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Classic Cars Wiki

Vauxhall Cavalier

The Vauxhall Cavalier is a large family car sold primarily in the UK by Vauxhall Motors, the British division of General Motors (GM), from 1975 to 1995. It was based on a succession of Opel designs throughout its production life, during which it was built in three incarnations.

The first generation of Cavalier, launched in 1975 and produced until 1981, was based on the existing Opel Ascona with a few minor visual differences.

The second generation of Cavalier, launched in 1981 and produced until 1988, was launched simultaneously with the identical new generation of Opel Ascona.

The third and final generation of Cavalier, launched in 1988 and produced until 1995, was based on the first generation of Opel Vectra with the same production span.

Mark I (1975–1981)[]

The U car programme was the second attempt by General Motors to produce a "world car" the first being the T car (Chevette / Kadett C ). However, this was even less of a "world car" than what had gone before, it was success in Europe and the UK, to a lesser extent in South Africa but little anywhere else. It was tested by Holden but found to be unable to cope with Australian conditions without serious reinforcement. Vauxhall's part in the programme was far more involved than is generally appreciated. The HD Viva project was cancelled in 1973 and was designed to move the Viva into mid market "Cortina" territory and several mock ups were built all with the yet to be famous "droop snoot" front end treatmant. However, by the time Bob Price arrived as MD sales were in freefall and a new mid range model was needed - and quick. Opel were already advanced on the U car replacement for the Ascona A and Manta. Vauxhall's model plans were merged into the project and various design variations were studied and prototypes built but in the end, due to cost contraints, only the front and rear were substantially different, but the Manta adopted the Cavalier front, albeit with a few air holes added, which helped spread the cost of the headlights!. The Cavalier Van, Pick Up and Estate were all built as prototypes but Opel saw no need for an Estate or van to compete with the Rekord and the pick up was felt to have only a limited market and it would not have been economic for Vauxhall to go it alone on these. The Sportshatch was a different ball game and was wholly designed at Luton, based on previous concepts done in house at Vauxhall's design studios. Launched with a 1,584 cc engine as a 1976 model in November 1975, the Cavalier was a restyled version of the German Opel Ascona, produced initially at the Opel plant in Antwerp, Belgium. The Ascona/Cavalier were built on what GM called the U-car platform, and the Cavalier was originally intended to have its own bodywork and Van, Pick-up and Estate version's were also on the drawing board. In the end to keep costs down different nose, designed by Wayne Cherry, was the only thing which set the Vauxhall apart. The first Vauxhall Cavalier to be assembled at Vauxhall's Luton plant was driven off the production line by Eric Fountain, Vauxhall's manufacturing director, on 26 August 1977, after which the 1,256 cc version, assembled at Luton and using engine and transmission already familiar to Viva 1300 owners, broadened the range. At that stage the 1,584 cc Cavalier and the 1,897 cc which had joined it were still being imported from Belgium, but in due course these, too, started to emerge from the Luton production plant.

In Vauxhall's line-up the Cavalier initially complemented and then replaced the slightly larger Victor, which by this time was falling a long way behind the Ford Cortina in the British car sales charts, and was being overtaken by the Morris Marina and Austin Maxi.

The timing of the Cavalier's UK launch was well judged. The UK tax system meant that sales to company car fleets comprised a larger proportion of the overall market - especially for middle-weight saloons - than elsewhere in Europe: the Ford Cortina Mk II had been replaced by the Ford Cortina Mk III in 1970, but in the eyes of the all important company car fleet managers the newer Cortina never quite matched the earlier car for reliability, notably in respect of problems with its cable clutch and with camshaft wear in the 1.6 and 2.0 litre ohc units. The traditionally very conservative fleet market was therefore particularly receptive to Vauxhall's new Cortina challenger.

The original Cavaliers were available as two and four-door saloons, and with a two-door booted (three-box) coupé body as used for the Opel Manta. The cars came with a choice of 1.6 and 1.9 L inline four cylinder engines in the saloon: only the 1.9 L engine was available in the coupé.

It was revised in 1978 as the 1.9 L became a 2.0 L engine and the 1.3 L OHV engine from the Vauxhall Viva and Vauxhall Chevette was used to create the entry level Cavalier 1.3 variant. At the same time, a three-door hatchback known as the Sports hatch (also seen on the Manta) was added to the range.

All Cavalier saloons shared most of their bodywork with the Opel Ascona but had the slanted nose of the Manta to give them the distinct "droop snoot" front end. The coupé also had a front air dam. The Chevrolet Chevair in South Africa was a variant of this model, featuring the grille of the Opel Manta and different engine choices.

Vauxhall, from 1978 until 1979, offered the Cavalier coupé in convertible format called the Centaur. Only 118 of these were made and fewer than 30 were believed to have survived by 2007. The cars were developed by Magraw Engineering and sold through Vauxhall dealerships on behalf of Crayford. The Centaur is basically a Cavalier GLS coupé 2-litre with the hard roof replaced with a soft top leaving a T-bar for strength. The floor pan was also strengthened.

The ultimate Cavalier Mk1 is the design concept by Wayne Cherry called Silver Aero. “Silver Aero” was a one off Prototype build in 1980 based on the Cavalier MK1 Sportshatch. The car was displayed at the International Car Show at the NEC in October 1980. The plan was to offer existing Sportshatch owners and buyers to upgrade there car to the Silver Aero spec. The car has a 2.4 litre turbocharged engine which produces 150 bhp (112 kW; 152 PS). Orders were taken but not enough to warrant production, and the car remains a one off.

Despite being the same car mechanically, the Opel Ascona was sold alongside the Cavalier in the UK until 24 July 1981, when GM decided to phase out duplicated models with the Opel brand in the UK, and merge remaining dealerships with those of Vauxhall. The Opel Manta (and Monza) remained available, giving the Opel brand a "sports" position. That the Manta was sold alongside the Mark 2 Cavalier in the 1980s gave rise to the curiosity that the previous generation Ascona/Cavalier was effectively being sold concurrently with its successor, since a coupe/sports hatch version of the Ascona C/Cavalier Mark 2 was never engineered.

The original Cavalier was a strong seller in Britain, even though it never quite matched the runaway sales success of the Ford Cortina. Nearly 250,000 were sold, though by December 2009 just 373 remained.

The Vauxhall Cavalier Mk1 was also sold in left hand drive in some European countries, including Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Poland, Italy and Switzerland. The Coupe was available with the 1.3 engine and in Norway the car came with Manta style headlight wipers. Vauxhalls were at one time sold alongside Opels in Europe but Vauxhall announced they were pulling out of the 11 countries where they sold cars on 6th December 1979 and sales stopped in 1981. In right hand drive markets such as Ireland, Cyprus and Malta, the Vauxhall brand was also dropped, with Opel becoming the main GM marque. Holden also looked at taking the U-Car but they declined as they found that the prototypes they had tested were not sutable for the roads in the Outback without extensive modifications.

Trim levels:

  • L
  • LS
  • GL
  • GLS

Special Edition:

  • Command Performance
  • Silver Special

Mark II (1981–88)[]

A new front-wheel drive car was introduced on 26 August 1981, again using the same underpinnings as the Opel Ascona - this time the Ascona C. On its launch, it offered class-leading levels of fuel economy and performance which had previously been unthinkable for this sector of car. Sales began towards the end of September.

This model was part of GM's family of compact "J-cars", along with the Ascona, the Australian Holden Camira, the Brazilian Chevrolet Monza, the Japanese Isuzu Aska, and the North American Chevrolet Cavalier, Pontiac Sunbird, Buick Skyhawk, Oldsmobile Firenza, and Cadillac Cimarron. In the UK, the new Cavalier was a huge success and challenged the supremacy of the Ford Cortina as the company car of choice.

DSC 0022

1987 Vauxhall Cavalier Mark II SRi130 – E400 FGV

Following the British public's reluctance to embrace the Ford Sierra's radical styling in 1982, the Cavalier overtook the Sierra in sales and outsold the Sierra in 1984 and again in 1985. The Sierra narrowly outsold it in 1986, and a facelift for the Sierra in 1987 helped Ford maintain its regained place at the top of the large family car sector as nearly 140,000 Sierras were sold that year, while Cavalier sales fell below 100,000. By the time the second generation Cavalier was discontinued to make way for the third generation model in October 1988, the Sierra was almost twice as popular.

It was Britain's second best selling car (behind the Ford Escort) in 1984 and 1985, and at its peak, this version of the Cavalier came with the choice of 1.3 or 1.6 L engines derived from the smaller Vauxhall Astra (also sold as the (Opel Kadett), while for 1983 a 1.8 L engine was launched, which had electronic fuel injection. A diesel of 1.6 L was added about the same time, while the 1.8 L was supplemented by a 2.0 L for the 1987 model year.

It was narrowly beaten to the European Car of the Year award by the Renault 9.

This model was produced as a four-door saloon and five-door hatchback. An estate version (based on the Holden Camira wagon with rear body panels imported CKD from Australia) became available in October 1983, but proved a slow seller. The two-door saloon was soon dropped from the Cavalier range, although remained part of the Ascona range in other markets. A convertible, based on the two-door and converted by Hammond and Thiede in Germany, was subsequently offered.

The Thatcher government in the UK created a tax break at 1.8 L, with any company car having a larger engine than this attracting higher personal benefit taxes, thus effectively giving the Cavalier an advantage over its rivals soon after its launch.

Over the course of the model's lifetime, there were two facelifts mirroring changes made to the Ascona - firstly for the 1985 model year which saw revised grilles, modified rear lamp clusters, new steering wheels, upgraded equipment, new upholstery options and different instrument graphics - some of these changes came direct from the recently introduced Kadett E/Astra Mark 2. A further update in 1987 saw the grilles and rear lamp clusters revised again in a style similar to the larger Senator model together with further improvements to equipment levels. A new 2.0L engine option became available on CD, SRi and GLS trim, whilst the availability of the fuel injected 1.8L unit was extended down to L trim.

By the end of its life cycle, the top of the range version was the powerful 2.0 SRi130, which had 130 hp (97 kW) and could exceed 120 mph (193 km/h). This had the same engine as the Astra GTE 8v (20SEH), though it was more powerful owing to a better exhaust route.

For the first time, Vauxhall began exporting cars in left-hand drive to other European countries, badged as Opels, which was a boost to GM's confidence in its once-troubled British division. In November 1987, the then head of Vauxhall, John Bagshaw, told Car magazine that the Asconas built in the UK were considered of equivalent quality to those built elsewhere in Europe, adding that "they can't tell them from the German ones". When the Cavalier was first introduced, the cars were built at Opel's plant in Belgium, but production quickly moved to Luton. The estate version's panels were built by Holden in Australia.

The last Cavalier Mark II to be produced was the Cavalier Calibre. Based on the SRi130 with styling from Aston Martin/Tickford and the bodykit, sports suspension and exhaust being produced by Irmscher, it was a limited production run of only 500 cars. The car came with a very high specification including a trip computer, Recaro seats, power windows and power steering. It cost around £13,000 when released in 1987.

Vauxhall sold 807,624 examples of the second generation Cavalier between 1981 and 1988. By December 1989, it was the third most common car on British roads.

In August 2006, Auto Express magazine named it as the country's sixth most scrapped car of the last 30 years, with just 6,343 still in working order. The only car to cease production after the Cavalier Mark II, and which disappeared at a greater rate, was the Skoda Estelle (which was withdrawn from sale in 1990). By December 2009, that figure had fallen to a mere 1,289.

A factor which helped make this the case was the fact that the MK2 Cavalier was one of the most stolen cars of the 1980s and early 1990s and were particularly popular with joyriders because of their better than average performance for a car of its type and the fact it was easy to break into and start forcibly, which brought about the early demise of some. Other factors resulting in demise included corrosion and premature camshaft wear.

Trim levels

  • Base (1.3 petrol, 1.6 petrol)
  • L (1.3 petrol, 1.6 petrol, 1.6 diesel)
  • Li (1.8i petrol)
  • LX (1.6 petrol)
  • LXi (1.8i petrol)
  • GL (1.3 petrol, 1.6 petrol, 1.6 diesel)
  • GLi (1.8i petrol)
  • GLS (1.6 petrol)
  • GLSi (1.8i petrol, 2.0i 114 bhp (85 kW; 116 PS) petrol)
  • SR (1.6 petrol)
  • SRi (1.8i petrol, 2.0i petrol 114 bhp (85 kW; 116 PS))
  • SRi 130 (2.0i 128 bhp (95 kW; 130 PS) petrol)
  • CDi (1.8i petrol, 2.0i 114 bhp (85 kW; 116 PS) petrol)
  • Convertible (1.8i petrol)
  • Estate (1.6 petrol)
  • Estate L (1.6 petrol, 1.6 Diesel)
  • Estate GL (1.6 petrol, 1.6 Diesel)

The "i" suffix stands for Fuel Injection.

Special editions

  • Commander (1.6 petrol)
  • Antibes (1.6 petrol)
  • Club (1.6 petrol)
  • Calibre (Same 2.0 fuel injection engine of the SRi 130)

Mark III (1988–95)[]

The last Cavalier was introduced in October 1988 for the 1989 model year, being Vauxhall's version of the Opel Vectra "A", again available as a saloon and hatchback. There was no estate version in the Opel line-up, and as the Vectra was not going to be sold in Australia, there was no prospect of Vauxhall turning to Holden for a replacement. The Vectra name was not adopted at this model change as Vauxhall feared reviving memories of the much-maligned Vauxhall Victor. Early Victors had been viewed in some quarters as excessively corrosion prone, but the Victor was becoming a very distant memory by this stage: the Vectra name would eventually appear on a Vauxhall in 1995, with the Cavalier Mark III's replacement. L In place of the Mark II Cavalier's angular exterior was a more rounded appearance. There was also a new economical 1.4 L petrol engine. The biggest changes to the range were the addition of 2.0 L 16-valve engines, better known as the "red top" or XE. This was fitted to the GSi 2000 and later SRis. Also made available was a four wheel drive system, fitted to a 2.0iL model (8 valve SRi spec) and on a version of the GSi 2000. There were two diesels available: a 1.7 L, 60 hp (45 kW) from launch, and a lightly blown 82 hp (61 kW) 1.7 Isuzu-engined turbodiesel from 1992. The early SRis were fitted with the splendid 2.0 8-valve engine from the previous Cavalier model, which produced 130 hp (97 kW).

Despite the lack of an estate body style, the Cavalier topped the large-medium family car sales charts in Britain in 1990, ahead of the Ford Sierra, Rover 400 and Rover Montego. Its best year for sales was 1992, when it was Britain's second best selling car behind the Ford Escort. It did not lose top spot in its sector until it was overtaken by the Ford Mondeo in 1994.

Vauxhall came up with a new coupé, the Calibra, developed from the Cavalier Mark III, to replace the discontinued Opel Manta. The Calibra was well received, notably for its sporty although cramped interior (largely based on the interior of the Cavalier) and its streamlined styling which in turn, enabled the Calibra to have the lowest drag coefficient of the period at 0.26 for the 8v model (0.29 for the rest). A few variants were made: the doughty 2.0 litre 8-valve, 2.0 L 16-valve (a splendid unit, the same engine found in the proven Cavalier Gsi2000), the turbo version (again, the same engine used in the very successful Cavalier Turbo), the lusty 2.5 L V6 and finally the 2.0 L 16-valve "Ecotec".

A facelift in the autumn of 1992 saw the Cavalier's weak 1.4 L engine dropped and the gregarious 172 hp (128 kW) 2.5 L V6 added to the range. At this time the GSi 2000 was replaced by a new four-wheel drive version badged simply "Cavalier Turbo" with a turbocharged version of the 16-valve engine producing over 200 hp (150 kW). Most of the range now had airbags and anti-lock brakes as standard (the first car in its class to do so)and all models were fitted with side impact beams (providing additional longitudinal load paths). The exterior design was also freshened up, with a new-look grille, headlights,rear lights and bumper mouldings. There was an increase in the amount of sound insulation, especially in GLS and higher models making the cavalier an enviably quiet place to do business. In late 1994, the new 2.0L Ecotec engine was launched replacing the previous 16-valve "redtop" engine, with a reduced power output down to 136 hp (101 kW), compared to the 150 hp (112 kW) of the previous engine.

Production of the Cavalier ceased in late 1995 when it was replaced by the Vectra, though stocks continued for about one year afterwards and several P-registered versions (August 1996 to July 1997 period) were sold.

The third and final incarnation of the Cavalier was a big improvement over its predecessors (and most earlier Vauxhalls) in terms of durability, with the rust problems that had plagued Vauxhall for years finally being conquered. This was reflected by the fact that tidy Mark III Cavaliers are still a very common sight on Britain's roads more than 16 years after the end of production.

The passing of the Cavalier marked a significant moment for Vauxhall, as it was the last car to be completely named by the Luton-based company. All future Vauxhalls would be simply rebadged Opels, or in the case of the 2004 Vauxhall Monaro, a rebadged Holden.

This version of the Cavalier shared its mechanicals with the Saab 900 that was produced from 1993 until 1998, and continued until 2002 as the Saab 9-3.

Trim levels were:

1988–1992 range
  • Base (1.4, 1.6 petrol)
  • L (1.4, 1.6, 1.6i, 1.8, 1.8i, 2.0i 8v petrol, 1.7 diesel, 1.7 turbodiesel)
  • GL (1.6, 1.6i, 1.8, 1.8i, 2.0i 8v petrol, 1.7 diesel, 1.7 turbodiesel)
  • CD (2.0i 8v petrol)
  • Diplomat (2.0i 8v petrol)
  • SRi (2.0i 8v petrol 130 bhp)
  • GSi (2.0i 16v petrol)
  • Concept (1.8i petrol)
1992-1995 range
  • Envoy (1.6i petrol, 1.7 diesel, 1.7 turbodiesel)
  • LS (1.6i, 1.8i, 2.0i 8v, 2.0 16v petrol, 1.7 diesel, 1.7 turbodiesel)
  • Colorado (1.8i Petrol)
  • GLS (1.6i, 1.8i, 2.0i 8v 2.0i 16v 2.5 V6 petrol, 1.7 turbodiesel)
  • V6 (2.5i V6 petrol)
  • CD (2.0i (C20NE, 1.7 Turbodiesel)
  • CDX (2.0i (X20XEV), 2.5 V6 petrol(C25XE), 1.7 turbodiesel)
  • Diplomat (2.0 8v, 2.5 V6 Petrol)
  • SRi (2.0i (C20XE 1992-1994, X20XEV 1994-1995) petrol)
  • Cesaro (1.8i & 2.5 V6 petrol)
  • Turbo (2.0 16v 4x4 petrol 6 speed Turbocharged (C20LET)
  • Ethos (1.6i E-Drive & 1.7Turbo diesel)
  • Expressions (1.8i)
  • Concept (1.6i)


A total of more than 1,800,000 Cavaliers were sold in three generations and a 20-year production run, making it the fifth most popular car ever sold in Britain. Following its launch in October 1975, the original Cavalier took time to gain ground on the British market, with just under 30,000 sales placing it as the 13th best selling car that year. It climbed to eighth place the following year with more than 41,000 sales, peaking at seventh place in 1978 with over 55,000 sales. It was still the seventh best seller in 1980, though sales for that year had dipped back to just over 41,000 as the economy entered recession. Well over 200,000 were sold in total over a six-year production run, but by the end of 2009 just 373 remained.

The MK2 Cavalier was a much bigger success. In 1982, its first full year on sale, just over 100,000 were sold in Britain. This placed it as Britain's fourth best selling car, putting it just 35,000 sales short of its key rival, the Ford Cortina, which was replaced that autumn by the all-new Sierra. 1983 saw Cavalier sales in Britain exceed 127,000 as it retained fourth place, but it was outsold by the Sierra which occupied second place with almost 160,000 sales. The next two years, however, saw the Cavalier top the large family car sector in Britain in terms of sales, and overall it was the nation's second best selling car behind the Ford Escort, breaking the 130,000 barrier on both occasions while the Sierra only just made it into six figures. Despite falling popularity towards the end of production which saw the Ford Sierra outsell it, a total of 807,624 MK2 Cavaliers were sold in Britain during its seven-year production run.

The MK3 Cavalier enjoyed similar popularity to its predecessor. Launched in October 1988, Cavalier sales for 1989 stood at 130,000 (including some MK2's) as it was Britain's fourth best selling car overall, while the Ford Sierra stood second with more than 175,000 sales, but in 1990 it edged ahead of the Sierra into third place, and by 1992 it was Britain's second best selling car with nearly 110,000 sales (the lower figures being the result of the recession at the time) while sales of the ageing Sierra had slumped to less than 80,000. The Sierra's successor, the Mondeo, overtook it in 1994 but even in the Cavalier's last year on sale, 1995, it still managed nearly 74,000 sales.