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Vauxhall Cavalier (1981 - 1988)

Last updated 9 December 2015


Model Timeline

Few would have predicted Vauxhall’s stunning turn-around in fortunes during the mid-1980s. A mere dozen years before the launch of the Cavalier Mk2 in August 1981, the UK’s iconic GM division had a shocking reputation in its home market for producing rusting cars that just didn’t stack up against the opposition from Ford and BMC. Its reputation for rust was well-founded, though, as the UK designed products churned out of Luton really did seem to dissolve upon contact with the atmosphere – and as Lancia in the UK will confirm, once this kind of negative reputation gets into the public consciousness, it’s almost impossible to shift.

Despite that, the company fought on, and into the 1970s, Vauxhall’s started to recover strongly.The Viva proved a usefully popular Escort alternative, and the Victor, now in Transcontinental FE guise, and sharing a considerable amount of hardware with its German counterpart, the Opel Rekord, was developed into an excellent driver’s car – especially in VX4/90 guise. However, like BL, it needed a car to fight the Cortina head-on in the marketplace, and the FE-Series just seemed a little too large for that task. In 1975, and for Vauxhall traditionalists, the unthinkable happened, and the Chevette and Cavalier Mk1 were announced, which despite their individual front-end styling, were little more than badge-engineered Opels.

But both cars were built (or assembled, as was the case for the Cavalier) in the UK, and featured UK power in the form of the Viva’s 1256cc ohv, and that was enough to convince less dogmatic buyers that the cars were all-British. Throughout the rest of the 1970s, the rest of the UK Vauxhall range was swept aside by re-branded Opels, and sales continued to rise. Although Ford’s Cortina and Escort had an unassailable lead at the beginning of the 1980s, and accounted for the Blue Oval’s 30 per cent share of the UK market, BL’s decining second place looked like an attainable target with a following wind.

The next phase in Vauxhall’s Opelisation kicked off in March 1980 with the UK arrival of the Vauxhall Astra. Unlike previous Vauxhall-Opel hybrids, new FWD hatchback was a re-badged Kadett D, with absolutely no panel or engineering changes at all. Unlike in Germany, where the new hatchback would replace the outgoing RWD car, the Astra sat alongside the Chevette, which now occupied the Viva’s place at the bottom of Vauxhall’s range. The Astra initially was powered by a brand new ohc 1.3-litre engine, dubbed the GM Family Two, and delivered excellent performance and economy thanks to its efficient design and high power output of 75bhp. The new car was the perfect basis for the replacement of Vauxhall’s most important car – the Cavalier.

Enter the J Car

J Car styling was deliberately conservative
J Car styling was deliberately conservative Opel Tech-1 from 1980 pointed at J Car styling... and beyondOpel Tech-1 from 1980 pointed at J Car styling… and beyond

Keen FWD dynamics alled to conservative styling marked the Cavalier Mk2 as a winner in the showrooms.In late 1980, GM’s two separate dealer networks and model ranges was were combined (and therefore strengthened) in the UK in readiness for the arrival of the new car. From then on, all dealerships would be rebranded Vauxhall-Opel, and wherever possible, competing Opels would no longer be imported. The Kadett D was quietly dropped, leaving just the Monza/Senator and Manta on the books – a controversial decision, but one based on logic, given the merging of the two dealer networks.

Obviously, GM had been watching what had gone on before…The J-Car project was kicked off in 1977, and from the outset, had been designed as a world car. It was agreed at board level to design it with as much parts interchangeability as possible – such as engines and transmissions – and in the responsibility of putting the programme toegether was placed with two ‘design centres’, the GM Tech Centre in Detroit and Opel in Germany.

Both worked on the basic platform, with the directive being that there should be minimal difference between their two products. As a result, the European and RoW J Cars ended up being largely – but not entirely – the same in size. The European-designed four-door was a couple of inches longer in the boot, while the fastback cars were three-door for the USA and five-door for Europe and the rest of the world.

Gordon Brown, Opel’s director of design commented in August 1981, that although it isn’t a true world car, there are enough similarities between all models to make the venture more than worthwhile. And he had extensive experience of the Chevrolet programme before moving the Rüsselsheim to work at Opel. For GM, the J Car ended up being rolled-out across the globe, and remained in production until 2005. For the UK, it was clear that the J Car in Opel form would not be sold, leaving the way clear for Vauxhall to attack the fleet market unhindered by interval rivalries.Revvy and responsive ohc engines were key to the Cavalier’s success with company car drivers.

In terms of engineering, the J Car amounted to little more than an enlarged Opel Kadett D/Vauxhall Astra Mk1 (known as the T Car internally). It shared the smaller car’s transverse FWD layout, a very similar two-shaft gearbox, and near-identical suspension and steering set-ups. What that did mean was that the new Cavalier would be much larger inside – its wheelbase was 2.2in longer, and that was despite being 3.6in shorter overall. Initially, the European J Car was to be offered with two engine options – 1.3-litre 75bhp (which matched the 1.6-litre Cortina) and 1.6-litre 90bhp. Initially, the larger engine was talked up as a replacement for the old 2-litre cam-in-head power unit used in the Mk1, but larger options were in the pipeline. All were designed with ease of servicing in mind, with adjustment-free hydraulic tappets and a low-maintenance GM Varajet II carburettor.

J-Car coupe was developed, but only saw production in South AmericaJ-Car coupe was developed, but only saw production in South America

As for the styling – it was a conservative effort. The old droopsnoot front end was dropped, although a shovelnose, used on both the Opel and Vauxhall versions clearly showed that the Rüsselsheim engineering team favoured Wayne Cherry’s frontal styling for the Cavalier Mk1 over that of the Ascona B. Aerodymanics were adequate by 1981 standards, with a drag co-efficient of 0.38 being achieved at the Pininfarina windtunnel. The five-door hatchback was a radical departure for Vauxhall – and a clever one, too. For the first time, Vauxhall was able to offer its buyers a choice of two-, four- and five-door body options, and as such give it an advantage over Ford with its outgoing Cortina.

Vauxhall, it seemed, finally had the armoury to take on, and beat, Ford at its own game.

The Cavalier arrives

Fleet car buyers embraced the sportier-looking five-door model, proving that saloons were falling out of favour in the UK market.Fleet car buyers embraced the sportier-looking five-door model, proving that saloons were falling out of favour in the UK market. Saloon was classically styled to fight the Cortina.Saloon was classically styled to fight the Cortina.

The first Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2 rolled off the line at Luton on 17 August 1981. Always at the back of the minds of GM executives in the UK, was the perception that fleet managers continued to harbour an ongoing distrust of front-wheel drive cars. Talbot’s marketing team made no bones of its disappointment in the Solara‘s lack of market penetration, and attributed it not to product weakness, but to its transmission layout – possibly a red-herring. But with the unified dealer network and a large 15-car model range, Vauxhall was confident that the new car would make inroads into the Cortina market – especially as it was no secret that production was running down in preparation for the Sierra (due for launch in September 1982), and that word had already escaped that Ford’s upcoming mid-range car was going to be a radical looking hatchback. And in hindsight, GM’s confidence in the Cavalier’s ability for make hay in Ford’s one-year vacuum, was looking incredibly astute.

The press reception was certainly positive, with both Autocar and Motor magazines getting in early first drives, and pronouncing the new car more than fit for purpose. Of course, driving the cars in the confines of Millbrook was one thing, but actually pitching it against the market leaders on UK roads was something else entirely. What Car? magazine pitched a Cavalier 1600GL against an Alfa Romeo Giuletta, Audi 80, Talbot Solara – and most importantly, a Ford Cortina 2.0GL in its November 1981 issue. Given the Ford’s engine capacity advantage, it should have been an easy ride for the Dagenham car, but on the test track, the Cavalier was able to identically match its 10.7 second 0-60mph run, while outpacing it at the top end – 105mph against 101.

On the road, the Cavalier scored well again: ‘it has a tendency towards understeer, but is rapid nevertheless. The Cortina, on the other hand, is outclassed. Its live rear axle gives it a smooth ride that degenerates into lumpy, uneasy motions of the body once the roads are less than billiard smooth.’ In summing up, the magazine said: ‘Considered in relation to its immediate oponents, the Cavalier emerges in a highly favourable light and in any objective contest, it must come top. It is reasonably fast, reasonably comfortable and reasonably enjoyable to drive. It is also reasonably priced, a factor which may be instrumental in taking sales from the Cortina.’

It went on: ‘GM has proved that it can build a car which is convincingly better than the Cortina. It is not an outstanding, exciting or particularly attractive vehicle, but these are not the qualities that sell cars to fleet buyers. All GM now has to do is convince the buyers of the quality of the organisation as well as those of the car. Only then will the Luton Cavalier plant be able to go into double-shift working and expand on its surprisingly modest planned output level as the current Ford Cortina’s market share begins to decline.’

The instant sales success

The 1983 arrival of the CD 1800i cemented the Cavalier's position as the pushy rep's favourite car...The 1983 arrival of the CD 1800i cemented the Cavalier’s position as the pushy rep’s favourite car…

A mere year later, we’d find out how it would do against the Sierra. Once again, it was down to What Car? magazine to give a clear indication of the Cavalier’s ability against its closest rivals on UK soil, comparing the Ford in 1.6GL form, alongside the Cavalier 1.6GL, Volkswagen Passat CL and Austin Ambassador 1.7HL. And it made the call in the Ford’s favour: ‘As for the Sierra’s rivals, they are beginning to look a bit ordinary. The Cavalier is the car that comes the closest, its excellent mechanical design spoiled by a depressing anonymity of design.’

But despite What Car? outpointing the Cavalier in favour of the Sierra, buyers decided that they couldn’t stomach the styling of the new Ford, preferring the Vauxhall’s calculated conservatism. And the sales war that followed proved bloody – and although the Sierra won the first round of sales in 1983, the Cavalier was making up ground rapidly. In 1981, it had sold a mere 33,361 to take seventh in the UK best seller’s chart, but by 1983, that had risen to 127,509. Impressive, given this was the Sierra’s honeymoon year.

Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2 production was soon ramped up to meet demand...Cavalier production was soon ramped up to meet demand…

In 1983, the top ten sellers chart looked like this:

1 Ford Escort – 174,490
2 Ford Sierra – 159,119
3 Austin Metro – 137,303
4 Vauxhall Cavalier – 127,509
5 Ford Fiesta – 119,602
6 Austin Maestro – 65,328
7 Vauxhall Astra – 62,570
8 Triumph Acclaim – 38,406
9 Datsun Sunny – 36,781
10 Volvo 300 Series – 36,753

The following year, though, things had moved seriously in Vauxhall’s favour:

1 Ford Escort – 157,340
2 Vauxhall Cavalier – 132,149
3 Ford Fiesta – 125,851
4 Austin Metro – 117,442
5 Ford Sierra – 113,071
6 Austin Maestro – 83,072
7 Vauxhall Astra – 56,511
8 Vauxhall Nova – 55,442
9 Ford Orion – 51,026
10 Volvo 300 Series – 35,034

Which would you choose? The UK buying public voted with its feet, and went for the Vauxhall in huge numbers (Picture: Autocar magazine)Which would you choose? The UK buying public voted with its feet, and went for the Vauxhall in huge numbers (Picture: Autocar magazine)

The sales reflect also how hard Vauxhall was working to maintain the Cavalier’s appeal. In October 1983, the range was expanded in a couple of ways – firstly a 1.8-litre fuel injected engine option was added to the range. Although the 115bhp option was initially reserved for the SRi, CDi and GLSi models, it clearly cemented the Cavalier’s reputation for being the outside lane warrior’s weapon of choice, with the new variations being able to top 115mph and dash from 0-60mph in well under nine seconds. Also added to the range was an interesting five-door estate, which used imported Holden Camira panels (the Australian J Car) to create a cavernous rival to the popular Sierra Estate, and the 54bhp 1.6-litre diesel, the less said of which the better.

Running changes

Estate version was cavernous, but failed to sell in the numbers anticipated of it.Estate version was cavernous, but failed to sell in the numbers anticipated of it. 1985 facelift saw the introduction of a boldly styled grille and various other changes.1985 facelift saw the introduction of a boldly styled grille and various other changes.

Vauxhall continued to fight hard to keep the Cavalier on top, and for the 1985 model year, it received a facelift, which added a more aggressive chip-cutter style grille, modified rear lamp clusters, new steering wheels, upgraded equipment levels, new upholstery options and updated instrument graphics added across the range. Sadly, for Vauxhall, Ford was fighting harder to improve the Sierra, and in 1986, the newer car once again seized the sales lead, thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign and model realignment. As for the Montego, it was out of the running in reality, making the UK fleet market a two-horse race, after years of it being shared more evenly between the ‘Big three’.

The two-door saloon was quietly dropped from the range, although it would form the basis of the later convertible version.

Robert Jankel of Panther created this concept convertible version in 1982 - it looked remarkably similar to the factory open-topped car when it appeared in 1985.Robert Jankel of Panther created this concept convertible version in 1982 – it looked remarkably similar to the factory open-topped car when it appeared in 1985. And for its final facelift in 1987, the Cavalier was given a smoother front-end. And for its final facelift in 1987, the Cavalier was given a smoother front-end.

Further revisions in 1987 saw the introduction of another, smoother looking grille and rear lamp clusters, as well as the arrival of a wider range of trim levels for the 1.8-litre engine, as it was now a tax-break point favourable for company car drivers. Following Ford’s introduction of the ostensibly more sporting looking Sierra LX models, Vauxhall followed suit with its own two-tone alloy-wheeled Cavalier LX and LXi models, boosting showroom appeal considerably. In addition, the range-topping model was now powered by a 2-litre version of the GM Family Two engine, now boasting 130bhp, and giving the Cavalier SRi 130 125mph capability and a 0-60mph time of eight seconds – enough to see it nearly keep pace with the Sierra XR4x4 and MG Montego Turbo.

The appeal of the Cavalier had been on the wane since 1986, and certainly since the Sapphire revision of the Sierra, which took that car’s outlandishness away, leaving a stylish and progressive looking product. The arrival of impressive newcomers such as the Peugeot 405 and Renault 21 made the Cavalier look prematurely aged – a revolution was going on in European car design, with clean, aerodynamic design now leading the way. And in this climate, the Sierra had grown into its market sector perfectly, demonstrating just how far ahead of its time Patrick Le Quement’s styling actually was.

But as the lights faded on the Cavalier Mk2, its development continued at a rapid pace. As well as that, it was also proving a production success for Vauxhall in the UK. The company commenced exporting cars in LHD form to other European countries, badged as Opels, which was a commitment to the UK factory, and proof that quality levels matched those of the Belgian and German factories. In November 1987, the then head of Vauxhall, John Bagshaw, told CAR magazine that European buyers, ‘…can’t tell them from the German ones.’

The Cavalier Mk2′s swansong came in 1988, when the Calibre special edition was introduced. It was based on the SRi 130 in saloon form only, and featured a Tickford designed bodykit comprising of skirts, bumpers, door panels and rear spoiler, which was built by GM tuning specialists, Irmscher. As well as the obvious cosmetic updates, the Calibre also sported sports suspension and a uprated exhaust system. It might have looked tacky in comparison to the opposition, but it proved popular, and the limited run of 500 soon sold out, and the survival rate remains (relatively) high in comparison with the rest of the Cavalier range.

The rule-changing Vauxhall

Today, the Cavalier’s profile is low, and it has yet to pick up the classic following that some of its less popular (when new) rivals have secured. Seeing examples of this once-popular piece of street furniture are rare, but there is a small and enthusiastic following for these cars – and it’s one that’s growing. The scale of the Cavalier’s achievements when new should never be underestimated – it was responsible for Vauxhall’s initial huge growth in the UK between 1980 and 1983, and which took the company to number two behind Ford.

Although the Cavalier dated far more quickly than the Sierra, it was clearly the right car for the time, and Vauxhall’s success was profound – during its six-year production run, it sold 807,624 in the UK. It was a story of good luck, great timing, and hard work – and one that carried Vauxhall confidently into the 1990s as the UK’s number two.

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