Britain’s oldest make of car faces crisis. Its Ellesmere Port factory is moving to single shift working and you don’t feel Peugeot-Citroën (PSA) has its heart in it. GM Europe sustained 16 consecutive years of losses before the French takeover and while PSA is unlikely to abandon Vauxhall short term it could unravel in the long. Peugeot is well established in the UK. Vauxhall could atrophy without a French tear being shed.
Replacing Vauxhalls with Opels seems unlikely. That was tried in the 1980s with joint Vauxhall-Opel dealers but the British middle class had been buying Vauxhalls for generations and stuck with them stubbornly. Striking-looking, more Transatlantic than Fords, technically adventurous with unitary body shells and independent suspension, Vauxhalls were safe in the national psyche along with Austin, Morris, Standard and Rootes.
GM bought Adam Opel AG of Germany as well as Vauxhall but the pair never had much in common. In the 1930s, strapped for convertible cash, the Third Reich sold dreary Opel Olympias here at £155. The 1936 side-valve 4-cylinder got overhead valves and Dubonnet springing, the headlights were sunk into the wings but the finish was bleak, the interior gloomy. There was opposition to them as cut-priced and dumped through Nazi subventions. Post-war GM reassured the British that Vauxhall would keep its identity but by the 1960s following disasters of inept styling and poor quality, the German-engineered Cavalier drew them back together. General Motors Europe wanted to tidy up and integrate Opels into the UK but failed. Buyers remained loyal to Vauxhall even after Luton stopped making cars.
Celebrating 90 years under the same umbrella in 2017, GM as a whole had made 500 million vehicles, some 14.5 million of them Vauxhalls. There was already technical crossover between PSA and GM and although prospects for Ellesmere Port’s Astra factory making Opel-and Vauxhall-badged cars seemed secure at first, PSA expects some €2billion ($2.1billion) savings from the deal.
So, in due course, it may be different.
Vauxhall Model by Model from 1903, an Eric Dymock Motor Book from Dove Publishing studies its continuous history from engine-making at the Vauxhall Ironworks in Lambeth, to car factories in Luton and Merseyside. Vauxhalls had Edwardian splendour with the Prince Henry and the 30-98, then transformed itself to make popular cars in Britain. In 1920 General Motors taking advantage of import tax breaks favouring CKD (completely knocked down) vehicles over finished ones assembled Chevrolets, Buicks and Cadillacs but they were still expensive.
GM’s Hendon aerodrome factory was given over to Chevrolet trucks and GM tried to buy Austin of Birmingham. Herbert Austin had a fine factory at Longbridge but getting investment wasn’t always easy. GM preferred it to Morris, which made cars from bits bought-in. Longbridge was the complete works and since it was losing over £1.5m every year since 1921 it could be bought cheap. Austin directors decided not. Instead GM paid £2.5million for Vauxhall, which in the event was just as well. Vauxhall had been trying to compete with Rolls-Royce and Napier. Turning over to popular Cadets saved the day.