Wednesday May 29, 2019
Robert Meldrum is now more than used to being approached at car shows with the opening lines ‘my dad had one of those, but it was the saloon’ – a sentiment that I can instantly echo. Many moons ago, at a time when respectable Chartered Surveyors really did think it was a good idea to dress like Tony Curtis in The Persuaders! (it really wasn’t) my father drove a “Saxon Blue” Viva HB De Luxe two-door. To this day, I have never forgotten the transmission whine and the way the needle would career across the strip speedometer – memories that will be familiar to so many readers.
To watch so many British film or television programme of the late 1960s and 1970s (and not just Whatever Happened to The Likely Lads?) is to instantly realise the sheer ubiquity of the Viva HB. Today, you might encounter the mighty GT version or perhaps the saloon at a show – but very rarely the estate, which makes Robert’s 1970 De Luxe one of the most exclusive classics in the UK.
Mr. Meldrum’s appreciation of the HB commenced ‘around 1977 or 1978 when an uncle gave me my first Viva. It was a De Luxe Estate with the “90” engine and I customised it with GT running gear’. Unfortunately, in 1986 Robert ‘had an altercation with a wagon and I was eventually obliged to scrap what was left of the Viva’. But he understandably never forgot that Vauxhall, for the HB was one of Luton’s most important post-war products.
The impact of the second-generation Viva on the British motorist back in September 1966 cannot be underestimated for not only was it a world apart from the outgoing HA, it looked different to virtually every other British small car.
The HB was the second Vauxhall to sport “coke-bottle” styling – the 1965 Cresta PC was the first – and by comparison, its principal rival the Ford Anglia 105E looked as contemporary as a record by Tommy Steele & The Steelmen. Vauxhall proclaimed that ‘From today, 1-litre motoring will never be the same and the HB even boasted those ultra-fashionable square Lucas headlamps – some of the first on a British production car.
The first examples of the HB were Viva was powered by the 1,159cc engine in either standard or higher-powered “90” forms and the initial choice of coachwork was restricted to a two-door saloon. Your choice of trim-levels ranged from “Basic”, which more than lived up to its name, the De Luxe, with a heater and windscreen washers and the SL with its Ambla trim, extra chrome and faux-walnut veneer fascia.
Here is the last-named wowing visitors to the 1966 Earls Court Motor Show with its optional whitewall tyres -
and the footage does give a vivid impression of the Viva’s showroom appeal.
In June 1967 Vauxhall unveiled the Estate, which looked different to virtually every other British car in its class. As compared with the BMC 1100 Countryman/Traveller, the Anglia and the Triumph Herald 1200, the Viva conveyed an air of a US freeway, all for a mere £729 7s 9d for the De Luxe. ‘Look at her. Slim. Smooth. Nimble. With a rakish fastback’ basted the sales copy and in February 1968 Autocar evaluated an SL90 Estate. They concluded ‘it is a stylish little car, very popular with the ladies because it is so easy to drive’. No comment.
‘Estates were once the ugly sisters of saloons’ noted Vauxhall with a complete lack of modesty, but the brochures also reassured potential customers that it was also practical with its sizable load-bay. The suspension was also reinforced, and low-profile tyres were fitted to the Viva station wagon. And for those who found the HB’s ‘Sportissimo’ looks just too glamourous, there was the very sensible alternative of the Martin Walter Bedford HA Beagle conversion.
HB production ceased on 1970 with the introduction of the HC and by the 1990s they were already a rare sight. 114 BOB was originally a London car but when Robert came across it some nine years ago it was residing in North Yorkshire.
He wryly observes - ‘It looked good in the ‘photos. The interior was in a fine state of repair, needing only ‘a new carpet, new boot lining, and new headlining’ but the running gear was another issue – ‘I carried out a full strip down’.
However, it was the bodywork that presented the greatest challenge; ‘the floor on the driver’s side had rotted away, and I needed to find ‘sills, rear arches plus a completely new front end’. Finally, work was complete and the existing “Peacock Blue” finish was replaced by a sparking “‘Monaco White” in honour of that Viva Estate owned by the 18-year-old Robert.
To say that Viva has period charm in abundance would be understatement of the decade although when out and about, Robert does notice the lack of front disc brakes, which were only fitted as standard to the “90”, 1600 and GT versions.
‘I bought an upgrade kit a few years ago with the intention of fitting it to the HB but I eventually decided not to on the grounds of “authenticity” and now those new brakes are on anther of my cars. It does feel sometimes as though you need to give the Viva notice in writing, but it was made at a time when people made more use of the gears to slow a car. Today, you can just jump on the pedal and stop on sixpence’.
Over the past nine years 114 BOB has been awarded many prizes and received countless accolades, but one comment stuck in Robert’s mind. ‘A guy made the remark “It’s nice to see people look after one of these” so was he genuinely impressed or just amazed someone was preserving a Viva not a Ferrari’.
Looking at this HB in better than showroom condition, it was surely the former. Cue the opening titles of a certain 1970s sitcom -