Wednesday February 6, 2019
40 years ago, one of Britain’s most famous car names ceased production and would not be revived for another 36 years. When the Viva HC was launched in 1970, the Vauxhall brand was associated with American-style motoring on a UK budget and when the last example departed the factory in July 1979 the Griffin badge adorned a range of modified Opels. As a sign of the times, the HC’s eventual replacement was the Astra, Luton’s interpretation of the FWD Kadett D.
The HC is the sort of car that was once taken for granted, precisely because they were so ubiquitous. The basic two-door Viva often served as a police Panda Car or in schools of motoring, the Estate was an extremely attractive three-door fastback and the Firenza coupe was Vauxhall’s answer to the Ford Capri.
As for the smooth and decadent Magnums, they were as fashionable as attempting to grow a Jason King moustache, even if that was rarely a good look on the average cost and management accountant from Andover. But even the humbler Vivas more received the approval of James Hunt -
When Autocar tested a De Luxe with the 1,156cc engine in 1970, the price was £850 18s 1d - a reminder that the HC was one of the last new cars of the pre-decimal era. Servo-assisted front disc brakes were an additional £16 6s 5d and radial ply tyres a worthwhile optional extra for £12 8s.
They concluded that the latest Viva was ‘a very worthy successor to the HB’. Motor thought it was ‘pleasant and practical family transport’ although they were amazed that Vauxhall offered an even more Spartan HC than the De Luxe, as the specification already lacked a water temperature gauge. Ordering a basic Viva would have saved you £67 although it remains a surprise that as late as 1971 it was possible to buy a new car without a heater as standard.
One challenge faced by Luton was that the HB was widely regarded as one of the best-looking British small cars of its generation, but the new Viva was a rather attractive vehicle, with clean lines that date rather better than many of its compatriots. This Movietone Newsreel from 1970 showcases the HC as the ideal car for the new decade although it is hard not be distracted by the band on the BMW stand at Earl’s Court -
Those mid-Atlantic lines reflected the fact that Vauxhall’s largest export market was Canada, where the entire HC range was branded as Firenzas and sold via Pontiac dealerships.
GM proclaimed that the HC was a ‘sporty-looking performer that is comfortable, economical and fun to drive, at a price that will surprise you’. Alas, its reliability was not on a par with a new generation of Japanese imported cars, or indeed of the average Pontiac. Canadian exports finally ceased in early 1973 with sales of less than 13,000 units, and the effect on Vauxhall was profound.
The Viva was due to be succeeded by the larger HD in 1975 which would have been more of a Cortina than an Escort rival; the idea was to create more of a gulf between the Viva and the forthcoming Vauxhall-built version of GM’s T-car programme. Luton’s problems meant that this project was cancelled in favour of the Ascona B-derived Cavalier, marking the beginning of the end of their design independence.
When the British T-car debuted as the Chevette in 1975, the official line was that it occupied a niche below the HC. ‘The perennial Viva’ remarked Patrick MacNee in this all-range commercial of the late 1970s -
and Vauxhall claimed there were no plans to drop the older model, but it became increasingly apparent the HC’s days were numbered.
Its line-up was once one of mind-melting complexity, but by 1978 the upmarket Magnum ceased production in 1978 and by the following the range now was reduced to the 1.3-litre engine and three choices of trim level.
The HC sold well some four years after its intended replacement date, and cars such as Sebastian Warner’s last of the line four-door 1300L were seen in high streets across the UK. He acquired his Viva seven months ago and in addition to its aesthetic appeal – ‘it’s body design - I love its shape’ – that splendid duotone colour scheme ‘really caught my eye’. As a mid-range L, the Warner Viva boasts hazard flashers, a cigar lighter, twin sun visors and a heated rear window to distinguish it from the bottom of the range E.
The brochure’s references to the latter’s ‘high-level specification’ took monumental amounts of gall in a car that lacked a rear ashtray and an “internal bonnet lock”. When Vauxhall set out to create an entry level Viva, they clearly did not believe in compromise.
Naturally, the L also had Plaid Cloth upholstery or, as Mr Warner puts it, ’the seats are half faux-leather, and the middle section is in sort of tartan/criss-cross pattern in brown/orange’. This is interior décor befitting a car for the smart set of outer Pinner and for those Flash Harries who demanded quad headlamps, a “sports steering wheel”, a clock and a tachometer on their HC there was the flagship GLS.
Survival rates of the HC are low, and not helped by its reputation for corrosion. This cinema commercial has the velvet tones of Edward Judd promising that the Viva was ‘a car that takes a lot of beating’ - https://www.hatads.org.uk/catalogue/record/83a8900b-b01e-42b4-873d-ea48752c3813 - but by 1990 they had largely vanished, together with people who openly admitted to enjoying Paul records by The Sweet.
And today, Spencer faces an issue familiar to nearly all HC owners – being approached by members of the public saying ‘I used to have one of those’ or ‘Blimey, I remember those!’. Plus, of course, ‘my Dad used to drive a Viva…’.
WITH THANKS TO – Sebastian Warner.
FURTHER READING – The incredible http://vauxpedia.net/ - a must for all Vauxhall enthusiasts.