VBOA Matters 7/6. Into 2007 Ian Coomber, VBOA Chairman
2007 will see some significant anniversaries for the Vauxhall brand. The limited company behind the Luton marque was formed in 1907 and in 1937 Vauxhall launched its first 10hp model of the modern era with its sensational unitary construction, the H-Type. Then, in 1957 Vauxhall stunned the motoring world by launching two completely new car ranges in the space of a few months. And what cars! The F-Type Victor and the PA Velox and Cresta models completely broke the mould of contemporary car design and finally buried the remnants of post war austerity. In more recent times, 1987 saw the launch of the sophisticated second generation Senator and the brutal Carlton GSi 3000.
The genesis of Vauxhall goes back to 1857 when a Scottish born engineer called Alexander Wilson founded Alex. Wilson and Company at a Thames-side workshop situated close to Vauxhall Bridge and the old Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. At the time of their destruction in 1859 the Pleasure Gardens were the largest of their kind in London. Once a fashionable Mecca for the rich and famous to see and be seen in, in later years they had become run down and a focus for criminal and vice activities. Their demise was to make way for the further industrialisation of the area by creating the Vauxhall Junction railway station.
Known as Wilson’s, the works was originally an old brewery, now the site of a Sainsbury’s supermarket on the Wandsworth Road in Lambeth, South London.
A medal winner at international maritime exhibitions, Wilson’s company produced steam engines for both paddle and propeller driven craft as well as small “donkey engines” for driving shipboard machinery like winches and cranes. He won contracts from the Admiralty for pinnace engines (fast communications launches for use in harbour) and supplied bigger units for Thames tugs and pleasure boats, and even exported engines for Nile cruise boats. By the eighteen eighties he had expanded into dry air refrigeration plant. Employing around 150 men, it was an apparently successful enterprise. However Wilson’s engineering prowess was not matched by scrupulous record keeping, early employees commenting that his desk was always a mess and the factory was very much run on the back of the proverbial cigarette packet.
The company became a limited one in 1892 with a marine consulting engineer, William Gardner, as managing director. Two years later Wilson left to set up his own engineering consultancy, but despite this walking administrative nightmare leaving, the company ran into difficulties with the bank. In 1895 they appointed an engineer, John Chambers, to run the company as receiver. The following year a new company, the Vauxhall Iron Works Company Limited was formed, with joint managing directors, William Gardner and John Chambers, who had evidently been impressed enough with the potential in the business to stay on.
With financial stability re-established, some key new staff were hired including an ex-apprentice called F. W. Hodges, by now a respected marine engineer, who took the post of head of the drawing office. Vauxhall started to look at the emerging technology that was the internal combustion engine. A rival enterprise at Putney had been importing German Benz engines for fitting to river launches and Vauxhall were keen not to miss out. However they decided to design their own engine and a curious opposed piston single cylinder unit was successfully installed in Hodges launch, the “Jabberwock”. Hodges also designed a five cylinder radial engine which, although it ran, was not considered for future production.
In the late eighteen nineties motor cars or, to be more accurate horseless carriages, were appearing on the streets of the Capital. The Act of Parliament which removed the need for a man with a red flag to walk in front of a self-propelled vehicle had been repealed in 1896. This event, celebrated by the annual veteran car run to Brighton (please, never the “old crocks race”), saw the national speed limit increased to 12 mph and cars receive a boost in popularity as a means of personal mobility to rival the horse, which ironically was seen as a major source of pollution. Hodges soon acquired a belt driven single cylinder car and before long it was in the Vauxhall works being dismantled for inspection. Aided by receiver turned director, John Chambers, Hodges produced prototypes in 1902 and finally they were ready to launch the first Vauxhall production car in 1903.
However, that did not signal the end of marine engine and hydraulic pump work. Indeed that was to remain the major bread winner for the company for some time to come, cars at first being very much a speculative sideline. In 1903 Chambers resigned from the company and the energetic Percy Kidner replaced him as joint managing director with Gardner.
Following the 1905 move of the Vauxhall Iron Works to a “greenfield” site in Luton, a new company was created in 1906 from a merger with the neighbouring West Hydraulic Engineering Company by adding the Vauxhall name to the latter’s impressive title. By 1907 it must have been obvious to Kidner that the car manufacturing part of the company could stand on its own feet and so Vauxhall Motors Limited was hived off as a new company with Kidner and Lesley Walton as joint managing directors and William Gardner staying on as chairman. The marine and hydraulics part of the business continued for some years as West Hydraulics.
Barring a further financial restructuring in 1914, this was the Vauxhall company that General Motors purchased in 1925 and remains today as a manufacturer and retailer of cars and vans under the Vauxhall brand name and with its registered office in Luton.
Fast forwarding 30 years, Vauxhall revealed the second part of the General Motors strategy to take Vauxhall to the forefront of the volume British car makers when it launched the H-Type in 1937. The first four cylinder car of the new era took them into the small, 10HP, market with a bang. The H-Type was the first volume British car to dispense with a separate chassis, the car’s unitary construction allowed for a light but strong design which when mated to a very modern engine gave performance and fuel consumption figures that are hard to match even today. Vauxhall launched the car with a mass drive-away event for dealers and ran a series of dealer based economy competitions which drove home their advantages in fuel economy, which even in regular use topped 40mpg. Officially called the Ten Four, it also introduced independent front suspension to the small car market and at just £168 for the entry model, complete with hydraulic brakes and the option of new “pearlescent” paint finishes, it was destined to sell like hot cakes. Success in the Monte Carlo Rally just weeks after its launch helped convince the public of its reliability and a staggering 10,000 units were sold in the first five months of production. As the Motor road test said, “this is an extraordinary car”.
In 1957 Vauxhall did something which would be unthinkable today, by launching two completely new models within a few months of each other. Following several years with a one body shell/two engine strategy with the L and E-Type Wyvern and Velox models, it was decided to offer two separate models to better cover the medium and large market segments. By now, the styling department under David Jones was as important as the engineering input when new models were designed. In the early history of Vauxhall, the engineers such as Pomeroy and King reigned supreme but, from the fifties onwards, it was the stylists led by Jones and (Wayne) Cherry that grabbed the headlines.
An early adopter of the new General Motors Art and Colour movement headed by the legendary Harley Earl, Vauxhall were well placed to see the success of the US attention to style, colour and materials. They recruited the young sculptor David Jones to join a small “styling” department run by Eric Kennington. Jones was born in Birmingham and educated at Birmingham Art School. A talented illustrator, in 1928 he was awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London, where he studied illustration and sculpture and came under the influence of Henry Moore, who was teaching there. On graduation, Jones worked briefly as an apprentice to the sculptor Barry Hart before joining Vauxhall in 1932.
He joined Earl’s group in 1937 to serve his car styling “apprenticeship” and following the retirement of Kennington, he was appointed director of styling. His design department at Luton was more like a traditional artist's studio than present-day design offices. Here cars were modelled full-size in clay. The staff wore smocks and used large wooden sweeps to shape the material. The connection with Harley Earl and the Tech Centre in Detroit, where he was a frequent visitor, was also influential.
The new two model strategy, with introduction dates just a few months apart, placed too much strain on Vauxhall’s resources, so design of the smaller 1.5 litre 4-cylinder F-Type was shared with Detroit while the larger 2.2 litre 6-cylinder PA models remained largely in-house at Luton.
The F-type introduced the Victor name and was launched in 1957 to a mixed reception, its heavy US styling cues looking rather overpowering when miniaturised for UK roads. Perhaps because it was largely the work of the US studios, it wasn’t a pastiche developed and adapted for the UK, but a “real” US car in miniature, with panoramic “wrap round” front and rear glass, bulbous bumpers and details such as the exhaust exiting through one of the rear bumper “bombs”, heavy styling ribs up the bonnet and a recessed bonnet badge. Today these same features make these cars so interesting and collectable, but in-period they were a shock to the UK market. The Victor name reflected the marketing objectives for the car as well as being the name of one of Britain’s latest nuclear deterrent “V” bomber force, the height of modernity in jet aviation.
Launched a few months later, the 6 cylinder PA Velox and Cresta models were equally flamboyant, but seemed more successful at catching the flavour of contemporary US influence without being a “miniature yank”. The three-window rear cabin treatment and the long but discrete rear fins incorporating the indicators looked elegant and have stood the test of time well. Perhaps because there was more length and width to play with, or perhaps because of the guiding hand of David Jones, the PA is a genuine style icon, although some of the detailing was extravagant to say the least. The ultra modern styling had difficulty coping with the traditional Vauxhall brand cues. The troublesome bonnet flutes were relegated to the status of afterthought, appearing inappropriately on the body sides. The speedbird, which had graced Vauxhall bonnets in many guises since the thirties, was replaced by a Mercedes style bonnet emblem, albeit in best quality plastic. Having effectively “killed” the flutes, David Jones seems to have had a pang of nostalgia with his last execution before he retired, the FE Victor, as they returned for one last flourish.
Both cars borrowed heavily on the latest US materials and colour palette for the interior where a rocket-ship theme was much in evidence. The exterior colour palette was also aggressively Trans -Atlantic. The single-tone Velox was relatively subdued unless blessed with the pink finish, or Mountain Rose to give it its official title, which is remembered today as the archetypal PA colour. But the two-tone Cresta with standard white wall tyres stood out in any crowd. Much has been made of the difficulty of entering these cars without banging a knee on the “dog leg” windscreen support. Experience avoided the pain and the gain was an unrestricted view of the road at crossroads in stark contrast to today’s obstructive A-posts.
In retrospect, Vauxhall was lucky to get away with these two cars. None of today’s market research was done, it was just a case that the stylists wanted to do America and as most things bright, new and desirable in the world in the fifties came from the US, it was the way to go. But they could have been Vauxhall’s Edsel, and indeed the F-Type got pretty close to faltering in the market and the more restrained Series 2 version was rushed into production to save the day. Today, the PA is synonymous with “Teddy Boy” culture and it’s difficult to remember that when they were new they were intended as a car for the middle classes, with contemporary adverts showing pipe smoking, suit wearing, bank managers showing off their latest purchase to the elegant wife and children in front of a mock-Tudor house.
If styling appeared king, engineering had not been forgotten and the underpinnings featured all the old Vauxhall virtues of toughness and reliability. Unfortunately, the same attention to detail had not gone into the body design and construction and both models latterly gained a justified reputation for premature corrosion. But despite these shortcomings the cars sold well and Vauxhall entered another era of expansion at Luton, but the legacy of their early return to nature haunted many a future generation of cars from Luton.
Amply illustrating the changes that had taken place in the world of General Motors and its European subsidiaries since the fifties, the Vauxhall Senator, so beloved of the British traffic police and the high performance Carlton GSi 3000 of 1987 were both built at the Adam Opel plant in Rüsselsheim, Germany. With car engineering and new model development now firmly the responsibility of the Opel Technical Design Centre, new models were effectively badge engineered Opels and, frankly, none the worse for that. Luton and Ellesmere Port, opened in 1964, remained key production facilities, supplying an increasingly fleet dominated home market and exporting finished products back to Europe. 1987 saw Vauxhall’s Fleet Sales Manager, Mike Bonner, clinch the UK’s first “single badge” fleet deal whereby the giant electrical conglomerate, Thorn EMI, undertook to use Vauxhall cars at every level in their company. It meant that 20,000 vehicles would be required over a two year period, a deal worth an amazing £160 million at showroom prices and setting the scene for Vauxhall’s erosion of Ford’s traditional market leadership over the following years.
1987 was also the year in which Vauxhall Motors Limited, the company set up by a group of visionary engineers and motoring pioneers in distant 1907, returned to profit after losses in 18 of the previous 19 years, which brings these thoughts full circle.
In 2007 the VBOA and the many clubs which cater for the cars mentioned in this story will be celebrating these momentous developments in the history of Vauxhall. And I haven’t had time to mention