The difference in Quality between then and now
Spending a day driving a variety of models from one volume carmaker’s stable of classics is an eye-opening experience. The venue chosen was the former RAF Bicester, which has been turned over effectively to the classic car sector, with several restorers, race preparation businesses and secure hangar storage facilities (not just for ‘classics’) featuring on the sometime operational base.
While gliders, light planes and private aero businesses continue to use the airfield facilities at Bicester, the various access roads have enabled the creation of an effective ‘test track’, which is open to companies residing on the base but, as in this case, has been rented to Vauxhall for a day. Several major vehicle manufacturers operate extensive and important past model collections, such as that amassed by Vauxhall (inc. Ford Motor Company, JLR, Renault and PSA Group), almost all of which are maintained in a facility adjacent to its UK head office at Luton.
Displaying considerable bravery, as many of these classics are ‘priceless’, a representative selection of models was transported to Bicester for an ‘airing’ and I was invited to try them all. The first car that I stepped onto (a key description arising from the height of the chassis off the ground) was the two-seater 1904 6hp. Powered by a 1,029cc, single-cylinder, water-cooled engine, it is power-rated in the old RAC-style. A massive flywheel ensures that once initial rolling resistance is overcome, the surprisingly smooth-running engine can maintain its governed 18mph top speed. Steered by tiller and suspended on coil springs, with rudimentary, sliding wood-block ‘dampers’, it is a prime example of Edwardian enterprise and is one of around 70 examples that were produced at Vauxhall’s original London factory and this one still contests the annual London-to-Brighton Run.
It is worth highlighting that Vauxhall possesses 114 years of uninterrupted automotive history in the UK, from an original operating base in Lambeth, London, before relocating to ‘hatter’s country’ at Luton, Vauxhall has produced in excess of 14.5m motor vehicles in its time. Many of them have been truly innovative, featuring advancements considered as unfeasible at the time of their introduction.
The next model on my list was the 1909 Vauxhall B-Type 16hp ‘semi-racer’, which is probably the only survivor of around 150 built at Luton between 1908 and 1910. Finished in Post Office Red, this largely ‘stripped-down’, 2.3-litre, four-cylinder machine features a fragile cone clutch, three forward gears (plus reverse), a bevel-gear rear axle and a footbrake that operates ingeniously on the transmission (although its balsa-like linings mean that the driver relies more on the rear wheels handbrake for arresting its 50mph top speed). For many years, I have wanted to indulge in a drive of the much-vaunted 1911 Vauxhall C-Type known as ‘Prince Henry’. It was the GTi of its day. Powered by a 3.0-litre, four-cylinder engine that developed 19.9hp (although later models featured 22.5hp), its steering is sharp and the handling, even on skinny tyres, is simply outstanding. In era, it was a regular rally competitor and won many trophies.
As I have rather long legs, driving either the ‘Prince Henry’, or the 1926 Vauxhall OE-type 30/98, were impossible for me but Vauxhall’s PR Manager, Simon Hucknall, kindly lapped the small circuit at quite high speed, with me riding shotgun for dear life! This latter model is a very special machine, being the first car certified to reach 100mph in the UK. Its 4.25-litre, four-cylinder engine grumbles raucously but its predictable handling makes its competition successes understandable and, of the 600 examples built originally, a remarkable 170 remain in regular use.
Moving on to the 1950s, the Vauxhall E-type Wyvern featured a novel side-opening bonnet (could be opened either side for access) and a curved windscreen. Powered by a 1.5-litre, 43bhp, four-cylinder engine, it was not exactly the raciest in the range but, priced at £475, it was a popular model in the first year that Vauxhall topped 100,000 vehicles annual output. Although tempered slightly for the UK market, its American styling influences were obvious.
In 1957, Vauxhall introduced the F-type Victor, a name that became famous for the brand and was also Britain’s highest volume export model of the time. The 1961 version on Vauxhall’s heritage fleet, finished in a ‘bananas and custard’, brown-over-cream, paint scheme, was significantly lighter than its forebear, which gave it livelier performance. Vauxhall was in the vanguard of factory-built estate cars with the F-type and around 100,000 models (inc. saloons) were produced in just 15 months.
I also gave a late example of the phenomenal Lotus-Carlton a bit of a shake-down. Still developing most of its 377bhp, this amazing £48k saloon, capable of 0-60mph in around 5.0 seconds (in 1989!), was produced during the period when General Motors owned Lotus (prior to selling it to Romano Artioli, owner of the revived Bugatti brand in 1990).
While accepting that built-in obsolescence, less costly manufacturing, exhaustive safety requirements and recyclability have played massive roles in shaping the modern motorcar, I cannot help but feel that, firstly, it is very easy to understate the innovative role that volume player, Vauxhall, has had on car production but, secondly, apart from the inevitable dry-stored, carefully maintained and much-loved collector examples, how many of today’s cars will stand the test of time?
Of course, ISQA knows intrinsically the quality standards that are demanded these days by the UK Motor Industry, from its extensive work within it. Cars are built to exacting standards. However, the amount of man-made materials used in vehicle manufacturing has escalated considerably and not all of them are as durable as the raw products employed during the earliest days of the industry. Vauxhall discovered this, when restoring a 1970 Vauxhall Viva 2.0GT, which stretched the remanufacturing talents of its classic garage staff to fresh extremes.
Yet, ISQA also appreciates that by ensuring consistency not just in component supply but also in manufacturing quality, today’s models are given every opportunity to be future classics. If you want ISQA to provide tried, trusted and classical standard Quality Assurance, then just call the company to be assured of it.
‘Make Quality Count!’