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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1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 Vauxhall Victor Styling
Dimensions for the Vauxhall Victor were established before detail styling was completed. Typical of Vauxhall at the time, the Victor would be only a bit smaller than the older models, for which much larger replacements were already being discussed.
Against the Wyvern, the weight saving was less than 150 pounds. The Victor emerged on a 98-inch wheelbase and 50-inch wheel tracks, versus 103 and 54 inches for the Wyvern. It was also four inches shorter at 166 overall.
Bumper-tip "bombs," a panoramic windshield,
and rear-door creases were American-inspired
styling touches that were met with
skepticism in the British press.
The Victor was meant to look as American contemporary as GM thought it could get away with in Britain and Commonwealth markets. A four-door sedan was a given, but a four-door estate car was also planned -- Vauxhall's first factory-built station wagon. It arrived in February 1958.
No other body types were considered. Unlike carmakers in North America -- and some in Britain -- Vauxhall saw no need for two-door derivatives, convertibles included.
David Jones was an accomplished designer, having been with Vauxhall since 1937, but Project F must have seemed mission impossible: a smaller car that somehow had to combine GM's latest American styling with recognized Vauxhall features.
The result looked rather like a shrunken 1955 Chevrolet. It had the same basic boxy shape, a wraparound windscreen with "dogleg" pillars, and the suggestion of a notch at the waistline. There was also a full-width grille beneath a lowered, fully flat hood with twin bulged "strakes" at the front à la 1956 Corvette.
Slim concave spears or flutes, a Vauxhall must-have, moved from the hood sides to the front fenders and doors. Rear fenders suggested Detroit's de rigeur fins by extending past a squared-off trunklid. Bumper ends front and rear were shaped like jet-exhaust ports, with the left rear one serving as an exit for the exhaust pipe, another Corvette hallmark.
The "estate car" was Vauxhall's first wagon offering.
The Victor was a bit over the top for conservative British tastes and frankly clumsy, even cynical in some of its details. For example, the waistline notch, appearing on the rear doors, was just a pressed crease in the door panel, and Britain's first wraparound windshield hampered front-seat access just as it did in U.S. GM cars.
The interior, too, was quite American, with a cowled instrument cluster, column gearshift, and highly styled knobs and levers. Expected British fittings such as fascia wood (true or false) and floorshift were nowhere to be found. Standard-trim Victors even had a Yankee-style front bench seat. The upmarket Supers came with individual seats, though they weren't really buckets.
Explore the engineering behind the Vauxhall Victor on the next page.
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1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 Vauxhall Victor Engineering
Engineering for the 1957-1961 Vauxhall Victor was conventional but sound. Vauxhall helped pioneer unit construction in Britain, starting in 1937, so that was never in doubt.
A monocoque cost more to tool than a body-on-frame design and needed long production runs to recoup the added expense, but it made for a lighter, more rigid vehicle. Besides, unibodies were all but universal in Europe by the late 1950s.
Prospective trim variations were tried out on
both sides of this Vauxhall sedan at GM's
Technical Center in Warren, Michigan.
The short-stroke Wyvern engine, which dated from 1952, benefited from GM expertise, gaining a stiffer cylinder block, a new cylinder head with individual instead of siamesed inlet ports, and a more efficient intake manifold. The resulting 48 horsepower (rated at 55 in the States) wasn't much by Detroit standards, but was competitive against the 50-horsepower A50 and Oxford.
Top speed was about 75 mph, which was deemed sufficient, particularly given the awful roads in many export markets. The transmission was an all-new three-speed manual with synchronized first gear, a real advance over previous Vauxhall gearboxes, though most British road testers thought the Victor should have had a four-on-the-floor.
Suspension was American GM, with coil springs and double wishbones in front, and a hypoid axle on semielliptic leaf springs at the rear. Brakes were drums all around and unassisted, of course, as was the recirculating-ball steering. Tires were 5.60 (sedan) or 5.90 (wagon) bias-ply types on 13-inch wheels.
After the Victor made its English debut in March 1957,
left-hand-drive models began arriving in America
late that year as 1958 models.
The Victor sold strongly in Britain from its March 1957 launch. Initial demand was also brisk in some overseas markets. In the UK, the base sedan started at £729, then equal to $2,041, which might seem high to Americans but included a sizable £244/$683 in British sales tax.
The Super naturally cost more but offered additional chrome trim outside and such interior niceties as door armrests, rear ashtray, a passenger sunvisor, door-activated courtesy light, a better steering wheel (complete with Detroit-style chrome horn-ring), and the individual front seats.
But how did it perform? Find out in the next section.
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1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 Vauxhall Victor Performance
The British press was quick to criticize the Victor for its equipment and build quality -- or lack of same. This puzzled Vauxhall's top managers, some of whom were on loan from Detroit, They didn't panic, but they couldn't ignore the carping from influential magazines.
Autocar and other British publications criticized
the Vauxhall Victor for poor build quality.
Autocar, for example, then noted for discreetly overlooking faults in British machinery, reported that "Teething troubles resulted in the postponement of the full road test which had been planned for earlier in the year -- snags which even yet do not seem to have been entirely overcome. . . . At the highest speeds [the test car had] a pronounced shake at the front end which is transmitted to the steering column and wheel."
The testers also complained of a transmission "resonance which affects the comfort of passengers in the rear compartment" and of a "poor standard of coachwork construction."
But the Victor cruised comfortably at 65 mph; could return up to 35 miles per Imperial gallon of fuel; and had light steering with good, if not outstanding, roadholding. In short, it did exactly what Vauxhall needed it to do, and sales boomed. Some 80,000 were built in the first 12 months, and no fewer than 145,000 were completed before a heavily revised version took over.
Included in that total were 21,000 American-market Super sedans and wagons. They went "over there" in response to the 1957-1958 recession that was fueling U.S. demand for smaller, more economical import cars, especially the Volkswagen Beetle.
As Road & Track observed: "After several years of public apathy. . . General Motors has chosen to recognize this 'fad' by importing some of its own European makes and merchandising them through already established dealers. The [Victor] and Opel [Rekord] are being sold alongside Pontiacs and Buicks, respectively. [This] gets GM into the economy car market without actually tooling up for a new car, [allows] them to test this expanding market [and] bolsters sagging profits for many dealers who [now] find it difficult to move the larger, more expensive U.S. product."
GM had another reason to try selling "captive" imports: public perception. "If foreign things frighten you," said Popular Mechanics in late 1958, "the Vauxhall may allay your fears. . . . [T]his car has enough Detroit in it so it is not strange to look at or drive."
R&T concurred: "Any driver of domestic products . . . can get in and drive away with no coaching. Only the maneuverability and road-holding should surprise him, and these very pleasantly."
Road & Track's first full test, conducted in 1958, praised the Victor's interior and luggage space, the easy-shifting gearbox with synchronized first (still something of a novelty), and overall familiar American feel.
Acceleration was lethargic to say the least; the magazine reporting 0-60 mph taking nearly 26 seconds and the standing quarter-mile 22.6. At least fuel economy was good for the 2,470-pound test weight at 23-29 miles per U.S. gallon.
"At any speed, the feeling of ease and security in handling the Victor will come as a huge relief to those used to recent American cars. The understeer familiar to them is present, but to no severe degree. There is little roll." R&T did find more than a little engine noise and road-induced thrum through the unitary structure, but concluded the Vauxhall could be a "giant killer" for Pontiac.
The Victor captured only 4.6 percent of the
U.S. import market in calendar-year 1958.
But the Victor was not the success in America that it was elsewhere. Pontiac sold 17,365 in calendar-year 1958, only 4.6 percent of the U.S. import market. Price may have been a factor. At $1,988 for the sedan and $2,400 for the wagon, the Victor cost as much as the base versions of some larger, more powerful Detroit cars.
Learn about the changes made for the Victor's final model years on the next page.
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1959-1962 Vauxhall Victor
Vauxhall moved swiftly to answer early Victor criticisms; it even rerouted the tailpipe to below the bumper within a few months of launch.
A front bench seat and
were more North American
than British in concept.
Then, when the station wagon was added, Vauxhall introduced an optional semiautomatic transmission with the odd name of "Newtondrive." Priced at £25.50 (about $72), it employed a centrifugal clutch operated by touch-sensitive microswitches in the gearlever knob. It was much like BMC's "Manumatic" transmission, providing two-pedal convenience without the power losses of a full automatic, but it was no more reliable or popular, and few Victors were so equipped.
After barely two years, substantially facelifted "Series 2" Victors began sale in the UK in February 1959 and a few months later in the United States. Despite some evident resistance from Detroit, Vauxhall had pushed through very rapid tooling changes, again in response to early press and buyer comments.
New outer pressings eliminated both the waistline notch and the useless hood strakes, body trim was modified, the rectangular grille was widened, and bumpers became straight-lined wraparound units with no outboard "bombs." Mechanicals were untouched, but both body types added top-of-the-line DeLuxe versions with carpeting and two-tone leather upholstery.
UK prices now started at £759/$2,125 (including £254/$711 tax), but fell to £717/$2,008 with a tax reduction in April. Prices held steady in the United States, but most DeLuxe equipment was now included, though the cars were still badged as Supers .
The Series 2 Victor rolled into 1960
essentially without change.
There were no changes in 1960, but GM Canada began selling lightly retrimmed Victors as the Envoy sedan and Sherwood wagon. Another visual makeover occurred in August 1960 for the 1961 model year. This introduced a new five-bar grille, a larger rear window (by 18 percent), and a modernized instrument panel with additional padding, strip-style speedometer, and relocated controls.
Prices nudged up again in the UK, this time to £724/$2,027. But there was still no change in the United States, perhaps because of continued slow sales.
The Victor was now thoroughly developed, and not even a financial credit squeeze could harm its sales in Britain. By the time production closed down, in August 1961, nearly 250,000 Series 2 models had been built. Luton was now turning out up to 145,000 Victors and six-cylinder Velox/Crestas each year, a company record that had the much-expanded plant quite bursting at the seams.
Aside from modern styling, the Series FB featured
a two-inch wheelbase extension (to 100 inches)
and, thanks to a slight compression boost,
a gain of one horsepower (to 56).
For 1962 came a redesigned Victor (Series FB) with smart new "international" styling and a little more power, but the same basic platform and running gear. This car and the replacement Victor "101" (Series FC) would be even more successful than the original F-except in the United States, where Vauxhall disappeared after the 1962 model year, never to return.
The problem there was competition from Detroit's new homegrown compacts: larger, more powerful, and more comfortable than the Victor, yet little, if any, costlier. Then too, as with most British cars, Vauxhall build quality never came close to satisfying American buyers, especially those who had experienced the well finished, ultrareliable VW Beetle.
Vauxhall now builds more than 260,000 cars a year, basically retrimmed Opels with right-hand drive and, sometimes, different model names. But though Vauxhall remains an important part of the worldwide GM empire, it has no chance of returning to the United States, leaving Pontiac's short-lived British cousin as an interesting artifact from a very different time in General Motors history on both sides of the Atlantic.
For a rundown of Vauxhall Victor specifications, see our final section.
For more information on cars, see:
1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 Vauxhall Victor Specifications
Although not the huge U.S. success General Motors and its British subsidiary, Vauxhall, hoped it would be, the Victor was a good-looking, solid car for the time and today has become an interesting collectible. Find Vauxhall Victor specifications in the chart below.
|Super||Super Series 2|
|Engine type||inline overhead-cam||valve four-cylinder|
|Bore × stroke (mm/inches)||79.4 × 76.2/3.13 × 3.00||79.4 × 76.2/3.13 × 3.00|
|Induction||1 Zenith carb||1 Zenith carb|
|Net horsepower @ rpm||55 @ 4,200||55 @ 4,200|
|Torque (pound-feet) @ rpm||85 @ 2,400||85 @ 2,400|
|Transmission||3-speed manual standard; Newtondrive semiautomatic optional|
|Suspension, front||unequal-length A-arms, coil springs|
|Suspension, rear||hypoid axle, semielliptic leaf springs|
|Steering||manual recirculating ball|
|Brakes||hydraulic 4-wheel drum|
|Weight, sedan/wagon (pounds)||2.150/2,280||2,150/2,280|
|Top speed (mph)||75||75|
|Total production*||approx. 145,000||approx. 245,000|
* Complete production of all 1957-1961 F-series Victors in all trim levels totaled 390,747.
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