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1. BACKGROUND:

The original T Car ended up being a true “world car” even though in the original plan markets such as the US were not included and were added as an emergency response to the 1973 fuel crisis. GM in Europe were well aware that the T Car replacement would not be able to continue with a conventional in line engine and rear wheel drive and remain class competitive in terms of packaging for the 1980s. The launch of the original VW Golf had proved the point, let alone other front wheel drive offerings from Fiat, Renault, Peugeot and Chrysler. Right through the 1970s GM executives publically insisted that they had looked at fwd and decided that the investment costs were too high whilst at the same time their engineering teams were frantically using modified Fiat 127 mules to test their projected new fwd powertrains. The engineering development started late in 1975 before any styling & design work had begun on the next T Car and it was decided from the start that as the car was using an untested, at least for GM, drive formula the car would be a primarily European model and there were no plans to sell the car widely outside of the continent unlike its predecessor. Also included in the early planning stage was that all rwd T Car variants in Europe – the Opel Kadett C & Vauxhall Chevette - would be replaced by the new fwd platform within 12 months of introduction if not immediately. The internal code was T80 for the Opel 3 & 5 door Hatchback and Estate which would then be modified by Vauxhall as had been the case with the Chevette and Cavalier Mk1 and the yet to be announced Carlton Mk1, introduced in 1979. Vauxhall would also develop a 2 & 4 door Saloon with a conventional boot, code named T80-S, which would then feature a restyled Opel front end for their range and be launched after the T80 in mid-1980. As we shall see the plan was changed considerably before a single car left the production line.

2. DESIGN & ENGINEERING:

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GM openly admitted at the launch of the T80 Kadett D that the VW Golf was used as the benchmark for interior space and cargo efficiency. The basic layout, dimensions and general style for T80 was set out early in 1976 and overseen by Henry Haga at the lead division Opel and this was carried through to Wayne Cherry’s team at Vauxhalls Design Studio for the Vauxhall versions of the T80 and also the Saloon version assigned to Vauxhalls Studios. Things started to go wrong at quite an early stage, the engineering cost of the new engine and drivetrain had swallowed a huge amount of the money allocated to the project, the savings made were to produce a much compromised design of the Saloon version. The T80 that Vauxhall were working on did not get beyond the clay mock up stage and the decision was made to use the bulk of the Hatch body panels but have a boot hinged just below the rear window therefore making the car look like a hatchback but without a hatchback and giving no advantage at all over the more practical normal hatchback model. Saloon sales in general were starting to fall, especially in the UK, but even in Europe where the style was still popular a saloon needed to actually look like a saloon meaning a visual boot compartment giving a 3 box profile. Opel tried to fob off the press criticism at the cars launch saying that the boot was actually larger than some of the cars saloon counterparts but it didn’t convince anyone, least of all the buying public. The Saloon was a sales flop across Europe unlike the rest of the range. The cancellation of the T80 meant Vauxhall now concentrated on the alterations to the front and rear styling to give their version of T80 a distinctive Vauxhall look. Three concepts were made, the first was a 3 door Hatch with extensive changes to create unique Vauxhall look completed in August 1977. Styling models of a 5 door Hatch and a 5 door Estate which used far more common components with the equivalent Opel versions were completed in September 1978, the front end was similar to the much later Astra MK3 GSi by which time Wayne Cherry was in charge of the design of. The rear end changes were much less modified and were restricted to number plate positioning and badges with slightly different rear light units – although they fitted in the same space as the Opel versions. Whilst Vauxhall were planning on using one front end across the range Opel were to offer two variations, the basic cars would use round headlights with upmarket models using larger oblong units which were the ones Vauxhall planned to use. For the interior Vauxhall had planned to use a smaller scale updated version of the full width dashboard as used in the Carlton MK1 but all the interior trim from the Opel version which Vauxhall also contributed to in an effort try and improve Opel’s rather clinical interior design reputation especially on top range models where Ford’s Ghia trim level was the goal to match. The Opel dashboard was also an example of what had been nicknamed the “GM Cliff” by the press and followed usual GM worldwide practice of a tall dashboard with a near vertical dropdown.

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The next major crisis for Vauxhall was the totally brain dead internal decision in December 1978 by GM Europe to fully integrate passenger car design at Opel and Bedford commercial vehicle design at Vauxhall, this would mean an end to UK Vauxhall car exports to Europe. As Vauxhalls would after 1980 be re-badged Opel models there was no point in trying to sell both brands in the same markets, Vauxhall would become a UK only brand with Opel eventually being phased out in the UK once the dealer agreements, that had just been renewed, ran out in 1982. There was no public knowledge of this until early in 1980 but the Astra would be the first Vauxhall introduced that would not be seen outside the UK. All the planned Vauxhall variation on the T80 were cancelled.

The fascinating and little known story of the new T80 FWD engine can trace its origins back to 1966, yes that’s right 1966, when both Vauxhall and Opel started co-operating on a replacement for the ohv engine used in the Viva & Kadett, which as we know were in fact very closely related. Vauxhall wanted a larger and more powerful engine for the larger and heavier replacement being proposed for the HB Viva and looked at two alternative options: The first was to adapt the existing engine, but there were limits as to how much more capacity could be achieved without sacrificing reliability, this was just over 1350cc. The other option was a completely new design from scratch; this would be a base 1.3litre with the ability to enlarge the unit up to 1.8litres if needed. Typical of Vauxhalls Chief Engineer, John Alden, the engine featured many innovative features to reduce weight and cost. The experimental engine was considered specifically as an overall concept with as many auxiliaries treated as integral parts of the design thereby reducing the number of parts, weight and increasing durability. An example of this was the oil pump was mounted on the nose of the 5 bearing crankshaft and used the latter as an oil gallery and the distributor was driven off the end of the belt driven overhead camshaft. The design included a cast iron cylinder block with free standing bores allowing the possibility of making an aluminium die cast cylinder block with pistons running directly in the alloy, a similar system was used in the Chevrolet Vega engine in the US. About 10 of these prototype engines were made with both cast iron & aluminium blocks. Many discussions with Opel took place to try and agree a common design but in the end Vauxhall enlarged their ohv engine to 1256cc and Opel stuck with their 1196cc version. However, through various engineering conferences that were common within GM the experimental Vauxhall engine design, with input from Opel and Holden engineers, was actually introduced as a 1.4litre OHC by GM in Brazil for their version of the original rwd T Car, the Chevrolet Chevette, in 1973. This engine then returned to Opel in Europe and was developed considerably further, including the adoption of hydraulic tappets for the first time on an engine under 1500cc, and became what we now know as the GM Family I engine. Opel had ensured the engine could be adapted for both front drive transverse mounting as well conventional in line rear wheel drive and in fact was initially offered in the last versions of the Ascona and Manta B in order to get some “in service” experience of the new units.

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The new 1297cc Family 1 engine specification was impressive, 5 bearing crankshaft with four counter weights to enhance smoothness and the ability to rev to 7500rpm, belt driven overhead camshaft with hydraulic tappets, all alloy cross flow cylinder head and a French made GM Varajet carburettor which was extremely sophisticated for the time & combined power, willingness to rev and also good fuel consumption and emissions, the low compression 1300N and 1.0 & 1.2 OHV engined models continued to use Solex carburettors as before. Not widely advertised at the time the gearbox was designed by Isuzu and featured the ability to change the clutch or drive shafts without removing the gearbox, in fact the Vauxhall Factory quoted time for a clutch change was 65 minutes, most trained mechanics could do it in half the time. The engine was also the first GM units, and one of the first of any engine, that did not require an initial engine oil change and head bolt tightening at 600 miles. This was made possible by the special oil used in production which contained an additive which hardened the camshaft during use, unfortunately die hard DIY customers thought they would do themselves a favour and change the oil at around 600 miles – the end result was the car got an unwelcome reputation for premature camshaft failure which was eventually cured by fitting pre hardened camshafts at the factory.  

The quoted power of the 1300S was 75bhp (net) @ 5800rpm which was what most 1600cc cars were developing at the time and so put the car at the top end of its class for performance. Unlike Vauxhall, Opel also offered a 1300N engine which produced 60bhp with a lower compression ratio to run on 2 star petrol, important in in some markets in Europe at the time. Later this engine would be fitted to the Bedford Astravan. At launch Opel also offered the old 1196cc ohv engine which, in 1200N form produced, 53bhp and 60bhp in 1200S tune. Even more bizarre for certain markets, Italy being one, Opel used a 1.0S with 50bhp and a 1.0N version of the ohv engine giving just 39bhp, a milk float with dead batteries must have seemed sporty by comparison!

The chassis dynamics were impressive too with the basics being laid down by the legendary Peter Hanenberger prior to his departure to Holden. The compound crank rear axle suspension featured a smaller version of the Miniblock spring design first seen on the Vauxhall Royale in 1978 and again were unique in this class of car, at the front MacPherson strut springing was common and was combined with cartridge type shock absorbers which were relatively easy to change. Front and rear anti roll bars were fitted to 1300S, the steering rack was mounted high up on the engine bay bulkhead to assist with crash worthiness & also ease of maintenance, the column also featured an in improved collapsible mesh section. For the same reason the 9.2 gallon fuel tank (11.0 for the Estate) was located under the rear seat to keep it away from any rear end collision. The braking followed the established GM diagonally split system but also incorporated a pressure conscious reducing valve in the circuit to help prevent the rear wheels locking up before the front, a sort of crude ABS type affair which gave mixed results. The other braking problem was for RHD cars the servo was remote unlike the LHD models which meant brakes had a very spongy feel to them although they worked fine. The steering was seen as a possible problem area in terms of heaviness and torque steer. The final set up used negative offset geometry, first used on the Vauxhall HC Viva in 1970, with a steering ratio of 22:1 giving 4 turns lock to lock. The negative offset was 0.15ins and negative camber of 1.5 degrees, late in testing the engineers decided that a 20:1 rack would be more suitable but it was too late to change for the launch. The Astra was widely criticised for having heavy steering at parking speeds so the change would have made this worse.

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The next major crisis for Vauxhall was the totally brain dead internal decision in December 1978 by GM Europe to fully integrate passenger car design at Opel and Bedford commercial vehicle design at Vauxhall, this would mean an end to UK Vauxhall car exports to Europe. As Vauxhalls would after 1980 be re-badged Opel models there was no point in trying to sell both brands in the same markets, Vauxhall would become a UK only brand with Opel eventually being phased out in the UK once the dealer agreements, that had just been renewed, ran out in 1982. There was no public knowledge of this until early in 1980 but the Astra would be the first Vauxhall introduced that would not be seen outside the UK. All the planned Vauxhall variation on the T80 were cancelled.

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3. MODEL IDENTIFICATIONS & SPECIFICATIONS:

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4. PRESS RELEASES & PHOTOGRAPHS:

As if nothing else could go wrong for Vauxhall the news reached the unions at the company of plans to import the Astra fully assembled from Bocham in Germany and in the middle of an unusual, for Vauxhall, protracted nine week strike over pay & conditions as well as the now rather precarious future of the Ellesmere Port factory it made the whole situation worse. There many rumours that GM was about to pull out of the building cars in Britain and the Vauxhall name would disappear. The original plan was the Vauxhall Astra MK1 would be unveiled at the UK Motor Show in October 1979 but due to the protracted union negotiations it ended up being launched, at the last minute and in relative obscurity at the Kelvin Hall Scottish Motor Show in November 1979. The car was all but identical to the Opel Kadett D which had been launched in August 1979 apart from the badges. In terms of price and trim it sat between the Kadett LS and Berlina. Only 2 models were initially available, the GL 1300S 5 door hatch and a 1300S L Estate 5 door, there were two reasons for this – one was a question of supply availability and the other was Opel did not want the car competing directly with their own Kadett models which were still, rather stupidly, being sold in the UK. In addition, and in order not to try and aggravate the delicate situation with the unions further, the official launch of the Vauxhall Astra was almost a non- event, there was a short but rarely seen television commercial and very little press advertising. Unsurprisingly, initial sales were slow. Also the car was quite expensive compared to the British offerings from Ford, BL and Chrysler.