Top Ten best ever Opel & Vauxhall cars

As a change of ownership is announced, we look back at the Opel & Vauxhall models

By Shahzad Sheikh

Vauxhall VX220 Turbo

After around 90 years of ownership by General Motors, massive European and British car companies, Opel and Vauxhall, are being bought by Peugeot-Citroen for 2.2bn Euro. This merger will make PSA the second biggest manufacturer in Europe slotting in below Volkswagen and beating out Renault-Nissan.

Vauxhall was founded in 1857 as a pump and marine engine manufacturer. It started building cars in 1903 and was bought by GM in 1925. Similarly Opel started in 1862 (as Adam Opel) building sewing machines, and built its first car in 1899. GM bought it in 1929.

It was only in the 1970s and 80s that the Vauxhall and Opel product line-ups started to merge and became the same cars apart from badges and model names in some cases.

Growing up in the UK, Vauxhall was a prominent and constant part of my automotive landscape and it certainly feels like an end of an era.

So here’s my personal Top Ten of best ever Vauxhall & Opels ever made, listed in reverse order.

1985 Opel Kadett

10. Astra 1984-1991

Yes okay, this wasn’t a great car. But launched in 1984 it ran for the whole of the 1980s, winning European Car of the Year out of the gates in 1985 (as the Opel Kadett). There were sporty GTE/GSi versions with nearly 7000 cabriolet editions built by Bertone.

It was available as a hatchback, saloon and estate. The distinctive aero-bubble design and robust engineering ensured it an enduring lifespan, not just as a Vauxhall/Opel, and even beyond 1991.

It was the Chevy Kadett in Brazil and was sold in South Africa, plus became the basis of the Daewoo LeMans/Cielo/Racer/Nexia in South Korea. Plus a Pontiac LeMans in New Zealand and Passport Optima in Canada. Believe it or not, the ‘Nexia’ is still being made in Asaka, Uzbekistan – though heavily facelifted, it’s still the same car.

1983 Vauxhall Nova

9. Nova 1983-1993

Badged the Opel Corsa elsewhere, this was the Nova in Britain replacing the Chevette in 1983. And why it’s significant is because at one point it was a darling of the Max Power modification crowd.

They’ve pretty much all died out now because they became more than a bit ‘chav’ and were very easy steal and joyride in. But for a while they were fun pocket-rockets that could be personalised in some truly remarkable ways.

A Sport model created for homologation to partake in the British Rally Championship had twin-Weber carburettors and managed 180kph from 93bhp. Only 500 of these were made.

More common was a 1.6 GTE/GSi with 100bhp from 1987, plus a slightly detuned SRi, both of which were a hit with boy racers.

Plus Rally legend Colin McRae had one. ‘Nuff said innit?

Vauxhall Chevette

8. Chevette 1975-1984

For its time, this was a very sleek and clean design, though still very 70s. It was also sold as the Opel Kadett, Isuzu Gemini in Japan and Chevrolet Chevette across the Atlantic, as well as being badged as the Pontiac Acadian in Canada.

The Kadett had a very different, more blunt front end, which again made the Chevette a prettier and more desirable proposition.

Priced from just £1,593 it became the UK’s best-selling hatchback, until the Ford Fiesta arrived in 1976.

Perhaps the rose-tinted spectacles are working overtime for me, but I do think the two-door and 3-door hatchback versions remain very good looking.

1998 Vauxhall Omega

7. Omega 1994-1999

A personal favourite and car I nearly bought. It was something of a bruiser, a tough guy, a boss. It was liked by police and gangsters alike, because the line-up included 200bhp-plus V6 models.

This was also the basis of the Holden Commodore. The Chevrolet Caprice that we had here, and even the Lumina, which was ultimately based on this car. Of course these had V8s – even better!

So it was a big, comfy, well appointed semi-luxury car, that could go fast and even handled well. And it had a smart contoured profile that presented a solid cohesive look. This is still the business.

Vauxhall Calibra

6. Calibra 1989-1999

The Vauxhall Calibra was one of the two sexiest coupes of the 1990s on the UK market, the other was – interestingly enough considering today’s announcement – the Peugeot 406 Coupe designed by Pininfarina.

The Calibra wasn’t designed by an Italian, it was styled by GM designer Wayne Cherry and German designer Erhard Schnell.

It was created to do battle against the Japanese coupes of the 80s and 90s and it won hands-down on looks. The drive, not so much – I remember it being very disappointing – but then it was really just a Vauxhall Vectra in a fancy frock.

Opel Manta GTE

5. Manta 1975-1988

This came as a sports hatch and coupe, with a droop-snoot nose very similar to the UK Chevette, though its design was actually inspired by the Chevrolet Monza of 1974. It was the pre-cursor to the Calibra. In the UK it was simply the Vauxhall Cavalier Coupe or sports hatch.

But we got the super-sporty GTE (GSi in Germany) as our ‘Opel Manta’ from 1983.  It only had a 110bhp 2.0, but it was cheaper than arch-rival Ford Capri and it looked the business – now with skirts and spoilers. I had a picture on my wall.

They even made great rally cars, and the one to get was the Irmscher bodykitted car with twin round headlights in a plastic cover, in place of the one-piece rectangular ones. Very cool.

Vauxhall VXR8

4. VXR8 2007-2013

Vauxhall sold the VXR8 in the UK, even though it was actually based on two different Holden Special Vehicles (HSV) models, the Clubsport and GTS. It was a full-on muscle car putting out up to 425bhp from the LS2 V8.

We got it here in the Middle East as the Chevrolet CSV CR8 – a proper muscle-saloon that was as loud and lairy as it was practical. A very cool thing indeed, even if it was really just an Australian import.

Lotus Carlton

3. Lotus Carlton 1990-1992

Now this is a true legend. A unique one-off special never-to-be-repeated super-saloon that was the true precursor to today’s supercar-slaying four-door cars.

Imaging in 1990 a four-seat executive express that went from 0-100kph in under 5.5seconds and hit a top speed of 285kph. And it managed that with just 377bhp from a 3.6-litre straight six thanks to two Garrett turbochargers. It had a six-speed manual ZF from the Corvette ZR-1 and a limited slip rear diff.

And it was, of course, tuned, modified and set-up by Lotus. Less than 1000 were made, so the good ones – those that weren’t stolen and used as getaway cars! – will start to appreciate soon, although they’re still reasonable value at present – £15,000-£25,000.

Opel GT

2. GT 1968-1973

Look at it! It’s like a pocket-sized Corvette Stingray! It is kinda what they were getting at, but it was actually based on a Kadett. You could get it with a 1.1 or a 1.9-litre engine which produced 102bhp.

It’s an adorable little car with exquisite lines and despite the humble underpinnings was actually a fun sports car to peddle about in.

It still looks superb today, and values are not bad at between £8000-£13,000, and they’re likely o rise. Shame that, I saw a couple of examples in Sharjah used car souq some time back, one of which looked very clean. If they could have been had for AED10,000-15,000 it could’ve been worth a punt!

Vauxhall VX220

1. VX220 2000-2005

Known as the Opel Speedster, this was admittedly not really a Vauxhall or Opel at all. Instead it was another collaboration with Lotus.

In fact, let’s be honest, it was simply a rebodied Elise with Opel engines (they even built it at the Lotus factory). But you know what, that worked very well indeed. I should know, I actually ran one of these long term at a magazine in the UK.

And mine was the VX220 Turbo, with 200bhp – this thing weighed well under 1000kg! It was difficult to get in and out, so I just left the fiddle little canvas top off the car (you could hardly call it a roof) even when it was raining.

Amazing performance, extraordinary handling, great looks and an approachable road presence that made it a hit with everyone, means that not only is it my favourite ever Vauxhall, but it one of my very favourite cars ever!

2 responses to “Top Ten best ever Opel & Vauxhall cars”

  1. Ian Cox says:

    OK Mr S, you have been a little too broad with your Top 10, so in no particular order, taking of course the Lotus Carlton and the VXR220 turbo, both great Vauxhall/Opel vehicles, lets go for individual models.

    Firstly, The Chevette was not a great car, the 1256cc engine only worked properly if you fitted AC Delco spark plugs….mainly because they helped design the combustion chamber, so lets narrow it down to the HRS2300 as campaigned by the likes of Russell Brookes in Rallying.

    Sticking with racing, how could you forget the Droopsnoot Firenza made famous by Gerry Marshall. His book ‘Only here for the Beer’ is worth a read by the way.

    If you are going to mention Calibra, then it can only be the 4×4 Turbo….if you can find one. The cylinder heads had a habit of going porous and if you got a punture and needed to replace a tire, if it was more than 2mm tread depth different to the other tires, it broke the transfer box.

    Let’s go back to Rallying, I’ve got 2 for 1 here with the Manta and Ascona 400, awesome looking machines especially with the right driver at the wheel.

    Now, how can you have a top 10 Vauxhall list without putting in the Monza 3.0? A big old barge that would eat miles up yet still looked ahead of its time.

    Lets go right back shall we, you forgot the Viva! I’m not talking about British Telecom vans painted Yellow…or were they still Grey then? But the special edition Viva Brabham, now thats an even rarer beast than a 4×4 Calibra that still works.

    I make that 9…..Astra GT/E? Astra GSi? Carlton 3000GSi? No, it has to be the Nova 1.3 Sport……why I hear you ask? Well, it was another special edition based on the 1.3 SR, only 502 were made…(I admit I looked that bit up!).

    Still not convinced? Well, a certain Mr Colin McRae started his rallying career in one and won the 1988 Scottish Rally Championship with it.

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