Returning to the Repmobile: Driving 40 years of the Vauxhall Cavalier

The M1 near Luton. Four lanes of boring motorway, usually too choked with traffic for progress to be anything other than sedate. Only a few miles from Toddington services, this is the natural home of the repmobile.

And I’m in the perfect example of a repmobile; the Vauxhall Cavalier. Introduced to our motorway network forty years ago, the Cavalier quickly became an ingrained part of British motoring and was, on occasion, the best-selling car in the country.

Three generations graced our roads from 1975 through to 1995, when the Vectra took over followed later by the current Insignia.

The lineage of the model is clear, each successive variant clearly linked to the previous one. Work all the way back and you get to the Cavalier Mk1, and I had the keys to one.

A 2000 GLS, this was a top of the range model in 1981 in a deep red clad with chrome detailing and a wonderfully futuristic sloping nose. Inside is just as red, with velour wrapping the seats and even the vinyl dashboard sporting the same colours.

It’s as minimalist as you get, with just an instrument binnacle ahead, a couple of switches and an old push-button radio. There’s no cassette player, no air-con, no air bag, no electric windows and not even a fifth gear.

The gearstick is connected to a 2.0-litre carburettor fed engine that responds instantly to the throttle, a joy in a world of turbocharged diesels that take an age to move off. Lean on the tall tyres and soft suspension in the corners and it settles down allowing you to press on a bit harder, a bit sooner. It remains wonderfully smooth throughout, proving that modern 19-inch wheels and rubber band tyres aren’t the answer to a comfortable ride.

Stepping in to the Mk2 model, it’s clear to see how far the industry had progressed in a relatively short time. The saloon body has been replaced by a hatchback, something that remains the default choice for most, although the three-box option remained for traditionalists, while the 2.0-litre engine gets fuel injection and an accompanying automatic gearbox.

With just three speeds, the gearbox feels ancient, and wasn’t even that great back in 1988 from when this range-topping CD model dates, but it suits the motorway-munching nature of the car. Equipment levels went up, with a monolithic dashboard housing all sorts of newfangled technology from electric windows to a digital stereo with cassette player built-in. Big comfy seats and adjustable steering meant you could relax as you headed to the regional sales meeting, the soft riding style carried over from the Mk1.

It falls apart a bit on corners, forcing the front in to understeer very early, but there remains a magic about the Mk2 that appealed. It’s not so far removed from modern motoring, but now feels sufficiently ‘retro’ to be interesting.

The same can’t be said of the final Cavalier, the 1995 2.5-litre CDX. With a big V6 up front and an extra ratio added to the automatic gearbox, this should have been a winner, but the engine just isn’t significantly more powerful than the sweeter 2.0-litre unit. It’s also unruly in the corners, the chassis just unable to cope with anything beyond perfectly smooth tarmac.

There might be more in the way of high-tech goodies on board, but you’ll be too distracted by the driving position to make use of them. While the pedals sit offset to the right, leading to some interesting knee pains, the steering wheel is very nearly on the passenger side. And, despite the Mk2 having such a system, there’s no way of moving it in the Mk3. Surrounding it all is bland, grey plastic that, while better quality than the previous two generations, lacks any sense of style. It’s like the designers simply fitted the right buttons in the right places, moulded some plastic around it all, and went home.

At least the near-magic-carpet ride quality has been retained, making it an excellent motorway car, although the contorted positions you’ll need to take mean you may not be able to walk after driving it.

The Mk3 represents something of a low spot then, with the Mk2 preceding it a pinnacle of the nameplate. Since then Vectra failed to ignite the imagination, while the Insignia carries on where the Mk2 left off – cruising the motorways in quiet comfort, albeit anonymously.

Here’s to another 40 years.

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Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.

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