There are certain cars that, fairly or otherwise, have an unshakeable stigma. Some are fully deserving of the widespread derision they receive – examples that spring immediately to mind include the Daewoo Nexia, the AMC Pacer, the Volkswagen Fox and the Perodua Nippa – but some cars have been unjustly sidelined with such ferocity that they will always be presented as little more than paragons of bad design and lacklustre production. A recent survey of ‘worst British cars’ suggested that the Austin Allegro was the most helpless of the bunch (fair point, you might argue), but the top ten included a selection of genuinely worthy cars that for some reason or another failed to ever capture the hearts of the nation; the Austin Princess, the Hillman Imp and the Talbot Sunbeam for example. All excellent cars. People are weird.
So what do you think of when you hear the words ‘Vauxhall Cavalier’? In all likelihood you’ll be getting a series of uninspiring images of early- to mid-nineties moribund hatchbacks; the underachieving reps choice, the lukewarm SRi offering budget thrills to spotty teenage chavs, the quietly rusting hulks of disinterest and meh-ness. You’re right to do this; the mkIII Cavalier was tiresome, unpleasant, devoid of character and offered very little excitement. But don’t write the Cavalier name off altogether – the early ones were an entirely different kettle of fish…
In the early seventies, Vauxhall’s offering to the family car market – the Victor – had been increasingly losing sales to the Ford Cortina for some time and was beginning to slip behind both the Morris Marina and the Austin Maxi as well. In the face of such strong domestic competition, the German-designed and Belgian-built second-generation Opel Ascona was drafted in to wear a griffin on its nose and claw back some sales for the General Motors group. With a Manta-esque droop snoot and a compact yet spacious three-box shape it was a pretty enticing prospect, and the variety of engines and spec levels available meant that cheapskates could putter around in the 1.3L while their wealthier neighbours proudly polished the chromed Rostyles on their 2000GLS.
The significant point, of course, is that this was the original Cavalier. This is the one we should all remember. It’s on a par with youngsters seeing the remade Italian Job or listening to the latest Stones album first. Sure, there’s a level of entertainment to be had (OK, those examples don’t bear close analysis with the mkIII Cavalier which, like I said, has nothing to offer the driver at all), but it’s so important to think about context. The mkI Cavalier, it should be noted, is one of the few cars ever made that looks genuinely good in brown. Need further excitement? Well, as with all Vauxhalls of the era (including the Chevette – another criminally underrated car) they’re rear wheel drive. Which is always fun. Combine the top-of-the-line 2-litre with spiky cams and a set of twin-40s, lower it as far as it’ll go, space out a set of banded steels and add some serious negative camber and you have an incredibly cool retro cruiser with a real sting in its wagging tail. Stereotypes? Bollocks to ‘em. If negative opinions and harsh sweeping derision mean that Imps, rear-engined Skodas, Marina Coupés and Toledos are all the cheaper then that can only be a good thing. And what better car to make that point with than the mkI Cav? Tell someone you drive a Cavalier and they’ll be singularly unimpressed… rock up in a hardslammed ’78 GLS with patina’d chrome and seven inch steels and suddenly you’ll be a lot more interesting. Historical context, you see, draws such a distinct line between the marvellous and the mundane.