Time travel is a wonderful thing, you get a great view of time as you warp through the decades. The recent PetrolBlog big day out at
Vauxhall took me right back to the dawn of my motoring career, the sounds and smells of old engines are so amazingly evocative of the age before fuel injection and catalysts. And this got me thinking about just how far we have come, there have been some remarkable advances in areas such as performance and refinement, but also we seem to have lost something along the way.
Fienza HP (Droop Snoot)
My first drive of the day, and one that instantly transported me back to my first ever car; a Cavalier mk1. There is the smell of fuel you only get with carburettor cars, it’s raw, pure, and for people of my
generation it’s hugely evocative of an era when just getting your car to start was an achievement.
This car was a complete bare shell restoration which I covered for Practical Classics a few years ago, absolutely everything had to be rebuilt from the ground up and is
another great example of the fantastic work that master mechanic Andrew Boddy at the Vauxhall Heritage Centre undertakes, and it is wonderful to see the car fully finished. It’s even more wonderful to drive it.
Immediately the car feels direct and delightfully connected to the road, with non-assisted steering you can feel the road under the wheels, it feels alive. Even before I get out the car park I’m smiling like a lunatic, but once out in the country lanes this car delivers joy in great bucket loads. It’s by no means perfect, the 185 tyres seem skinny by modern standards and let go readily, but delightfully progressively making it deeply rewarding to drive. Would I take this car out just for the thrill of it? Well yes, but half the thrill would be wondering if it will make it back in one piece. This is an old car, there are a few clonks and rattles, but it all adds to the theatre of this marvellous car. And when I finally get out of the car and walk away, I just cant help looking back at it and enjoying the superb lines and proportions of this classic beauty. Surely that’s a sign they must have got something really very right.
Astra GTE MK1
Now this was a very interesting car, because my colleagues formed a notably different view of it to me. This highlights how personal car
tests actually are, our view of a car depends on our own preferences, past experiences, expectations and driving style. Every road test is as much a reflection of the tester as it is of the car.
This car was from a far simpler age, non-assisted steering giving lovely feedback through the spindly steering wheel, the view from the large windows is complemented by the low waist line so you can see everything on the road with no blind spots. But that’s where the fun stopped for me.
On the road the performance of the 1.8 8 valve engine is modest, maybe I’m spoilt by the thrust of modern performance cars but this one just didn’t sing for me, despite not having a rev limiter. The handling is poor by modern standards, but very much the norm for small hatches of that era, go into a corner fast and it understeers horribly, and if you have to back off for some reason mid corner the understeer immediately translates into annoying oversteer. Not that slowing down is that easy, the brakes really don’t do much, press the pedal hard and you really don’t slow down very much, press it harder and a wheel locks up, and you still don’t slow down very much.
But this is in itself important, it’s stable mates at that time had even more pedestrian engines which didn’t overly tax the brakes and handling. By taking the standard car and fitting a slightly more powerful engine they created a dynasty that leads directly to today’s Astra VXR.
Astra GTE MK2
With the MK2 they put a decent engine in, in fact that 16 valve 2.0 litre lump became a legend in racing circles and managed to dislodge
the Ford Pinto as the engine of choice in many club racing specials. In the GTE it’s pleasantly nippy and buzzes along with happy eagerness, the understeer is still there but less intrusive, and the lift off oversteer is much better. The brakes are still inadequate when ‘making good progress’, it
doesn’t really do emergency stops as such but at least it has the ability to slow down a bit, unlike its predecessor. It is quite a fun car, but still doesn’t quite work as a complete package.
Now, our illustrious leader Major Gav has actually owned two of these fine motorcars, so I was a bit worried when he joined me for a quick blast through the countryside, was I about to show myself up at the wheel of one of his favourite machines?
This particular version is the higher powered version, still based on the Lotus Elese but with the suspension and engine tuned by Opel. It seems to be set up for a race track, with very hard suspension that is not helped by the non standard ultra low profile tyres, it crashes and bangs over irregularities and pot holes are like a kick in the butt. It’s not nice.
But on smooth stretches it sticks to the road quite well and picks up pace briskly, the steering is direct and it changes direction swiftly. It’s quite a lot of fun and begs to be pushed harder, and somehow as it wears a Vauxhall badge and not a Lotus one it seems a bit more humble, I like that.
The last stop on the time machine was the present day, and here I had the opportunity to sample the descendants of these old cars and see exactly what their future held.
Now, those who know me will be wondering what witchcraft managed
to get me into this sort of car. It’s not a fire breathing supercar or a go anywhere off road superhero, but putting my own preferences to one side I find that this sort of car is a very good idea. Its big inside, not too big on the outside, it goes and stops as it should and doesn’t use too much fuel. Normally that formula could be dangerously close to dull, so the splash of stainless steel and the nice blend of colours adds a touch of interest. In short it’s a perfectly good car. If you like that sort of thing.
This was a surprise. Again not my usual sort of test car, it has very little power and has no noticeable acceleration. Inside it is very roomy for two adults and two small kids at the back, an ideal car for a young
family, and I think that is a useful focus for this test. The car is painted to look sporty, it has stripes and graphics, even the headlining is a massive chequered flag, which initially seems at odds with its lack of performance and its super soft suspension, but I actually think it makes sense. If
you have just started a family you might not want to give up on the idea of a sports car, but even if you had one you would drive it gently with your new family installed, so this car works; it has a fun and sporty image yet delivers sensible family practicality.
I drove this on a test track last year, but driving it through the heart of Luton was a far more realistic test, particularly accelerating between speedbumps up some of the towns steep hills. Now, you might expect me to slate electric cars, as I spend most of my time testing things like
Bentleys, Jaguars and Porsches, but actually I am a strong believer in electric cars, which are in many ways still in their infancy but will increasingly meet an exceed the abilities of internal combustion.
But this car should not be judged as an electric car, it should be judged as a normal small family car, and that is something it does very well, in fact in many ways it does it better than the Adam. It has reasonable performance, it’s quicker than many other conventional cars in this class and handles acceptably well too, although the low ground clearance at the front can be an issue on speedbumps. The interior is well equipped and spacious, not massive by any means but certainly big enough for most things.
In short this is a good car in it’s own right, and if I had the cash I would probably buy one.
So in summary, there are many things that are good such as ABS and crash safety, but there are many things that are a bit of a sad loss too. Being able to feel the road through the steering wheel in such a vivid way that you know how much traction the tyres have has completely gone, and whilst it may be true that you don’t need to read the road any more because the car stability control does that all for you it also means that drivers aren’t compelled to concentrate on the road like they used to. One result being that crashes keep getting more frequent, and now for the first time in decades road deaths are increasing.
The styling of cars is much more intense than it used to be, we are cocooned and protected with styling flourishes here there and everywhere. The window glass area is increasing, front screens are massive now, but the view out is getting more restrictive. A pillars are huge, mirrors are multifunction colossus, waistlines are getting higher, our actual view of the road is diminishing. In fact it is quite easy to loose sight of a car behind the mirror and A pillar whilst waiting at a T junction or roundabout on a modern car, by comparison a car of the ’70s with its spindly A pillar, tiny mirror mounted lower and not obstructing your line of sight forward, all makes for a far better view of the road, I felt much more a part of the traffic in an old-timer than in a new car.
Our connection to the road and to the traffic is reduced, our responsibility in terms of controlling the car and observing traffic have been eroded. But it is possible to design a car with the best of both old and new, spindly A pillars made out of stronger modern materials, mirrors replaced by cameras and a head up display, nicely assisted steering but with the soft compliant isolation removed etc. Driving both old and new on the same day brings it all into sharp focus.
And a final observation, not about cars but about our car industry in the UK. Currently UK automotive is doing very well indeed, the car sector is probably better than it has ever been. But there is a sobering reminder of how things can change for the worse in the Vauxhal
museum, there is a map of the site from the early ’80s, it shows the massive scale of the sprawling complex, with roads and railways running through the site. Some areas are marked up for planned expansion, there are research and development facilities, prototype workshops, a styling studio as well as a myriad of huge production buildings. Thousands of people worked there, the streets around the plant housed thousands of families dependent on the thriving factory, for every job at the plant it is reckoned that about 5 further jobs were supported in support activities such as parts suppliers, transport drivers, sales staff and even the local shops and restaurants. The whole town fed this plant, and the plant fed the whole town.
And it’s all gone. Only a skeleton crew remain, some marketing people and a few support activities, even the fantastic array of cars in the heritage centre are restored and maintained by just one bloke. The streets reflect this change, there is not so much money about round there at the moment.
And this is not a case of me dreaming of a bygone industry, I’m not lamenting the passing of steam engines of horse drawn ploughs, no I’m cross because all those jobs went somewhere else. Vauxhall make more cars now than they did back then, the demand for there product is there, production is marching on, research and development is busier than ever, the jobs exist, but not here.
I’ve driven some very impressive cars here today, and I thank Vauxhall very much for the opportunity, but as I drive away through old streets, past the large retail site that has been built on part of the old factory, I feel a bit sad that all those jobs have gone. And with that loss the skills have gone, the real heritage of a hundred years of Vauxhalls, the stories, the effort, the stress of pushing out a new model, the dramas, all become fading memories.