Vauxhall celebrates

rich heritage

Vauxhall C-Type Prince Henry, 1911
1904 6HP action
1904 6HP 2
1959 PA Velox
1957 Victor
1951 Wyvern
1993 Lotus Carlton
1993 Lotus Carlton interior
1971 Viscount
1971 Viscount interior

THERE are few car makers that can put you in one of their 1904 models, with six horsepower, tiller steering and chain drive and then let you have a go in their super saloon from 1993 that will do 176mph.

As Vauxhall looks forward to a future as part of the French PSA group - the owners of Citroen, Peugeot and DS - it has also been looking back at its rich and varied 114-year history.

This year marks the 70th birthday of Vauxhall's own Heritage Collection and the company has been celebrating by showing off some of its most prized classics.

Britain's oldest surviving car manufacturer - it has been making cars since 1903 - Vauxhall has always been proud of its past and keeps examples of 70 of its key models in an extensive one-make museum.

While members of the public are able to see the cars at occasional open days, it's a rare privilege to get behind the wheel - or tiller.

Vauxhall brought out some of its gems for a ‘Griffin Greats' event to give people the chance to try them out.

The venue was the Bicester Heritage centre in Oxfordshire, a former RAF bomber base that has become a hub for businesses specialising in historic cars and aircraft - it's as good as Disneyland if you're a classic car geek, with rare Ferraris and E-Type Jags around every corner.

A small circuit using part of the old runways and taxiways enabled the pre-war cars - some of them worth hundreds of thousands of pounds - to be driven without fear of other road users.

The oldest car on duty was the 6HP model of 1904. It's one of only two cars in the collection to have been built at the original London factory in Vauxhall itself.

Costing £150 when new, the 6HP is a London-to-Brighton Run regular and features a 1.0-litre engine, tiller steering and chain-drive to the rear wheels.

It will do around 25mph, but as it has no dampers that feels a lot faster than it sounds.

On the airfield track the ride is smooth enough, but London-to-Brighton veteran (and Vauxhall PR and Heritage manager) Simon Hucknall says that potholes can cause the tiller to kick back and set off an ‘interesting' wobble.

Another highlight was the 1910 Prince Henry - many enthusiasts will, as youngsters, have built the plastic model version of this car, and this is the very vehicle that Airfix recreated.

Originally built to compete in the Prince Henry Trophy, a German trial designed to discover the world's best all-round touring car, the C10 3.0-litre Vauxhall has since been acknowledged as Britain's first true sports car.

This 1910 car has been owned by Vauxhall since 1946 and is thought to be a pre-production example, one of only nine surviving cars in the world and was featured in the film War Horse a few years ago.

No less interesting are the newer cars in the collection and it's fascinating to drive, one after another, almost the entire history of the post-war Vauxhall saloon all the way up to the just-launched Insignia Sport Tourer.

Some of these cars, particulary the 1951 Wyvern, the 1957 F-Type Victor and the PA Velox of 1959, show the clear design influences that crossed the Atlantic from General Motors HQ in Detroit. With their fins and chrome, they still look like scaled-down versions of their bigger American cousins, but the passing years have been kind to their styling and they seem almost pretty by comparison with the US cars.

Once you've remembered that none of these cars have power steering, seat belts or even particularly effective brakes, they're surprisingly enjoyable to drive. The three-speed column change feels natural, once mastered, and if anything preferable to the four-on-the-floor ‘box of later cars.

Another surprise was the effortless power of the 1971 Viscount - with its leather upholstery and walnut panelling, it was a luxurious executive express in which to waft to and from the office. Put your foot down and the big 3.3-litre six propels you along the road with impressive speed.

However, for impressive speed - and the biggest contrast possible with the 1904 car - you need to get behind the wheel of the 1993 Lotus Carlton.

With chassis tweaks by Lotus, and a 3.6-litre, twin turbo, six-cylinder engine producing nearly 380bhp, this was a seriously quick car 25 years ago - and it still is now.

There's a bit of lag while the turbos spool up to do their thing, but once they get up to speed the car rockets off and there are few things on the road even today that will keep up with it.

The top speed was 176mph - almost unheard of for a saloon car in any era, let alone back then.

It's a rare beast, too, one of only 286 UK examples built.

Keeping it running is one of the challenges facing Vauxhall's heritage specialists - they need to be able to fix a technological tour de force like this as well as deal with cars that need century-old skills.

I can't have been the only one who left Bicester hoping that Vauxhall's new owner will value its history as much as these men do.

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