The Enigma of Vauxhall – GM’s Very British Division

By Andy Bannister

01.11.2009

With most commentators agreeing that if General Motors is to survive it needs to simplify its confusing array of divisions, talk has begun to circulate recently about the pros and cons of dropping the Vauxhall brand.

Largely unknown today outside its homeland of the United Kingdom, Vauxhall is a car maker with a history dating back 105 years, 74 of them under the ownership of GM.

However, the company effectively gave up its design independence in the 1980s to its German sister, Opel. Today’s Vauxhall is merely a British badge affixed to an Opel car. In many ways it is a crazy arrangement.

The trouble is, Vauxhall as a brand is as British as they come, and despite the disappearance of a UK-owned volume car industry, a home-grown name still counts for quite a lot. To British buyers Opel is an obscure make last sold on their market in the 1980s.

Vauxhall sells more cars under its badge in the UK than Opel sold in its homeland, Germany, so these aren’t small numbers of sales. The seemingly logical step of retiring the Vauxhall badge and replacing it with the unfamiliar and foreign-sounding Opel moniker would be a huge risk at any time, and even more so when car sales are already in freefall.

A parallel argument, put forward by those who see the need to boost Opel’s presence and recognition worldwide, suggests that the Saturn brand in the US, which has begun to move closer to GM’s European designs, should be replaced by Opel. Saturn, however, comes without the historic baggage the Vauxhall name carries.

For many years, Vauxhall’s function seemed to be one of effectively producing a Stateside car with a British accent, in those early post-war days when Detroit’s products were seen as the glamorous embodiment of the American dream.

From the 1950s for the next two decades, Vauxhall products – although designed, engineered and built in Britain, with all the quirks that entailed – had remarkably American looks.

Possibly the ultimate examples were the swoopy PA Velox and Cresta models introduced in 1957 as the company’s flagships. With fins and generous use of chrome and other American styling devices, this pair looked like they had landed from outer space compared to the conservative products of the market-leading British Motor Corporation, purveyors of Austin, Morris, Wolseley and the like.

In the mass market Vauxhall also found success with the mid-range Victor, another deeply Chevrolet-influenced design which won the hearts of buyers across the world. It was particularly successful in Canada, despite being horribly rust-prone.

Much like Ford’s British and German arms at the time, Vauxhall and Opel were effectively rival outfits which had nothing in common apart from a single owner.

In any case their products were aimed at different markets. Vauxhall concentrated on exports to countries of the former British Empire, as well as certain smaller European countries like Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Portugal and Ireland, leaving the bigger European and US markets to Opel.

In the 1960s, Vauxhall first decided to work more closely with its German counterpart, with the two companies collaborating on a new entry in the 1.0-litre small car market, similar-looking square saloons called the Opel Kadett and Vauxhall Viva, both of which were great and lasting successes. The Viva was again popular in Canada, where it was known as the GM Epic, and a later version with curved styling emigrated to Australia to become the first Holden Torana.

In the late 1960s, Vauxhall enthusiastically embraced American “coke bottle” looks with the second-generation Viva and the FD Victor plus its sporty VX 4/90 and luxurious Ventora derivatives. The big Cresta had also evolved into a big barge of a car with contemporary Detroit overtones.

The final independent Vauxhall designs came in the 1970s, with a third generation Viva, and the last of the Victors. At this stage the company’s styling took on a more individual flair, and the company was arguably the pioneer of aerodynamic sloping front ends, particularly on the spectacular-looking Firenza “Droop Snoot” – a trend copied by almost every other car maker by the end of that decade.

After a period making thinly-disguised Opels such as the Chevette and Cavalier, and rebadging other imported Opel designs including the luxurious Royale (a version of Opel’s executive Senator and Monza), it became clear Vauxhall and Opels were becoming one and the same car, and UK engineering and design facilities were quietly shut down.

If there was ever a time for Vauxhall to be dropped, this was it. Instead, GM decided to withdraw the marque from its few remaining overseas markets like New Zealand, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta, whilst underlining its supremacy in the UK. Opel’s mainstream models retreated to mainland Europe, with the last Opel badged car (the Manta) sold in Britain in 1988.

Since then, Vauxhall has been the badge affixed to all Opel cars in the UK, with the company evolving its own “V”-shaped front grille and still occasionally showing a few flashes of independence. Vauxhall was a major player in getting a Lotus-built sports car off the ground, marketing it as the Vauxhall VX220 (and as an Opel Speedster in Europe).

British buyers have also recently been treated to low-volume imports of Australian Holdens denied to customers in Europe. The Vauxhall Monaro coupé has been followed by the Vauxhall VXR8 saloon (Pontiac G8).

Vauxhall’s factory in Ellesmere Port, near Liverpool, currently builds the small-family Astra model (with Vauxhall and Opel badges) and a plant in Bedfordshire makes Vauxhall and Opel vans (to Renault designs). Other Vauxhall-badged Opels are imported from Germany, Belgium, Spain, Poland and Korea.

As recently as last summer Vauxhall unveiled a new version of its historic griffin logo, signalling an attempt to move the brand slightly upscale to coincide with the arrival of the new Insignia model, helpfully recently voted European Car of the Year.

Shedding Vauxhall would, in the long-term, make Europe-wide awareness of the Opel marque stronger, but the change would hardly save any money and in fact would cost hugely during the changeover. Corporate rebranding and the huge advertising support needed don’t come cheap.

Companies have changed their names before, with varying degrees of success. Datsun evolved into Nissan in a seamless way which involved both badges affixed to the company’s products for a while

A less successful example was Chrysler Europe’s attempt to relaunch as Talbot – although in that case, a dismal product line was as much responsible as the public confusion the move caused.

Personally I’m hoping that Vauxhall does stay the course, but much depends on what happens both over in Detroit and at Opel in Germany, which has troubles of its own and may yet have to cut adrift from its American parent.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Andy Bannister

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2 Comments

  1. If the Vauxhall brand went the way of the dodo….I would imagine that GM in the UK would be lucky to get away with all appendages attached.

    The Brits (like most of us) are very very attched to the brands that are historically their’s, regardless of who actually owns them.

    If GM is stupid enough to do this then Ford Europe will get a five year free kick because Opel is ‘German’ and no Englishman like a German invasion of something that belongs to them.

    Same story with Holden in Australia, Saab in Sweden or perhaps Wuling in China.

    If GM goes arse-up in the States and a non-US entity wins hold does that mean that it can (for example) dump the Chevrolet Corvette and then re-badge the now unnamed car as Pontiac and expect to get away with it in the sales? Not bloody likely. Same goes here.

  2. If GM has awarded the “expensive” bits of Euro-market product design and development to Opel, with Vauxhall (and Saturn) benefiting by getting a stream of fresh product, then exactly how much does it cost to essentially run a “marketing” operation? Paying the price of killing a familiar name might be more expensive.

    GM’s problem in North America of having too many divisions is actually the other side of the coin of having too many dealers to feed. Does this dilemma exist in the UK?

    Since Opel = verboten to the average Brit, how would that same Brit respond to Vauxhall being renamed “Chevrolet”? The British media (Top Gear, Car magazine) is incredibly biased against American cars, but what of the average Brit?

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