In the late 1950s, General Motors' British subsidiary, Vauxhall, introduced a new small car -- the 1957-1961 Vauxhall Victor. Meanwhile, GM was seeing that cost-conscious American drivers had serious interest in imports. Could this new car serve both markets?
Even if you didn't recognize the 1957-1961 Vauxhall Victor, you would know it's a period General Motors car. A small one, for sure -- much smaller than other GM cars of the era -- and built in Britain. But from "Panoramic" windshield to jet-pod bumper ends to finned rear fenders, the first in a long line of Victors looks like it was designed in 1950s Detroit. And indeed it was. It was even exported to the U.S. for sale through Pontiac dealers.
In Britain, the Victor was criticized in the press but
became a sales success. Meanwhile, though
shaped to an extent by American sensibilities, it
proved to be a minor player in the U.S. import market.
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Though now mostly forgotten outside the UK, the first Victor was a genuine success. With 390,747 built in less than four years, it was the most popular Vauxhall ever, outselling the predecessor Wyvern by more than 3-to-1.
In addition, it quickly became Britain's most popular export car (though not for long). These are admirable achievements, considering that the British public never liked the transatlantic styling and that the American public didn't know what to make of such small fare from giant GM.
Vauxhall started building cars in 1903 in that area of London from which the company takes its name. The need for a larger factory prompted a move north to Luton, which is still Vauxhall's home.
Production rose steadily, but very slowly, going from 43 cars in the first year to 529 on the eve of World War I. Output was up to 1398 by 1925, when General Motors snapped up Vauxhall for a mere $2.6 million and began to transform it.
Soon afterward, GM paid $33.3 million for control of Opel in Germany but kept it entirely separate from Vauxhall until the 1970s. By 1939, Vauxhall was one of Britain's "Big Six" auto companies (production totaled 34,367 that year) and had introduced the Bedford truck line.
It spent much of World War II building Churchill tanks and their derivatives. Postwar recovery took time, but by the mid 1950s, Vauxhall was producing more than 60,000 cars a year. The Victor soon boosted that to more than 120,000.
It was quite overdue. Since the war, Vaxuhall had relied on two related sedans resembling scaled-down 1949 Chevrolets: the four-cylinder L-series Wyvern and the six-cylinder E-type Velox, which was tarted up in 1955 to create a new top-range model, the Cresta.
These cars were sturdy but too large for postwar Britain, and therefore could not compete with smaller rivals like the Austin A50 Cambridge and Morris Oxford. Dealers and top Vauxhall managers were aware of this for years, but it wasn't until 1953 that GM put up the money for a more suitable mass-market model.
Like Ford of Britain in those days, Vauxhall was ruled -- dominated really -- by its Detroit parent, and GM headquarters insisted that it, not Vauxhall, would oversee development of "Project F," the future Victor. Chief engineer Maurice Platt got a free hand in laying out the unit body/chassis but was obliged to keep the Wyvern's 1508cc/92-cid ohv engine. Chief stylist David Jones was required to take direction from the Chevrolet studio under the able Clare MacKichan.
Learn about the styling decisions made for the Vauxhall Victor in the next section.
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