Back then, Vauxhall was in strife. It had a grim reputation, an ageing model line-up of rear-drive cars… one of the most marketable cars dealers had to sell was the Chevette, which kind of says it all. Quite a state of affairs for part of the (then) mighty General Motors to be in, really.
The Astra saw it finally getting serious. This was to be the first front-drive Vauxhall ever, signalling a step into the future already long since outlined by Volkswagen. Half a decade ago, the Golf had set the template for the sector we now know as the family hatchback. Here was Vauxhall’s take on it.
And what a fine job they did.
Crisp styling was thoroughly up-to-date, and clothed in a really crisp chassis and engine range. All-new alloy-head ‘Family II’ engines revved with uncommon vigour, while Vauxhall had cannily chosen a sporty suspension setup, to ensure vim remained through the corners.
Dealers loved the mix of three and five-door hatchback models, plus commodious estates. There were even dodgy-looking saloons; dealers were less keen on these. They didn’t last long.
Vauxhall even got carried away – roomy the interior may have been, was there any need to mount the seats quite so low in the chassis? Many a wannabe rally driver was pleased by the Astra… at the expense of the grannies who found it a wee bit daunting.
Typically, the base L models were stripped out and sparse (and we mean sparse). Moving up the line, LS and GL variants came with more kit, while the special Berlina variants even had two-tone metallic paint. Very swish too, they were.
Later there was also a hot GT/E version, with 1,800cc fuel-injected version of the sprightly engine. This was a real thriller, a proper Golf GTI rival, and a fair bit better than its arch-rival, the Ford Escort XR3i. Hot hatch wannabes also found plenty to like in the more attainable 1,600cc SR.
Mind you, the eagle-eyed will spot something. Actually, it wasn’t launched in 1980. This shape first appeared on our roads in 1979, didn’t it? Yup, you’d be right – see, the Astra was also sold as the Opel Kadette. Increasingly by the same car dealer. Confused? Yes, everyone was.
It was all a bit bonkers, and the franchise wasn’t fully rationalised until the mid 1980s. By then, though, the Astra had become firmly established as a family car front-runner. In second-generation guise, it was taking the fight to the Ford Escort, and had easily overtaken the pricy VW Golf. In time, it would do for the Austin Maestro, too; combined, these two sold well over 1.1 million units in the UK.
Vauxhall didn’t gamble with the MkI Astra relative to the competition – but did so by its own standards. It had to push boundaries, as it was so off the pace before its launch.
And while it didn’t quite have the impact the Cavalier did, the hatch did pave the way for that model – and did help Vauxhall turn into the dominant force it was by the end of the 1980s. Indeed, come the early 1990s, the Astra was outselling the Ford Escort. Quite a way to come from the crummy Chevette…
Now, we’ve almost come full circle. Vauxhall dealers are pinning their hope on the all-new one to help the company once again prosper. Can it do it? Tune in next month when we’ll have a first drive of the new contender.
by RICHARD AUCOCK