Friday June 22, 2018
In the very late 1970s, you might sometimes encounter owners of the Vauxhall Chevette L engaged on secret work in their lock-up. After months of carefully applying “Strobe stripes”, a front spoiler and a home-applied change of body colour from ultra-sensible brown to silver, they too could to take the roads in their own interpretation of the incredible 2300HS. Admittedly, it was a subterfuge that worked best in the dark and if the 1,256cc engine was not fired-up but it is understandable why someone would want to replicate the ultimate Chevette.
The 2300 HS went on sale to private customers in the spring of 1978, but its origins dated back to 1975 when Vauxhall’s latest Chairman Bob Price decreed that rally victories would be a key element in raising the marque’s profile.
The sight of a Ford winning that year’s RAC Rally provided a further impetus and the result was an exceedingly high-powered Chevette that was developed in conjunction with Blydenstein Racing and which combined an eye-catching front air dam. Under the bonnet was the 2.3 litre “Slant Four” engine boasting a 16 valve cylinder head and transmission was via a five-speed Getrag gear box.
Motor Sport was so impressed by the latest Vauxhall that they even stated, ‘the only better cars, in any experience, have been proper GT models like the Stratos and the Porsche 911’. They also eagerly anticipated of the road-going version - ‘If Vauxhall keep the attractive combination of docile power, good ride and fine handling, and then ensure the reliability of the whole plot, the Chevette HS 2300 will have proved worth waiting for’. At that time General Motors did not back race programmes but this was circumvented by Luton using its sales network to form “Dealer Team Vauxhall”.
As per Group 4 rallying regulations, Vauxhall had to construct 400 homologated cars 2, a process that took some 18 months. Autocar noted ‘problems adapting the engine for series production and with cylinder head suppliers’ – and in fact the first rally cars used a ZF box and a Lotus head.
The 2300 HS however was more than worth the wait, even at a price of £5,199 – or the £1,000 more than the RS2000 Mk. II. A top speed of 117 mph meant that it was 7 mph faster than the Escort – a fact that must have delighted Vauxhall– and other sales attributes were 135 bhp, 0-60 in eight seconds, extra instruments, alloy wheels and a paint finish in “Silver Starfire” metallic.
There was also ‘a push button radio, front head restraints, tinted glass, tartan cloth trim, full carpeting throughout and reclining front seats shaped to provide lateral support’.
The HS was not terribly convincing as a four-seater (the more elaborate cabin made for less space than on a standard Chevette) but as a 2+2 that was exclusive and a rally victor it carved its own niche – namely 14 international rallies plus the British Open Championship.
For those who craved even more power, Vauxhall introduced a very limited run of the HSR Evolution in 1979, which was immediately identified by its (very) flared arches and the sound of its 150bhp power plant.
Production of the HS ended in 1981, and in the previous year L J K Setright (perhaps my favourite British motoring writer of all time) compared the Chevette with a formidable quintet of alternatives; the VW Golf GTi, the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus - the only other RWD car in the group, the Renault 5 Gordini, the Peugeot 10ZS and the Fiat 127 Sport. He concluded that his choice was the Vauxhall, not least because ‘the really outstanding thing about the Chevette 2300 HS is that it alone feels capable of a lot more’.
Of course, the 2300 HS was not the first post-war sporting car with the Gryphon badge, but the timing of its launch was perfect, and its impact was immense. The hatchback with the proudly unsubtle appearance was both Vauxhall’s demonstration of the adage ‘Win on a Sunday, sell on a Monday’ - and a car that was instrumental in changing the image of one of Britain’s oldest car manufacturers.
And who after watching Pentti Airikkala at the wheel of his HSR would not feel the urge to place an order of a new Chevette -
Or plan to treat their existing GL a new paint finish and a set of alloy wheels…