Veefer Vauxhal - Blackbourn 450

By: Rob Blackbourn

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Rob had almost forgotten that he and Vauxhalls share a bit of quirky history

Who knew that General Motor’s first tail fins that debuted on its 1948 Cadillac, a feature apparently inspired by the twin fins on the Lockheed P38 Lightning aircraft, were originally intended to adorn the British Vauxhall? Certainly not me. It seems about as unlikely as claiming that GM’s first small-block V8 introduced by Chevrolet in 1955 was originally intended to power Australia’s FE Holden. Nevertheless the recent American newsletter article canvassing the possibility of a different origin-story for Cadillac’s tail-fins assembled some interesting, if not entirely convincing, information in support of the idea.

While Vauxhall, a brand that survives only as the UK-market version of the Euro-region’s Opel, isn’t much on my mind these days (except when something like the tail-fin yarn pops up), it was an important competitor in the Australian car market for many years with a substantial rusted-on support base.

| Read next: Vauxhall through the ages

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A pioneering car maker in UK since 1903, Vauxhall was already making its mark before one lapped the famous Brooklands track at 100mph in 1910. In 1925 General Motors became a bona fide British car maker by purchasing the entire Vauxhall operation (six years prior to its similar move here in purchasing Holden). Vauxhall was no slouch technically – it beat Rolls-Royce to the punch by a few months in 1932 with the introduction of a synchro-mesh gearbox, going on to launch its H model in 1937, the first monocoque-construction Brit car.

It’s probably a fair bet that, for most Aussie car enthusiasts, Vauxhall’s most memorable achievement came in 1960 when a locally assembled Vauxhall Cresta PA model driven by Frank Coad and John Roxburgh won the inaugural Armstrong 500 race at Phillip Island – the forerunner event to Australia’s iconic Bathurst 1000 race.

My first awareness of Vauxhall occurred many years earlier, probably at about age 6 or 7, when my dad explained you could always recognise one by the distinctive pair of chromed flutes that had decorated Vauxhall bonnets for donkey’s years. My standout Vauxhall experience came when my mate and I, a pair of 14-year-old dingbats, set one up as a ‘paddock bomb’ to punt around tracks by the Yarra in the then-rural Melbourne suburb of Bulleen. It was a unique Australian soft-top model, oddly called the Calèche (later rebadged as the Vagabond). In this old Vauxhall, whose best days were well behind it, with its canvas-top long gone, as well as its bonnet, we took it in turns to try to outdo each other in emulating the ‘Hell Drivers’ stunts we had seen at the Melbourne Showgrounds. Somehow, despite numerous two-wheel and airborne episodes, without benefit of seat belts or helmets, we came out the other side of these shenanigans intact, which is more than can be said for the old Vauxhall.

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The win was hot news

For Vauxhall the years 1957-58 were pretty exciting with the launch of the new mid-size Victor and the redesigned six-cylinder PA model Velox and Cresta, all featuring Buick and Chevrolet styling cues, while traditionalists mourned the loss of the chrome bonnet flutes. The fresh PA pair provided an upmarket alternative for FC Holden buyers. Their bigger brakes and 12 horsepower power advantage over their grey-motor Holden stablemates no doubt contributed to the Cresta’s subsequent racetrack success.

Then in 1964 the light and agile little HA model Vauxhall Viva arrived. I remember the Viva as a modestly powered, but nippy little car with perhaps the sweetest shifting gearbox ever, matching Ford’s 105E Anglia for size and performance.

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By 1966, though, the HA Viva had just about run its race. Sales were stagnant and there was an expectation among buyers that something worth waiting for was just around the corner (which turned out to be the HB Viva-based Torana!). This prompted GMH to try to move some of its HA Viva stock by offering them to employees on weekend loans for extended test drives, as well as a decent discount if they chose to buy one.

While I never discovered how many GMH workers actually bought Vivas, I remember clearly that the weekend loan scheme was soon dropped when alarming numbers of Vivas returned bearing battle scars, stuffed tyres and surprisingly high mileages, from marathon interstate loops and rallycross-style dirt-road antics. The fact that some arrived back on tow trucks and one had to be retrieved after falling off the Great Ocean Road didn’t help either…

 

From Unique Cars #450, March 2021

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