The company’s position was perfectly
summarised by Vauxhall’s Chairman and
Managing Director in 1925
“We are not equipped, we have not the training and we have no desire to produce large quantities of cars on mass production principles. We are equipped for, and we do produce a reasonable number of high class cars at a moderate price, and this must always be our policy.”
Vauxhall Motors and the Luton Economy, 1900-2002, Len Holden.
Locations : Ellesmere Port; Luton; Millbrook; Vauxhall
Beginnings in London
The origins of Vauxhall Motors can be traced to Alexander Wilson and Co, which was established in 1857 for the manufacture of steam-powered engines and other equipment for river craft. The business was located at various premises in the Vauxhall district of south west London.
Wilson left the company in 1894, and a year later, faced with serious financial difficulties, the business went into receivership. By 1897, however, the business had been revived and renamed the Vauxhall Ironworks Company Ltd; and it was soon after this that Vauxhall developed its first petrol engine - for a river launch named Jabberwock.
In 1903, this same 978 cc single-cylinder engine was used by Vauxhall in its first car, built on a wooden frame, and fitted with coil springs and tiller steering. Both two and four-seater versions were available, and three examples still remain; two are with Vauxhall, and the other is part of the Science Museum collection.
The car proved to be a great success. It was well received by Autocar and competed effectively against much larger cars in the 1904 London to Glasgow Reliability Trial.
The move to Luton
A lack of factory space, and problems with the lease, led Vauxhall to look for larger premises outside London. With a decline in their traditional hat making industry, the town council in Luton were hoping to attract new businesses to the area. Luton New Industries Committee offered incoming businesses cheap gas and electricity, easy access to the London-Midland railway, and the prospect of reduced labour rates, certainly in comparison with London. On 29th March 1905, Vauxhall left the capital and moved 30 miles north to Luton.
Vauxhall remained involved in both marine and automotive engineering. Its wide range of work was extended further in 1906 when Vauxhall Ironworks Ltd, as it was then known, amalgamated with West Hydraulic Engineering Ltd. Soon afterwards, however, a decision was taken to separate the production of cars from the rest of the company’s business; and in 1907, Vauxhall Motors was born.
Over the first five years of its life, Vauxhall had been a company producing competent and competitive cars, but not significantly different from the products of many other manufacturers. All this was about to change with the arrival of a young draftsman named Lawrence Pomeroy.
Early in 1908, Percy Kidner, Vauxhall’s managing director and enthusiastic trials’ driver, decided that the company should enter one of its cars in the forthcoming 2,000 mile RAC Trials. The chief engineer, Frank Hodges, was reportedly away on holiday at the time, in Egypt, and so the task of preparing a new car was given to the 24-year old Lawrence Pomeroy.
Pomeroy chose to completely redesign the car’s engine and, in doing so, raised the power output by more than 50 per cent. The 20 h.p Vauxhall Y1, driven by Percy Kidner, completed the Trial with fewer stoppages than any other car, including the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, in second place.
Other sporting successes followed, including a successful world record attempt on the track at Brooklands when, on 28th October 1910, a Vauxhall became the first 20 h.p car to reach 100 mph.
A famous British sports car
Amongst Pomeroy’s greatest designs over the next six years were two outstanding cars - the C-type (known as the Prince Henry) and the E-type (often termed the 30/98). Together, they turned Vauxhall into a prestige manufacturer of high performance sports cars.
The C-type, with its distinct V-shaped radiator, is recognised today as one of the first true production sports cars. It was given the name Prince Henry after Vauxhall’s specially prepared team of three cars entered the 1910 Prince Henry Tour, named in honour of Prince Henry of Prussia and a forerunner of the German Grand Prix.
The size of the C-type engine was gradually increased, eventually from 3.9 to 4.5 litres, when the model became known as the 30/98. Initially developed in 1914, only 13 cars were made before the outbreak of war. Production resumed in late 1919, and continued until 1927, by which stage the car had gone through a number of further developments.
The 30/98 was regarded at the time as the premier post-war sports car; slim, elegant and, at one time, the fastest car in standard production.
However Vauxhall’s financial position in the early twenties could not match the quality of its cars. During the First World War, company profits increased significantly with the factory producing munitions’ fuses and more than 2,000 army staff cars (known as the D-type). The post-war period was not so fruitful. Profits began to decline in 1919, and by 1921, the company was facing heavy losses.
The underlying reason for this problem was the company’s model range and its retention of slow (and expensive) manufacturing processes. For motor manufacturers to survive in the restricted economic climate of the 1920s, they generally needed to produce a relatively high volume of cars at low cost – something that Vauxhall was not set up to do.
Looking back, it is unlikely that Vauxhall would have been able to continue trading long term were it not for the acquisition of the company by General Motors.
Although the American Corporation had established General Motors Overseas Operations assembly plant at Hendon Aerodrome in 1919, it was still looking to acquire companies in both the UK and mainland Europe. This, it was hoped, would widen the company’s access to other overseas markets and, in particular to those countries of the British Commonwealth, which at the time made up 38 per cent of the world markets outside the US and Canada .
American car exports to Britain in the 1920s faced two significant hurdles. The first was the McKenna duties, imposed by the British Chancellor of the Exchequer Reginald McKenna in 1916, and placed a 33⅓ per cent duty on luxury imports, which included cars. Designed to fund the war effort, they remained in force for 40 years. The second problem was the British car tax system, which based the cost of a road fund licence on the horsepower of the vehicle – making large American cars proportionally more expensive to run.
In 1924, General Motors entered into negotiations with the Austin Motor Company, but the UK Company’s directors eventually rejected GM’s bid after finding alternative sources for capital reconstruction. Talks commenced soon afterwards between GM and Vauxhall, and in 1925 Vauxhall was bought by General Motors for $2.5m.
During the earlier discussions between GM and Austin, the British press had been very critical of the American by-out and the loss of a major UK manufacturer to US control. Mindful of these accusations, General Motors took great care to allay these fears after the Vauxhall takeover, allowing the British company to initially retain a high degree of autonomy. Production of the 30/98 continued until 1928, and it wasn’t until 1931 that GM’s introduced its first significantly different new Vauxhall. Known as the Cadet, it was based on an Opel design, a company in which GM had developed a controlling interest two years earlier.
In 1932, truck production was moved from Hendon to Luton, where the same Chevrolet-designed light trucks were manufactured under the newly-introduced name of Bedford. In the early years, trucks were an important factor in arresting Vauxhall’s decline. From 1931-1934, commercial vehicles were the mainstay of the company’s output.
Between 1933 and 1937 the company embarked on a major programme of expansion, with new factory extensions covering more than 20 acres. With this enlarged facility, the new Vauxhall 10 was introduced in 1938. It was a small light car, very different from the models produced before the GM takeover. Designed partly in the US, it was also the first British car with an integral body (ie, no separate body and chassis). It was relatively cheap and economical and sold extremely well. By 1939, Vauxhall was amongst the top six UK manufacturers, with production figures close to Standard and the companies under the control of the Rootes brothers.
Britain at war
With the outbreak of war in 1939, output was transferred to the production of trucks and tanks, along with jerry cans, steel helmets, and decoys.
The 38 ton Churchill tank was designed, developed and brought into production by Vauxhall in eleven months. By the end of the war, 5,640 tanks had been produced.
The first new cars to be introduced by Vauxhall after the War were the 1948 Wyvern and Velox. Both had new bodies but, underneath, many of the mechanicals were carried over from earlier models.
The cars’ design was revamped again in 1953 and, from here onwards, Vauxhall’s entire range throughout the 1950s and early 60s reflected the company’s US parentage.
From the mid 60s to the late 70s, Vauxhalls developed more of their own design identity with the cleaner cut Viva, Victor, Velox and Cresta. But by the late 70s and early 80s, with the introduction of the Chevette, Astra, and Cavalier and their derivatives, all Vauxhall models had a very close connection with their Opel counterparts.
With car production rising in the mid 1950s, Vauxhall extended its capacity with a new plant at Ellesmere Port, on the site of a Second World War transit airfield.
The new factory opened in November 1962, initially, supplying engines and components to the factories in Luton and Dunstable (for commercial vehicle production), but by 1964, Ellesmere Port was also manufacturing the Viva, Vauxhall’s new small car.
The Ellesmere Port is today Vauxhall’s only UK car manufacturing plant, producing the Vauxhall and Opel Astra.
General Motors Europe
In 1986, Vauxhall and Opel models and designs became consolidated under GM Europe. The increased collaboration, which had begun in the mid-1970s, brought significant improvements to the quality of Vauxhall cars, and an increase in the company’s productivity and profit.
However, in 2001, General Motors announced its plans to close the Vauxhall factory in Luton. The news was unexpected for most people involved. Even Vauxhall’s Managing Director was given only 24 hours notice of the decision to end car production.
Production of Vauxhall cars at Luton ceased in 2002, although vans, in partnership with Renault, continue to be produced on part of the old factory site.
Vauxhall A History, Robert Cook, Tempus 2005.
Vauxhall Motors and the Luton Economy, 1900-2002, Len Holden, Boydell, 2003.