Feature car: Vauxhall Chevette
- 28th June 2007, 11:19am
Vauxhall, one of the companies under the banner of General Motors, have been building motorcars for some considerable time. In fact, in 2003 they celebrated their 100th anniversary, so their roots go well back into history. Vauxhall, particularly in their early years, produced some reliable but generally uninspiring vehicles that were targeted at the masses rather than the sporting motorist.
Over the years they have churned out a range of family cars - the Velox, Wyvern, Victor, Cresta models that suited middle-class Britons and colonial Australians when the cars were imported here. Compared to the BMC, Ford, Rootes and Leyland models of the day, Vauxhalls were the “cardigan and leather-elbowed jacket” cars of their time. In the early seventies, Vauxhall raised their image by rallying and racing the Firenza and Magnum models with some success.
Thanks to a 2.3 litre engine which had a 16-valve cylinder head (designed by Lotus) fitted, the Firenza and Magnum were reasonably competitive. There was also the successful front wheel drive Astra which proved to be a very competitive small-capacity rally car that carried people such as Louise Aitken-Walker and Malcolm Wilson to many victories.
In 1976, in response to Ford’s highly-successful Escort RS1800, the decidely-untrendy Vauxhall company decided it was time they lifted their image of staid old motorcars again to project a more sporting image for their bread and butter cars. Riding on the crest of a wave that winning rally results created, Ford had gained plenty of mileage (read extra sales) for their Escorts, and Vauxhall thought that it was time they had a slice of the action, too. Even though their Magnum had an extra 300cc over the Escort, the car was a little too unwieldy, so a re-think was needed. One of the other bread-and-butter models in the Vauxhall range was the Chevette, a reliable 2-door runabout that had nothing that would endear it to sporting motorists.
Enter the Vauxhall Chevette HS, Vauxhall’s homologation special that they hoped would reverse Ford’s winning trend for good. In 1976 Bill Blydenstein, the legendary British tuner, took over the preparation of the new car – it had previously been done in-house under the Dealer Team Vauxhall banner. Blydenstein’s brief was to turn the car into a winner.
The Chevette hatchback shared a floorpan with the Opel Kadett GT/E, a successful rally car in Europe, so a lot of the running gear would fit the Chevette. Using the 16-valve, 2.3 litre Vauxhall engine, work got underway, the aim being to produce 400 cars of this specifiacation for homologation purposes. It was a long time before the first completed car saw the light of day. When the FIA homologation inspectors called to the factory in October 1976, no rally car, let alone the corresponding road car, was anywhere near being ready.
Somehow the factory managed to convince the inspectors that 400 cars had been built (or were in the process of being built), so the Chevette HS was passed fit for the 1976 RAC Rally.
But while the car had ample power for rallying, the drivetrain proved to be its weakest link. The standard car’s torque tube rear suspension might have been OK for the road-going version but the rally car immediately got into trouble when the torque tubes failed. Once the problems were cured, the Chevette started recording the first of its many successes by taking second overall on the 1977 Galway International, crewed by Chris Sclater and Martin Holmes. It also recorded first place in the Welsh Rally and then the Manx Rally in 1977. Finnish driver Pentti Airikkala was signed for the 1978 season, winning in Finland in February 1978. Later the same year Airikkala placed second on the Scottish Rally and third on the1000 Lakes.
Secrets often don’t remain secrets for long, and it wasn’t long before people started asking how they, too, could get their hands on a Chevette HS. The real truth was that the required 400 cars had never been built, there were no road cars either, and by mid-1978 less than 200 cars had left the factory. So somebody had been fudging the numbers. Chris Sclater and Martin Holmes had an aborted trip to Portugal that same year when homologation was withdrawn just prior to the start.
When the car was finally released to journalists for testing some time later, they immediately noticed that the road car was different to the rally version. The road cars not only had the Vauxhall 16-valve head but Getrag gearboxes, too, a far cry from the supposedly-homologated cars’ Lotus head and ZF gearbox. The resulting bad press attracted the attention of the inspectors again and the Chevette HS’s homologation was immediately withdrawn. When the homologation requirements were met and the ban lifted, the car was by then running the Vauxhall head in combination with the ZF gearbox.
Running in this spec, Airikkala was the man to beat in 1979. The Chevette’s performance was improving all the time – Airikkala and co-driver Virtanen were unbeatable on the 1979 Circuit of Ireland and the Scottish Rally, gaining sufficient points to take the British Open Rally Championship into the bargain. On the World circuit, trips to New Zealand and Finland proved unsuccessful and the year’s final event, the RAC Rally, was no better.
While Vauxhall’s staid image had been well and truly reversed with the introduction of the Chevette HS, it was clear that more needed to be done to improve its all round performance, ie: a new car was required. On April 1, 1980, a new car, the Chevette HSR, was homologated, opening yet another rallying chapter for Vauxhall.
Chevette HS Length 155.2 inches 155.2 inches Width 65.2 inches 62.8 inches Wheelbase 94.2 inches 94.0 inches
Engine: 4 cylinder, longitudinally mounted, twin overhead camshafts, 16 valve cylinder head, twin Dellorto 48mm carburettors, 2279cc delivering 240 bhp.
Transmission: Single plate clutch, 5 speed ZF gearbox.
Suspension: Front: double wishbones, coil springs and telescopic shock absorbers, anti roll bar. Rear: Live rear axle, upper and lower trailing arms, panhard rod, coli springs, anti roll bar, telescopic shock absorbers.
Weight: 1000 kg.
Vauxhall Chevette HSR
As mentioned, the new Chevette HSR was homologated early in 1980, and success came immediately: Jimmy McRae took the new car out and promptly won the all-tarmac Circuit of Ireland, not a bad start for a new model. The new car was quite substantially different from its predecessor.
For a start it took all the good things that the HS had and added additional items such as fibreglass bonnet, boot hatchback, front and rear bodywork and wheel arch flares. The old torque tube rear axle was replaced by a proper 5-link system of twin trailing arms and a panhard rod, a system used so successfully in the Escort. There was a new, lighter Getrag gearbox, and the engine power was upped to 245bhp.
The HSR was actually built on the old HS platform and formed an evolution of the original car. Vauxhall took 50 of the last production of the 400 examples required for homologation and turned them into HSRs. Vauxhall again had a winning car.
McRae senior stuck with Dealer Team Vauxhall until the end of that year, running alongside Pentti Airikkala, and gaining a number of podium finishes, but then DTV decided to reduce their support to one entry and McRae was left without a drive. Ironically, Airikkala decided to leave at the same time to go to the
Rothmans Ford team while McRae, upset at the circumstances, got a drive with Dealer Opel Team and cleaned up the 1981 British Rally Championship in his Opel Ascona, beating the Chevette HSR into the bargain.
Over the following two years, drivers such as Tony Pond and Russell Brookes took the Chevette HSR to a number of notable placings. Pond won the Scottish and the Manx rallies in 1981, and in 1982 Brookes, under the Andrews Heat for Hire banner, took a HSR to second outright on the Circuit of Ireland, the Manx and the Antibes rallies, won the Circuit of Ireland the following year and placed second on the Welsh and fifth on the RAC Rally.
By this time the era of the Group 4 cars such as the Chevette and its main adversary, the Escort RS1800, was coming to an end. Group B was starting to take over and while the Chevette was homologated into Group B for 1983, there was an influx of specially-built Group B cars that were proving far quicker. In particular, General Motors’ other off-shoot, Opel, had introduced their Ascona and Manta models that were soundly beating the Chevette.
It was the end of the road for Vauxhall’s rallying involvement and the original silver Chevette HSs which had been such a part of British rallying, were to be seen no more. It had been an exciting period for the normally-staid Vauxhall company and one which, for a time, challenged the most successful British rally car of all time, the Escort.
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