Thursday September 21, 2017
I imagine nearly everyone will recall the original Astra; the first Vauxhall-badged car with front wheel drive and one of the defining cars of the early 1980s. The Astra was more than a very worthy competitor for the VW Golf and the soon to be launched Ford Escort Mk. III, it was as typically early 1980s as listening to Madness’ House of Fun on a Sony Walkman while hiring a Betamax tape of Jaws 2 at your local video library.
Motor magazine tested the Astra shortly after its launch in November 1979 and commented that it was ‘in some respects even better than the Opel Kadett from which it is derived’ - a reminder that these were the last days of the two GM marques maintaining separate dealerships. By the late 1970s, a policy was in place of Luton applying an individual identity to Opel products and the Astra would be the first Griffin-badged car not to be sold outside of the UK.
The first Astra line-up was extremely limited to avoid it clashing with the Kadett and from 1981 onwards the two would sold at merged dealerships. Warning – the tag line to this commercial contains an excessive amount of cheese. In that same year, production of the Astra had transferred from West Germany to Ellesmere Port and the line-up now included a three or five-door hatchback, a five-door estate and, possibly the least remembered version, the saloon. This shared the hatchback’s styling but had a separate boot, it was not a roaring commercial success.
The cheaper models were powered by the long-established Opel 1.2 litre OHV engine but most ambitious buyers wanted their Astra to have 1.3-litre OHC plant, Silver Green Metallic paint and GL trim with ‘crease resistant crushed velour upholstery’. For RWD traditionalists, Vauxhall retained the Chevette until as recently as 1984, the year the Astra Mk. II was launched. One vital market sector that remained un-catered for during the very early 1980s was the Gareth Cheeseman style sales rep, driver. The very entertaining Astra 1.6SR went part of the way to filling this gap but in April 1983 the GTE became the object of desire for all would-be boy racers who craved its 116-mph top speed, Bosch fuel injection and sheer style.
In fact, whether you order your GTE in Carmine Red, black, silver or Polar White it was a veritable Golf GTi rival and it was also the first British car to offer colour-coded body trim, wheels and door mirrors. This resulted in several impecunious but ambitious owners carefully replicating the look on their Astra 1200Ls and at one point, many people began to wonder if there were more GTEs on the road than were officially made by Vauxhall.
And, as with any good 1980s cars, there were the limited edition models. The EXP from 1982 could be specified in your choice of Black or Hazelnut Metallic with a tasteful Antique Gold stripe and wheels in the same shade and, naturally, there was a glass sunroof as standard. Two years later there was the Astra ‘Celebrity’, with a two-tone silver and Anthracite metallic paint finish, just prior to the debut of the Mk.2 model in October 1984.
33 years later, the first-generation Astra deserves to be remembered not just as a serious Golf/Escort competitor but as a Vauxhall that marked a sea change in the company’s image. It was introduced in the same year that the last of the Vivas ceased production and while the HC was in my opinion, one of the best-proportioned cars in its class but its styling was devised with exports to Canada in mind. By contrast, the Astra was a European-style family saloon and whenever I see an early 5-door L I always think of listening to a cassette of Kraftwerk’s The Model while travelling along the A303. Sometimes early ‘80s classics have the power to make you feel very old…