off the usual classic-car radar. Next week I'll tell you about a few more. Two of them are quite surprising.
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