The History of Vauxhall Cars: A Drive Down Memory Lane

Since the early 1900s, Vauxhall cars have stood as a testament to over a century of automotive experience. An iconic brand that has sold millions of cars, it’s a cornerstone of British motoring. It’s fair to say that the history of Vauxhall motors is closely tied to the history of the British car industry itself.

Automotive History
13 November 2023

In 1857 during the heart of the Industrial Revolution, as steamships plied their routes and the car was three decades away, Vauxhall history began.

This iconic British brand started its journey not with cars but marine engines. However, change was afoot. By 1903, the company shifted its focus from sea lanes to country lanes when Vauxhall launched its first car, setting the wheels of automotive history turning.

From the quiet countryside to the bustling streets of Britain’s cities, Vauxhall cars soon became a familiar sight, capturing the hearts of the masses. Before General Motors took the reins in 1925 – infusing American vision with British tradition – Vauxhall had already firmly rooted itself as a major player in the UK automotive industry.

The aftermath of World War II saw a massive global rebuild and Vauxhall was no exception. Names like Viva, Victor, Nova, Corsa, and Cavalier graced driveways across the UK.

The 1960s and 70s marked a boom in Vauxhall motors’ history. As societal shifts steered the world towards modernism and freedom, Vauxhall’s designs mirrored this zeitgeist, balancing both form and function. Fast forward to today, the modern Vauxhall is constantly innovating, yet never forgetting its rich heritage.

This is the history of Vauxhall motors.

The Birth of a Legend

Draughtsmen at Vauxhall Motors, Luton, 1930 (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

In 1857, Alexander Wilson, a Scottish marine engineer, set up Alex Wilson and Company building marine engines and pumps. Within six years, the company was bought by the inventor of the hydraulic crane, Andrew Betts Brown, who renamed it the Vauxhall Iron Works. It took a further forty-two years for the company to make its first car, a single-cylinder, five horsepower four-wheeler, steered with a tiller and no reverse gear. It cost the princely sum of £136. Shortly after, a steering wheel was added, as was a reverse gear, and the business relocated to Luton in Bedfordshire. In 1907, Vauxhall Iron Works changed its name to Vauxhall Motors.

What’s in a Name?

Centre Crosswalk, Vauxhall Gardens, London, c1751. (Credit: Museum of London/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

The history of Vauxhall cars may only start at the beginning of the twentieth century, but the name stretches back much, much further. The name Vauxhall originates from a historic area in London. Specifically, it’s named after Vauxhall Gardens, a famous pleasure garden that was situated in the district of Vauxhall in the London Borough of Lambeth.

The name Vauxhall itself has ancient roots and is believed to have derived from the name of a thirteenth century mercenary soldier, Falkes de Breauté (or Fulk le Breant), who owned land in the area given to him by King John. His residence was known as Falkes’ Hall or Fulk’s Hall, which, over time, underwent linguistic changes and eventually became Vauxhall.

The griffin emblem used by de Breauté on his coat of arms is still used as the logo on Vauxhall cars to this day.

Vauxhall History: The Early Years

1914 Vauxhall Prince Henry. (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Perhaps the most famous of the early cars in the annals of Vauxhall motors history was the Prince Henry.

Named after one of Queen Victoria’s grandsons, Prince Henry of Prussia, what was known in-house as the C-10 was built between 1911 and 1914 and stands as a pivotal milestone in British motoring history.

Often hailed as the world’s first sports car – although there are many other claimants to that title – it was a testament to engineering prowess and design vision of its time. Crafted under the guidance of Vauxhall’s chief engineer, Laurence Pomeroy, the Prince Henry was a derivative of the earlier racing models that had achieved success in the gruelling 1,200-mile RAC and Scottish Reliability Trial. Boasting a four-cylinder, 3.0-litre engine, the car combined performance with a level of comfort suitable for everyday use. Its significance lies in its pioneering blend of speed and usability, setting a template for what would later define the sports car genre.

These were halcyon days in the history of Vauxhall motors. The Pomeroy-designed A-Type was seen as one of the best pre-war three-litre cars of its day. They also made around 1,500 derated Prince Henrys – known as the D-Type – for use as staff cars for the British Army during World War I. It remained in production after the war, as did the sporty E-Type (not to be confused with the Jaguar of the same name).

Yet with the market for expensive luxury cars dwindling and the company struggling to stay profitable, Vauxhall was ripe for acquisition.

American Vision, British Innovation

Vauxhall Cadet, 1938 (Credit: Heritage Images / Contributor via Getty Images)

In 1925, a significant chapter in Vauxhall motors’ history began when American automotive giant General Motors acquired the British carmaker for $2.5 million. The takeover was part of GM’s broader strategy to expand its footprint in Europe. With Vauxhall’s established reputation in the UK and its engineering prowess, GM recognised the potential for the brand to flourish under its vast resources and management expertise. This merger would eventually serve as a foundation for GM’s enduring presence in Europe.

Vauxhall expanded its production line to include commercial vehicles in the 1930s, launching the Bedford brand, named after the company’s Bedfordshire roots. These vehicles, particularly the trucks and vans, became an instant hit. They were lauded for their reliability, durability, and engineering quality. Over the subsequent decades, the Bedford brand came to dominate the British commercial vehicle market, becoming an integral part of the UK’s transport and logistics landscape, solidifying Vauxhall’s place not just as a maker of passenger cars but also in the fast-growing commercial market.

The £280, 2.0-litre inline-six Cadet was the first of the Vauxhall cars to be fitted with a synchromesh gearbox and it was a resounding success, as were the 1.5-litre (later upgraded to 1.8-litre) Light Six, and its big sibling, the gorgeous Art Deco-inspired Big Six. But just as Vauxhall were on their uppers, World War II halted domestic production in favour of wartime requirements. They built around 5,600 Churchill tanks as well as a staggering quarter of a million lorries, five million fuel cans, millions of rocket components and 750,000 helmets for the war effort.

Post-War Prosperity

1977 Vauxhall Cavalier (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Many British car makers struggled after the end of World War II, but Vauxhall prospered. A new state-of-the-art plant opened in Ellesmere Port in Cheshire in 1962 and a year later, one of the most popular British cars of all time, the Vauxhall Viva, was launched.

All told, over 1.5 million Vivas were made between 1963 and 1979 in various guises including a 2.2-litre GT muscle car. In 1967, the company was issued with a Royal Warrant, Motor Vehicle Manufacturers to HM The Queen. A proud moment in the history of Vauxhall cars.

The Chevette followed in 1975 and in the same year, Britain’s fifth most popular car ever, the Cavalier, was launched to compete with the astonishingly successful Ford Cortina. In total, 1.8 million Cavaliers were made until production stopped in 1995.

Anything You Can Do…

1989 Vauxhall Carlton 3 0 Gsi. (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Vauxhall was relentless, matching Ford stride for stride, and vice versa. During the 1980s and 1990s, Vauxhall cars and the range from Ford had vehicles that often competed directly with each other in the UK market, appealing to similar segments of buyers. As manufacturers vied for supremacy in various categories, direct comparisons between models from the two companies became common.

Vauxhall Carlton vs. Ford Granada

In the executive car segment, the Carlton was a competitor to the Granada. Both targeted the upscale market, offering enhanced comfort, advanced features, and a refined driving experience.

Vauxhall Cavalier vs. Ford Sierra

While the Cavalier was compared with the Cortina in the late 70s, by the early 80s, the Sierra became its more direct competitor. Both were mid-sized family saloons that hit the sweet spot between practicality, style, and performance.

Vauxhall Astra vs. Ford Escort

In the compact car segment, the Astra and Escort went head-to-head. Both targeted the mass market with their blend of affordability, reliability, and versatility.

Vauxhall Nova vs. Ford Fiesta

In the supermini category, the Nova was pitted against the Fiesta. Both cars were designed for urban environments, prioritising agility, fuel efficiency, and compact size.

In 2017, the Vauxhall car’s history turned another page. French conglomerate Groupe PSA, which owned the Peugeot and Citroën brands, acquired Opel and Vauxhall from General Motors. The deal, worth €2.2 billion (approximately £1.9 billion), meant that GM left the European market after nearly a century, allowing PSA to consolidate its position as one of the continent’s major players.

Four years later, Groups PSA and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles merged to form Stellantis, the world’s fourth-largest car manufacturer by volume.

Driving Forward: The Legacy of Vauxhall Cars

Vauxhall badge (Credit: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

From its modest origins to its standing today under the vast canopy of Stellantis, the history of Vauxhall cars has been truly remarkable. Over more than a century, Vauxhall has not only witnessed the sweeping changes in the automotive world but has also been an integral part of that evolving motoring journey.


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