History of the 1977 - 1981 Vauxhall Cavalier
General Motors rationalized its European offerings in the 1970s, and the Mk I Vauxhall Cavalier was a modified version of the second-generation Opel Ascona, named after a Swiss lakeside town. The first series Ascona from 1970 to 1975 was very successful, and in it Walter Rohrl won the 1974 European Rally Championship.
The 1975 Vauxhall Cavalier was initially built alongside the Opel Ascona in Antwerp, Belgium, but UK production began in Luton in 1977, and both Vauxhall and Opel models were sold in the UK until 1981.
The Cavalier was available as a two- and four-door saloon and the principal difference from the Opel was its Wayne Cherry-designed “droop snoot” nose, first seen on the 1973 Firenza coupe. Both Opel and Vauxhall models were built on the rear-drive U-Car chassis, but Opel also offered an estate, and had a larger range of engines.
The Cavalier replaced the ailing Vauxhall Victor, and was designed to compete with the Ford Cortina, whose Mk III had suffered mechanical woes, and the unloved Morris Marina. The Cavalier proved durable, if uninspired, and was popular with fleet operators. A coupe joined the Vauxhall lineup in 1975, and a hatchback was added in 1978, both identical to the Opel Manta. In all, 238,980 Vauxhall Cavaliers were sold in seven years.
The Cavalier used both 58hp, 1.6-litre, and 90hp, 1.9-litre cam-in-head 4-cylinder engines through 1978, with either a 4-speed manual gearbox or a 3-speed automatic. Trim levels were progressively more luxurious ranging from the L, LS, GL, GLS, Command Performance and Silver Special. In 1978, the 1.9-litre engine was bored out to 2 litres and a 1300cc OHV Viva engine was offered with a 4-speed gearbox.
In 1978 and 1979, Vauxhall briefly offered a convertible, sold through dealerships under the Crayford name. Called the Centaur, it was based on the 2-door GLS hardtop, with the floor pan strengthened, and a T-bar roof. Only 118 were built.
The ultimate Cavalier was probably Wayne Cherry’s one-off Silver Aero hatchback, which was based on the Sporthatch, and shown at the 1980 NEC show. The idea was to offer an upgrade package to Sporthatch owners, installing a turbocharged 150hp, 2.4-litre engine, but not enough orders were taken for it to be developed.
GM sold both Vauxhall and Opel models side by side in both RHD and LHD countries, but in 1981 Opel became the main overseas brand, and Vauxhalls were confined to the UK. A rare South African version was the 4-door Chevrolet Chevair, which was built from 1976-80, powered by 2-litre and 2.3-litre OHV 4-cylinder Chevrolet engines.
The third generation Cavalier and Ascona gained front-wheel drive in 1982 and the new J-Car platform was sold worldwide, as the Australian Holden Camira, Brazilian Chevrolet Monza, and Japanese Isuzu Aska.
Despite their ubiquity in their heyday, Mk I Vauxhall Cavaliers are rare beasts today. Rust is their primary killer - especially around jacking points and swan neck areas, which can necessitate the removal of the wing to remedy properly. Sills, floors and wheel arches are also vulnerable. The market tends to favour the rare Centaur convertible, then the Sportshatch and coupes before the standard saloons, with higher-spec GL and GLS being slightly more desirable than their lower-spec brethren. That said, there is a thriving club scene that supports the Vauxhall Cavalier.