The Viva was a small family car produced by Vauxhall Motors in a succession of three versions between 1963 and 1979. These were known as the HA, the HB and the HC series.
The Viva appeared a year after Vauxhall's sister company Opel launched the Opel Kadett A: visually the two cars' kinship was apparent.There was also a Viva van, badged as a Bedford. It was extremely popular, notably with Post Office Telephones, predecessor to BT. It was so popular that it was made until 1983, four years after production ended for the HC Viva.
HA Viva 1963-1966
The Viva HA, announced in September 1963, and replaced in September 1966, was Vauxhall's first serious step into the compact car market after World War 2. It was also the first new small car produced by Vauxhall since 1936. It had a 1,057 cubic centimetres (64.5 cu in) overhead valve engine. The four cylinder front mounted engine drove the rear wheels. It was comparable in size and mechanical specifications to the new Opel Kadett released a year earlier in continental Europe. Both the Viva and Kadett were sold alongside each other in many markets. The Viva HA was just one inch longer than the Ford Anglia which had not been rebodied since 1959.
No four-door or estate versions of the HA Viva were available. A limited-production estate car conversion by Martin Walter Ltd. of Folkestone, based on the Bedford HA van, was known as the Bedford Beagle.
There was a van version of the Viva HA, which was known as the Bedford 8 or 10 cwt Van. This remained in production until 1983. Thousands of these vehicles were bought by the GPO (later British Telecom) and these bright yellow vans were a common sight.
These differed from the HA Viva saloon version in being taller. As the HA Van continued in production after the HA Viva had been replaced by the HB and HC models, the engine was uprated as were other items on it over the course of its production run.
The HA Van was eventually supplanted by the Chevanne. However, due to fleet orders, particularly from British Telecom, British Rail and the Post Office, the HA van actually stayed in production using the later HC Viva's engine, gearbox - incredibly until 1983.
The HA set new standards in its day for lightweight, easy to operate controls, a slick short gearchange, lightweight steering and clutch pedal, good all-round visibility and relatively nippy performance. It was one of the first cars to be actively marketed towards women, perhaps as a result of these perceived benefits for them.
he front crossmember (steering, suspension and engine mounting) assembly from the HA became a very popular item for DIY hot rod builders in the UK, due to its simple self-contained mechanics, similar to older designs such as those from the 1930s, and ability to accommodate much larger engines within its span. The assembly featured a double wishbone/vertical telescopic dampers suspension design in combination with a transverse leaf spring attached to the front cross member at its centre position and the entire unit could be removed and adapted to another vehicle as a complete unit. (For similar reasons the Jaguar IRS assembly was often used at the rear of these custom cars). The rear suspension making do with conventional longitudial semi elliptic leaf springs and lever arm dampers.
In Canada, the HA was sold as the Vauxhall Viva by Pontiac/Buick dealers and also as the Envoy Epic by Chevrolet/Oldsmobile dealers, and was second in sales to the Volkswagen Beetle amongst imported compact cars.
The Viva was initially launched in base and Deluxe versions, identifiable by their simple horizontal slatted metal grills. Minor changes in September 1964 included improved seats and more highly geared steering. A more luxurious SL (for Super Luxury) variant appeared in June 1965. Engines were available in two states of tune: entry level models came with a power output of 44.2 brake horsepower (33.0 kW), while the Viva 90, introduced in October 1965, having a higher 9:1 compression ratio, provided 53.7 brake horsepower (40.0 kW). The availability of two engines and three trim options enabled Vauxhall to offer six Viva variants in some markets. 90 models came with front disc brakes, while SLs featured contrasting bodyside flashes, a criss-cross chrome plated front grille, full wheel covers, three-element round tail lights and better interior trim.
During its first ten months, over 100,000 HA Vivas were made, and by 1966 the HA had chalked up over 306,000 sales, giving Vauxhall a successful return to the small car market, which they had abandoned following World War Two. One measure of the success is the extent to which budget was made available to design the car's successor with a virtually clean sheet. The Viva HB would inherit engines, but little else, from the HA.
The HA, however, suffered severely from corrosion problems along with other Vauxhall models of the time and very few of this model remain - one of the main problem areas being the cappings along the top side edges of the luggage compartment badly corroding and allowing water to enter, consequently leading to severe structural corrosion in the luggage compartment floor area. However, as with a lot of other British cars of that period, many Vivas failed to survive long term. In addition, the HA Viva suffered badly from handling and stability problems.
HB Viva 1966-1970
The Viva HB, announced in September 1966 and sold by Vauxhall until 1970, was a larger car than the HA, featuring distinctive coke bottle styling, modelled after American General Motors (GM) models such as the Chevrolet Impala/Caprice of the time. It featured the same basic engine as the HA, but enlarged to 1159 cc, but with the added weight of the larger body the final drive gearing was reduced from 3.9 to 1 to 4.1 (except the SL90 which retained the 3.9 diff) to keep the nippy performance.
Less nippy was the automatic Viva HB offered from February 1967, fitted with the ubiquitous Borg Warner Type 35 system. Cars of this size featuring automatic transmission were still unusual due to the amount of power the transmission systems absorbed: in a heartfelt if uncharacteristically blunt piece of criticism a major British motoring journal later described Viva HBs with automatic transmission as 'among the slowest cars on the road'.
The HB used a completely different suspension design from the HA, having double-wishbone and coil springs with integrated telescopic dampers at the front, and trailing arms and coil springs at the rear. Lateral location and anti-squat of the rear axle was achieved using upper trailing arms mounted at approximately 45° fixed to lugs at the top of the differential. Both front and rear could also be fitted with optional anti-roll bars. The HB set new standards for handling in its class as a result of the adoption of this suspension design, where many of its contemporaries stuck with leaf springs and Macpherson struts.
This time, apart from the standard and 90 stages of tune, there was also, for a brief time, a Brabham SL/90 HB that was purported to have been developed with the aid of world racing champion Jack Brabham. Brabham models were marked out externally by distinctive black stripes at the front of the bonnet that curved round to the fenders and then headed back to end in a taper at the front doors. This model is almost impossible to find today. This model and the Viva GT are the two most sought after models made. The Brabham model differed from the standard Viva SL/90 in having a different cam-shaft, uprated suspension with anti-roll bars, different exhaust manifolds, and a unique twin-carb manifold, as well as differing interior trim.
Two larger overhead camshaft engines from the larger Vauxhall Victor were also offered - a twin carb 1975 cc in the Viva GT from Feb 1968 and a 1599 cc making up the Viva 1600 from May 1968.
With the expanded engine programme, the HB saw numerous permutations of model offerings, with base, deluxe and SL trims offered with a choice of standard 1.2, tuned 90 1.2, Brabham 90 1.2 and the aforementioned overhead cam units offered during its run. The Brabham was effectively replaced by the 1600, although many complained of high fuel consumption with this engine. Front disc brakes came with the 90 and overhead cam engine models, while a larger 12 gallon fuel tank was also part of the 1600 and GT package.
The brakes were problematic: a 1971 survey of passenger cars registered in Sweden during 1967 place the HB Viva at the top of a list of cars identified as having faulty brakes as part of an annual testing procedure.Problems were concentrated on uneven braking and dragging brakes, generally at the rear, and affected 26% of the cars tested. Second on the list, with 24% of cars triggering brake fault reports, was the similarly configured Opel Kadett estate. Although it avoided the bottom spot in other individual categories, the poor score achieved by the brakes left the Viva with the highest overall rate of failure of the 34 passenger cars included in sufficient numbers to feature in the reports of the Swedish test results.
Originally offered as just a 2 door saloon, an attractive 3 door estate joined the HB range in June 1967, but the advent of the 4 door in October 1968 saw the HB breaking sales records worldwide. The introduction of the four door option coincided with various minor improvements to the interior trim, while 'auxiliary' switches were relocated from a remote panel to positions nearer to the steering wheel. The GM 'energy absorbing' steering column was now fitted to all models and the fuel tank capacity was increased from 8 to 12 British gallons (36 to 55 litres). The 4 door saloon was designed and engineered by Holden in Australia who exported it as a kit of parts back to Vauxhall in England. Oddly enough despite being closer in physical location to Australia, all HB Vivas sold in New Zealand were produced from CKD kits imported from the UK and sold as Vauxhalls.
In the later 1960s and early 1970s, Britain's Motor magazine polled readers about their cars: they included a poll of HB Viva 1600 owners. The answers given greatest prominence were to the final question which asked whether or not respondents would buy another car of the same model: just 21% of Viva 1600 owning respondents answered “yes”, which was the lowest score for this question achieved by any of the first seventeen models for which surveys were conducted. By the time of the readership poll, the HB Viva was within a year of being replaced even though the 1600 version itself had only been offered since 1968, so the sample will have been relatively small: it appears that the low satisfaction rate may have reflected not so much the car’s design but rather a lack of effective quality control in the manufacturing processes.
The Viva GT had substantially different engine and running gear and interior from the standard Viva HB models. It was distinguished by having a black bonnet with twin louvres and being all-over white. Later GTs came in different colours.
A van version of the Viva HB was developed, but it never got beyond the prototype/mock-up stage. However, General Motors New Zealand did sell versions of the three-door station wagon with no rear seat as 'van' models and continued this with the later HC version.
Aftermarket conversion specialists, Crayford, also ran off some convertibles based on the 2-door Viva. Very few of these conversions exist still, only 2 GT model HBs were converted, but both are known to survive, and will likely be on the show scene in the coming years.
The HB Viva was also built in Australia by General Motors–Holden's from 1967 to 1969 and marketed there as the Holden HB Torana.
Canadian Chevrolet/Oldsmobile dealers continued to sell a rebadged HB as the Envoy Epic through 1970 while Pontiac/Buick dealers kept selling the car under its real name.
The HB's handsome lines and peppy performance made it a sales hit, with close to 560,000 units sold. Body design had improved after Vauxhall's poor reputation with corrosion on previous models. The HB had better underbody protection, but UK cars were still prone to rusting through the front wings in the area behind the headlights where water, mud and salt could accumulate. This ongoing problem with salt on UK roads affected many makes & model, not just the Viva, but Vauxhall's ongoing poor reputation for corrosion undoubtedly contributed to the development of bolt-on wings and wheel-arch liners in subsequent generations of family passenger car.
Today HB 2 door Vivas are very sought after, 4 door variants are rather rare (in contrast to the HC, where 2 door variants are rarer). The HB estate models, whose rear wings and tailgate showed coke bottle styling at its best, are rarer still.
HC Viva 1970-1979
The Viva HC (1970–1979) was mechanically the same as the HB but had more modern styling and greater interior space due to redesigned seating and positioning of bulkheads. It offered 2 and 4 door saloons and a fastback estate with the choice of either standard 1159 cc, 90 tuned 1159 cc or 1600 cc overhead cam power. No 2.0 GT version was offered with the new range, although the 2.0 became the sole engine offering for Canada, where the HC became the Firenza, marketed by Pontiac/Buick dealers without the Vauxhall name. The cloned Envoy Epic was dropped as Chevrolet dealers now carried the domestic Chevrolet Vega. The HC was pulled from the Canadian market after two model years amidst consumer anger over corrosion and reliability issues. A class action lawsuit launched against General Motors of Canada by dissatisfied owners was not settled until the early 1980s.
The American influence was still obvious on the design, with narrow horizontal rear lamp clusters, flat dashboard with a "letterbox" style speedometer, and a pronounced mid bonnet hump that was echoed in the front bumper.
A coupe version called the Firenza was introduced in spring 1971 to compete with the Ford Capri and forthcoming Morris Marina Coupe. It was available in deluxe and SL forms, with the latter sporting four headlights and finally resurrecting the missing 2.0 twin carb engine from the HB Viva GT.
The basic 1159 cc engine was enlarged to 1256 cc in late 1971 and with this the 90 version was removed from the line-up.
The overhead cam engines were upgraded in spring 1972, the 1.6 becoming a 1.8 (1759 cc) and the 2.0 (1975 cc) twin carb became a 2.3 (2279 cc). At this time, the Viva 2300 SL and Firenza Sport SL did away with the letter-box speedometer and substituted an attractive seven dial instrument pack. Firenza SLs had a two round dial pack, though all other Vivas and Firenzas stuck with the original presentation.
In September 1973, the Viva range was divided, the entry 1256 cc models staying as Vivas, with optional 1.8 power if automatic transmission was chosen.
The 1.8 and 2.3 L models took on more luxurious trim and were rebadged as the Magnum. At the same time, the Firenza coupe was given a radical makeover with an aerodynamic nose and beefed up 2.3 L twin carb engine mated to a ZF five speed gearbox, turning it into the HP (High Performance) Firenza.
The Viva was again revised in 1975, with trim levels becoming the E (for Economy), L and SL. The E was Vauxhall's answer to the Ford Popular and was first offered as a promotional edition two-door coupe using surplus Firenza body shells, before becoming a permanent Viva model in two-door saloon form. It was the only Viva to still have the strip speedometer after this as the L and SL adopted the Firenza SL's two round dial set up.
For 1977, the SL was replaced by the GLS, essentially marrying the plusher Magnum trim and equipment with the base 1,256 pushrod ohv engine. These models all had the full seven dial instrument panel, velour seating and Rostyle wheels, among many other upgrades.
In New Zealand, the Viva was renamed as the Magnum 1300 in 1976. This had the four headlight Magnum frontage and improved trim and equipment in a bid to overcome the Viva's basic car image and slowing sales. An 1800 engine option was also offered, often teamed with automatic transmission.
A version of the Viva HC, called the Chevrolet Firenza, was produced in South Africa, where it offered the British 1.3 or an Opel 1.9 L engine. The UK Firenza coupe was also offered in South Africa, with a special batch even having the small block Chevrolet V8 stuffed in to make for a veritable wolf in sheep's clothing. S Africa also saw a three door hatch developed off the Viva rather than taking on the then new Chevette/Kadett City (see next paragraph).
Viva production was scaled down after the launch of the Chevette in spring 1975. Originally a 3 door hatchback, the Chevette offered 2 and 4 door saloons and a 3 door estate in 1976 that all usurped the Viva's position as Vauxhall's small car entry.
The Chevette hatch was also sold as the Opel Kadett City, but the Viva remained on sale until the later part of 1979.
It was effectively replaced by the new Vauxhall Astra, a variant of the front wheel drive Opel Kadett. By that time it was feeling very dated in comparison with more modern rivals like the Volkswagen Golf. Production ceased at a time when European manufacturers were making the transition from rear-wheel drive saloons to front-wheel drive hatchbacks in the family car market.
The passing of the Viva marked a significant moment for Vauxhall, as it was the last car to be completely designed by the Luton-based company. All future Vauxhalls would be simply badge-engineered Opels, or in the case of the 2004 Vauxhall Monaro, a rebadged Holden.
The domestic market launch of the Viva HC coincided with one of the UK's periodic surges of debt fueled economic growth, and the latest Viva became Vauxhall's fastest selling new model of all time, chalking up its first 100,000 units in just 7½ months. Total HC sales ran to about 640,000 units, making combined Viva production top the 1.5 million mark. The millionth Viva, a gold HC, was driven off the production line by a national politician amid much celebration on 20 July 1971. Although most Vivas were produced at Vauxhall's Ellesmere Port plant in northern England, the company's production lines were by the standards of the time flexible, and the millionth car was a product of the Luton factory. However, within seconds of the Millionth Viva's completion at Luton, Ellesmere Port celebrated what was described - over-optimistically as matters turned out - as the first Viva of the second million.
There's an interesting car (at least because of its origins) produced from 1970 to 1972, based on Vauxhall Vivas by General Motors in Uruguay. They were called Grumett, and came only in double-cab, two-door pick-up models, with a 1100 cc engine. The body was fiberglass...some original Vauxhalls were imported to serve as molds. Mechanicals were either Vauxhall or Opel, depending on batch. GM Uruguay also produced a car called the Indiana, also fiberglass, to all intents and purposes a Viva HC estate, but with a slightly shorter wheelbase and narrower track... which produced a very strange effect, not very nice. Apparently the cars were fully based on Opel Kadett mechanicals. The cars were relatively reliable, as fiberglass wouldn't corrode, even though they had steel tubing as an internal "chassis".
The HC Viva has been less popular with classic car enthusiasts, as until recently 1970s cars weren't really sought after or considered true classics. This attitude is slowly changing, with the best low mileage examples of HC Vivas changing hands for a couple of thousand, rather than hundred, pounds on sites such as eBay.