One case-in-point is the Vauxhall Cavalier. Once such an important model for Vauxhall propelled General Motors into the big time in the UK.
Cavalier MK-1 (1975-1981)
In 1980, the MK1 Cavalier GLS was the grandest version. It came with a smart vinyl roof, Rostyle-like wheels and an interior trimmed in soft velour upholstery. Beneath the bonnet lay a 2-litre Opel 'cam-in-head' engine which produced what was then a very respectable 100-bhp.
Designed in Luton, the MK-1's ‘droop-snoot’ front was a distinctly Vauxhall trait. However, if we dig a little, we discover that the MK-1 Cavalier is actually a variation of Opel's second-generation Ascona. Despite using the same mechanical jiggery-pokery as the Belgium-built Opel, the Cavalier outsold its European rival (which were also sold in the UK back in the UK day).
The Cavalier was nicer to drive than even its hugely popular Ford rival (the Cortina). Looking at the MK-1 Cavalier today, we can appreciate how the model represents a transition between retro and modern-day styling. The combination of a torque-laden engine and a slick four-speed gearbox provided relaxed motorway cruising. However, the three-speed transmissions were known to whine. Those who might be more used to today's uber-refined cars might find listening to some old-school machinery doing its stuff to be a tad disconcerting.
Driving a MK1 Cavalier still feels an unflustered and sure-footed affair. Unlike some other cars of this era, the beautifully-balanced handling comes thanks to front wishbones and live coil-sprung rear axle set-up. However, the car's handleability doesn't come at the expense of comfort. The brakes are powerful and excellent steering makes the Cavalier very easy to place. Large windows fill the cabin with light creating an airy, modern ambience.
There's no doubt that Vauxhall's first-generation Cavalier was a very capable and handsome motor car. Its Anglo-Germanic roots meant that it was both refined as well as spacious.
Cavalier MK-2 (1981-1988)
The Cavalier MK-1 was a hard act to follow, so it was quite a daring move for Vauxhall to offer the MK-2 in both a five-door hatchback as well as in four-door saloon guise. A year after the launch of the MK-2 in 1981, Vauxhall executives must have patted themselves verily on the back when Ford revealed its Cortina replacement (the Sierra) which initially came solely as a hatchback. The Cavalier was now front-wheel drive with a transverse engine set-up.
The second-generation Cavalier was practically identical to Opel's third-generation Ascona, the only difference being the front grille. I still recall how the motoring press sang its praise with a fervour rarely bestowed upon a British marque. Pundits were full of admiration because Vauxhall had introduced a mainstream British family car with a modern FWD mechanical layout. Praise was also lavished on the Opel-derived 'Family One' OHC engines as well as the feistier 'Family Two' versions. The Cavalier MK-2 sold well!
The MK-2 enjoyed a facelift which saw the introduction of wider rear light clusters as well as colour-coordinated front grilles. But despite the styling tweaks, for me, MK-2 Cavaliers seemed much less handsome than the MK-1. By browsing further up the model range, it was almost as if Vauxhall were adding pointless go-faster kits which did little to enhance the clean lines of basier models. Clumsy-looking sill claddings made the CD look decidedly unwieldy. Spoked-effect alloys were more about bling than actually doing anything to enhance aesthetics.
Top end CD models were stuffed full of such luxuries as soft gray velour. However, it did feel like high end models were actually just lowlier 'cooking' variants with a few added embellishments. For example, electric window switchgear were haphazardly placed behind the gear selector. They just looked like they'd been bunged on wherever there was sufficient space.
But, it must be said, I absolutely adored the MK-2's wrap-around 'cockpit' layout. Heating and ventilation controls were a work of absolute precision, making the task of achieving optimum cabin ventilation a cinch. Even the seat height-adjuster winder handle was a work of pure genius. Put simply, a MK-2 interior was a very pleasant place to be.
I'm happy to say that lots of fond memories came flooding back when I recently got the opportunity to drive a MK-2 Cavalier CD. Immediately, I noticed how well the engine coped with what was always quite a wooly automatic box. But, to counter this minor irritation, CD models came with a very nicely weighted power steering which made for effortless driving. Rather than getting too pernickety about the old car, I found its little quirks and perversions quite endearing.
Cavalier MK-3 (1988-1995)
Under the skin, very little had changed. Yet the Cavalier MK-3 sported an elegant new look. This was a fresh design that came with some very tasteful detailing, marking a new pinnacle for Vauxhall/Opel design. Launched in 1988, there's no doubt that the MK-3 was a looker.
On other markets the Cavalier's Opel cousin was renamed the Vectra. Eventually, the MK-3 Cavalier's far less-handsome replacement would also be called the Vectra.
Inside, the MK-3 is just as attractive as it is on the outside. The basic MK-2 layout remained but it was much better arranged with a chunkier 'softer' look. A ‘full size’ driver's airbag altered the look of a now decidedly fatter steering wheel. When the MK-3 facelift arrived, it too featured wider rear lights and a body-coloured grille, just as the MK-2 had done before it. There seemed to be a bit of a mid-term formula going on here.
In 1993 an upmarket V6 version was introduced. The V6 was a brand new 2.5-litre unit with 24 valves and a curious 54-degree 'V' angle producing 170-bhp. Sadly some of the power was lost due to a lumbering, power-sucking four-speed auto box. However, it must be said that the V6 was very smooth, silent and refined. The big engine came with improved engine mountings which took away the Cavalier's trademark shudder. But, for a V6, it was surprisingly gutless, barely maintaining cruising speed on an uphill motorway pull. Only by selecting the electronic SPORT mode did the V6 come to life.
I still see a few Cavaliers on the classic car circuit. These days, they're becoming increasingly few and far between. Not so long ago these old cars went largely unnoticed but classic car-loving enthusiast interest has kept a few survivors from the jaws of the crusher. I had long feared that Vauxhall’s three generations of the Cavalier had lost their chance of surviving at all. I imagined that by the time anyone took any notice, they'd all be gone. I never found one that was in sound enough condition to add to my own motley collection.
Whilst the MK-3 is a beautiful car, for me, the simplicity of the sublimely handsome and characterful MK-1 would be the one to go for. They're a time capsule that melt away the years. There are very few MK-1's remaining on British roads, which is why a decent one would be well worth a punt.
Douglas Hughes is a UK-based writer producing general interest articles ranging from travel pieces to classic motoring.