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1. BACKGROUND:

The Vauxhall VX Series is an almost forgotten car range today and is usually, wrongly, lumped together as just another version of the FE Victor. It only lasted in production for just two years & seven months but was an exceptionally good & well developed car, especially the 2300GLS version, and very underrated. As with many Vauxhalls the car has an interesting story behind it which, as usual, has never been told correctly – until now. When the General Motors managerial legend Bob Price was appointed Managing Director of Vauxhall in April 1974 he inherited a poison chalice which had seen many highly experienced GM managers come in with all guns blazing claiming to be able sort out Vauxhall’s problems and then un-ceremonially disappear a few years later with their reputation in tatters. Alex Rhea, Price’s predecessor, had done the same in 1970 and had completely screwed things up at Vauxhall: The Firenza debacle in Canada meant the FE Victor was never going to be sold there as with the previous FD model, even though it had been designed to appeal to transatlantic tastes, quality was on a downward spiral, sales and exports were all reaching new lows and the market coverage was down to less than 50% utilising just two basic bodies designs. What is even more surprising is that Price actually volunteered for the top job at Vauxhall, turnarounds were his speciality - he had turned GM's fortunes around first in Switzerland, South Africa and GM Continental. It was while working at GM Continental in Antwerp he saw at first-hand what was wrong with Vauxhall and what needed doing to fix it. It’s no exaggeration to say that he was one of the key people that saved Vauxhall from fading away completely in the 1970s.

2. DESIGN & ENGINEERING:

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Despite all the doom & gloom there were some little bright spots in the mix however, Ed Taylor had taken over as Director of Design at Vauxhall in 1970. Taylor came from Opel where he had worked on the original Ascona and Manta which were launched in 1970, Taylor also made the wise decision to appoint Wayne Cherry as Assistant Design Director on his arrival at Vauxhall. The T Car Hatch (Chevette) programme was already well under way, and Vauxhalls image had got a shot in the arm briefly with the "droop snoot" Firenza. Ed’s team had also made some changes to the rest of the range for the 1974 model year, announced at the 1973 Motor Show, to upgrade trim and specifications for all models with bright new colours as well rationalising the HC range with the launch of the upmarket ohc Magnum line up. The Engineering Department had introduced changes the engine range to improve economy with all units gaining viscous drive cooling fans, thermostatically controlled air intake and revised cylinder heads for the ohc engines. These were the first steps in a clear plan that Bob Price had devised for Vauxhall and the two most urgent areas of concern were - 1. The product & 2. Build quality / reliability.

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With the small T Car programme underway the first “product” priority for Price was to get a mid-range car to take on the Ford Cortina head on, this came with the launch of the Cavalier MK1 in October 1975. The next priority was to make the FE models more competitive and move the range upmarket to avoid conflict with the Cavalier range. The FE range of Victor, VX4/90 & Ventora models had struggled sales wise since their launch against competitors such as the Ford Granada & Consul. Launched in March 1972 the FE had been saddled with styling designed to compete not only in the UK & European market but also in Canada where it was to have been be sold, as had the FD before it, through Pontiac dealers along with the HC range. As we know now this didn’t happen because of the aforementioned Canadian Firenza episode. The FE models transatlantic style was particularly evident in the dashboard design and also the Pontiac like front end, Vauxhalls Marketing Department tried to capitalise on this by advertising the FE as "The Transcontinentals". Unfortunately, Vauxhalls marketing was another area on Price's to do list! What had made matters worse was in 1972 the large Cresta & Viscount PC range was phased out and therefore meant the Ventora FE was then the flagship for the whole Vauxhall range, a role it was never designed for and its sales were mediocre at best. In short it just wasn’t good enough.

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Despite what they said publically Vauxhall were well aware of the problem and the Design Department thought they had the solution. During 1973 they worked on an FE based Viscount Concept with a 4.2litre Holden V8 engine, note it was not a Ventora as commonly thought. Vauxhall had planned for the Viscount V8 Show Car to be the star exhibit on their stand at the 1973 London Motor Show. The car had a sumptuous and completely overhauled interior, seating, dashboard and centre console with lots of leather and wood. The car was pulled at the very last minute, literally as the car was already at Earls Court, and was never exhibited publically for two main reasons: The unfolding fuel crisis at the time meant any Vauxhall with a V8 engine would have been about as popular as a pork pie at a bar mitzvah and second the idea of no less than four different nameplates all using essentially the same body-shell but trying to be unique models in their own right was considered too much of a stretch in terms of marketing & image. For once Vauxhalls Marketing Department were right.

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Bob Price was shown the car shortly after he arrived at Vauxhall in April 1974 and was particularly impressed by the car’s interior. He had been a long standing admirer of Jaguar and judged the XJ6 interior to be THE standard to aim for. The FE range was already scheduled for a 1975MY facelift and the Design Department had produced several proposals in 1973 which were mainly cosmetic with little mechanical changes.

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Amongst his fellow GM Executives Bob Price stood out for being able to get things done – differently! Starting in 1974 once a month he would hold a “Grass Parade”, this involved several models being taken straight off the end of the production line and then forensically examined by an independent quality inspector who would highlight every defect, no matter how small, and mark it with a bright yellow crayon. All the senior production & quality control managers would then be grouped with Price, and the cars selected, to explain why the defects happened and how they could be fixed so as not to occur again, unsurprisingly these meetings could get very heated and they lasted for “as long as needed”. The name came from South Africa where Price would hold the meetings on the grass outside his office. A few managers lost their job as a result of this process but it worked, Vauxhalls quality improved and was noticed by customers and also in a reduction in warranty costs.

Another example of Price’s eccentric management style was nicknamed “Snowflakes” by his fellow Directors & Managers at Vauxhall. These were meticulously detailed memos of thoughts and ideas that Price had for just about every aspect of the whole Vauxhall Bedford operation and were produced at a rate of about 50 per week! If a reply was not forthcoming another “Snowflake” was sent about that as well! Unfortunately for the Design Department they got more than most as Price wanted to be involved in every development stage of the new model programme, it was no surprise that the FE update came in for his personal attention.    

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Price had evaluated the facelift design proposals and considered the exterior changes were what was needed but initiated a comprehensive engineering update along with a completely new interior which borrowed heavily from the Viscount Show Car. The target introduction date was moved to October 1975 with no further development changes made to the FE models for the 1975MY until production was scheduled to end in August 1975. The facelift model plan was to have one trim level for a highly specified saloon and estate using uprated 1800 and 2300 engines to replace the Victor, a super luxurious top range 2300 in saloon and estate to replace the Ventora and a sports saloon replacing the VX4/90 with fuel injection and a five speed gearbox. Market research had indicated that both the Victor & Ventora nameplates had been sullied in a way that would hamper future sales – the Victor name was still associated by some with rust & corrosion, a throwback to the F Series and FC 101 models no doubt, and the Ventora name was linked to heavy 6 cylinder fuel consumption. The only FE model with a consistent positive image was the VX4/90, as most people referred to the VX4/90 as a "VX" it was felt acceptable as a name for the revised range. The original plan was as follows: VX1800 Saloon & Estate, VX2300 Saloon & Estate, VX/E Sports Saloon and a top of the range VX2300GLS Saloon & Estate. The changes made to the ohc engines, especially the 1800, meant the 2300 provided better performance than the previous 3.3litre Ventora so the ancient & inefficient 6 cylinder engine would be reserved for Bedford TK petrol models in the future.

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It is not generally acknowledged just how comprehensive the changes that went into the VX Series were and the total cost to Vauxhall was £4.5m which at the time was a lot of money for a “facelift”. At the front the grille on the VX1800 & 2300 was changed to a grey small crosshatch design with a red Griffin badge in the left hand corner and large new single oblong headlight units with built in indicators and side lights. The GLS was fitted with a far more imposing chrome grille with a larger Griffin badge mounted in the middle & also used a larger chrome lip at the front of the bonnet, it used a new four square halogen headlamp system, similar in appearance to the previous Ventora, with built in side lights but the indicators and standard fog lights were now mounted below the bumper within the new fibreglass front spoiler unique to the model at the time of launch. The rear was the same on all models with the previous FE light units with a brushed aluminium panel mounted in between with “VAUXHALL” spelt out in separate letters. The GLS came as standard with a vinyl roof, rubber bumper inserts, chrome wheel arch mouldings and sill covers, in addition metallic paint was a no cost option. Standard models came with 13ins wheel with the previous Victor 2300 embellishers and radial tyres while the GLS featured gloss black 14ins wheels with Chevette style centre caps and chrome trim rings.

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Under the bonnet the 1759cc and 2279cc engines featured a strengthened block, modified cylinder head, larger valves, valve rotators and bigger porting combined with a very large and elaborate thermostatically controlled air intake system combined with a Zenith Stromberg 175 CD2SET carburettor and automatic choke on both engines. The engine mountings were changed and extensive felt was used as deadening under the bonnet itself. The gearbox was also extensively changed to reduce noise and also included revised ratios and a better linkage with stiffer bushings. Revised mountings and bushing were made to the propshaft. These changes transformed the smoothness and performance of both engines, particularly the 1800 which was no longer underpowered as was the case with the Victor 1800.

The suspension was thoroughly reworked and used new track rods at the front with different camber and caster angles, new stiffer bushes, revised shock absorbers & settings front and rear – gas filled on the GLS – revised ratio steering rack and mounting bushes with power assistance on the GLS models. The rear suspension was located by stiffer bushes and spring rates were revised all round and increased diameter anti-roll bars.

The biggest and most obvious change was the interior which was, especially in the case of the GLS. The whole dashboard, instruments and centre console were completely new and along with the new seats and door trims gave the interior an extremely luxurious impression. The 1800 and 2300 shared the same two dial dash which was finished in wood effect including the steering wheel boss with a centre console stretching down from the dashboard and going right between the front seats and featured for the first time a proper slot for a radio to be fitted. The GLS featured six dial instrumentation including a rev counter, trip speedometer and a dark burr walnut effect finish along with a sports steering wheel, additional sound insulation, carpeted lower door trims, continental style door armrests, door map pockets, courtesy light switches on all four doors, a fully trimmed & carpeted boot, wool cloth interior headlining and dipping rear view mirror. All models had a substantial glove box which doubled for cup holders when opened and a rear centre armrest on Saloon models. The 1800 and 2300 Estate car was the same apart from having Ambla trim seating instead of velour. A GLS Estate was due for introduction and 10 were built but for some curious reason Vauxhall pulled the plug at the last minute but not before the handbooks were printed, the very early VX Series handbook lists the GLS Estate as a regular production model.

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The October 1975 launch had to be moved forward due to parts supplier issues and also the large inventory of unsold Victor & Ventora stock, even though production has ceased in August 1975, so the models continued to be sold until the VX launch in February 1976. Even then there were still problems – the GLS was not immediately available because of supply issues with the separate glass-fibre front air dam and some of the dash clocks, consistent deliveries would not begin until September 1976. The GLS was a special car anyway, the final part of production was finished in a separate area from the normal Luton production line because of the specific items needed for its unique specification. The launch itself was a bit underwhelming with very little press coverage and not a lot of advertising but in spite of this sales rose considerably compared to the previous models.

The other glaring omission at launch was that there was no replacement for the VX4/90 model, Vauxhall publically said they had no plans for its return because the VX2300 gave the same performance as the last of the previous VX4/90 – but they were lying! It had been planned from the start of the VX development. The prototype 2279cc engine with Lucas multipoint fuel was well advanced, it was giving 150bhp @ 5600rpm (net) and 163lb-ft @ 3500rpm (net) and it had been testing at Millbrook since late 1973 in a prototype VX Series body as well as a Cavalier Coupe. The decision had been made to dump the notchy ZF 5 speed gearbox used in the Firenza (and Bedford CF!!) for the much nicer Getrag unit which still featured a dog leg 1st gear. The Luton Design Department had gone Tartan mad with the interior, a black matt finish dashboard from the GLS was fitted along with the GLS front air dam with built in fog lights all finished off with black window surrounds and rear panel and 14ins Rostyle wheels. So what went wrong? Was it too fast? It was good for 118mph on the flat, but no. Was the fuel injection unreliable? No, in fact the engine ran smoother for longer than the standard engine. It was Lucas that killed it! In 1975 Vauxhall had factored in how many VX/E models they thought they could sell, which was initially 5000, before the FE would be replaced and had negotiated a price with Lucas, but then without any warning they hiked the price which would have made the per unit cost too high. Brief negotiations with Bosch started but would have meant starting development from scratch with a new injection system. The problem for Vauxhall was they had also committed themselves to the same number of gearboxes from Getrag in Germany and they refused to cancel the order. So the VX-490 was launched in 1977 with a twin carburettor engine. Vauxhall claimed it was mainly due to demand from Scandinavian export markets, which makes the fact out of a total of 943 VX-490s produced only 179 were exported seem a bit weird.

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The problem for Vauxhall was they had also committed themselves to the same number of gearboxes from Getrag in Germany and they refused to cancel the order. So the VX-490 was launched in 1977 with a twin carburettor engine. Vauxhall claimed it was mainly due to demand from Scandinavian export markets, which makes the fact out of a total of 943 VX-490s produced only 179 were exported seem a bit weird.
Even the twin carburettor specification was not straightforward. The engine was rated at 116bhp which was the same as the pre 1976 VX4/90 but it featured the modified head fitted to other VX Series which gave 8 to 10bhp more in the single carburettor versions. The reason was Vauxhall did not think it was worth getting the engine certified, it would be illegal to advertise a bhp figure if the engine produced less but wasn’t if it produced more! Vauxhalls internal figures rated it at 125bhp @ 5400rpm (nett). The other curiosity was the rear axle ratio which gave the car ridiculously low gearing – 18.9mph per 1000rpm. If that wasn’t strange enough the car was never road tested by any major motoring magazine and also, along with the GLS, the speedometer used to under read by up to 7mph which incidentally was illegal!!

Production of all the Vauxhall VX Series models ended in July 1978 and the car was replaced by the Carlton Mk1. The tooling for the FE VX Series was eventually sold to Hindustan in India for £1.5m where the car was named Contessa and continued to be built until 2002. Full details of the Hindustan Contessa can be found in a separate section of vauxpedia.

3. SPECIFICATIONS& MODEL PICTURES:

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VX1800 & 2300 SALOON

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VX1800 & 2300 ESTATE

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VX2300GLS

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VX-490

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4. PRESS RELEASES & PHOTOGRAPHS: