While Vauxhall’s first foray into the compact family car market came in 1936 with the H-Type – the world’s first unitary construction (monocoque) model, it was the launch of the Viva in 1963 that really saw the Griffin gain momentum in what rapidly became, and remains, the best-selling sector of the market. Launched in 1963, the Viva was initially built in Luton, with production transferring to the brand new Ellesmere Port facility the following year – home to each generation of compact Vauxhall family car ever since. Light, simple to maintain and neatly styled the HA Viva was just the ticket for motorists who wanted a no-nonsense, inexpensive family car and its ease-of-maintenance gave it particular appeal in the days when part of Dad’s weekly routine was to spend an hour tinkering on a Sunday! Over 300,000 Viva HAs were sold in a relatively short lifespan of just three years, although the Bedford Van variant – the HAV – continued well into the 1980s thanks to its fleet appeal.
Whereas the Viva HA’s appeal lay very much in its simplicity, its successor moved Vauxhall’s compact car offering up towards a far more mature and discerning audience. Gone were the original car’s simple transverse leaf suspension and narrow track, replaced by a car that used sophisticated coil springs all round. The styling was also much more modern – the famous ‘coke bottle’ swage line seen in many cars of the era made its debut on the HB Viva, giving it a look that still appears relatively fresh today. It was also offered in more body styles than ever before – two and four-door saloons, as well as a stylish estate. Performance versions included the ‘Brabham’ Viva, developed for GM by the 1966 F1 champion Jack Brabham and sold through his own dealership, and the even more potent Viva GT with trademark matt black bonnet and the ability to crack 100mph, making it a firm favourite among the motorsport fraternity. Over half a million Viva HBs were sold in four years.
The longest production run of any Viva model was enjoyed by the HC, which remained a stalwart of the Vauxhall range from its introduction in 1970 through till the end of 1979. So advanced was the HB Viva’s four-link rear and independent front suspension set-up that it was carried over directly to the HC, along with much of the car’s structural and mechanical architecture. Where the HC differed was in its styling, substituting the curvy HB look with more angular, straight lines. Many styling cues were taken from Detroit, with the car’s fluted bonnet resembling that of a contemporary Pontiac, rear lamp units reminiscent of a Buick Regal and unusual ‘wave’ effect wheelarches, which gave the car a forward-leaning appearance. The HC also reflected the rapidly growing fleet market in the UK, with a much broader range of engines and trim levels than ever before. The two-door and four-door saloons were complemented by an unusual looking estate, as well as the Firenza – a two-door coupe that squared up to Ford’s Capri in this style conscious sector of the market. In 1973, the Magnum appeared, effectively a renamed version of the larger-engined HC Vivas aimed at more upmarket audience – the car was pitched as much more of a rival to the Triumph Dolomite than it was to the Morris Marina, for example. Perhaps the most iconic versions of the HC, despite their minuscule volumes, were the ‘Droop Snoot’ Firenza and Sporthatch models, finished in Silver Starfire metallic paint and fitted with unusual polyurethane ‘beak’ containing triple headlights. They are by far the most collectable HC variants today.
Launched in 1975 and sold alongside the HC Viva for the first half of its life, the Chevette featured distinctive ‘shovel-nosed’ styling courtesy of Vauxhall’s then design boss Wayne Cherry. The aerodynamic look was exclusive to Vauxhall despite the Chevette being the first ever global GM project. Dubbed T-Car, compact models based on the Chevette architecture appeared in various markets, as the Chevrolet Chevette in the States, Holden Gemini in Australia, Isuzu Gemini in Japan and Opel Kadett C in continental Europe, although they all looked distinctly different. Initially sold only as Vauxhall’s first ever hatchback, thus protecting Viva sales, the three-door was joined by four-door saloon and estate models in late 1976. It was also built as a panel van, the Chevanne, which was the precursor to today’s incredibly successful Astravan range. As well as enjoying success in the showrooms (over 415,000 Chevettes were sold by the time it was withdrawn in 1984) the short wheelbase and rear-wheel-drive made the car ideal for rallying, and the rally-tuned HS and HSR versions of the Chevette achieved some fine results for Vauxhall’s dealer-backed race team, DTV. The Chevette was facelifted in 1981, gaining rubber bumpers and a revised dashboard, and it sold alongside the Astra as a lower-priced entry-level model until the Astra Mk 2 debuted in 1984.
By far the most significant of Vauxhall’s new compact models yet, the 1979 Astra Mk 1 represented a complete transformation for the brand, and also set new standards of comfort, handling and refinement for its class. The newcomer was the first front-wheel-drive compact family car from Vauxhall and it rose head-on to the challenge of the VW Golf, a car that had won over pundits across Europe for its quality, front-wheel-drive handling and packaging, but which would finally meet its nemesis at the hands of Vauxhall’s new offering. The Mk 1 was neatly styled and exceptionally well made, offering comfort and build quality never before seen in a Vauxhall of this size. It was also offered in a myriad of bodystyles, including three and five-door hatchbacks, a four-door saloon, three and five-door estates and a panel van. A new range of OHC engines and a 1.6-litre diesel (another first for Vauxhall in this area of the market) added further to the car’s appeal, especially in the key fleet market. The Mk 1 also saw the birth of the first Astra GTE, a performance icon that would become one of the best-known hot hatches of the 1980s. Over half a million MK 1 Astras were sold.
By the mid-1980s, aerodynamic efficiency was very much in vogue, and the Astra Mk 2 certainly didn’t disappoint. It carried over the platform and powertrains from the first generation car, but the design team had been set the task of achieving a drag co-efficient of less than 0.30 – a figure more akin to a sports car than to a family hatchback. Launched in 1984, the Mk 2 was quite a surprise, featuring such innovation as flush-fitting guttering and windows, a wraparound bumper and a curvaceous, windcheating front end that successfully combined handsome looks with the desired aerodynamic efficiency. The result of the designers’ efforts was a car that, even today, doesn’t look outdated in modern traffic, and which quite deservedly won the 1985 European Car of the Year award. Again, the number of engines and trim levels were vast, as were the different body styles – although this time the four-door saloon was sold as a standalone model named Belmont, and there was also a two-door convertible styled by Bertone. The GTE was once again the iconic figurehead of the range, especially from 1990 when it gained a new 16v engine, developing 150bhp. Over 600,000 Astra Mk 2s were sold in a seven-year period.
Introduced in 1991, the Astra Mk 3 built further on the success of the Mk2 by adopting a similarly slippery body shape, albeit taller, wider and longer than the car it replaced in order to increase passenger space and comfort. The newcomer was 34 per cent stiffer than the outgoing car, which made for tidy, well-composed handling, while interior quality and trim levels were also improved in what had become a particularly competitive area of the market, especially among fleet customers. The car was launched at the 1991 Frankfurt Motor Show, where it became the first Opel to adopt a name from Vauxhall – GM’s continental European arm deciding to drop the established Kadett moniker after 55 years in favour of that used by the British. As one of the safest and best-equipped cars in its segment, the Mk 3 was hugely popular with British buyers and the Mk 3 was never out of the top 10 sellers charts throughout its life – with total UK sales of over 600,000 when it was finally withdrawn in 1998.
Some of the greatest innovations in motoring aren’t visible to the naked eye, and in the case of the Astra Mk 4 its fully-galvanised bodyshell may not have had the showroom appeal of stacks of standard equipment, but it did ensure that, even today, a Mk 4 Astra with any signs of rust is a rarely-witnessed sight. This longevity was part of a programme instigated at the car’s design stage to deliver a level of quality, integrity and solidity that buyers had come to expect from more upmarket brands, yet deliver them to Vauxhall’s target, mainstream customer – a message that went down especially well with fleet customers, who lapped up Mk 4 Astras as fast as the Ellesmere Port plant could produce them. The Mk 4 Astra was a tempting showroom proposition, with excellent equipment levels, well-sorted dynamics and class-leading performance from its most popular engine choices. Of particular interest were the Bertone-styled (and built) coupe and convertible models introduced in 2000, the latter of which had a button on the keyfob with which you could remotely raise and lower the roof. The Mk 4 was also the first Astra (and, indeed, the first compact hatchback in the UK) to comply with the Euro 4 emissions legislation that has become the norm today – all 1.7 CDTi models from 2002 onwards met the new criteria, proving that GM was ahead of the game when it came to predicting future trends.
The current Astra replaced the Mk 4 in 2004 and brought with it a new era of stylish design and driving dynamics, moving the Astra up a gear in terms of its showroom appeal and winning universal praise at launch for its handsome good looks. Building on the car’s visual attributes were a new range of engines including 1.9-litre CDTi diesels, which offered all the performance of a high-powered petrol engine with none of the associated running costs. Indeed, the 1.9 CDTi 150 version of the Astra has exactly the same power output as the Astra Mk 2 GTE 16v – a car renowned for its phenomenal performance. Following on from the five-door hatch and estate models at launch, Vauxhall introduced the three-door ‘Sport Hatch’ in 2005, combining the appeal of a coupe and a three-door hatchback in one body style, and introducing such options as the new ‘Panoramic’ windscreen, with a glass area that cut back into the roof to give incredible airiness and visibility. A panel van joined the line-up in 2006, along with the new Astra TwinTop – a hard-roofed coupe that could be turned into an open top at the push of a button. Like all its predecessors, the Mk 5 Astra has been built from launch at Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, where 127,962 cars were produced in 2007.