Matters of moment, July 1978

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Seventy-five years of Vauxhall

As we recorded in the April Issue of Motor Sport the Ford Motor Company this year celebrates its 75th Anniversary of trading in this country. The occasion was marked at Beaulieu on May 18th when their Mr. Terry Beckett unveiled a static display of Ford Products in the “ Hall of Fame” at the National Motor Museum. This year, too, Vauxhall Motors of Luton celebrates its true 75th Anniversary, because the very first Vauxhall car was made in London in 1903. Vauxhall chose a more moving marking of this auspicious occasion, when a great assembly of Vauxhalls of all ages, sizes and types gathered at Luton on May 21st, addressed after lunch by Vauxhall Director Mr. Geoffrey Moore, in the absence of more senior Directors of this longlived British Company who had been summonsed to fly to America at short notice at the bidding of their General Motors’ masters. Among the celebrities present at Luton was the Mayor of this Bedfordshire town, who endorsed the good relations which his Council has with the Company and who congratulated it on employing 4,000 additional workers in a period of high unemployment elsewhere. Another Mayor and Lord Hill (the ex-“ Radio Doctor” , who lives locally), Lady Hill, and the Secretaries of the 30/98 Register and the more recently formed Vauxhall OC, whose members had made up the bulk of the impressive assembly of Vauxhall cars on that day, were also present.

It all started with a small 5-h.p. single-cylinder horizontally-engined car built at the Vauxhall Iron Works’ premises in London, a firm founded in 1857 by a Scottish engineer, Alexander Wilson, for the manufacture of engines for Admiralty-pinnaces and river-tugs. After the departure of Mr. Wilson in 1894, F. W. Hodges, a marine-engineer trained by him, and J. H Chambers got out the very first Vauxhall car, of which it is thought that about 43 were built, priced at £ 1 50 each and an example of which, courtesy of the London Science Museum, was on display at the Anniversary Celebrations. This early model was gradually improved to a form of 6-h.p. Vauxhall which those who spectate at VCC Brighton Runs will recognise, and early in 1905 a move was made to a factory at Luton. Here manufacture was commenced, in a town then famous for its straw-hats, of a 9-h.p. car, followed at the 1906 Motor Show by an 18-h.p. four-cylinder Vauxhall, notable for those radiator and bonnet flutes which were to be a distinguishing feature of this famous make for more than half-a-century; they were dropped after 1959 but happily re-introduced for the 1972 FE Victor models. From the sporting viewpoint Vauxhall will forever be remembered for the splendid Laurence Pomeroy-designed “ Prince Henry” and 30/98 cars, which were so well-known and successful at Brooklands and elsewhere, and occasionally even ran in road races. These led to the rugged 25-h.p. Vauxhall that saw much successful war-service and, after the Armistice, to the push-rod overhead-valve 23/60 tourer, greatly favoured by the upper-classes to nearly match the Daimlers of the aristocracy and the Rolls-Royces of the war-profiteers, and the similarlyvalved 30/98, that immortal sporting motor-car. There was also the smaller, elegant 14/40 and the lesssuccessful sleeve-valve 25/70.

What is more, Vauxhalls made real racing-cars, such as the 19 12 and 19 13 Coupe de L ’Auto cars, the 19 14 GP and T T cars, those slim Brooklands single-seaters driven by Kidner, Hancock and others (their 20-h.p. was the first car of this rating to exceed 100 m.p.h.), and those complex King/Ricardo 1922 3-litre T T Vauxhalls, developed into Raymond Mays’ formidable sprint Vauxhall Villiers – the writer remembers seeing John Cobb beat the Thomas Special in a long-distance race on his first Brookands visit in 1927, this T T Vauxhall by then wearing a streamlined single-seater body.

In 1925 Vauxhall of Luton was acquired by the enormous General Motors of America complex, which, however, continued for a time very much in the former tradition, eschewing badge-engineering, until the very recent similarity of certain Opel and Vauxhall models. They got out a more practical (in American parlance) 20/60 Vauxhall which was the forerunner of a long line of sensible Vauxhall models, viewed in the light of customer-appeal. The Vauxhall Cadet came in 1930, in both 17-h.p. and 26-h.p. forms, and it was followed by the Light Six in 1933. The first popular British cars to offer independent-frontsuspension were the 12-h.p. and 14-h.p. D-type Vauxhalls announced in 1935. Not so long before another World War engulfed the Motor Industry, Maurice Olley had evolved the well-remembered Vauxhall Ten, first British car of unitary construction, which combined a decent gait with a modest (40 m.p.g.) fuelthirst, the latter achieved by using wide sparking-plug gaps to fire a weakened mixture. (At the time, boththe Proprietor and the present-Editor of Motor Sport made good use of one of these Vauxhall Tens). The theme was continued after the war in the 12-h.p. Vauxhall. Before the holocaust, Vauxhall also made some big 25-h.p. luxury cars, with limousine bodies, thus successfully apeing more-renowned “ carriagetrade” makes, but selling their cars for an astonishingly modest £ 3 3 0 in 19 36 , with heater, fog-lamp, reversing lamps, etc., these G-type Vauxhalls being capable of some 80 m.p.h. On the commercial-vehicle front the G M Chevrolet had become the Bedford, o f which more than 250,000, and 5,640 Churchill tanks, were manufactured during the war years. To cope with increasing demand, a new 19 1/2-acre plant was opened at Luton in 1950, ready for making the E-type Wyvern, Velox and Cresta Vauxhalls, of which more than 340,000 were produced. By the time of the Company’s Golden Jubilee in 1953 the millionth vehicle had been made. The year 1957 saw the arrival of the wellknown F-type Victors, of which 100,000 were turned out in the first 15 months, leading on to a total of 390,745 by 19 6 1. In 1958 the new Parts and Accessories Depot was opened at Dunstable and the following year a new plant at Ellesmere Port was announced, by which time two-million Vauxhall and Bedford vehicles had been produced.

So the story of GM-Vauxhall success unfolds. New six-cylinder cars, the 1 -litre Viva (a million made by 19 71), the FD-Victors, and the rest, came to meet changing requirements among the motoring public. There were some disappointing Vauxhalls around this time, but this setback the Design Teams put behind them, aided no doubt by the 700-acre Vauxhall Proving Ground at Millbrook. Another new Service Centre had been opened at Toddington, near Dunstable, in 1967 and Vauxhall styling and research vehicles turned out, all leading to fresh impetus at Luton, where today the Research Centre operates at Chaul End, five miles away, zone-offices function at Edinburgh, Sheffield, Watford, Bristol, and in N. Ireland, and Vauxhall have a wholly-owned drop-forging subsidiary in Birmingham. All of which contributes to the present 35-model Vauxhall range, of eleven Chevette variants, nine different Vivas, nine Cavaliers if you include the two European 1300 models, and six different VX Vauxhalls, the latter, including the twincarburetter VX 4/90 and the top-of-the-range VX2300 G LS.

Moreover, as with Ford, since the formation of Dealer Team Vauxhall in 1971 this oldestablished, once so-sporting make has again entered the competition-field, to dispel any notion that its cars are just stodgy family-types, successes in the fields of saloon-car racing and International rallying having proved the point; the new 2300 HS Vauxhall Chevette has been very notably confident, in the latter sport! To General Motors, Vauxhall of Luton may be only a tiny splash in a very-big bucket. But as part of the essential British Motor Industry, Vauxhall Motors is not to be under-estimated. It now employs around 33,000 people (the labour force in 1903 was about 150) and last year it sold 234,166 vehicles, representing a financial turnover of £627,500,000. So we were glad, in the merry month of May, to raise our champagne-glass and toast Vauxhall Motors of Luton…..

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