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Happy Birthday: Vauxhall Cavalier

Published 09 December 2015

Apparently, 40 is the new 30. Mentally, we’re a nation that’s younger than ever, and while the trappings of modern living do mean that our waistlines, on average, are a little bigger than they should be, we’re mentally more youthful than ever before.

And that’s certainly something that’s reflected in our desire for modern classics, if the upsurge in interest in classic cars of the past few decades is anything to go by.

A lot has changed in the past 40 years. Towards the end of 1975, we were coming towards the end of one of the sharpest and darkest recessions in 20th century history. Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody was enjoying a record period at number one in the pop charts, and Vauxhall finally had a viable alternative to the Ford Cortina and Morris Marina, rather than the shade-too-small Viva or touch-too-big FE Victor.

Enter the Cavalier… A car that would, in three generations, become one of the most common, most loved and, occasionally, most derided cars on British roads, its reputation as a sales rep’s special bringing with it a mixed reception over the years.

Cavalier _005

From left, the Cavalier saloon, coupe (middle) and sportshatch.

The Mk 1 Cavalier was quite a revelation for the traditionally dowdy Vauxhall brand. The shovel-nosed styling, a trademark of GM’s British-born and somewhat flamboyant chief stylist, Wayne Cherry, was a massive step forward for the Luton company, as indeed were the car’s road manners. While previous Vauxhalls, notably the FD and E Type Victors, were pleasant and fairly quick to drive, the Cavalier brought with a new kind of dynamism.

A poise and purpose that defined Britain’s motorway era, allowing Vauxhall to finally play seriously in the fleet market where it earns so much of its business today. To say the Cavalier was a car that truly shaped the direction of Vauxhall as we know it today would be an understatement.

In 2.0-litre form, in particular, the Mk 1 Cavalier was a cracking car to drive. The lesser 1.3 and 1.6-litre versions were dependable and respectable enough, but it was the 2000 GLS that was the absolute pick of the range, its status marked out by its Rostyle wheels and black vinyl roof. Status symbols that, in themselves, gave it car park kudos.

The Mk 1 Cavalier had a six-year innings, during which time it became one of the stalwarts of the UK’s company car parks, as well as providing dependable, affordable and spacious family motoring for thousands of British families. It was a big hit, but Vauxhall wasn’t done with the innovation.

Vauxhall Cavalier (2)

Along came the 1980s, and with them the Cavalier Mk 2. The 1981 Mk 2 marked a further sea change for Vauxhall. Not only was the car front-wheel-drive, a bar set a couple of years earlier by the more compact Astra, but it was also available as a five-door hatchback, while an estate followed a couple of years later in 1983, using the rear bodywork of the Australian-market Holden Camira, which was based on the same basic architecture.

The Mk 2 wasn’t as rewarding to drive as the Mk 1, nor did it feel quite as solidly built, but it was comfortable, quick, spacious and inexpensive to run. Just what fleet managers wanted, and well-liked by fleet drivers, too.

As the 1980s surged forward into the yuppie era, the Cavalier changed again. More and more company cars were being introduced, and with them came the era of the user chooser. Vauxhall had to diversify. Posh Cavaliers came along, badged CDX, along with sporty variants such as the SRi, and the sportiest of the lot, the SRi 130, named for its power output in bhp.

Okay, so 130bhp may not sound a huge amount today, but in the days where cars weighed about 60 per cent of what they do today, the Cav was rewardingly rapid, while its ostentatious alloys and ground-hugging side skirts were epoch-defining. No longer were Britain’s sales managers and junior directors happy with a common or garden family car, after all.

Vauxhall Cavalier Mk 3 (2) 

The Mk 2 Cavalier sold well – more than 800,000 of them found homes between 1981 and 1988, but it was to be the end of the decade when the Cavalier really broke the mould with the Mk3.

Up until that point, the Cavalier had done well in the sales charts, but had trailed behind the Ford Sierra, with its avant-garde styling and much more conventional rear-drive layout. By the Mk 3 Cavalier was something different – front-wheel-drive, great handling and a fantastic looking, the only thing it didn’t do that the Mk 2 did was come as an estate.

This didn’t really matter. The Mk 3 was leaps and bounds ahead of the Mk 2 in terms of quality and dynamics. It was a great car to drive. It had class leading packaging and aerodynamics, and the styling was clean enough for it to still look up to date when the model was finally retired and replaced by the Vectra in late 1995. Over half a million were sold, usurping the Sierra for the first time in 1992, when the Cavalier became the second best-selling car in Britain.

Alas, the Cavalier’s commonality and serve-all durability meant that, as with most family saloons, it went from desirable sporting saloon to clapped out banger in a relatively short period. Its fall from prestige ending at many a mini cab office, banger racing track or council estate, and that’s how many people remember it – though in many ways, that makes it a true car of the people.

In a 20-year career, the Cavalier sold over 1.8 million. By comparison, its Vectra and Insignia successors barely cracked the one million mark in the two decades since Cavalier production started.

If life begins at 40, then maybe it’s time to bring the Cavalier back?


Corps Diplomat    on 9 December 2015

The younger sibling to the Senator! Good Mk1 Cavaliers must be hard to come by now.

Cappuccino Break    on 9 December 2015

Another car that has just disappeared whithout anyone noticing.

FearsomeJimny    on 14 December 2015

I watched Harry Potter yesterday and at the beginning every single car in Privet Drive is a Cavalier. Nice touch - it was the most run-of-the-mill thing ever. Shame they're all gone now!

lammascot    on 14 December 2015

I had a Mk 2 Cavalier SRi and it was a great car. Its performance was ahead of most cars on the road in the 1980s.

I achieved 130 mph on the clock driving west on the old A30 towards SuttonScotney (on a quiet day)! I suppose that was a bit risky but it was a fairly safe piece of road then.

Covered some long journeys in very good time.

Sad to see it go. I wouldn't mind another one now.

I then had a Belmont SRi which was simiar in most respects, plus a spoiler on the boot.

Happy days!

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