Tuesday February 7, 2017
The year is 1957; the time is the 7th February, and the event is a musical show at the Kilburn State Theatre in London celebrating the launch of a new Vauxhall.
After some comic turns from Arthur Askey and the lovely Sabrina, some 2,400 dealers and members of the press are treated to their first sight of the F-Type Victor, resplendent in ‘Gypsy Red’. There was even a specially commissioned march from The Grenadier Guards – Victor, King of The Highway.
The first Victor left the production line on February 1st and it encapsulated the age as much as coffee bars, Lonnie Donegan and His Skiffle Band, and The Six-Five Special on BBC TV. The cars tailfins would bring Manhattan style glamour to the driveway of any pre-war semi-detached villa, and the Victor was the first new European car to be fitted with a panoramic windscreen.
Of course, the one element that really made the Victor stand out in a world of Oxfords and Cambridges was its looks. Vauxhall had long been associated with US design tropes but 1957 was arguably the year that they embraced full-blown Americana. An Autocar test sniped at the ‘flamboyant effect to the exterior that may appeal in export markets rather than to the more conservatively minded British motorist’ but in many ways, the Victor was the ideal car for the age. It represented a very affordable form of conspicuous consumption at a time when food rationing was now a memory and where credit regulations were being liberalised. Besides, it even had two-speed wipers as standard!
At the end of the decade, Luton had sold a quarter of a million Victors and a further reason behind its success was that it was a practical and mechanically straightforward car. The Vauxhall offered a large boot and excellent headroom; the F-Type was designed in a decade when proper chaps still wore hats. Power was from a robust 1,508cc engine and the all-synchromesh three on the column gearchange was more pleasant to operate than the transmission on some of the Vauxhall’s rivals. There was a choice of two trim levels, the Standard and, for just £781 7s, the Super with its cigarette lighter, rear ashtrays and abundance of extra chrome. Naturally, there was a full range of accessories, from an external sun visor at £3 5s to the more practical choice of windscreen washers at £2 12s 6d each.
1958 saw the introduction of a handsome estate (Vauxhall’s first factory-built wagon) and the Victor soon became Britain’s most exported car. In the USA, the F-Type was sold by Pontiac dealers and a major overseas market was Canada, where the Victor was sold via Oldsmobile/Chevrolet outlets as the Envoy. In February 1959, the range was facelifted as the Series 2 with slightly less exuberant coachwork and a new De Luxe flagship with leather trim, separate front seats and carpeting front and rear. The advertisement promised that the latest Victor was ‘completely proof against dust, draughts, water’ but when the F-Type was replaced by the FB in September 1961 their numbers were already being decimated by corrosion. The unitary bodies were replete with rust traps and the early versions had the exhaust exiting via the rear bumper, which did not exactly help the survival rate.
By the 1970s, the ravages of tin worm had severely reduced the numbers of F-Types on British roads. At that time, it was not unusual for me to see an Audax-series Hillman Minx or an Austin A55 Cambridge Mk.I. Today, sixty years after that original press gala, they deserve to be remembered not just as the Vauxhall that spawned five generations and 19 years of Victors but also as the epitome of late 1950s British dreams and aspirations.