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Vauxhall 1903 to 2003

The Centenary of a Famous Name

Compiled by Peter Weir

In the 13th Century during his reign, King John, of Magna Carta fame, engaged the services of Fulk le Breant, an ambitious mercenary soldier. In return for his military services to an unpopular King, Fulk le Breant was made Sheriff of Oxford and Hertford. Interestingly, Fulk was also granted the Manor of Luton and the right to bear arms, for which he chose the griffin as his heraldic symbol. How unusual that the griffin chosen by Fulk le Breant and the founder of Vauxhall Motors should return to Luton seven centuries later. Through his marriage to wealthy widow Margaret de Redvers, Fulk gained property on the south bank of the River Thames. This area came to be known as Fulks Hall, but over the years the name was corrupted, first to Foxhall then Vaux Hall and eventually Vauxhall.

In the year 1857 a Scottish marine engineer named Alexander Wilson started a business in Wandsworth Road London. It was named the Vauxhall Iron Works and was mainly concerned with the production of marine engines. In 1894 Wilson left the company, and by 1897 the business which employed over 150 men, became known as the Vauxhall Iron Works Co. Ltd.

In early 1902 the directors of the company became interested in the "horseless carriage" and, as a result of experimental work, a 5 h.p. single cylinder light car was offered for sale to the public. This was the first production Vauxhall car and the year was 1903.

The price of this model was £130, reasonable enough in those days, and so great was the public response, that production increased from approximately thirty cars in 1903 to seventy six during 1904. The increasingly large number of employees coupled with the need for larger premises eventually prompted the directors to look for a more suitable factory.

A Vauxhall marine engine designed for a paddle steamer. Many such engines were built from 1857 to 1900.

A convenient site was found at Luton, Bedfordshire, and the company moved there in 1905. Spurred on by the success of their first model, the company then produced a 7-9 h.p. model which, unfortunately, did not enjoy the same popularity as its predecessor. In 1906 the Vauxhall Eighteen four cylinder model, made its first appearance and quickly became a favourite with the motoring public. The famous bonnet flutes which characterised Vauxhall cars up until 1959 where originally used on this car.

Later in 1906 Mr. Laurence Pomeroy, who had joined the Vauxhall Company in 1905 at the age of nineteen, designed the 12-14 h.p. model, the first Vauxhall to be fitted with a live axle. In 1907, the company justifiably pleased with its success, decided to concentrate on car production and so disposed of all non automobile related interests. The company's name was, at this time changed to Vauxhall Motors, Ltd.

As public demand for the light car diminished and motorists clamoured for higher powered and larger vehicles, Vauxhall in 1908 produced the famous 20 h.p. model designated the A-Type. The prototype of this car (Y1 pictured left) won the R.A.C. 2000 mile 15 day trial earlier that year, an achievement which proved to be a tremendous boost for the make and one which made the car, the most popular model of that year. The Pomeroy designed engine of the A-Type had five main bearings, (Bte take note) pressure feed lubrication, a bore of 90 mm, and a stroke of 120 mm giving a capacity of 3053 cc and 38 b.h.p. at 2500 rpm. It's design was important as it was the basis of all Vauxhall sporting engines up till the mid 20's.

Quickly realising the high publicity value of success in the sporting field, Vauxhall entered speed and reliability trials with healthy enthusiasm. As a result, the years 1909 to 1914 saw this marque winning competitive events with increasing frequency both at home and overseas. Perhaps one of the most important of the many highlights in the history of the manufacturer took place on October 28, 1910, when a 20 h.p. Vauxhall became the first car of that capacity to achieve the magic 100 mph on Brooklands track, a much coveted achievement. Generally acknowledged as the first true production sports car, the C-Type was launched at the October 1911 Motor Show with a price tag of £485, and with the distinctive 'V grille' taken from the three special V radiator A-Type works team of 1910. Named the Prince Henry, it was another of Pomeroy's creations and it remained in production till 1914, by which time 190 had been made and the engine power had risen from 20 (55 b.h.p) to 25 h.p.

In March 1913 Joseph Higginson, a leading hill climber and inventor of the Autovac Fuel system approached Pomeroy for a car to compete in the Shelsley Wash hill climb. A C-Type Prince Henry had its 95 by 140 mm, 3969 cc engine enlarged to 98 by 150 mm and 4500 cc. This engine was put into a shortened chassis, with a light four seater body and flat radiator. With this virtually untried 4.5 litre E-Type he overwhelmed the competition and set a course record at Shelsley Wash Hill climb which would hold for 15 years.

This latest Pomeroy masterpiece referred to as the E-Type and later the OE-Type was known more commonly as the 30/98. The fastest 30/98 Brooklands lap was achieved in 1932 by an OE Velox four seater at 114.23 mph. The popularity of this 100 mph plus car endures to this day and of the original 600 made between the years of 1913 and 1927 over 166 are still in existence today.

After the First World War during which production was continued in the form of a 25 h.p. Army staff car, the 30/98 model continued with unabated success. Cars of the Vauxhall marque scored no fewer than 75 wins, 52 second places, and 35 third positions in sporting events all over the country during the years 1920- 1923. Although the public held these cars in high esteem, very few people could afford to own them because the prices ranged up to almost £2,000. For this reason, the company withdrew from the sport in 1923 and concentrated on the production of less luxurious models, thereby catering for a wider public. New and more economical models appeared, and production figures in 1923 were doubled in comparison with the 600 vehicles produced in the previous year.

During 1927, General Motors Corporation of America began negotiations with Vauxhall Motors as a move towards establishing manufacturing facilities in Great Britain. These negotiations culminated when General Motors acquired the ordinary share capital of Vauxhall Motors, Ltd., and this event marked the beginning of a period of meteoric development for the alliance.

In 1930, the first quantity manufactured product of the new team was announced. It was the Vauxhall Cadet which sold at £298. Despite the depression of the early thirties, vehicle production at Luton exceeded 10,000 for the first time and seven more acres were added to the floor space of the factory. In 1933 Vauxhall again made car engineering history by producing the Light Six, which was the forerunner of quantity produced British cars to fit independent front suspension.

Not content to rest on their already formidable laurels, Vauxhall engineers introduced the first all steel integrally constructed body to the British motorist. It was fitted to the Vauxhall Ten of 1937, which became known as the "40 m.p.g." car. This model catered admirably for the average motorist and was generally considered to be "something better" for the modest price of £298. The introduction of this model cost over £1 million in new plant and buildings, an expenditure which quickly justified itself. This marked a new Vauxhall policy of producing a family car of low horse power. So successful was this step, that the large models with which the British public was then so familiar, gradually disappeared.

1931. An example of a Cadet saloon with the factory body and leather trim for the interior.

Car production stopped immediately the Second World War was declared, and the company concentrated on the production of the legendary "Bedford three tonner" which became the basis of every military stable. More than 250,000 trucks left the Vauxhall factory between 1939 and 1945, a formidable contribution to the war effort. In 1940, when a German invasion was thought to be imminent, the British Army had fewer than 100 tanks at its disposal. Vauxhall was called upon to design and build a new tank, a task that from drawing board to production could reasonably have taken four years.

One year later the first of 5,640 Churchill tanks left the production line at Luton. Ten other factories had to be 'parented' to assemble the Churchill from Luton made parts. In all, 3,000 of these 38 ton machines returned to Luton for battle damage repair. These were remarkable achievements for Vauxhall and its workers. A long list of achievements was to follow. The Luton body shop produced the sides of over five million fuel cans, four million rocket engine components and a "rush job" of three quarters of a million helmets. During one period as many as 5,000 armour piercing shells for 6 pounder guns were produced every week. As a major industrial complex the Luton Plant was a potential target to raiding German aircraft throughout the War. In August 1940, this fear was transformed into reality when a bomb fell on the plant and 39 Vauxhall employees were killed.

The familiar figure of Churchill here seen inspecting the tank which bore his name.

Immediately following the war, the entire Vauxhall organisation was modernised and expanded. Site clearing began in 1947, and in 1950, at a cost of £11.5 million, a new factory covering nearly twenty acres was in production alongside the existing plant. By 1959, the two millionth car had been made, and the 53 year run of the distinctive bonnet flutes ended.

Throughout the 60s and early 70s, the company set new records and introduced many new models. However this was soon to be contrasted with increased competition, declining profits and a general economic depression. At the end of the decade Vauxhall's work force numbered 33,000. Sales were however in decline. Only 30,420 vehicles were sold in 1979, due to high levels of competition and a serious economic recession. General Motors, however, was to underline its confidence in Vauxhall with an immense investment program that was to continue into the 1980s.

Evidence of General Motors investment was soon to materialise in the form of Vauxhall's first front wheel drive car, the 1980 Astra. The Nova was Vauxhall's first entry into the small car market. Launched in 1983, it was offered as a two door saloon or hatchback with the option of 1, 1.2 and 1.3 litre engines.

In the closing years of the 20th century Vauxhall launched some of its most important models ready for the new millennium. There were new models for Astra, Frontera, and Vectra, as well as the first entry into the MPV field the MPV Zafira. In April 2000 the all new Corsa went on to set records in standards for the small car market.

In mid 2000, new facilities along with major changes to the company's manufacturing in the UK were announced. The company celebrated the return of vehicle research and development to the UK in May, with the opening of the new Vauxhall Engineering Centre. The Luton plant was closed after 97 years and 7,415,045 cars produced, with the Ellesmere plant receiving a £200 million investment. A new joint venture between Fiat and GM began operation early in 2001. This alliance is the largest of its type in the world, and will generate economies of scale and significant competitive advantages for both partners.


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