Vauxhall Cavalier Mark 1

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Vauxhall Cavalier Mark 1

1975 - 1981
United Kingdom
4 cyl.
1256/1584/1987 cc
58-74 bhp
4 spd man. / 3 spd auto
Top Speed:
92 mph (claimed)
Number Built:
1 star
Vauxhall Cavalier Mark 1
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 1


Launched with a 1584cc engine in 1975 as a 1976, model, the Cavalier was a restyled version of the German Opel Ascona, produced initially at the GM plant in Antwerp, Belgium. The first Vauxhall Cavalier to be assembled at Vauxhall's Luton plant was driven off the production line by Eric Fountain, Vauxhall's manufacturing director, on 26 August 1977, after which the 1256 cc version, assembled at Luton and using engine and transmission already familiar to Viva 1300 owners, broadened the range. At that stage the 1584 cc Cavalier and the 1897 cc which had joined it were still being imported from Belgium, but in due course these, too, started to emerge from the Luton production plant.

The Cavalier 1300L was the cheapest and lowest-powered of the range. Above it, also with a choice of two or four doors and with the same standard of trim, came the 1600L. Above this was the 1600GL, available only in four-door form and with substantial extra trim (though little of it might be regarded as fundamental). Then came the 1900G L, again only available with four doors. Rounding off the Cavalier range is the 1900GLS Coupe, the only Vauxhall equivalent of the Opel Manta.

In Vauxhall's line-up the Cavalier initially complemented and then replaced the slightly larger Victor, which was starting to fall a long way behind the Ford Cortina in the British car sales charts, and was being overtaken by the Morris Marina and Austin Maxi. The timing of the Cavalier's UK launch was well judged. The UK tax system meant that sales to company car fleets comprised a larger proportion of the overall market - especially for middle-weight saloons - than elsewhere in Europe: the Ford Cortina Mk II had been replaced by the Ford Cortina Mk III in 1970, but in the eyes of the all important company car fleet managers the newer Cortina never quite matched the earlier car for reliability, notably in respect of problems with its cable clutch and with camshaft wear in the 1.6 and 2.0 litre ohc units. The traditionally very conservative fleet market was therefore particularly receptive to Vauxhall's new Cortina challenger.

The Cavalier was revised in 1978 when the 1.9 Litre became a 2.0 Litre engine and the 1.3 Litre OHV engine from the Vauxhall Viva and Vauxhall Chevette was used to create the entry Cavalier 1.3 variant. At the same time, a three-door hatchback known as the Sports hatch (also seen on the Manta) was added to the range. All Cavaliers shared similar bodywork to the Opel Ascona but had the slanted nose of the Manta to give them the distinct "droop snoot" front end, while the coupé also had a front air dam. The Chevrolet Chevair in South Africa was a variant of this model, featuring the grille of the Opel Manta and different engine choices. Vauxhall, from 1978 until 1979, offered the Cavalier coupé in convertible format called the Centaur. Only 118 of these were made and fewer than 30 were believed to have survived by 2007. The cars were developed by Magraw Engineering and sold through Vauxhall dealerships on behalf of Crayford. The Centaur is basically a Cavalier GLS coupé 2-litre with the hard roof replaced with a soft top leaving a T-bar for strength. The floor pan was also strengthened.

The Bread-And-Butter 1300L

By the time of the release of the 1300 version in 1978, the Cavalier had become somewhat of a phenomenon. Together with its smaller brother, the Chevette, the duo had been responsible for a major recovery in Vauxhalls fortunes. The 1300 was Vauxhall's tried and trusted 1.3-litre ohv Viva/Chevettee unit, which had earned a great reputation for economy. In "L" trim, the 1300 was priced some £150 below the equivalent 1.6-litre model, and likewise available in either two or four-door form.

The Viva engine was smaller and lighter, naturally, so the car regained in that way some of the acceleration lost by dropping the power from 75 to 58bhp (DIN), with a matching loss of torque. Thankfully the automatic transmission, an option for the 1600, was not available for the 1300. Despite the Vauxhall badges and the new (possibly lower-drag) nose shape, the Cavalier was still obviously kin to the Opel Ascona. There was no external evidence of the smaller power unit.

Performance and Economy

The Cavalier was a big car by the standards of the 1.3 litre class, yet it was not unduly heavy, benefitting from Opel's computer-assisted structural design. To match the Viva engine, the final drive was dropped to 4.11-to-1, giving a modest overall gearing of 16.4 mph per 1,000 rpm. The lower gears were spread wide, with first gear just able to reach 30 mph, and second failing to pull 50 mph. Above second there was a noticeable gap to third, which went to well over 70 mph. Though it may have seemed that the gearing was low, it turned out to be sensibly chosen. The Vauxhall engine peaked at only 5,400 rpm and while Vauxhall claimed a top speed of 92mph, most road testers only managed the 85-87mph range.

By comparison with the modest acceleration times, the maximum speeds were quite high and we assume the shape of the Cavalier was better than other cars in the class for the time. Although the Cavalier took its time getting to 80mph, it cruised at that speed in a very relaxed way. It was certainly not brisk away from the lights, but its acceleration was well on par with the general run of 1300 saloons available throughout the 1970's. There was of course too little power to spin the wheels from rest, and consequently there was a slight stagger before the engine began to pull smoothly in standing-start acceleration runs. Most road testers found little benefit in hanging on to the lower gears, but obtained the best results by snatching second at about 25 mph, running to 40 mph before taking third, and letting that take the car to 70 mph. Once in top gear the rate of acceleration was notably slower, though the Cavalier was flexible enough that most road testers claimed they were able to take top-gear figures from 10 mph, using full throttle to pull away - which is pretty impressive.

At steady speeds the Cavalier 1300 showed a smooth decline in fuel consumption from an excellent 64 mpg at 30 mph, to 24, mpg at a steady 80 mph. Perhaps the best indication of its potential - assuming it was driven in family-touring fashion rather than flat-out by an impatient road tester - were quoted figures of 36.6 mpg at a steady 60 mph. Not only were the steady-speed consumptions sparing; the Cavalier seemed also to be efficient when accelerating. Under normal driving conditions, Unique Cars and Parts believe a figure closer to 40mpg to be very achievable.

Handling And Brakes

The Cavalier had a good deal in hand from the chassis point of view. The 1300 engine may have been smaller, but it retained the steering, brakes and tyres of earlier versions, with the same good results, One of the few criticisms concerned the steering, which at over four turns from lock to lock (and for a strictly average turning circle) was certainly low-geared. In practice this was most noticed when manoeuvring at low speed, and particularly when turning into or out of a side turning on a main road, yet the main object of such gearing - to achieve lightness - was successful, Assuming the 1300 was primarily aimed at being a 2nd family car, with which women would be the main driver, and in an era long before power steering was the norm, ensuring any driver would not have difficulty with the steering when parking was an important consideration for the designers.

In all other respects the steering rated highly, most of all in its feel and precision, providing good feedback and insulating against the worst road shocks being fed back to the wheel. The Cavalier's natural stability was good, and for a rear-driven car it behaved exceptionally well in strong sidewinds. Most motoring journalists had formed a high impression of the Ascona / Cavalier series, and in 1300 form the Cavalier was, surprisingly, considered even better balanced. Certainly the car was most notable for its sheer obedience: the precision of the steering and the moderate understeer meant that quick, sharp corrections of line were no problem, its cornering limits were high, though enthusiastic drivers (inevitably) commented on the lack of power to push the tail wide through the apex of a bend. Vauxhall hoped the average family driver would be unlikely to feel the same sense of loss, and instead would appreciate how they could corner fast and crisply, and that if they got it wrong the situation could be sorted out without drama, either with the steering alone or by lifting off the accelerator and slowing down.

Vauxhall Cavalier
The Vauxhall Cavalier - almost as successful as Ford's Cortina...
This happened without any marked change of line through the corner. Good damping in roll meant that S-bends were taken with decorum, though this was the other area where the low-geared steering may have been noticed. Helping in the handling department were the excellent-in-dry-weather Michelin XZX tyres, which always seemed to impress with their dry roadholding and the lack of tyre squeal. In the wet, however, the grip was noticeably less and the Cavalier could be set merrily sliding - still with a feeling of excellet control. Brakes that sufficed for a 100 mph 2-litre car were clearly not going to be pushed when dealing with an 87 mph. 1.3-litre one. The Cavalier suffered no problem at all in this area, its generous brake servo able to produce a best stop of 0.96g on a slightly damp surface.

Panic braking would lock all four wheels, the Cavalier sliding ahead in nicely stable fashion. Road testers that bothered to perform fade tests suggested (with its slight but apparently random variation in the pressure needed to hold a 0.5g stop) that the brakes were not even getting fully warmed through, another indication that they were more than adequate for their task. The handbrake proved light and effective, giving an excellent 0.34g stop when used alone on the level. It held the Cavalier facing either way on the 1-in-3 test hill, though in this case it needed to be heaved nearer the limit of its travel. But once one road tester decided to pull away from the gradient test, they soon realised the 1300 engine was not quite up to the task, with a subsequent threatening to burn out its clutch; but it started with no problem on the 1-in-4 slope.

Behind The Wheel

Simplicity and good taste were the keynotes of the Cavaliers driving position - after all the Cavalier was pure Opel rather than Vauxhall. The neat, round instruments were easy to read. The speedometer was calibrated to 120 mph, and carried a total mileage but no trip recorder. On either side of the speedometer were two matching dials, one containing the segment-type fuel gauge and three warning lights, and the other the water temperature gauge and more warnings. The lighting master switch was a simple pull-and-twist knob by the driver's left hand, and a single steering column stalk catered for windscreen wipe /wash, indicators and headlamp dipping and flashing. The major control's were equally straightforward. The steering wheel had a pleasantly textured rim, and its size and height were well judged - neither sporting nor clumsy. The pedals had no noticeable offset and all worked smoothly. In particular, the clutch was one of the lightest then available, needing just 18lb effort to free it, yet not at the expense of excessive travel. The gearchange was excellent, light and precise, with movements just long enough to avoid any chance of confusion when slamming through a quick change.

Visibility from the driving seat was generally good, helped by the slim pillars, but short drivers could not see the extreme rear of the car for reversing. Nor can any driver actually see the extreme nose of the car, because of its aerodynamic downslope. The two-speed wipers were properly set up for right-hand drive and cleared the screen well, with the aid when necessary of effi-cient twin-jet electric washers. Despite their low wattage, the large reflector area of the headlamps provided a good main beam, though the sharply cut-off dipped beam seemed a good deal dimmer as well as limited in range. The driving seat was better than average in most respects. It had a generous range of fore and aft movement, and the headroom was adequate for a long-backed driver to about 6ft 3in.; the cloth upholstry was warm and comfortable, and (standard) inertia-reel safety belts were part of the package.

The Cavalier made good use of its generous bodyshell. Unlike many in the class, it could be considered a true 4 seater, which made it one of the main attractions for families. The back seat had enough room for a six-foot passenger to sit without having to skew their knees past the back of the front seat. In the four-door, entry and exit were easy from the back. Nor was the back seat itself typically low rent, instead it was more akin with what you would find in medium-sized cars. The headroom was good enough to match the legroom. In 1300L form the Cavalier had a simple bench, enabling it to seat three in the back at some expense in side support when only two were in the car, as there was no centre armrest. The ride was a good European compromise, striking a balance between comfort and handling but leaning towards the latter. On smooth roads the Cavalier gave a feeling of firm stability - it handled single bumps very smoothly, a tribute to the balance of the car, but rough roads would bring out a harsher ride and quickly put the suspension under duress.

The heating and ventilation sytem was satisfactory in all but one aspect - through flow was via face-level vents in the facia, as was the heating system. The heater output wasextremely powerful, and the foot level distribution was easily controlled; but the control of temperature was another matter. Most water systems tended to change suddenly from too little heat to too much, and the Cavalier was one of the best examples of this. But at least the system would demists a fogged-up windscreen quickly and completely with a relatively quiet two-speed fan. The front seats were cloth upholstered on the wearing surfaces, and had a good range of movement and supported occupants well under thighs and sideways, however lumbar support was somewhat lacking. The two-spoke steering wheel was pleasant to hold and the pedals were well spaced and free from offset.

Living with the Cavalier 1300L

Having made the choice of two or four doors, there was little else you could option on the Cavalier 1300. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, there was no automatic transission option, and almost nothing in the way of factory-fitted options other than metallic paint. You could include some dealer fitted options, such as driver's door mirror and the cigarette lighter, together with a push button AM radio. A manual choke was fitted and needed to be fully employed for a cold start. It then needed to be pushed home by degrees as the engine warmed up. The fuel tank had a capacity of 11 gallons which gave a generous safe cruising range of around 300 miles between stops. The fuel-filler was hidden beneath a flush-fitting flap above the right rear wheel, and the tank was located well forward out of harm's way, immediately behind the back seat.

The boot was large by the standards of this class, but was inconveniently short and deep, making loading easier. There was a moderately high sill over which luggage had to be lifted. The spare wheel stood upright at the left of the boot, in a slot which would clearly make it difficult to carry an oversize tyre. Interior stowage for odds and ends was rather limited, consisting of a tray round the gear lever and a glovebox on the passenger side of the facia. Under the rear-hinged bonnet, the Viva engine looked extremely small. Most of the items needing regular attention were easy to check and reach, helped by translucent reservoirs. The dipstick and distributor were slightly too low for comfort, but the sparking plugs gained the worst marking for Cavalier accessibility.

Despite being the same car mechanically, the Opel Ascona was sold alongside the Cavalier in the UK until 1981, when GM decided to phase out duplicated models with the Opel brand in the UK, and merge remaining dealerships with those of Vauxhall. The Opel Manta (and Monza) remained available, giving the Opel brand a "sports" position. That the Manta was sold alongside the Mark 2 Cavalier in the 1980s gave rise to the curiosity that the previous generation Ascona/Cavalier was effectively being sold concurrently with its successor, since a coupe/sports hatch version of the Ascona/Cavalier Mark 2 was never engineered.

At the time few would have disagreed that the Cavaliers styling was smartly modern, and there were plenty of customers to whom "more car" had strong appeal. Add to this the Cavalier's reasonable performance, good economy and competitive price, and you can understand why it became a stong seller in Britain, even though it never quite matched the runaway sales success of the Ford Cortina.

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