Driving the classics: Vauxhall Cavalier, Viva and Chevette on the Route Napoleon

Published: 10 March 2015

► We take on Route Napoleon in a trio of classic Vauxhalls
► Cavalier Mk1, Chevette HS and Viva GT - plus an Adam
► No denying modern cars are more well-rounded - but more fun?

I’d recommend time travel. It’s good fun. Flying direct is easier, but this year I travelled to Geneva for the motor show via the 1970s.

Every year Vauxhall dusts off a few gems from its heritage fleet and suggests taking the scenic route to the show over the odd Alp. Beats Ryanair any day. It does this partly to try and rekindle a little love for the brand – insiders freely admit they’re worried Vauxhall’s perceived more as ‘the Astra and Corsa company’ than a marque with a century-and-a-bit legacy of other stuff – and partly to show just how far its cars have come over the past few decades.

Vauxhall Cavalier Mk1

Leg 1: Mk1 Cavalier

Thing is, settling into the crushed velour ‘n’ vinyl confines of a Mk1 Cavalier, you begin to wonder if for all that progress a few things haven’t been lost along the way. The seats are La-Z-boy-comfy, there’s fantastic visibility past the slim pillars and the unassisted steering and under-assisted (by today’s standards) brakes mean you actually feel in touch with the road rather than several stages removed.

It’s a timely drive, as the Cav’s celebrating its 40th anniversary since its 1975 launch this year. Vauxhall shifted 240,000 of them in the UK over its six-year lifespan but these days there are only around 300 left. Bit of a shame that, because it’s actually quite charming.

This one’s a top-spec GLS, which means that apart from the velour, it also gets the added luxury of a rev counter, not to mention a vinyl roof. The four-speed, rear-wheel drive transmission has very low gearing by modern standards – it almost feels like it could do with an overdrive switch – and seems disconcertingly vague at first.

Relatively soft suspension and squidgy tyres make for cushy ride quality, the steering’s relatively light and the chassis has a nicely balanced feel. It’s best to take the ‘brake early to avoid disappointment’ approach, though. Still, while they probably wouldn’t be much help in an accident, those slim A-pillars allow such great visibility you’re less likely to hit – or be hit by – something in the first place.

Vauxhall Chevette HS

Leg 2: Chevette HS

Time to swap into another Vauxhall celebrating its 40th this year: the Chevette. This particular one’s a bit special, though. The Chevette HS is a homologation special from the days of Vauxhall’s factory rally programme (which, bizarrely, was financed by Vauxhall’s dealer network – GM wouldn’t agree to provide funds so the dealers chipped in), and quite a different animal from the regular Chevette.

In its day it was a contemporary of the likes of the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus and Escort RS2000, and in 2015 it doesn’t half look brilliant. Those tiny yet wide wheels (the tyres measure 205/60 13) almost escape the arches, the red stickers look great in a retro, Raleigh Grifter kind of way, and the tartan interior trim out-GTIs the Golf GTI.

Turn the key and the 2279cc ‘slant-four’ engine throbs into a lumpy idle. It’s a dogleg sidestep to select first gear in the slightly vague-feeling Getrag ’box and the deep-dish wheel feels heavy but perfectly sized as you pull away.

Despite 135bhp and a claimed 0-60mph time of 8.8 seconds the HS doesn’t feel all that quick on the road by today’s standards, but it’s good fun nonetheless. There’s not a hint of flex from the reinforced body, its larger-than-standard gas dampers resist body-roll yet smother bumps nicely and there’s loads of grip from the wide tyres on the frostier bits of the Route Napoleon. Forget Adam and Corsa; this ought to be Vauxhall’s template for a desirable small car.

Leg 3: Viva GT

Vauxhall Viva GT

And on the subject of small Vauxhalls, the company’s big announcement at Geneva was the new Viva – a sensible-shoes, no-nonsense sister car to the Adam, aiming to elbow sales from the likes of the Hyundai i10 and Aygo/C1/108 trio. In Europe it’ll be called the Opel Karl but, prudently, that’s been deemed too Germanic a moniker for British buyers to embrace wholeheartedly. Time, then, to dust off the old Viva nameplate.

That name is the only thing the new car shares with this 1970 Viva GT, though. It doesn’t have the same elegant, mini-muscle car styling on the outside, or world of vinyl and Bakelite inside. It probably won’t have the old car’s gale-force wind noise or conversation-drowning NVH levels, either. But likewise, it doesn’t have as much charm.

We jump in an Adam Grand Slam for the final leg of the journey and at first it feels like a Zafira. You sit so high, behind a vast expanse of dashboard flowing into enormous windscreen pillars to curtain your view. The heavily assisted brakes feel grabby at first, and the ride’s ultra-firm after the small-wheeled, tall-tyred classics. (That said, the Grand Slam is the peppiest car in the Adam range, with purposefully firm suspension and giant wheels. It looks like a cartoon next to the Chevette.)

On the plus side of course, its ergonomics are in another league, the driving position’s infinitely adjustable, you don’t need to shout to maintain a conversation on the motorway and the performance and grip levels make the Adam feel like a Lamborghini by comparison with its ancestors.

It’s true; we’ve never had it so good. But if I’d been able to turn around and head back over the Alps, I’d have been scrambling for the keys to the Chevette – or the Mk1 Cavalier.

Vauxhall Cavalier Mk1 spec

Built from: 1975-1981
Price new: £2124
Engine: 1879cc 4-cyl, 100bhp, 113lb ft
Transmission: 4-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Performance:  13.3sec 0-60mph, 96mph

Vauxhall Chevette HS spec

Built from: 1976-1980
Price new: £5107
Engine: 2279cc 4-cyl, 135bhp, 134lb ft
Transmission: 5-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Performance: 8.8sec 0-60mph, 117mph

Vauxhall Viva GT spec

Built from: 1968-1970
Price new: £1062
Engine: 1975cc 4-cyl, 104bhp, 117lb ft
Transmission: 4-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Performance: 10.7sec 0-60mph, 100mph

By James Taylor

CAR's deputy features editor, occasional racer